Crosscurrents of the Radical Caribbean: Navigating Transnational Black Solidarities

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories and IEHS

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 2:45 PM - 4:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Nationalism and Transnationalism; Politics; Race

Abstract

This panel examines crosscurrents among Afro-Caribbean activists and other Black Diaspora thinkers during two moments: the 1930s and the 1970s. African-descended populations throughout the Caribbean and North America drew on transnational influences to construct decolonial imaginaries. However, questions of class, gender and ideology complicated the exchanges. Black liberationists grappled with the tensions that arose as they crossed national borders to borrow and reinterpret visions of freedom. In “The Local Tuskegee of British Guiana,” Rutgers University’s Nicole Burrowes examines how African-Guianese mobilized aspects of disaporic struggle to speak to challenges at home. In 1934, people of African descent in British Guiana celebrated the centennial of their emancipation from enslavement. However, they were marking freedom in a moment of deep contradiction. One effort embarked upon by the Negro Progress Convention, was the development of a Local Tuskegee in British Guiana in 1935, with gendered projects of self-help at its center. The Local Tuskegee was inspired by the work of the Tuskegee Institute in the United States, and earlier exchanges with the African American leader, Booker T. Washington. This paper highlights the complexities of Black political subjectivity under colonialism; connections across the African Diaspora; and how working and middle-class people of African descent theorized gendered liberation strategies in 1930s British Guiana. In “C. L. R. James and Black Studies,” Johns Hopkins University’s Minkah Makalani examines Trinidadian intellectual C. L. R. James’s relationship to the project of Black Studies. In the late 1960s, James delivered several lectures in which he expressed reservations about Black Studies. By the 1970s, he changed his view, arguing that in the wake of Black Power, Black Studies had transformed the study of human history. Along with his involvement in Black Studies initiatives in the U.S., James’s thinking was also influenced by the New World Group that emerged at the University of the West Indies in the mid-1960s. The NWG’s elaboration of an intellectual project in response to the failures of constitutional decolonization, which focused in particular on restructuring knowledge, influenced James’s understanding of Black Studies. This paper argues that James presented a concept of Black Studies that insists on it as a project attuned to the politics of knowledge production, rather than simply an academic enterprise. In “African Americans, Guyana and the Postcolonial Mystique,” Cornell University’s Russell Rickford explores the contradictions of transnational solidarity. In the early 1970s, several African American progressives traveled to Guyana, South America, to join cooperative farming projects sponsored by the Guyanese government. The efforts were framed as opportunities to concretize Pan Africanist ideals. Labor in the Guyanese interior fulfilled gendered ideals of pioneering, self-discipline and nation building. The African American presence in Guyana bolstered Prime Minister Forbes Burnnham’s attempts to reinvent the nation—long seen as a hotbed of CIA intrigue—as a Third World stronghold. However, African American expatriates in Guyana glimpsed the corruption beneath Burnham’s radical image. This paper argues that African American pilgrimages to Guyana embodied the tension between statism and popular anti-imperialism in black internationalist politics.

Papers Presented

The Local Tuskeegee of British Guiana

In 1934, people of African descent in British Guiana celebrated the centennial of their emancipation from enslavement. However, they were marking freedom in a moment of deep contradiction. This paper focuses on the ways African-Guianese mobilized different aspects of disaporic struggle to speak to their challenges at home. One effort embarked upon by the Negro Progress Convention, was the development of a Local Tuskegee in British Guiana in 1935, with gendered projects of self-help at its center. The Local Tuskegee was inspired by the work of the Tuskegee Institute in the United States, and earlier exchanges with the African American leader, Booker T. Washington. This political project highlights the complexities of Black political subjectivity under colonialism; connections across the African Diaspora; how working and middle-class people of African descent theorized gendered liberation strategies in 1930s British Guiana; and the long-term impact on the development of African-Guyanese music forms.

Presented By
Nicole Burrowes, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

African Americans, Guyana and the Postcolonial Mystique

In the early 1970s, several African American progressives traveled to Guyana, South America, to join cooperative farming projects sponsored by the Guyanese government. The efforts were framed as opportunities to concretize Pan Africanist ideals. Labor in the Guyanese interior fulfilled gendered ideals of pioneering, self-discipline and nation building. The African American presence in Guyana bolstered Prime Minister Forbes Burnnham’s attempts to reinvent the nation—long seen as a hotbed of CIA intrigue—as a Third World stronghold. However, African American expatriates in Guyana glimpsed the corruption beneath Burnham’s radical image. This paper argues that African American pilgrimages to Guyana embodied the tension between statism and popular anti-imperialism in black internationalist politics.

Presented By
Russell Rickford, Cornell University

‘Think about this Seriously’: The New World Group, C. L. R. James, and a Radical Black Studies

In the late 1960s, James delivered several lectures in which he expressed reservations about Black Studies. By the 1970s, he changed his view, arguing that in the wake of Black Power, Black Studies had transformed the study of human history. Along with his involvement in Black Studies initiatives in the U.S., James’s thinking was also influenced by the New World Group that emerged at the University of the West Indies in the mid-1960s. The NWG’s elaboration of an intellectual project in response to the failures of constitutional decolonization, which focused in particular on restructuring knowledge, influenced James’s understanding of Black Studies. This paper argues that James presented a concept of Black Studies that insists on it as a project attuned to the politics of knowledge production, rather than simply an academic enterprise.

Presented By
Minkah Makalani, Johns Hopkins University

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Russell Rickford, Cornell University
Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He specializes in African American political culture after World War Two, the Black Radical Tradition, and transnational social movements. His current book, We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination, received the Liberty Legacy Award from the Organization of American Historians. He is currently working on a book about Guyana and African American radical politics in the 1970s.

Presenter: Nicole Burrowes, Rutgers University, New Brunswick
Nicole Burrowes is an Assistant Professor in the department of history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her research and teaching interests include social justice movements, comparative histories, Black Internationalism, and the politics of solidarity, with a focus on the Caribbean and the United States.

Commentator: Tiffany Melissa Gill, Rutgers University
I am a scholar of twentieth century African American history with an emphasis on the intersection of black leisure and politics. Specifically, my research focuses on black entrepreneurship, fashion and beauty studies, and black internationalism. I am the author of Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry and, along with Keisha N. Blain, the co-editor of To Turn the Whole World Over: Black Women and Internationalism.

Presenter: Minkah Makalani, Johns Hopkins University
Minkah Makalani is the Director of the Center for Africana Studies and Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. He works in the fields of intellectual history, black political thought, radicalism, race, and diaspora in the Caribbean and U.S. He is the author of, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (UNC Press, 2011), and is co-editor (with Davarian Baldwin) of Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minnesota, 2013), and his articles have appeared in Souls, Social Text, The Journal of African American History, South Atlantic Quarterly, and Small Axe.