“This remarkable collection of essays ranges widely across geopolitical regions as well as disciplinary formations, expanding our idea of what the term ‘America’ signifies. It will thus help to shift the ‘transnational frame’ from being merely a hypothetical phenomenon to one that, in the twenty-first century, is coming to appear crucial to any account of American history and culture.”—Paul Giles, author of Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary
Imagining Our Americas: Toward a Transnational Frameby Sandhya Shukla (Editor), Heidi Tinsman (Editor)
This rich interdisciplinary collection of essays advocates and models a hemispheric approach to the study of the Americas. Taken together, the essays examine North and South America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific as a broad region transcending both national boundaries and the dichotomy between North and South. In the volume’s substantial introduction, the
This rich interdisciplinary collection of essays advocates and models a hemispheric approach to the study of the Americas. Taken together, the essays examine North and South America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific as a broad region transcending both national boundaries and the dichotomy between North and South. In the volume’s substantial introduction, the editors, an anthropologist and a historian, explain the need to move beyond the paradigm of U.S. American Studies and Latin American Studies as two distinct fields. They point out the Cold War origins of area studies, and they note how many of the Americas’ most significant social formations have spanned borders if not continents: diverse and complex indigenous societies, European conquest and colonization, African slavery, Enlightenment-based independence movements, mass immigrations, and neoliberal economies.
Scholars of literature, ethnic studies, and regional studies as well as of anthropology and history, the contributors focus on the Americas as a broadly conceived geographic, political, and cultural formation. Among the essays are explorations of the varied histories of African Americans’ presence in Mexican and Chicano communities, the different racial and class meanings that the Colombian musical genre cumbia assumes as it is absorbed across national borders, and the contrasting visions of anticolonial struggle embodied in the writings of two literary giants and national heroes: José Martí of Cuba and José Rizal of the Philippines. One contributor shows how a pidgin-language mixture of Japanese, Hawaiian, and English allowed second-generation Japanese immigrants to critique Hawaii’s plantation labor system as well as Japanese hierarchies of gender, generation, and race. Another examines the troubled history of U.S. gay and lesbian solidarity with the Cuban Revolution. Building on and moving beyond previous scholarship, this collection illuminates the productive intellectual and political lines of inquiry opened by a focus on the Americas.
Contributors. Rachel Adams, Victor Bascara, John D. Blanco, Alyosha Goldstein, Héctor Fernández L’Hoeste, Ian Lekus, Caroline F. Levander, Susan Y. Najita, Rebecca Schreiber, Sandhya Shukla, Harilaos Stecopoulos, Michelle Stephens, Heidi Tinsman, Nick Turse, Rob Wilson
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Imagining Our AmericasToward a Transnational Frame
Duke University PressCopyright © 2007 Duke University Press
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Chapter OneUp from Empire
James Weldon Johnson, Latin America, and the Jim Crow South
At one point in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), the titular protagonist overhears an argument between a white Union army veteran and a white Texan. Overtly about the Civil War, the debate also comments on another type of division, one not of national but of hemispheric dimensions. The Union veteran, invoking the contemporary condition of Latin America, proclaims: "Can you imagine ... what would have been the condition of things eventually if there had been no war, and the South had been allowed to follow its course? Instead of one great, prosperous country with nothing before it but the conquest of peace, a score of petty republics, as in Central and South America, wasting their energies in war with each other or in revolutions" (339-40). His interlocutor responds by rejecting not only the veteran's investment in national integrity but also the need for nations altogether. "'Well,' replied the Texan, 'anything-no country at all-is better than having niggers over you'" (340). If the Texan states that "anything" "is better" than "black power," the Union veteran suggests that anything is better than allowing the United States to degenerate into a collection of what O. Henry would dub "banana republics," a situation tantamount to having "no country at all." For the soldier of the Grand Army of the Republic, the idea of slipping into the Latin American way of life represents something far worse than the danger of black insurgency iterated repeatedly by the Texan.
To be sure, the veteran seems interested in the deplorable state of Latin America only as an example of what Union victory spared the United States; he does not comment on turn-of-the-century U.S. policy in the region and refers to U.S. imperialism only through the euphemistic phrase "the conquest of peace." Yet the 1912 publication date of Johnson's novel invites us to read the old soldier's words in light of the "big stick" diplomacy that characterized U.S. relations with its southern neighbors. Between 1898 and 1914, the United States intervened militarily in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua even as U.S. banks and businesses assumed control of national economies in these and other Latin American nations. When we place the Union veteran's statement in the context of contemporary U.S. imperialism south of the border, the implications of his extravagant historical analogy grow palpable: the U.S. government stands in much the same relation to an unruly South and Central America at the close of the nineteenth century as it did to a disordered and insurgent "Dixie" forty years before. The problem of a rebellious U.S. South had demanded a violent Yankee response; the current disorder of the hemispheric South seems to require another type of northern intervention.
The narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man does not comment on the larger meaning of this historical analogy, but James Weldon Johnson devoted serious thought to the relationship of the national and the hemispheric North-South divides in his richly varied public writings. And he did so in a manner that often seems to echo the Union veteran's argument. Eager to link the federal administration of the domestic South with U.S. intervention abroad, Johnson had few problems supporting the new U.S. imperialism so long as the party of Lincoln articulated that expansionist vision. His diplomatic work suggests as much. A staunch Republican, author of the campaign song "You're Alright Teddy," Johnson transformed himself into a gunboat diplomat, winning the post of U.S. consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 1906. His subsequent assignment as consul to Corinto, Nicaragua, would make manifest his role in the burgeoning U.S. empire. In 1912, Johnson would defend U.S. interests in Nicaragua during the civil conflict between president Adolfo Díaz and the rebel leader Luis Mena, a contest that pitted a conservative dictator against a peasant insurgent. Eager to preserve Díaz's pro-U.S. regime, Johnson not only convinced the rebels to refrain from invading Corinto but also facilitated the landing and deployment of U.S. military forces. In July 1912, several thousand Marines landed in Nicaragua and soon routed the insurgent forces; government executioners dispatched Mena, and U.S. financiers quietly took control of the central Nicaraguan bank. Johnson's rhetorical skill and logistical intelligence played a vital role in suppressing the peasant rebellion and setting the stage for a military and fiscal U.S. presence in Nicaragua that would last well into the twentieth century. With respect to U.S. expansion in the Americas, Johnson seemed to accept the principle underlying Theodore Roosevelt's corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (1904): the idea that the United States had the right to intervene in the affairs of other American nations when those unstable states endangered the common good of the hemisphere.
Johnson was not alone among African Americans in supporting the new U.S. empire. As Kevin Gaines has reminded us, prominent African Americans such as Booker T. Washington, Edward E. Cooper, and Pauline Hopkins supported U.S. imperialism in the late 1890s, and some black intellectuals would continue to defend U.S. policy into the new century. While these figures would support U.S. expansionism for any number of reasons-patriotic ideals, a belief in the idea of the civilizing mission, personal ambition-many convinced themselves of the rightness of empire for a distinctly practical reason: a need for some sense of prophylactic connection to the white power elite. With the elimination of vestigial Reconstruction in the late 1880s came an increase in black disenfranchisement and white racist violence throughout much of the nation, but particularly in the South. In 1906, the year Johnson began working for the consular service, sixty-two black men and women were lynched in the region, and one of the worst white racist riots of the era erupted in Atlanta. These episodes of lethal white violence vivified the more quotidian forms of white racism endured by African Americans in the U.S. South. A willingness to identify with and support the Republican Party, the party of Emancipation and Reconstruction, seemed to offer some protection, however minor, from the threats of regional white supremacy. And the African American investment in the Republican vision of federal policy and power extended to the new imperialism of the era. For all its obvious reliance on white supremacist discourse, for all its cruelty to people of color abroad, in the eyes of some blacks the new empire held forth the prospect of bonding more tightly to Washington in a terrible time. Not only did serving the new Republican empire entitle some African American soldiers to receive military training and carry guns-a fact that sparked no end of confrontations throughout the Southeast-but it also confirmed the black bourgeoisie's sense of metropolitan superiority to both the underdeveloped U.S. South and the seemingly uncivilized spaces of U.S. expansion. During a time of pronounced and savage white supremacy, in other words, U.S. imperialism seems to have offered some members of the black bourgeoisie a sense of "northernness" and a concomitant feeling of civilized belonging.
That the fantasy of an imperial reconstruction of the African American demanded considerable ethical compromise on the part of contemporary black intellectuals goes without saying. The vexed relationship between dreams of enfranchisement and nightmares of complicity proved a heavy burden for even the most sensitive and articulate of these figures. It should hardly come as a surprise that Johnson-talented and opportunistic, well aware that African American success often depended on the patronage of powerful white men-would do the empire's work. Yet even as he endorsed U.S. imperialism and defended U.S. interests in Nicaragua, Johnson also expressed considerable anxiety over the nation's new expansionist policies and their potential consequences for African Americans. Evidence of concern about this issue appears early in his literary career. Johnson's poem "The Colored Sergeant" (1898) rebuts Theodore Roosevelt's charge that black soldiers performed poorly on San Juan Hill, and his libretto to the unproduced opera Tolosa (1899) satirizes the U.S. annexation of Pacific islands. A critique of U.S. expansion would continue to inform Johnson's work well into the new century and his work for the State Department. He would criticize Roosevelt again in the lyrics to a song from the unproduced play The Presidente and the Yellow Peril: "We'll nail the 'big stick' to the wall / and round it will drape / No streamers red white and blue / But ordinary crepe"; and he would complain to Booker T. Washington that Jim Crow racism made the United States unpopular among the dark-skinned populations of the Caribbean and South America-a position that would inform his forceful speech "Why Latin Americans Dislike the United States" (1913). Long before he indicted the U.S. occupation of Haiti in his essays for the Nation, Johnson recognized and critiqued the problem of empire.
Such a delicate, not to say uncomfortable, balancing act would be for some intellectuals a largely private affair, but in Johnson's case, literary ambition and racial politics inspired an unusual commentary on his conflicted relationship to empire: not an essay, lecture, or polemic, but the novel with which we began: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. A narrative that chronicles the mainly domestic adventures of an African American musician who eventually passes for white, The Autobiography seems to have little if anything to do with the new U.S. expansionism that emerged, large and rapacious, with the sinking of the USS Maine. While critics have read the novel in light of myriad issues-publication history, the unreliable narrator, African American music, the representation of male sexuality, and, of course, the vexed question of racial passing-they have never considered how The Autobiography might speak to the contemporary question of empire. Such an occlusion will come as no surprise to readers familiar with scholarship on African American literature and culture. With few exceptions, most critics tend to read black texts in exclusively national terms, the odd reference to African roots notwithstanding. Yet as Brent Edwards and Michelle Stephens have recently reminded us, the diasporic range of black literary culture demands more of a transnational approach-one sensitive to both the hemispheric and transatlantic orientations of African America. The case of The Autobiography well illustrates this point, for Johnson interwove his diplomatic responsibilities and his literary efforts. Johnson wrote much of the novel during a U.S. diplomatic assignment to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, and received news of its publication while working with the marines in Nicaragua. Even as he defended and promoted U.S. empire, in other words, Johnson generated an account of a man torn between black and white, between racial solidarity and bourgeois opportunism, between domestic struggle and imperial reward. In The Autobiography, Johnson queries the idea that U.S. expansion will offer African Americans the opportunity to claim their citizenship and civil rights; he does so by engaging subtly, but significantly, with a constellation of themes that denote the range and complexity of fin de siècle U.S. expansion: the politics of the Cuban independence movement, the globalization of black popular music, Wall Street's exploitation of Latin America. That he weaves his commentary on empire through a story of acquisitiveness and weakness suggests the degree to which imperial temptations appear only to be critiqued.
In what follows, I argue that Johnson critically imagines the racial passer and the imperialist of color as linked figures: both abandon the potential glories of racial struggle for the thin possibility of recognition by the white status quo; both attempt to remake themselves at the expense of black people throughout the Americas. Johnson critiques the notion that U.S. imperialism will afford African Americans the chance to bond with the nation-state and thus avoid racist oppression, particularly in the South. The picaresque titular character escapes the tyranny of the South not through trickery or resistance but by exploiting foreign people of color. Each time he ventures southward, the ex-colored man ends up in a difficult, if not perilous, situation that is eased or resolved through his manipulation of Latin Americans. A virtual (Latin American) South provides him with the comforts he cannot locate in the Jim Crow South or anywhere in the United States. Indeed, the ex-colored man's ability to jettison the terrifying problems of the regional for the colonialist compensations of the hemispheric informs, indeed helps render successful, his life as a racial passer. U.S. imperialism thus not only seduces African Americans into believing that colonialism will offer them all they have been denied at home; empire also lures African Americans away from a sense of hemispheric racial and political identity through much the same strategy. Little wonder, then, that Johnson's turn to anti-imperialist politics coincided with his transformation of the NAACP through grassroots organizational work in the South. By the second decade of the new century, Johnson had recognized that empire must be combated in a tandem fashion, at home and in the world.
History Travels with the Seas
A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson experienced the geographic proximity of Latin American society and culture from childhood onward. His father taught him Spanish; he developed friendships with Cuban American cigar factory owners and workers; and most importantly, his family hosted a visiting Cuban student, Ricardo Ponce. Ponce and Johnson became great friends, attending both high school and college together. As Johnson writes in his memoir Along This Way, there grew "between us a strong bond of companionship; and what was, perhaps, more binding, the bond of [the Spanish] language". One cannot overestimate the importance of this Cuban connection to Johnson's linked conceptions of race, space, and community. The Latin presence within "Dixie" would offer him a third term with which to better negotiate his relationship to the U.S. region for much of his life. For Johnson, the black-white divide could never completely encapsulate the U.S. South. At the same time, his early sensitivity to his region's hemispheric connections would also inform his vision of Latin America. He would draw on, and respond to, this formative exposure to Cuban American culture repeatedly in his future experiences in Venezuela and Nicaragua. His adult understanding of U.S. policy in the Americas would emerge from his youthful exposure to a hybridized, if still violently white supremacist, U.S. South.
Johnson was hardly unusual in linking what Deborah Cohn has called "the two souths." As Cohn, Edouard Glissant, George Handley, Kirsten Gruesz, and others have argued, blacks and whites of the U.S. South had for centuries maintained a variety of connections to Latin America. In his book Faulkner, Mississippi, Glissant reminds us that such disparate phenomena as cherry wood furniture, piquant cuisine, vibrant dance, and the literary figure of the black female servant bind together the cultures of the U.S. South, the Caribbean, and parts of Central and South America. For Glissant this connection stems from these nations' shared history of colonialism, slavery, racism, and poverty. As he puts it with respect to the legacy of New World plantation culture, "The same architecture, furniture, and rows of slave shacks, the same instruments of torture are found everywhere in the old slave order.... History travels with the seas." The nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century record of this relationship presents us with ample evidence of the myriad crossings and exchanges that constitute a seaborne history: the celebration of Cuban poetry in the newspapers of antebellum New Orleans, William Walker's ill-fated attempt to reproduce U.S. southern culture in Mexico and Nicaragua, black Cubans' migration to the U.S. South after the abolition of slavery, the manipulative presence of Alabaman Samuel Zemurray's United Fruit Company throughout Central and South America. No less than the Mexico-southwest U.S. contact zone, the southeast border exists as a site of dynamic encounters between black, white, and Latin, between master and slave, between capital and labor.
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Meet the Author
Sandhya Shukla is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at Columbia University. She is the author of India Abroad: Diasporic Cultures of Postwar America and England.
Heidi Tinsman is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Partners in Conflict: The Politics of Gender, Sexuality, and Labor in the Chilean Agrarian Reform, 1950–1973, also published by Duke University Press.
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