Copyright © 1998 The American Studies Association. All rights reserved.
American Quarterly 50.3 (1998) 592-608

Black Transnationalism and the Politics of National Identity:
West Indian Intellectuals in Harlem in the Age of War and Revolution

Michelle A. Stephens

It is at the heart of national consciousness
that international consciousness lives
and grows. And this two-fold emerging
is ultimately only the source of all culture.

--Frantz Fanon, "On National Culture"

In 1996, the American Studies Association Conference, entitled "Global Migration, American Cultures, and the State," called for papers addressing the "historical and contemporary significance of transnational and intranational migrations for American society [and its] forms of expressive, material, and popular culture." 1 While migration itself had always been an important theme in the study of American culture, the use of the term transnational signaled a new orientation in American studies scholarship. Transnational approaches to migration examined the heterogeneous racial, cultural, and national characteristics of migrants to the United States, and the degree to which they disrupted the integrity of the state as a homogeneous, nationally-imagined community.

As a discourse on transnationalism has developed over the past decade, the term has acquired a number of different meanings depending on context and discipline. As one group of social scientists have described, in the humanities:

The term "transnational" is used to signal the fluidity with which ideas, objects, capital, and people now move across borders and boundaries. Scholars of transnational culture speak in the vocabulary of postmodernism and make reference to hybridity, hyperspace, displacement, disjuncture, decentering, and diaspora. 2

Researchers in the social sciences focus less on the cultural fluidity encouraged by transnationalism, and more on an analysis of the [End Page 592] processes by which immigrants become "transmigrants," social actors with allegiances, loyalties and networks that go beyond their citizenship in one nation-state. Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc explore social relations, "how linkages are maintained, renewed, and reconstituted in the context of families, of institutions, of political organizations, of political structures, and of economic investments, business, and finance." 3

Already, then, transnational studies has developed both a culturalist and structuralist focus. Rather than seeing this as a dichotomy, transnational studies has become a useful site for the interaction of researchers from both the humanities and social sciences. It is precisely the work done by scholars in humanities fields such as cultural and literary studies that has led to a questioning of the bounded meanings of traditional social science categories such as "race," "ethnicity," and "nationality." However, it was also more social scientific approaches such as world-systems theory that first paved the way for an analysis of the economic and political structures of global capitalism that produced "transmigrants" in the first place. 4 At its best, transnational studies offers a new lens or framework for identifying processes, identities, structures, and cultures that criss-cross with those of the nation-building project.

This essay reflects on the emergence of "transnationalism" as an idea in American cultural and intellectual history, by looking at a particular group of transmigrants in America: black intellectuals from the English-speaking Caribbean. The Caribbean American ethnic community has produced some of the most influential figures in American race and cultural politics throughout the twentieth century, figures ranging from Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay through Harry Belafonte, C. L. R. James, Stokeley Carmichael, and Bob Marley, to contemporary writers such as Paule Marshall and Jamaica Kincaid. Yet, despite the continual immigration of Caribbean people to the United States throughout the twentieth century, it is only recently that they have come close to establishing their own group identity as West Indian Americans, a specific American ethnicity in its own right. 5 One reason for this is their own sometimes willed, sometimes imposed, conflation with African Americans due to the shared racial identity of both groups and the "black-and-white" history of race relations in the United States. In addition, Caribbean Americans have always been seen as maintaining an ambivalent relationship to their American citizenship, and as having [End Page 593] a keen loyalty to their islands of origin. Therefore, as Basch, Schiller, and Blanc argue, the Caribbean experience in the United States was seen as a "special case."

However, it is precisely their "specialness" that makes West Indian Americans such an interesting case study in analyzing the impact and meaning of contemporary and historical transnationalism in North American culture. As the Caribbean experience becomes more and more "a growing global pattern that challenge[s] our conceptualizations of migration and 'the immigrant,'" so too does historicizing that experience teach us something new about the very construction and use of hegemonic categories of race, nation and ethnicity throughout the twentieth century. 6

The one analytic piece that sometimes seems unexplored in this new focus on the transnational is the answer to the historical question, why? Why, historically, do and did transnational structures, processes, ideologies, and subjects emerge in certain places at certain times in the modern twentieth century? Or, to turn the question around, why the need for bounded categories such as "race," "ethnicity" and "nationality" for describing collective social identities? One of my suggestions here is that transnationalism itself is fundamentally a twentieth century phenomenon, finding its origins in very specific historical conditions during the opening decades of this century.

Trans-national America

Transnationalism is not a new concept in American intellectual thought. As early as 1918, Randolph Bourne wrote an essay entitled "Trans-national America" in which he argued that World War I had revealed the failure of the "melting pot" theory of American national culture. 7 Just as the war awakened a powerful set of national antagonisms in Europe, so did it activate a strong sense of ethnic nationalism and particularism within the United States. Bourne observed that disparate European immigrant groups had simply not melted into a dominant American national culture of Puritan, Anglo-Saxon origin. Rather, the war exposed vigorous nationalistic and cultural movements among various ethnic groups such as Germans, Scandinavians, and Poles. These ethnic nationalisms stubbornly persisted in the United States and were sources of identity which resisted the process of Americanization. [End Page 594]

Bourne's focus on the ethnic nationalisms of white immigrants to the United States reflected not only heightened European wartime patriotism, but also a new, transnational focus on the concept of nationalism itself. In the years Bourne was writing, nationalism and the model of the nation-state were quickly becoming the international political norms of the twentieth century. As the imperial order declined, European state power sought new political forms and reconstituted itself through new political ideologies. The European imperialist powers offered--through the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations in 1919--the principle of democratic, national self-determination as a new model for political organization. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, called for a proletarian internationalist movement, embodied in the revolutionary Russian state after 1917. The emergence of the nation-state and the drama of social revolution raised one common question: if empire was no longer tenable, what was the best way for a state to represent its people, both imaginatively and politically? Was it through Lenin's internationalist and revolutionary conception of political identity, as not bound by national borders but based on one's class consciousness? Or was it through U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's liberal democratic nation-state, founded on a principle of self-determination that fixed political identity in a specific geographical territory, and constructed peoplehood around shared cultural and linguistic bonds? This historic conflict, over the political organization of the peoples of the modern world, was the most important geopolitical question of this era.

Randolph Bourne was writing at precisely this moment of the emerging of nationalism and internationalism at the beginning of the modern twentieth century. His use of the term "trans-national" as a framework for understanding and identifying the impact of European immigration on American society reflected his recognition that these new ethnic nationalisms were part of a larger transnational phenomenon. In his words, America was simply the "intellectual battleground" of a global struggle over the nature and power of the modern, integrated European state. 8

Bourne's account provides a useful historical starting point for any study of transnationality and America for two reasons. First, he identifies and historically situates a European immigrant transnationalism, their resistance of exclusively "American" identities, in the moment of the Western shift from empire to nationhood. White [End Page 595] European ethnics become, in his account, early twentieth century "transmigrants." Second, given the fissure in American nationalism represented by the failure of the "melting pot" theory of American culture, Bourne attempts to imagine and recast the imperial American state in a new image of the nation that "borrows" from the internationalist rhetoric of the Russian revolution. For Bourne the failure of the melting pot, far from being the end of the great American national democratic experiment, meant that it had only just begun. Since the intellectual contradictions of European nationalism were playing themselves out on the ethnic body-politic of America, American nationalism would become by necessity something very different from the nationalisms of twentieth century Europe. In a world which had dreamed of both nationalism and internationalism, Americans would find that they had all unawares been building up the first international nation. 9

Transnationalism for Bourne then was the attempt to imagine a new America that could somehow incorporate a culture of international identities into a national domestic political framework. However, if, as Bourne described, European ethnics were constructing newly imagined homelands with the rise of European nationalism in the post-World War I era, black Caribbean colonial immigrants were in a somewhat different situation in that they had no easily identifiable national homelands. Caribbean immigrants came to America from diverse colonies whose only bond was, at best, their shared history of colonialism and European exploitation. In his autobiography, North of Jamaica, Jamaican poet Louis Simpson described the difficulties of constructing a Caribbean national or ethnic identity in the United States, when one's colonial education "assumed that we would be living in England and no attempt was made to translate what we learned into Jamaican." 10 The result was the development of a "colonial mentality":

As Jamaicans did not govern themselves they felt inferior in other respects. "Among the legacies of a colonial culture is the habit of thinking of creative sources as somehow remote from itself." This was true of Jamaicans.
They were only a remote branch of England. They were not self-sufficient, and had created no important works. The history of Jamaica was the history of the Europeans who had ruled it. 11

For Simpson, political questions of self-governance and cultural questions of self-construction had a mutual and reciprocal effect on each other. The lack of political self-determination in the Caribbean [End Page 596] and the inculcation of a "colonial mentality" prevented cultural self-determination and self-representation--a sense of "Jamaicanness" or "Caribbeanness." The colonial transmigrant's experience did not match that of Polish, Slovak, or Czech immigrants, who could conceive of themselves as sharing a particular linguistic and cultural heritage which had grown and developed over time, within a single geographical territory. Instead, Caribbeans' experience was one of two acts of displacement, the middle passage from Africa and the journey from the colony to America. Hence early twentieth century Caribbean intellectual immigrants in the United States had uncertain ethnic identities, unimaginable really in national terms.

The challenge of Caribbean ethnicity then was precisely how to represent it. What exactly did it mean to be a transmigrant if "citizenship" was not available to you either in America or in your country of origin? Intellectuals and organizers such as Marcus Garvey and Cyril Briggs, and writers such as Claude McKay, searched for models of black self-determination--"black nationalisms"--in which they could locate and ground ethnic identity. Were black colonial subjects, as transmigrants in the West, now to be included in the new European nationalisms emerging with the decline of empire? If not, could they turn to Africa as an originary homeland? Or should they locate home and nationalism in American citizenship? These questions lay at the heart of Caribbean intellectuals' obsession with transnational frameworks of identity during this period, as they attempted to construct oppositional forms of black nationalism that could reflect the unique condition of the modern black subject.

Black Transnationals

Precisely because Caribbean immigrants in North America throughout the twentieth century have been living their lives across borders, from early on they found themselves in the basic dillemma of the "transmigrant," "confronted with and engaged in the nation building processes of two or more nation-states." 12 However, due to their very specific racial and colonial history, early twentieth century Caribbean immigrants to America were forced to engage with and imagine alternatives to nationalism as they realized their exclusion from the nation building processes of both the United States and their imperial European motherlands. Caribbean American intellectuals and cultural [End Page 597] producers therefore became key figures in a series of what I call "black transnational" cultural formations in the United States throughout the twentieth century, formations in which intellectuals struggled to produce, like Bourne, international political and cultural conceptions of black collective identity. Three figures in particular, Cyril Briggs, Marcus Garvey, and Claude McKay, were among the first to articulate a transnational vision of blackness in the years between World War I and the Great Depression. I will examine briefly each of their individual solutions to the problem of representing black transnationality, and then close by pointing to some of the theoretical insights gained by a transnational approach to questions of race, ethnicity, and the politics of national identity in America.

As a group, Cyril Briggs, Marcus Garvey, and Claude McKay formed the core of a specifically transnational formation of black intellectuals during the New Negro movement in Harlem of the 1910s through the 1920s. World War I had profound implications for the development of a radical black ethnic consciousness amongst Caribbean American intellectuals. As black intellectuals became increasingly aware that the principle of national self-determination did not apply to them, the underlying imperialism of the League of Nations became more and more apparent. Lenin's internationalist theories of revolution also traveled quickly to the United States. Black radicals in Harlem who had taken up the banner of self-determination used internationalism and revolution to modify and transform black nationalist ideologies.

This was precisely the trajectory of Cyril Briggs, the editor of the Negro journal The Crusader. In the pages of his journal Briggs developed over time a framework for black identity, which would effectively wage a critique of American imperialism in the struggle for effective representation of black subjects in the new twentieth century world order. As early as 1917, in an editorial written for the Amsterdam News entitled, "'Security of Life' For Poles and Serbs--Why Not Colored Americans?," Briggs made the connection between the larger international context and the status of black Americans. 13 He consistently interrogated Woodrow Wilson's own public statements on self-determination, setting up an effective counter narrative to Wilson's promises which ultimately revealed them for what they were--masks of U.S. imperialism. His challenge to Wilson was particularly significant at the end of the war as the black world looked to the League of [End Page 598] Nations for the fair settlement of the question of Africa's right to self-determination and free nationhood.

By January of 1919 all eyes were turned to the Peace Conference in Versailles as a first instance of how blacks would fare in the new nationalist world-order. As Briggs reminded his readers, Wilson had promised the world that as a result of the Peace Conference and the formation of the proposed League of Nations, "New nations are to be formed. Old nations are to be recreated. Tyranny is to die. Subject races are to be freed." 14 But the upshot of the League of Nations peace conference ultimately made clear the contradictions within the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination. The League refused to include anyone but free states as its members. If free statehood was the criteria for membership in this coalition, precisely those peoples who most needed self-determination and international protection from imperialism, black colonial subjects, were excluded. As Briggs ironically concluded, "the League for Some Nations . . . will not tend to inspire the rest of the Little Self-Determiners with any further confidence in the presumably good intentions of the Big Leaguers." 15

Briggs's disillusionment with the League of Nations and the Wilsonian promise of the nation-state led to his interest in Bolshevik internationalism. The rejuvenation of Briggs's political hopes for black freedom through internationalism inspired his founding of the secret revolutionary army the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), created as the black arm of the international revolution. By January of 1921, Briggs was attempting to imagine what a "radical revision of the concept of black self-determination, combining the preexisting ideal of racial sovereignty with a revolutionary vision of a communist society" could look like. 16 He found it in his vision of the Federation, a plan that would serve as the ideological "rudder for the Negro Ship of State." 17 As he described it, "there must emerge a federation of all existent Negro organizations, molding all Negro factions into one mighty and irresistible factor, governed and directed by a central body made up of representatives from all major Negro organizations." 18 This federation imagined joining all black organizations to form both a mass social movement and an international form of Negro government.

Briggs's Federation Plan was conceived in a historic meeting of the members of the African Blood Brotherhood in 1921. At this meeting, which included Claude McKay, recently returned to America from [End Page 599] England and editor of the white radical journal The Liberator, the members of the ABB strategized on how to take their program aboveground to the mass community. The culmination of this meeting was the ABB's decision to use the power and reach of contemporary Marcus Garvey's mass organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), to mobilize for a real political vision of black representation through federation. Their hope was that, with their instigation, the federation would emerge out of Garvey's annual international conference.

Briggs's concept of Federation was both a new political idea of black representation and a new conception of a federated blackness, an international racial framework that countered the new political identity of the nation state. The Federation Plan is one that later generations of Caribbean American intellectuals would return to when they sought both political and metaphoric ways of imagining black sovereignty. 19 It was not one, however, that Briggs's contemporary Marcus Garvey found appealing. Interpreting the ABB's plan as an attempt to co-opt his organization with this idea of Federation, Garvey expelled the ABB's delegates from the 1921 UNIA convention. However, Briggs's grounding of ethnicity in the international was not that dissimilar, structurally, from Garvey's notions of the black Empire and his actual transnational practise. For while both Briggs and Garvey represented somewhat different creative responses to the situation produced from imperial war and social revolution, Garvey was as fundamentally shaped by the general international realities and imperialist national projects emerging from World War I as Briggs.

Garvey began his career actually more interested in the question of diaspora than in self-determination. As he would describe in his biographical writings, one of his first impressions upon leaving Jamaica in his travels around the world was the great need for steamship communication "among the different branches of the Negro race scattered in Africa, the Americas, and the West Indies":

Having traveled extensively throughout the world and seriously studying the economical, commercial and industrial needs of our people, I found out that the quickest and easiest way to reach them was by steamship communication. So immediately after I succeeded in forming the Universal Negro Improvement Association in America, I launched the idea of floating ships under the direction of Negroes. 20 [End Page 600]

It was this observation that led to his starting the Black Star Line of steamships in 1919. Garvey's steamship ventures were not solely nation-building features of his "Back to Africa" campaign; rather, the Black Star Line was meant to function as an organized transnational network for the creation of a black diaspora based on transnational movement and communication. It was precisely this possibility for international mobilization which led to the UNIA's sponsorship of the yearly International Conference for the Negro.

Garvey's first convention in 1920 represented his attempt to harness the political energy of black transnationalism, fostered by his own sponsorship of diasporic travel and communication, for his vision of black Empire. In essays with titles like "Nothing Must Kill the Empire Urge," Garvey asserted the dominance of Empire as a model for black self-determined identity. 21 The Black Empire embodied a black freedom that originated not in self-determination nor in social revolution, but in imperial political and cultural conquest. For Garvey the black diaspora was itself the product of African imperialism rather than European colonialism. He reconstructed an African homeland which transcended the nation by spreading the blood and culture of the race throughout ancient Europe in imperial conquest.

In the context of the larger European struggle, Garvey's imperial version of self-determined black nationalism was as much an oppositional one as Briggs's, just paradoxically both revolutionary and imperial. His convention was explicitly understood to be the black counter to the League of Nations. The symbolic black nations that had been excluded from the 1919 international peace conference were now sending their delegates to Garvey's UNIA International Convention for the Negro. They arrived wearing their own national costumes and representing an eclectic assortment of nationally-imagined communities, including individual contingents from American cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia. Their power, as spectacularized in their parade of thousands at the end of the convention, lay in their collective representation of black subjects' ability to imagine their own forms of self-determination.

Like Briggs, Garvey recognized that the question of the age, the need for new models of state-construction and political self-governance, required dramatic and spectacular imagination. In the very act of imagining Black Empire, Garvey was taking a dramatic and oppositional [End Page 601] leap away from the "colonial mentality" which he had learned as a child. Behind the more fascistic elements of Garvey's imperial model of diaspora also lay a political hope: "not only the inspiration of the Empire: but its solidarity," as he described it. His philosophy had a powerful international appeal for the delegates to his conference who could find in this counter-vision of black Empire political protection from the divide and conquer strategy embedded in the European nation model. Garvey's imperial fiction was a protective strategy which relied on the combined strength of all the members of the racial diaspora. The real historical strength and power of his movement was the transnational network he constructed beyond the reach of the Western national order being constructed during the First World War and exemplified in the League of Nations.

Claude McKay's relationship to both Briggs and Garvey is also best represented by that historic meeting in 1921. Of all three figures he had the greatest understanding of what the coming together of the ABB and the UNIA would have meant for a radical vision and a movement of black self-determination. Later he would credit Garvey's energetic and quick-witted mind, but criticize the latter's inability to understand the significance of modern revolutionary developments for reconceptualizing the relationship between black nationalism and internationalism. 22 McKay began his literary career with a serious and sustained engagement with internationalism and its role in the identity of the modern black subject. He traveled to Moscow about a year after that historic meeting of the ABB, where he attended the Second Congress of the Third Communist International. There he proposed a Communist definition of self-determined blackness which would affix black nationalist sentiment to actual geographic territory in America by identifying the southern black belt of the United States as an oppressed nation. 23 With this proposal, which was to finally pass at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, McKay revealed his own desire to find some way to represent the international revolutionary potential of the black masses in a fixed national form.

Unlike Briggs and Garvey, McKay became disillusioned with both nationalism and internationalism. While the war revealed the futility and dangers of nationalism, the impossibility of a proletarian revolution by blacks in America eroded McKay's confidence in internationalism as a political movement. His imagination stifled by the political realities around him, McKay turned to fiction as a way of doing what [End Page 602] Bourne had also attempted; imagining the transnational nation. This is precisely what McKay constructed in his novel Banjo: The Story without a Plot. This less well known sequel to Home to Harlem used the same main character of the West Indian intellectual, Ray, as a guide to take us through a world of denationalized black colonial migrants in the French seaport of Marseilles. This community of aliens used their marginalization in Europe and their very exclusion from the League of Nations as the basis for a transnationally imagined black community. The thrust of the novel is perhaps best captured in McKay's closing image of the seaman from West Africa, Taloufa. This colonial migrant, officially barred from European territory by the categorization "Nationality Doubtful," loses the protection of the imperial nation but gains the freedom to cross borders and the ability to form alliances and friendships with other colonial drifters on grounds other than those of the nation. 24

Transnationalism, Race, and Ethnicity

McKay's construction of a transnational community of blacks of "doubtful nationality" is an interesting figure for a racialized, denationalized, Caribbean American ethnicity. Stuart Hall has identified the "new ethnicities" of the late twentieth century as embodying a "slow and contradictory movement from 'nationalism' to 'ethnicity' as a source of identity." 25 This is "part of a new politics," a politics of the diaspora which constructs racial, ethnic and national identity in new, internationalized, sometimes transnational, ways. 26 My understanding of black transnational migrant identity as a "new ethnicity" as early as the 1910s benefits from Hall's insights and sees Caribbean intellectuals' politics of identity in ways which are similar to Fanon's sense of national culture: as the result of a "two-fold emerging" of the international and the national.

However, as Taloufa's actual history as a black colonial points to, "black transnationalism" does not consist solely of fluid border-crossing identities. Rather, it also provides a sharp sense of the political exclusions created by western imperialism. The exclusion of black subjects from the originating political conceptions of modernity--nationhood, self-determination, democracy--forced Caribbean intellectuals in the United States in two interdependent directions. On the one hand, this exclusion afforded them a keen critical insight into the [End Page 603] nature of modern imperialism. Their "transnationalism" involved their ability to link questions of ethnicity and national identity to American international relations and empire formation. The debates around the meaning of the national at the beginning of this century also represented attempts on the part of some European empires to delimit the power and reach of others. Cyril Briggs directly implicated the United States in this European tug-of-war: in one mock dialogue between the German "Kaiser" and President Wilson, Briggs demonstrated how Wilson's advocacy of self-determination contradicted, and to some extent hid, American acts of imperialism in the Caribbean such as the invasion of Haiti in 1914.

Secondly, however, "black transnationalism" meant the creative development of new internationalist alternatives to the nationalism of the imperial states. Such alternatives as the idea of the Federation were profoundly influenced by the socialist theories of the Russian revolution. Bourne's essay serves as a necessary starting point in historicizing the appearance of the "transnational" as a concept in American culture, because it situates questions of national and ethnic identity during this period in the political context of World War I and the search for an alternative to empire. The power of a state in relation to other states, and the state's effectivity as a political representative of a "people," were precisely the issues at stake in imperial nationalism on the one hand, and revolutionary internationalism on the other. As the Cold War epitomized, this is also the question that has driven the main political and ideological disputes of this century. 27 Historically throughout the twentieth century, "Third World" denationalized migrants have constructed nationalisms which move between these two political ideologies and identities and borrow from both. Caribbean immigration to and incorporation into American society has taken place under these distinct historical conditions of world war and revolution.

Caribbean intellectuals' immigration to and incorporation into American society during the first three decades of the twentieth century cannot be understood as separate from these distinct political and historical conditions, precisely because they thought about black identity in the terms created by those conditions. For Briggs, Garvey, and McKay, questions of ethnic and racial identity were intricately tied up in questions of political representation, the nature of statehood and citizenship in the modern world order. In an international imperial world that did not recognize black colonial subjects such as McKay's [End Page 604] Taloufa as "peoples," for many black intellectuals "ethnic nationalism and internationalism were not mutually exclusive" categories. 28 If national status for locally situated black subjects was the goal, and the European global imperialists were the obstacle, the black struggle for self-determination would have to occur as a transnational one. And if the Bolsheviks could ground revolutionary identity not in the nation but in international proletarian solidarity, black subjects could strengthen their individual nationalist struggles through international racial formations, transnational, race-based networks, grounded in political identities as various as Briggs's communist Federation, Garvey's diasporic Empire, and McKay's transnational community. Far from resorting to a disengaged cosmopolitanism or state of exile, these alternatives represented the hope for an engaged, black internationalism that could generate new conceptions of "citizenship," new conceptions of the meaning of a "national community."

Caribbean American intellectuals are also significant in the study of United States culture precisely because they constitute a second transnational America, one which was in the process of formation precisely at the moment that Randolph Bourne was writing. No one knew this better than another contemporary black transnational of this era, W. E. B. DuBois, who created his own Pan-African networks and congresses in the early decades of the century. His famous statement--"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line"--has often been used domestically by both black and white American intellectuals to describe the fundamental racial tensions at the heart of American national identity. But in an essay written in 1924 for the American quarterly review, Foreign Affairs, Du Bois returned to his classic formulation precisely in order to question "how far . . . this prophecy or speculation" could be applied. 29

In the aftermath of World War I DuBois suggested that, "Most men would agree that our present problem of problems was not the Color problem, but what we call Labor, the problem of allocation of work and income." He then outlined what has since become the core of world-systems theory, the intertwining of race and class when viewed from an internationalist perspective of core-periphery relations. DuBois charged his contemporaries with their inability to see these larger connections:

Our good will is too often confined to that labor which we see and feel and exercise around us, rather than directed to the periphery of the vast circle, where unseen and inarticulate, the determining factors are at work. [End Page 605]

To remedy this, and prove that the "race problem is the other side of the labor problem," DuBois took his own journey through the battlefields of Europe, charting the course of imperialism and also its "dark colonial shadow." Ending back in America, DuBois evoked his own shadow of Bourne's trans-national America:

a new group of groups is setting its face. Pan-Africanism as a living movement, a tangible accomplishment, is a little and negligible thing. But there are twenty-three millions of Negroes in British West Africa, eighteen millions in French Africa, eleven millions and more in the United States. . . . The main seat of their leadership is to-day the United States.

When DuBois concluded once again, "And thus again in 1924 as in 1899 I seem to see the problem of the twentieth century as the Problem of the Color Line," he was now speaking to the world.

As we see the return of the notion of the transnational as an analytic category in our own contemporary moment, it is important to examine the ways in which this very particular conception of ethnicity and identity emerges when it does. One could argue that the moment of transnationalism is less the transcendence of the national than the very moment of its construction: the real distinction lies in whether the "nation" under construction is understood and represented in domestic or international terms. The melting-pot, the eighties vision of a multi-cultural America, even Bourne's more nuanced international nation, all become simply metaphors for the domestication of difference when they lack a historical sense that the politics of difference, or race relations, in the United States has always been an international phenomenon. This is precisely the knowledge Caribbean Americans and other black transnationals have brought to bear on the politics of American national identity throughout the twentieth century.

Michelle Stephens is completing her doctorate in American studies at Yale University.


1. American Studies Association Newsletter 18 (Dec. 1995).

2. Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc, Nations Unbound: Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments and Deterritorialized Nation-States (Amsterdam, 1994), 27.

3. Ibid., 29.

4. This branch of theory is of course best represented in Immanuel Wallerstein's work, for example, The Modern World System (New York, 1974).

5. See Philip Kasinitz, Caribbean New York: Black Immigrants and the Politics of Race (Ithaca, N.Y., 1992).

6. Basch et. al., Nation Unbound.

7. Randolph Bourne, "Trans-national America," in Randolph Bourne: The Radical Will: Selected Writings 1911-1918 (Berkeley, Calif., 1992), 248-65.

8. Ibid., 258.

9. Ibid.

10. Louis Simpson, North of Jamaica, (New York, 1972), 48.

11. Ibid.

12. Basch et. al., Nation Unbound.

13. Robert Hill, "Racial and Radical: Cyril V. Briggs, THE CRUSADER Magazine, and the African Blood Brotherhood, 1918-1922," intro. to Volume 1: The Crusader: September 1918-August 1919, (New York, 1987), xiii.

14. Volume 1: The Crusader, (Jan. 1919), 153.

15. Volume 3-6: The Crusader, (Feb. 1921), 1025.

16. Hill, intro., xxxix.

17. Volume 3-6: The Crusader, (Oct. 1921), 1249.

18. Hill, intro., p. xlii and lxiii. This description of the proposed federation was advertised in pamphlets announcing "Plan of Having All Negro Organizations in a Mighty Federation to Make Race a World Power. . . ." [Negro Congress Bulletin and NewsService, 1 (6 Aug. 1921)].

19. I am thinking of the West India Federation of the late 1930s and 1940s as one example, with Richard B. Moore, C. L. R. James, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, and Eric Williams as four of its major architects.

20. Robert Hill and Barbara Bair, eds., Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons (Berkeley, Calif., 1987), 53.

21. Ibid., p. 5.

22. Claude McKay, "Garvey as a Negro Moses," in The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948, ed. Wayne F. Cooper (New York, 1973).

23. See Pt. 4, "The Magic Pilgrimage," in Claude McKay's autobiography A Long Way From Home for a description of his trip to Russia, his motivations for going and his actions and impressions once there.

24. McKay describes Taloufa's dillemma in the last chapter of Banjo (New York, 1929), 310-12.

25. Stuart Hall has written on identity in a number of essays including: "Cultural Identity and Diaspora" in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London, 1990); "Minimal Selves" in Identity Documents; The Real Me: Postmodernism and the Question of Identity (London, 1988); "Ethnicity: Identity and Difference" in Radical America 23 (Oct.-Dec., 1989). The quotation here is taken from "Minimal Selves."

26. Throughout, I am making a distinction between internationalism and transnationalism. I see the one as a movement which aims to bring nations together, the other as a movement which seeks to go beyond the nation form itself.

27. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York, 1994). Hobsbawm has described our contemporary moment as part of the "Short Twentieth Century, that is to say of the years from the outbreak of the First World War to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. which, as we can now see in retrospect, forms a coherent historical period that has now ended" (5). That period was fundamentally shaped by the competing nationalist ideologies of American capitalist democracy and the revolutionary internationalism of communist Russia. It is therefore logical that the term "transnational" is appearing once again as the Cold War dichotomies collapse and the nation-state's internal containment strategies disappear to reveal global capital moving beyond the nation with ever more efficacy.

28. Robin D. G. Kelley makes this point in his chapter on black American and Caribbean communists during the 1920s and 1930s, "'Afric's Sons With Banner Red': African American Communists and the Politics of Culture, 1919-1934," in Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York, 1994), 105.

29. W. E. B. DuBois, "The Negro Mind Reaches Out" in the section "Worlds of Color" in The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Alain Locke (New York, 1992) 385-415.