[URBANTH-L]REV: Dyer on Edwards, _The Practice of Diaspora_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Wed Mar 23 16:36:08 EST 2005

[x-posted from H-Migration]

Published by H-Migration at h-net.msu.edu (March 2005)

Brent Hayes Edwards. _The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation,
and the Rise of Black Internationalism_. Cambridge and London: Harvard
University Press, 2004. 397 pp. Illustrations, photographs, notes,
index. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-674-01022-1; $24.95 (paper),
ISBN 0-674-01103-1.

Reviewed for H-Migration by Rebecca Dyer, Rose-Hulman Institute of

Translating Black Paris

Brent Hayes Edwards's _The Practice of Diaspora:  Literature,
Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism_ is an exceptional
book in that it manages to be both international in scope and
interdisciplinary--drawing on African-American studies, diaspora
studies, publication history, translation studies, and music and
literary criticism.  Edwards is able to combine this breadth with
in-depth treatment of the historical underpinnings of the texts he has
selected for analysis.  He considers non-literary texts, such as
short-lived black periodicals published in both the United States and
France, alongside texts that have long been considered part of the
"Harlem Renaissance" canon, such as Langston Hughes's "blues poems" and
Claude McKay's _Banjo_ (1929).

Edwards's approach is sound and inventive:  he points out that
considering black intellectuals' writing between the two world wars is
best done by looking at how and where these writers traveled.  In
particular, he focuses on African-American connections to Paris.  This
metropolitan European site is worth in-depth analysis because, he
writes, it was believed to be a site of black liberation, free from the
racism of inter-war America, yet Paris was also a site bank-rolled by
colonial exploitation.  Despite France's contribution to "the
globe-carving discourse of European colonialism," Edwards sees Paris as
"one of the key places where African Americans, Antilleans, and Africans
were able to 'link up'" (p. 3).  Throughout the book, Edwards usefully
brings together analyses of key figures, events, and arguments in
African diaspora studies with little-known, early-twentieth-century
scholars and journalists whose work sheds light on the interwar period.

Having opened his prologue with a description of the 1900 Pan-African
Congress and an analysis of W. E. B. Du Bois's powerful speech addressed
"To the Nations of the World," Edwards reflects on Du Bois's claim that
"the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line"
(p. 1).  This opening reveals Edwards's focus on African-American
efforts to connect with other oppressed groups throughout the African

Edwards's first chapter, "Variations on a Preface," is a beautifully
written and artfully organized consideration of history, contested
language, and the significance of the prefaces, introductions, and
explanatory notes appended to African-American texts.  The chapter is
evidence that the author's objective is to rethink familiar arguments
and highlight textual moves--"framing devices"--while also drawing
readers' attention to Francophone historical figures and to alliances
forged across the Atlantic.  Edwards's research into Martinican student
Jane Nardal and _La Depeche africaine_, for example, reveals that a
number of black Parisians elected not to challenge colonialism as
forthrightly as Du Bois had done, yet these writers were interested in
translating key texts of black liberation, such as Alain Locke's _The
New Negro_ (1925), and thus they had an important role to play in
creating a transnational movement.

Edwards also provides an insightful discussion of Edouard Glissant's
notion of _detour_, "a turning away first of all from such an obsession
with roots and singular geneology," which leads Edwards into a broad
range of examples of "populations undergoing 'modes of domination' that
exceed the nation-state" (pp. 22, 24).  Since a number of the listed
populations did not originate in Africa or its diaspora, Edwards comes
closest here to addressing other ethnicities and histories, but he ends
up returning to African Americans and Paris immediately after
cataloguing other movements. Edwards's lucid prose contains frequent
reminders of his focal points--transnationalism; French interest in black
music and culture; and African and African-diasporic writers' contributions
to the literature, criticism, and politics of the period.

Edwards returns again and again to issues of translation.  The book is
filled with Edwards's analyses of French concepts that resist
translation into English, such as _decalage_, which can be loosely
translated as a gap or discrepancy, and _negre_, a term which has, at
different times and different places, been used as either a slur or a
radical rallying cry. He also considers incongruent versions--one
English, one French--of the 1933 "Manifesto" written by two black
Marxists, George Padmore and Tiemoko Garan Kouyat.  The "Manifesto"
presents a peculiar, non-hierarchal translation act, Edwards writes, in
that "Padmore's [English] version rewrites and rethinks Kouyat's
[French], talks back to it, edits it, and repositions it ideologically"
(p. 278).  Such lingual analyses, which benefit from Edwards's fluency
and precision in the French language, allow Edwards "to read the
structure of such unevenness in the African diaspora"
and to reflect on the problems and possibilities inherent in any
international movement (p. 13).

The book contains photographs of important figures, reproductions of
periodicals, music sheets and posters, and numerous French quotations
and English translations (some revised by Edwards) excerpted from
literary works, reviews, political arguments and autobiographies.  This
rich array of material allows readers who are unfamiliar with African
diaspora studies or with the "Harlem Renaissance" to learn the key names
and debates.  Additionally, Edwards has unearthed lesser-known texts and
personalities for researchers who are already familiar with the field.
It seems, however, that Edwards occasionally elaborates at great length
about a particular text's reception and about its author's shifting
and/or conflicted stance vis-a-vis black transnationalism without
providing readers with a clear idea of the actual content of the work in
This problem is most evident in Edwards's analysis of the 1921 novel
_Batouala_, which the author, Ren Maran, an Antillean colonial
administrator in Africa, elected to preface with a strong argument
against colonialism.  Edwards writes that Maran problematically claimed
to act as a "recording device" of "native" voices while writing the
novel (p. 88).
Although Edwards provides a detailed analysis of reviews representing a
number of political positions that appeared in both French and North
American periodicals, he fails, I believe, to provide his readers with a
clear enough idea of the novel's content and language.  By including a
quotation or two from the novel itself, and not just from the preface,
Edwards could have given readers some evidence against which to measure
the various reviewers' reactions.

One possible critique of Edwards's overall approach is that he fails to
step outside of ethnic boundaries in order to more fully consider the
diverse group of colonial workers, students, and activists who were
present in Paris between the wars.  As useful as his insistence that we
look to the "practice of diaspora" is, he neglects to give a clear
indication of the ways in which alliances _between_ ethnic groups were
formed and maintained.  Perhaps because Edwards's primary objective is
to take African-American literary criticism beyond discussions of the
"Harlem Renaissance" by closely considering a key metropolitan site in
the diaspora, he mentions colonized and oppressed groups who are not of
African origin (but who _are_ included in Du Bois's "darker races") only
in passing.  The material on writers of the African diapora is rich and
detailed, and I realize that considering other groups in similar depth
is beyond the scope of a single book.  Edwards could have made it clear
from the outset of his study, however, that he was aware of the ethnic
composition of inter-war Paris.  Additionally, more attention to
colonial independence movements in Indochina and Algeria was called
for--since those movements greatly influenced _internationalisme noir_
as it was expressed in Paris.

Alternatively, Edwards could have toned down the Parisian focus and
conceded that other sites--particularly London--had a similar
internationalizing movement underway and were similarly appealing to
black intellectuals from around the globe.  Edwards claims, quoting
Cedric Robinson, that "the socialist traditions to which Blacks of
Africa and the Caribbean were exposed in the British metropole differed
decidedly from those of their Francophone and American counterparts" (p.
242).  Yet, from my own perspective as someone who has conducted
research on Black Britain, there are many similarities between British
and French metropolitan sites worth noting.  In fact, Edwards's
insistence throughout his book that Paris is the most important
diasporic site--allowing "boundary crossing, conversations, and
collaborations that were available nowhere else to the same
degree"--comes across, at times, as a bit forced (p.  4).  After all,
Edwards's prologue begins in London, at the Pan-African Congress of
1900, and he returns to England in chapter 5, in his discussion of
George Padmore and the Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945,
indicating just how central British sites and transplanted black
intellectuals there were.  Edwards is understandably leery of making a
"possibly careless shift in contexts" (p. 242); yet, his focus on
French-American alliances offers only a partial view of the _Black
Internationalism_ of his title.  Nevertheless, _The Practice of
Diaspora_ ultimately succeeds in that it emphasizes the people and
organizations known during inter-war period among black intellectuals
attempting to forge international alliances, and Edwards's descriptions
of internal debates within the movement provide a necessarily complex
portrait of the times and the people involved.

Edwards's title, _The Practice of Diaspora_, is intriguing in that it
suggests a recurring activity and emphasizes the "praxis" half of the
supposed "theory-praxis" divide.  Although "diaspora" is usually seen as
a dispersion of people or as a location or locations far from one's
place of "origin," Edwards's book insists that "diaspora" is also an
act, and a consciously chosen one at that.  Interestingly, the "Coda"
with which Edwards ends the book focuses on Nancy Cunard's _Negro:  An
Anthology_ (1934), a work that Edwards describes as a "symposium"
requiring "the reader [to] articulate the discrepant relation between
its documents" (p. 317).  He seems in the final pages to be hinting to his
readers that _The Practice of Diaspora_ may likewise require an
articulation of any discrepancies between the various historical figures
and geopolitical sites that he brings together.  Edwards claims that the
discontinuous melange of texts, jarring imagery, and "subtle" politics of
Cunard's anthology offers a "model" for black internationalism as it is
practiced (pp. 317-318).  I believe Edwards's own book offers a model
as well, one of meticulous interdisciplinary research, nuanced analyses,
and a remarkably diverse archive.

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