Commemorating 1917

A Discussion of Citizenship and Freedom in Caribbean Literature

• October 2017

no, not yet, no, not yet
i will not proclaim myself,
a total child of any land,
i’m still in the commonwealth
stage of my life
—Tato Laviera, “commonwealth,” in AmeRícan (2003)

The Caribbean will forever be marked by September 2017 and the hurricanes that destroyed entire islands and disrupted life there for the foreseeable future. Irma and Maria in particular have left Barbuda, Dominica, the United States Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico devastated; for a week, at least, many of us were glued to our television sets, our computers, our handheld devices, ingesting images of familial homelands, offering prayers, wondering about distant and not-so-distant relatives. For those of us who are part of the diasporic communities of the nonincorporated United States territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, we have all become well acquainted with conversations about sovereignty and colonialism, as we witnessed how federal aid could not reach these islands because of the bureaucratic limitations of their political status as nonincorporated territories.

The seed of this discussion section was planted two years ago, while I was writing an intellectual biography of collector, archivist, and bibliophile Arturo Schomburg. Best known for the New York research library named after him, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Schomburg led a fascinating and complex life. He was born in Cangrejos (now known as Santurce), Puerto Rico, when it remained a Spanish colony, to a free laborer mother from the Danish West Indies and a Puerto Rican father of German heritage, in 1874, a year after the abolition of slavery on the island. In 1891, at seventeen years of age, Schomburg, like many before him and millions since, migrated to New York. At that time, the Puerto Rican community in New York totaled in the hundreds, perhaps, fitting easily within the growing Cuban community; a good number in these communities were black men and women exiled from Puerto Rico and Cuba, and so worked from this diasporic space for the independence of these islands. In the course of my research, this was perhaps one of my most striking realizations: the Nuyorican community has been deeply rooted in the independence of Puerto Rico for more than a century. Schomburg himself played a major role in groups committed to the political liberation of both Cuba and Puerto Rico: a member of Club Borinquen and the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (the Cuban Revolutionary Party, founded by José Martí), Schomburg would cofound and serve as secretary of Las Dos Antillas (the Two Antilles, a reference to Cuba and Puerto Rico). In an effort to oust Spain from the region, he helped raise money to purchase arms to enable armed insurrection on those islands; he, like many others, witnessed the intervention of the United States in 1898 in what had been the third Cuban war for independence. With the United States victorious, the conflict came to be known as the Spanish-American War, and Puerto Rico was annexed to the United States.

It would be nineteen years before inhabitants of Puerto Rico were declared citizens of the United States; in the interim they existed in a political limbo as noncitizen nationals, a status that incidentally remains to this day for those born in or with ties to American Samoa. Both the Jones-Shafroth Act, which bestowed US citizenship to Puerto Ricans, and the Treaty of the Danish West Indies, which formalized the purchase of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John by the United States (which renamed them the United States Virgin Islands) occurred in 1917. In that year, the islands that had borne Schomburg’s maternal and paternal lines were more inextricably tied to the new colonial power.

This centennial has been a painful one, not only because of the woefully inept federal response to the devastation in the region but also for the more fundamental question: What substantial benefits has US citizenship brought to the peoples of these islands? When the president of the United States does not recognize himself as the president of the Virgin Islands, when more than half of the citizenry of the mainland has no idea that Puerto Ricans are US citizens, when newscasts turn away and forget, even as millions of people in all of these spaces go without electricity, without food, without water, to what does a century of being part of these United States amount?

As of this writing in October 2017, recovery efforts in the islands continue, as they will for the foreseeable future. The construct of the Caribbean as an unoccupied paradise that awaits the presence of tourists and their mighty currency has been shattered, hopefully for good, as those of us who reside outside of these lands are reminded that the islands are inhabited by people. People, men and women who need water, food, shelter, electricity, employment. Children, too young to be conscious of what is happening and who may not recognize the failure of the government of the United States to help them. Our elders, facing the waning of their lives in ninety-degree heat, with no air conditioning, no relief. Schools out of session. Banks closed. Every day brings a new horror: in Puerto Rico, a hurricane-related death toll reported by the island’s Department of Public Safety to be in the double digits rises, as of this writing, to almost a thousand, though these deaths are deemed by the insular government to be of natural causes and unrelated to the storm. Many of the other islands struggle for the camera’s lens: Where is their tribute song? Where are their celebrity champions on social media platforms who refuse to let the plight of their peoples go unnoticed?

At the same time, there is, as there always has been, community. Fundraising drives and organizing efforts on the ground carry on, as they must, both on the islands and within the communities of migrants that have existed in the diaspora for more than a century. Professors such as Small Axe Project board member Yarimar Bonilla have led efforts to sustain attention on Puerto Rico and on the region as a whole, both outside the academy and within the ivory tower. Writer Tobias Buckell has been a vocal proponent for maintaining a focus on both the US and British Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Irma, and scholar Schuyler Esprit continues her commitment to Dominica, raising funds to restore Create Caribbean, her nonprofit that teaches technology education to school children on the island. This sx salon special focus on 1917 marks the centenary, asking yet again, what has this all been for?

We begin the discussion with Imani D. Owens’s examination of the political mobilization of West Indian men in New York City during the summer of 1917, in her essay “The Transnational Labor of Black Resistance: Caribbean Intellectuals Protest the East St. Louis Riots.” Next, Nathan Dize highlights the military occupation of Haiti (begun in 1915) with his translation of Haitian writer and diplomat Charles Moravia’s poem “La vision du Président Wilson.”1 Following this, Janelle Rodriques, with her essay “‘Living in Hidden Relationship’: Doomed Romance and Bonded Citizenship in A. R. F. Webber’s Those That Be in Bondage,” reminds us that 1917 also marked the end of indentured servitude in the British holdings in the Caribbean basin. In her essay “Luis Felipe Dessús and US Citizenship for Black Puerto Ricans,” Satty Flaherty-Echeverría examines the writings of black Puerto Rican writer, journalist, and politician Luis Felipe Dessús, who cautioned his fellow Afro–Puerto Ricans against the supposed benefits of being linked with the United States. Finally, Tami Navarro shares the ongoing reassessment of the significance of the founding of the United States Virgin Islands, in her essay “From Danish West Indies to America’s Poorhouse: Reflections on Transfer One Hundred Years On.”

Painful is a woefully inept word to describe this centennial; and yet it is our sincerest hope to contribute to the conversations led by our colleagues, both on the islands and in the diaspora, about the future of these lands, as we observe the multifaceted complexities of issues of sovereignty and coloniality play out. We watch and we construct for ourselves our Caribbean futures.

 

Vanessa K. Valdés is an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the City College of New York–CUNY. Her research interests include comparative studies of the literatures of the Americas. She is the editor of The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (2012) and Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora (2012). She is the author of Oshun’s Daughters: The Search for Womanhood in the Americas (2014) and Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (2017). She is the book review editor of sx salon.

 


1 While we did not receive any submissions addressing this topic, we wish to acknowledge that 1917 also marked the first year of the United States military occupation of the Dominican Republic so as to underscore that the United States had complete control of the island of Hispaniola that year. The Marines would leave the Dominican Republic in 1924 and Haiti a decade later, in 1934.

 

Related Articles