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Dispossession and the African Diaspora

Thoughts after reading Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds:

First, dispossession is crucial to creating African diasporas.

Dispossession refers to the sense of injustice, the sense that something has been taken: land, goods, labor, religion, art, natural resources, manufacturing, or people. Dispossession is not the same as dispersal, which is necessary to create the conditions of diaspora but alone does not naturally create a diaspora. [For more on elements of diaspora, Kim Butler has a very concise definition in an article entitled, “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse” in a 2001 issue of Diaspora]. Something extra is needed to bring the dispersed population streams into conversation with each other. For the African diaspora, a discourse of dispossession has been central to the construction of a shared identity and politics–even when black populations don’t always agree on what that shared identity and politics means.

For the African diaspora, it is this discourse of dispossession that allows seemingly disparate populations in Canada, New York, Vera Cruz, Port-au-Prince, Bahia and Cartagena to speak to each other. As those conversations have changed over time it is this sense of dispossession that allows new conversations to begin. By following the discourse of dispossession as it waxes and wanes within and between African diaspora populations, scholars can begin to understand how linkages to the African diaspora are created and broken [Tiffany Ruby Patterson and Robin D. G. Kelley].

In the same way, by understanding the absence of and ambivalence of the rhetoric of dispossession on the continent during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, and its rise in the nineteenth century with colonization, we can better understand the complicated relationship between African diaspora populations in Africa and on the other side of the Atlantic. Even when Afro-Atlantic populations disagreed on what that dispossession meant, what was missing or stolen or lost, the conversation about dispossession and its meaning shaped the way black populations in Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, Yorubaland, Senegal and Angola understood themselves and their politics.

African diaspora discourse of dispossession is almost always wrapped tightly with the process of dispersal, elevating that historic dispersal to the level of an injustice. Dispersal on its own is simply a migration. Possibly forced. Often violent. But it takes the belief that something fundamentally unfair has occurred because of or resulting in dispersal that turns migratory groups into a diaspora, a transnationality that speaks across nation-state boundaries.

An example is the African American relationship to colonization and emigration between 1815 and into the 1850s. Some prominent leaders of Africandescent such as Paul Cuffe, John Russwurm, Daniel Coker, and Martin Delaney championed emigration to Africa (and the Caribbean and South America, alternately) as a solution to racial violence and enslavement in the United States. Others, like Samuel Cornish and Frederick Douglass, felt that blacks in the United States were “American” not “African” and should fight for the end of slavery and political equality in the United States.

Scholars should not see people on the anti-emigration side as people who rejected ties to “Africa” or as having rejected diasporic connections or conversations. For one thing, when looking at particular time and place, this would often be proven false. Douglass himself served as consul-general to the Republic of Haiti in part because of its diasporic connections to black peoples in the United States. But from an epistemological standpoint, scholars are better served by seeing black populations that disavow African heritage as crucial participants in African diasporic debate. The very act of rejecting Africa affirms the importance of the history of slavery and forced migration from the continent to how African descended populations understand themselves. It recognizes that such a connection could possibly have been made–because of history, because of color, because of culture.

It connects to the continued sense of dispossession African Americans, slave and free, felt within the United States. African Americans like Douglass stepped back from African emigration because they affirmed themselves as Americans but different–stigmatized, enslaved, disfranchised. The roots of this difference were expressed in a morally unjust history of forced migration and continued enslavement that dispossessed them of society in Africa and stole their labor to create the United States. Instead of stepping away from connections to the continent, African Americans’ demonstrated that African heritage was central to their oppression and to explain their difference within the United States.

Without understanding the discourse of dispossession (which McKittrick chides traditional geography for considering “ungeographic”) the diaspora doesn’t exist. Not because Africans of various ethnicities weren’t dispersed across the Atlantic in various ways, and then continued to be dispersed, displaced and relocated. But because dispossesion is a central feature of African diaspora identity–how does a homeland exist except that a person is removed from it? How is a hostland conceived of except as a matrix of people, cultures, languages, ideas and traditions that are not “ours”?

Second, because of the magnitude of and the violence of dispossession in the case of the African diaspora, understanding the discourse has implications for how scholars understand African diaspora history, modernity, and the West.

If the above holds true–that a discourse of dispossession is a fundamental part of African diaspora creation, identity and politics; and that the magnitude of this dispossession is fundamental to how whites and people of African descent understand modernity [Michael Hanchard?]–then McKittrick is right that not only geography but society in general makes a huge mistake by categorizing a fundamental part of African diaspora identity as unknowable, unchartable and ungeographic by its very nature.

[Updated 6 July 2012]