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"
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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]
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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]
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 internationalracial
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."
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
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]
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
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.
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.
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.
American Studies Association Newsletter 18 (Dec. 1995).
Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc, Nations
Unbound: Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments and Deterritorialized
Nation-States (Amsterdam, 1994), 27.
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.
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)].
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.
Robert Hill and Barbara Bair, eds., Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons
(Berkeley, Calif., 1987), 53.
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,
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.
McKay describes Taloufa's dillemma in the last chapter of Banjo
(New York, 1929), 310-12.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.