Poetry of the African Diaspora – Lead Me to Life: Voices of the African Diaspora
In 2020, the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a white policeman in Minneapolis, set ablaze a global nerve. Black Lives Matter protesters stood up against anti-black racism and police violence, highlighting the fact that colonial and imperial systems are not dead but have turned into new forms of surveillance, repression and state violence against blacks and brunettes around the world.
IIn response, we, a team of editors, poets and anthropologists based in the United States, appealed to anthropologists in the African diaspora to share their creative work with us. We asked them to offer their voices and perspectives on this moment and on the 500 years of history of the African diaspora and culture that began with the transatlantic African slave trade. They responded to this call by bringing wholeness to their storytelling, working to dismantle dominant narratives and ways of knowing, refusing the “White gaze”, and claim personal experiences as a powerful ethnographic material that can shape hearts, minds and futures.
Tthe resulting collection, Bring Me to Life: Voices from the African Diaspora, uses creative scholarship to bring closer a shared future of security, vitality, equality and justice for all in the African Diaspora. Through explorations of family and ancestry, personal / autobiographical, how the past echoes today and the human wounds of social inequality, the collection contributes to a 2021 global toll with anti-black racism, anti-queer violence, sexism, anti-Asian hatred, European colonialism and the aftermath of slavery, and much more.
AAs academics, we know that scholarship alone will not bring about the change that many of us seek. Poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction, among other genres, are essential to how we embody and experience our ever-changing worlds. Across the African diaspora, creative works bear the brunt of social change.
In bringing this collection together, we have drawn inspiration from influential works such as the essay by literary scholar and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman “Venus in two acts», Which struggles with the elision of black girls from the public memory of racial violence. Through an encounter with archival documents of a enslaved “dead girl” named Venus who died aboard a British slave ship named Recovery as recorded in 1792, Hartman examines the traffic between the fantasy, facts, violence and desire in an interrogation of the “archive” (documents, statements and institutions that decide our knowledge of the past) of black life.
Poetry prompts us to take into account the deeper truths of social reparation.
Usinging “critical storytelling”, splicing and reconfiguring the little information in the archives, Hartman challenges the stories and rewritings assumed against collective amnesia. Her work shows us what it means to be Black in the world, more specifically, to be Black and female in the Americas and try to survive in the afterlife of the Middle Passage, slavery and its residual terrors. Hartman shows what it’s like to split your black self in half as a way to navigate the tenuous mortality of black intimacy, black community, and black life.
WWe also turned to poetry, as people often do in times of personal and social crisis. Popular works of poetry, like that of Claudia Rankine Citizen: An American Lyric, are already essential readings for this current moment of racial calculation in the United States. CitizenThe powerful lyrical arcs of, between words and media, push the boundaries of the form of lyrical poetry to reveal the distortions of racism and the distortion of social bonds. Poetry is open. This openness allows a poet to grapple with unthinkable or barely thinkable violence that is hidden in everyday life and, as readers and listeners, poetry prompts us to consider the deeper truths of social redress.
But more than asking contributors to respond to ongoing acts of racism and violence and uprisings, we sought work that addressed the African diaspora survival (active and continuous presence), black joy, dreams of freedom, collective healing and other empowered practices.
TThe voices in this collection come from many sites around the world.
The African diaspora includes global communities of indigenous Africans and people of African descent who are on the move or are the descendants of those who have passed through the global systems of slavery, colonialism, nation-building and immigration. In the Americas, the diaspora community focuses primarily on descendants of the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to the 19th century. The United States could have prohibits the slave trade in 1808, and legally abolition of slavery in 1865, but the country did not dismantle many systems of oppression linked to the slave system. The works grapple with these ongoing stories.
DIna Rivera’s poem “Middle Ground” is addressed directly to “loved ones” who have lived and live in this diaspora. As a Florida-based Afro-Taino archaeologist, she navigates a system to dehumanize and deprive black and indigenous peoples of their rights, among other things, which, as she puts it, “is a grueling dance between survival and preventable death ”. Rivera’s letter-poem addresses herself and other members of the diaspora: “Honey, / Give your beating heart a moment / Your steps may waver in a world that blames you. His timely poem “Riot” focuses on protesters who bleed “the dark secrets / Reflected in riot shields and badges.”
In “The voice of the diaspora”, the Brazilian black poet and archaeologist Lara de Paula Passos speaks with the imaginary voice of the diaspora, offering a poetic definition rooted in her personal experience and her family history: “I am Diaspora / and also Colony / Made of Love and Ammonia. Embracing the contradictions of a community built on a shared violent history, Passos’ poem beckons towards forms of belonging beyond national borders and legal citizenship. In its strongest expression, the diaspora models more inclusive ways of sharing identity that confuse simplistic racial or nationalist categories.
Poet and author Jason Vasser-Elong, of Cameroonian origin, offers a trio of poems – “Elder”, “Window” and “Lessons We Learn” – which are intimate portraits of family heritage in the United States. An ethnographic richness animates his memories of road trips through woods tinged with memory: “There will perhaps even come a time / when a forest will be nothing but trees. / But for the moment, it is the decoration of a memory / not mine, but ours. We come out of his poems by imagining a world that could be all ours but seen from unknown angles and perspectives: “nights so dark, so starlit / that we could imagine that it is dark everywhere”.
AAnthropologist Cory-Alice André-Johnson, who works and writes on Madagascar, offers the only work of fiction in the collection. In his story, “They will steal your eyes, they will steal your teeth,” local children go missing or are stolen. She uses gossip about missing children to investigate how different types of speech embody or reject the demands of those in power. Its story reveals the inequalities at the heart of postcolonial contexts such as Madagascar, where race, capitalism, imperialism, and class, among other forces, shape discourse, communities, and rights. Gossip on vazaha (Malagasy term designating foreigners, mainly European or of European origin) hides and reveals what people know or do not know in a cadence of uncertainty: “Nobody knows. Ask anyone. Everyone knows. … They take people. They take land. They take bones. Vazaha take a holiday. They take pictures. Andre-Johnson’s play highlights how ethnographic fiction can expertly and powerfully combine rigorous field research with creative writing methods.
BMissing surfer and anthropologist Traben Pleasant takes us to the waters of Bocas del Toro, Panama, to witness “the African diaspora riding the waves across the surfable world”. Hailing from Long Beach, Calif., Pleasant was usually the only black surfer in sight. While doing ethnographic work in Panama, he once immersed himself in a scene that sparked elation and questions: “a palette of black canvas runners”, none of which aligned with the narrative. of the “white sport” that says, “Blacks can’t swim.” His poem “Surfing in Color” expands the lens through time and space to the range of black surfers who shone while surfing the waves .
VSreturning to the United States but with a broad objective, the contribution of the poet and anthropologist Irma McClaurin “Are We So Different? Was first commissioned for the American Anthropological Association’s project on race in the United States called RACE: Are we so different? Designed to respond to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, her article reminds us, “We can choose to become entangled / in prejudice and racism, / or choose to be human. “
VSBy creating spaces of influence outside and inside academia, our contributors help us feel the meaning of the past and call us towards a human, just and joyful future. To do this work of celebration and healing, writers often have to immerse themselves in troubled waters – a task augmented by the ordeal of experiencing the various inequalities, deaths and oppressions committed in real time on those who make up the diaspora. African.
We as editors highlight and account for the enduring courage and skill it takes to creatively convey the lived reality of black joys, pains, loves and losses to the world.