Black Cosmopolitanism

Black Cosmopolitanism: Racial Consciousness and Transnational Identity in the Nineteenth-Century Americas

Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Black Cosmopolitanism
    Book Description:

    What are the perceived differences among African Americans, West Indians, and Afro Latin Americans? What are the hierarchies implicit in those perceptions, and when and how did these develop? For Ifeoma Nwankwo the turning point came in the wake of the Haitian Revolution of 1804. The uprising was significant because it not only brought into being the first Black republic in the Americas but also encouraged new visions of the interrelatedness of peoples of the African Diaspora.Black Cosmopolitanismlooks to the aftermath of this historical moment to examine the disparities and similarities between the approaches to identity articulated by people of African descent in the United States, Cuba, and the British West Indies during the nineteenth century.InBlack Cosmopolitanism, Nwankwo contends that whites' fears of the Haitian Revolution and its potentially contagious nature virtually forced people of African descent throughout the Americas who were in the public eye to articulate their stance toward the event. While some, like William Wells Brown in his slave narrative, chose not to mention the existence of people of African heritage in other countries, others, like David Walker, embraced the Haitian Revolution and the message that it sent. Particularly in print, people of African descent had to decide where to position themselves and whether to emphasize their national or cosmopolitan, transnational identities.Through readings of slave narratives, fiction, poetry, nonfiction, newspaper editorials, and government documents that include texts by Frederick Douglass, the freed West Indian slave Mary Prince, and the Cuban poets Placido and Juan Francisco Manzano, Nwankwo explicates this growing self-consciousness about publicly engaging other peoples of African descent. Ultimately, she contends, they configured their identities specifically to counter not only the Atlantic power structure's negation of their potential for transnational identity but also its simultaneous denial of their humanity and worthiness for national citizenship.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9063-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Musical artist Lauryn Hill uses lyrics and accents that evince both African American and West Indian flavors to reconstruct her life as a youth in Irvington, New Jersey. In particular, her reference to enjoying “a beef patty and some coco bread,” a typical Jamaican lunch, and her location of the action on “Main Street, U.S.A.” highlight the cultural meeting that characterized her youth.¹ Multimedia artist Queen Latifah employs a West Indian accented hook in a hip-hop song decrying sexism and misogyny in the Black community. The song subtly uses the idea that reggae is political to make a statement about...

  4. Part One: The Making of a Race (Man)
    • [PART ONE: Introduction]
      (pp. 23-28)

      Part One explicates the making of a race man in the middle of the nineteenth century. The man is Plácido, free Cuban poet of color. In deciding to highlight or downplay Plácido’s racial and national identities (as well as, less explicitly, his gentlemanly or uncivilized carriage) the Cuban government, white abolitionists, and Black abolitionists construct not only an individual but also a racial community. The making of the race man is also the making of a race. The actual Plácido, a.k.a. Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés, was executed in 1844 by the Cuban government for leading what the government perceived...

    • Chapter 1 The View from Above: Plácido Through the Eyes of the Cuban Colonial Government and White Abolitionists
      (pp. 29-47)

      The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) and the fear its success prompted caused profound changes not only in Haitian society but in slave societies across the hemisphere. It sent a shiver up the collective spine of the slaveholders (and abolitionists) because it forced the realization that Black uprisings could actually be successful. A Virginia newspaper carried what must have seemed to its White readers to be horrific news from the revolution: “between five and six hundred White persons fell under the bloody hatchet of the Haitians, and the warm stream of blood which ran from them, quenched the thirst of their...

    • Chapter 2 The View from Next Door: Plácido Through the Eyes of U.S. Black Abolitionists
      (pp. 48-80)

      Tales of the life and death of Plácido, Cuban poet of color, spread widely after his execution in 1844 for allegedly leading one of the largest uprisings in Cuban history. Inherent in the discourse on Plácido (then and now) is a tension between the view of him as an exemplar of the particularities of the Cuban context and the perception of him as a representative of the elements of the broader experience of people of the African Diaspora in particular, and of humans more broadly.¹ Cosmopolitanism is, therefore, implicated in representations of Plácido in two ways. First, his story itself...

  5. Part Two: Both (Race) and (Nation)?
    • [PART TWO: Introduction]
      (pp. 81-86)

      As Part One has shown, the ascription or denial of racial consciousness and national identity constituted a crucial and prevalent element of public representations of people of African descent in the Americas in the wake of the Haitian Revolution. Part Two centers on the attempts by two public figures of African descent to formulate and publicly articulate a definition of self and community while juggling their racial and national affinities. The first figure is Plácido, the individual who was the subject of Part One and who was represented as a race man by the colonial government in Cuba, white U.S....

    • Chapter 3 On Being Black and Cuban: Race, Nation, and Romanticism in the Poetry of Plácido
      (pp. 87-113)

      As the previous chapters illustrate, in the two decades following his 1844 execution, Plácido, Cuban poet of color and political activist, was held up by disparate forces inside and outside Cuba as the ultimate example of a race man. Officials of the colonial government in Cuba, white European and American abolitionists, and Black abolitionists attributed to Plácido a belief in the predominance of racial consciousness over national identity. This minimizing of national affinity stands in stark contrast to subsequent representations of him. (Even the 1959 revolutionaries claimed him as a consummate Cuban martyr.¹) This disparity is a result of two...

    • Chapter 4 “We Intend to Stay Here”: The International Shadows in Frederick Douglass’s Representations of African American Community
      (pp. 114-128)

      Frederick Douglass, over the course of his life, went from being a slave on U.S. soil to being U.S. consul in Haiti. That is to say, he went from being one not even considered fully human according to U.S. law, to being a representative of the U.S. government in a foreign country. The contours of his journey have been the subject of a plethora of scholarly and popular works, including Philip Foner’s seminal biography, first published in 1948, and Deborah McDowell’s important essays (1989, 1993), questioning Douglass’s place at the head of the genealogy of African American literature. Douglass had...

    • Chapter 5 “More a Haitian Than an American”: Frederick Douglass and the Black World Beyond the United States
      (pp. 129-152)

      Before the Appendix toThe Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, his final autobiography, Douglass virtually never mentions the other Black Americas in his autobiographies. The silence on the other Black American world can certainly be explained in part by recalling the historical context. The fear of national or transnational Black uprisings provoked by the Haitian Revolution decades earlier was still quite present in U.S. society, as were individuals who had fled Haiti with their slaves to escape sure death.¹ The silence also arises out of the fact that the control of African Americans’ movement, both physical and ideological, had...

  6. Part Three: Negating Nation, Rejecting Race
    • [PART THREE: Introduction]
      (pp. 153-156)

      As Part Two has illustrated, in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, people of African descent’s juggling of racial consciousness and national identity, a challenge born of both their need to defend themselves in the face of others’ notions of their identities and their internal struggle with self-definition in the context of the denial of their humanity and subjectivity, frequently led them to contradict themselves as they articulated visions of the bases of their individual identities and conceptions of community. Part Three centers on the ways in which the historical moment produced not only the aforementioned juggling, but also decisions...

    • Chapter 6 A Slave’s Cosmopolitanism: Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, and the Geography of Identity
      (pp. 157-186)

      Mary Prince, the orator of the first slave narrative by a woman in the Americas, was born into slavery in 1788, just three years before the foundations of the Caribbean and the Atlantic world more broadly were to be profoundly shaken by the revolution in Haiti. She was born in Bermuda, an island chain 988 miles from Haiti, and even spent several years working on Turks Island, a site through which many British slaves escaped to Haiti.¹ Her narrative,The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, was published in 1831, three years before the official abolition of slavery...

    • Chapter 7 Disidentification as Identity: Juan Francisco Manzano and the Flight from Blackness
      (pp. 187-204)

      Juan Francisco Manzano was born in Cuba in 1797 to the slaves Maria Pilar Manzano and Toribio Castro. For the first twelve years of his life, Manzano lived a life of relative privilege, doted upon by his mistress as “the child of her old age.”¹ When this mistress died, he and his family ended up in the service of a mistress who was as cruel to him as his previous mistress was doting. Manzano then became truly acquainted with the horrors of slave life, including the stocks, the beatings, and the range of tortures that the sadistic slaveowner’s mind devised....

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 205-210)

    This book has traced the underpinnings of people of African descent’s frequently troubled and, too often, troubling representations of and engagements with each other to the Atlantic power structures’ denial of their humanity. My argument has been that, in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, people of African descent’s desire to be recognized as human and equal drove them variously to embrace and reject cosmopolitanism as a framework for defining self and community. Their dehumanization, as the Cuban government documents analyzed in the first chapter illustrate, was constituted not only by the material conditions of slavery, but also by a...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 211-256)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 257-276)
  10. Index
    (pp. 277-288)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 289-291)