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Capturing the dynamics of migration and social development

Published:Sunday | July 5, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Book: Dimensions of African and other Diasporas

Editors: Franklin W. Knight and Ruth Iyob

Publisher: University of the West Indies Press

Dimensions of African and other Diasporas is an existentialist view of migration and the evolution of societies. Edited by Franklin W. Knight and Ruth Iyob, its scholarly contributions address long-standing questions on race, ethnicity, and nationhood. It delves into colonisation, geopolitics, and imperial rule, foraying into sociopolitical psychology.

Ruth Iyob's 'Reflections of African Diasporas in the Mediterranean World' runs against the grain. It is contrarian in spirit as it reconfigures a warped, oftentimes cited history that robs the African experience of its range, depth, and richness. It labours to find the fons et origo of black wretchedness, while pointing a finger at Europe's colonisation and its accompanying religiosity.

Iyob's lays bare her argument. She pens: "The erasure of shared histories of Africans ... in the era of theocratic empires may appear innocuous at first glance, but a sustained enquiry of their legacies indicate a deliberate fracturing of polytheistic pluralism by monotheistic puritans ... ."

The black experience is neither linear nor monolithic. Africans were in contact with Mediterranean powers and South East Asia, and their multiple roles as political strategists and traders were immortalised in

literature, but somehow lost to later generations.

The contributions of black women, Iyob notes, also redefined societies, a truth replaced by their depiction as "caricatures highlighting colourfully attired "dusky damsels" in poses that are taken out of

cultural contexts ...".

Christian Cwick's, 'The Africanization of Amerindians in the Greater Caribbean' adds to this thesis.

europe creolised

Cwick examines the Africanisation or creolisation of Europe, especially in the Iberian region. He notes that many "adopted African customs like skin scarification marks and

tattoos, wore African dress and spoke at least two African languages". Cwik later turns his attention to the creolisation of Amerindians, in particular, the Wayuu (of Venezuela and Columbia) and The Zambo-Miskit (of Nicaragua and Honduras), by these Iiberian traders. He chronicles the economic growth and independent status of the creolised Wayuu controlled Guajira towns that attracted pearl exploration and lumbering.

He makes mention of Maroon groups who escaped from mining in Nicaragua and sought their lot with Amerindians. This racial mixture had far-reaching implications, socially and economically. Cwik writes: "This new Zambo-Miskito population produced changes in the demographic, social, and political structure of the Amerindian cultures. Some Amerindians did not allow the runaways to settle freely among them. They killed or enslaved some black refugees ... ." Remarkably, though, as Cwick notes, the descendants of these two Amerindian groups deny their African heritage.

Jane Lander's 'African "Nations" as Diasporic Institution Building' paints a picture of a socially robust African presence in the Caribbean, especially in 18th century Cuba. Cabildos de nacion were characterised by their 'Africanness.' On many levels, these Cabildos birthed the syncretic character of Caribbean religious systems. Lander's research, however, unearths a far greater insight into these institutions. One Cabildo leader we learn, "was posting bonds for brothers gone astray, interceding in work agreements, holding money for enslaved brothers ... to ensure their steady progress toward freedom".

In 'Diaspora and Empire: The Case of the Armenian in Pre-Revolutionary Russia', Tamara Ganjalyan explores the marriage of convenience between diasporic minorities and host countries. The Armenians, she writes, "helped in the modernisation - the development of commerce, certain industries and certain branches of agriculture, or urbanisation ... . Only when the cost of supporting and privileging foreigners came to be perceived by the Russian bureaucracy as outweighing the benefits to the state did the latter dismiss the Armenians from their special status".

In near-prophetic terms, Ganjalyan's thesis helps us to better understand Russian territorial grab of Crimea and the Donbass region in Ukraine. Russia's feeling of isolationism in the face of Nato expansionism conjures centuries-old images of its geopolitical and geoeconomic calculations when dealing with the Armenian presence within its borders in the face of the Ottoman threat.

Again, ingenuity and adaptability are echoed in Evelyn Hu-DeHart's 'The Chinese in the US-Mexico Borderlands.' That a diasporic group could flourish in a bristling, if not hostile environment invites us to grasp the impact of culture, traditions, lineage and group psychology on the individual. The following speaks volumes: "As practiced long-distance travellers and sojourners, diasporic Chinese carried adaptive mechanisms for mutual aid and support, which they mobilised to defend themselves against hostile outsiders ...".

unique expressions

Later, Yvonne Daniel's 'Caribbean identities, Dance Constructions and "Crossroading" ' examines the influence of Africa in the creation of the Caribbean unique artistic expressions. Performers, she argues, "acknowledge history, tradition and continuity while relishing diversity, innovation, and change."

Complex, incisive, and very much an esoteric and clinical study of education, adaptation, and the Caribbean psyche, is Jarrett Hugh Brown's 'The Perception of Madness: Escapes and Flights of Fancies in Claude McKay's 'Banana Bottom'.

Winston James' 'The Caribbean Diaspora and Black Internationalism' explores the catalytic role of Caribbean thinkers and activists in the Pan-African movement and the reactionary tactical response of colonial powers.

Quito Swain's 'Black Power in the African Diaspora' continues in like vein. And Tommy L. Lott's 'When Diasporas Meet' is equally compelling.

Dimensions of Africa and Other Diasporas is a breathing narrative, an algorithm that maps ever-changing sociopolitical and economic patterns. It is a profoundly dynamic anthology of material that deftly identifies the underlying forces that continually mould and reshape societies.

Undoubtedly, as reclamation of lost identities take hold alongside new demographic realities, this groundbreaking undertaking has emerged as a quintessential resource for researchers.

Rating: Highly recommended

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