January 13, 2010

Locating Ingenio in the African Diaspora

Ingenio de Buenos Aires is a small town in northern Peru where most of the residents are descendants of Africans brought to Peru as slaves. Most people in Ingenio, however, do not think of themselves as the descendants of Africans, and only a few have a historical memory of slavery in their community. Their history as the descendants of Africans, combined with their lack of a memory of Africa and of slavery, make it necessary to question the extent to which the concept of “diaspora” is useful for talking about the people of Ingenio.

Scholars such as Melville J. Herskovits have argued that diasporic Africans possess African cultural artifacts, while others, such as E. Franklin Frazier, have claimed that the circumstances in the New World have produced a shared and unique culture among blacks. Most scholars of the diaspora fall into either of these two camps, and most agree that diasporic blacks share something in common, whether it is something from the “homeland,” or something produced in the new territories.

Paul Gilroy’s foundational text, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), is perhaps best representative of the idea that diasporic blacks have many common traits, as a result of their experiences of enslavement. For Gilroy, diasporic blacks share a “memory of slavery, actively preserved as a living intellectual resource in their expressive political culture” (Gilroy 1993: 39). This memory of slavery is not dormant, but used as a resource for the cultural, political and ideological struggles that breathe life into the global black community.

Although many people who live in Ingenio today have ancestors who were enslaved Africans, slavery does not play much of a role in local conceptions of history. This is in large part because of the extensive system of debt peonage in place both alongside and after slavery. At least 100,000 Africans were brought to Peru as slaves (Bowser 1974). Many of those brought to Piura (the state where Ingenio is located) were manumitted, escaped from slavery, or purchased their freedom and joined the masses of peons who worked as agricultural workers (Castillo Roman 1981; Reyes Flores 2001). Because debt peonage quickly replaced slavery as the primary form of agricultural exploitation in Piura, slavery is not the central way that villagers understand their history.

I am not the first to question the centrality of slavery in the African diasporic experience. Michelle Wright (2004: 3), for example, points out that there is no “cultural trope to which one can link all the African diasporic communities in the West,” including the Atlantic slave trade. As Paul Zeleza (2005) asserts, it is also crucial to complicate the very notion of Africa and of the diaspora. Although there are 54 states that make up the African Union today, the borders of Africa are constantly changing. What’s more, the African diaspora continues insofar as people leave Africa everyday, while others return. There is contention with regard to who is African and thus who is part of the diaspora. Despite this, the concept “African diaspora” is not vacuous: the forced removal of millions of people from Africa clearly has left its mark on the world, and even on Ingenio.

Patterson and Kelley (2000: 65) argue that the “diaspora is both a process and a condition. As a process it is constantly being remade through movement, migration, and travel, as well as imagined through thought, cultural production, and political struggle. Yet, as a condition, it is directly tied to the process by which it is being made and remade.” Thinking of the diaspora as a process and a condition allows us some flexibility in a conceptualization of the black experience. For, if we think of the diaspora as something that just is, we are unable to think about how it has been formed and how it is changing. This allows us to heed Herman Bennett’s suggestion to ask “how, when, why and under what circumstances slavery and racial oppression produced a black consciousness” (2000: 112).

My analyses of the way people in Ingenio talk about their history and their blackness point to the fact that it is not the case that simply because people in Ingenio are the descendants of African slaves that they logically will share cultural attributes and memories with others in the African diaspora. It is also not the case that the relationship between the people of Ingenio and the diaspora will be the same for each individual. For this reason, it is important to consider the interactions and processes that give meaning to being part of the African diaspora.

To gain insight into these interactions and processes that imbue blackness with meaning, I explore how historical experiences interact with present day conditions to influence the meanings that people in Ingenio give to blackness and Africa. I look at how flows of people, products, media images, and political movements work together to endow blackness with meaning, while taking into account the fact that these meanings are constantly changing and work differently for individuals on the basis of their particular social location. I analyze how people in Ingenio talk about Africa and slavery and their connection to them. Conceptualizing the African diaspora as both a condition and a process allows us to broaden our understanding of what it means to be black and of who is or can be considered part of the African diaspora.

People in Ingenio are part of the African diaspora insofar as they are descendants of African slaves. Yet, their weak ties to this history and to other members of the diaspora render problematic many generalizations we can make about the diaspora. Although many of their cultural practices may have their roots in Africa, and many of their social norms may be a product of slavery and the slave trade, people in Ingenio often do not perceive themselves to be rooted in a history that derives from Africa and the slave trade.

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