Immigration, Sexuality, and the Gendered Caribbean Body
Immigration, Sexuality, and the Gendered Caribbean Body
The desire for Home or “home” often abides in the traveler. Our history . . . that began for some of us with harsh voyages across the sea, but never ended there—is about nothing if not movement, memory. Dis-placement.
—Thomas Glave, Our Caribbean
Given that diaspora is central to the Caribbean, one could perhaps posit that all Caribbean writing engages with, or touches, migration in some way—implicitly or explicitly. “I want to submit,” argues Bajan poet and philosopher Kamau Brathwiate in 1957, “that the desire (even the need) to migrate is at the heart of West Indian sensibility—whether that migration is in fact or by metaphor.”1 Brathwaite’s early Caribbean literary criticism also suggests that desire, in addition to migration, subtends writing from the Antilles. Take, for example, the first sentence of Thomas Glave’s 2008 introduction to Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles. It references both same-sex desire and migration: “As a child of Jamaican immigrants to the United States, and one who regularly spent extended time with family in Jamaica, I couldn’t know how much, over the accumulating years, a book like this would someday mean to me.” A “book like this,” the first of its kind, refers to Glave’s gathering of LGBTQ Caribbean writers, a book that exists despite “thundering condemnation from Christian fundamentalist ministers . . . despite proscriptions, banishments, ostracisms, and, in more than a few cases, extreme violence.”2 Thomas Glave’s work and other pieces in Our Caribbean articulate the mixing of diaspora and desire, immigration and sexuality. Does it therefore follow that sexuality and processes of gendering are entangled with institutions that manage immigration? This essay argues as much and explores the entanglement of immigration as an international system with discourses and institutions that police sexuality and gender in the transnational Caribbean context. Paulette Nardal’s 1929 short story “In Exile” illustrates the relationship between migration, gender, and reproduction. As a colonial-era interlocutor, “In Exile” embodies an illuminating parallel to Thomas Glave’s twenty-first-century Our Caribbean and the radical possibility of a queer “Caribbean migritude.”
Paulette Nardal and her sister Jane moved from Martinique to France to study at the Sorbonne in 1920. They started a newspaper for black students, held a literary salon, and wrote articles on Africa, black humanism, and black internationalism. The milieu the Nardal soeurs created would inspire and shape the well-known Negritude movement.3 In 1929 Paulette Nardal published a short story in La Dépêche Africaine titled “In Exile,” an illuminating portrayal of the conditions in France for immigrants from the West Indies during the colonial era. In particular, Nardal incisively reveals the ways gender and reproduction are bound up with migration. I read “In Exile” as an antecedent to contemporary migritude literature, which I define as late-twentieth- and twenty-first-century African and African diasporic literature that substantially engages with systemic processes of immigration and their colonial pasts. In addition, migritude writers are often in conversation with earlier black radical moments, like Negritude, for example.4
Elisa, the protagonist of “In Exile,” is an elderly black Martiniquean maid in 1920s Paris who works long days, is underpaid, and is subject to the institutional racism that migrants from French colonies face in the City of Lights. Along with the cold winter this produces a numbing effect on Elisa. “This land does not truly suit an old negress,” she laments, and the narrator describes Elisa’s imagination as almost “personify[ing] winter.”5 To ameliorate her psychic winter Elisa imagines “return” and “home,” concepts that would become important for generations of black writers. “If only her son, who had left almost five years ago to tempt his fortune in South America, would come back to her with a little money, she would return to her homeland, to that sweet Martinique that she should never have exchanged for the mirage of Paris” (117). Elisa is warmed by thoughts of Africa in the Antilles. “It’s the whole soul of Africa, which passes into this Antillean tom-tom like an anxious call, awakening a vague emotion in the suddenly attentive talkers,” in her daydream of home (118). Elisa’s affective identification with Africa and Martinique confronts the phenomena of the mirage or myth of Paris—the contradiction between the colonial idea of France as a beacon of welcoming progress and the abject inhospitality blacks from the colonies were met with in Paris. Elisa endures this double-bind, symptomatic of the geographical ethnocentrism of imperialism and the condition of immigration, with imaginings of “homeland” and return.
As the bus driver calls Elisa’s stop on her commute home from work, she “gives a start”: “That shout, the brutal lights of the storefronts, have shredded the veils of her reverie. Coming back to reality she sees around her strained faces, the hard eyes, the closed or indifferent physiognomies of whites. And the weight of her existence falls back more heavily on her shoulders (118). As Elisa surveys the “hard” white faces appraising her with their gaze, what Nardal suggests is that the reality for Elisa in Paris is a reality reserved for black migrants—or what contemporary francophone Senegalese writer Fatou Diome calls the “condition of immigrants” in France, always subtended by contempt.6 The hard faces on the bus, the economic privation of immigrants, and the taunting Elisa bears at the hands of white college students in the short story shape her experience and being. Indeed, she is cast as a black immigrant woman, categorically placed within imperial hierarchies. “In Exile” ends with Elisa’s wish of a return ticket home to the Antilles fulfilled, thanks to her erstwhile son.
Nardal’s story asks us to think about gender in migration, implicitly suggesting to the careful reader that the migrant body is “caught” by techniques of power in terms of both law and discourse, and that these technologies of power, such as Immigration Control, Residence Permits, and so on, are meted out in racialized, gendered, and heterosexualized ways. These techniques and the concepts behind them shape public discourse and perceptions around immigrants, race, and gender. “In Exile” demonstrates this, for example, when white college students pigeonhole Elisa in a deceivingly simple yet revealing way: “Oh what a beautiful blonde!” they yell as she passes by. “Indifferent to the laughter of a bunch of students enchanted by their witty remark [Elisa] went on in her interior monologue. No she could not keep this up much longer” (116). The conceit of the white college students’ “joke” is to address Elisa precisely as what she is not: a young white blonde woman—the “beautiful blonde.” I read this as necessarily gendered because if Elisa had been a black man the students would not have hailed him in exactly the same way. Frantz Fanon, another Martiniquan immigrant in France during the colonial era, speaks in his famous Black Skins, White Masks of the excruciating existential anxiety when a child hails him as a black male: “Look mommy, a Negro.”7 Fanon and Elisa are constructed as both black and, at the same time, necessarily foreign, noncitizens, and thus immigrant. That Nardal’s short story is titled “In Exile” suggests as much. These moments, in addition to formal discrimination, shape Elisa’s and Fanon’s existence. Elisa is hailed, however, as black, female, and undesirable. The students’ racist irony in the call “Oh what a beautiful blonde!” acts as a linguistic symptom of the ways the French colonial nation-state managed race, immigration, and black sexual reproduction.
The “joke” belies a national anxiety about black women’s sexuality and reproduction in the context of immigration. Alys Eve Weinbaum’s concept of the “race/reproduction bind” argues that it is in and through both the material and figural black woman’s body that control is manifested: “The interconnected ideologies of racism, nationalism, and imperialism rest on the notion that race can be reproduced, and on attendant beliefs in the reproducibility of racial formations (including nations) and of social systems hierarchically organized according to notions of inherent racial superiority, inferiority, and degeneration.” For Rahul K. Gairola, the race/reproduction bind “helps explain why women’s bodies . . . are subject to ideological and physical violence and/or can be coerced to produce [or not produce] offspring that contribute to the neoliberal nation-state’s racial and sexual fantasies of an ideal citizenry.” Gary Wilder discusses black reproducibility in the French colonial context as being similarly irreconcilable with national belonging: “The administration recognized that if an African woman was allowed to obtain citizenship through marriage, all of her subsequent children automatically would be French citizens, whether or not they were assimilated. . . . In this unacceptable variant of republican motherhood, the colonial state would lose control over political enfranchisement.”8 As a black mother in Paris, Elisa represents among other things, this “unacceptable variant of Republican motherhood” as she is neither blonde, white, nor a citizen.
The whites’ joke—“Oh what a beautiful blonde!”—then, is not a mere passing statement but one connected to larger national-colonial structures and anxieties in which race, gender, and sexuality are policed and disciplined. Its condition of possibility as a joke relies on racial and gendered categories of French belonging. Further, these categories operate within existing structures of immigration, therefore disclosing the ways in which black migrant bodies were managed, policed, and surveilled from the colonial period into the present. Nardal’s rich three-page short story is brilliantly suggestive of immigration, reproduction, and gender as interrelated and imperial in nature.
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Can we find a parallel to Nardal’s 1929 short story in contemporary Caribbean LGBTQ literature? In what follows I analyze Thomas Glave’s 2004 “Whose Caribbean? An Allegory, in Part,” collected in Our Caribbean, as something akin to a migritude and queer fashioning of “In Exile.” Glave begins his short prose-poem with a “child who dreamed,” a child “both male and female” who “possessed a slender penis of startlingly delicate green, the truest color of the sea that s/he had always loved . . . [and] a pair of luminous blue breasts the tone of the purest skies, which, on the gentlest days, nuzzled their broad, soft chins, against the sea.”9 The child, who gives birth to “brazen dolphins” and is at least two genders, is two sexes, and freely roams the Islands, dreams of the Middle Passage, slaves, and cane fields “thick with secrets but also with the day’s tragedies and joys . . . and, on nights of the fullest moons, the calls of three-hundred-year-dead jumbies, or duppies” (178). S/he dreams of reality’s history as Glave conjures the child as an alternative to (or future to) an untenable twenty-first-century reality under racial capitalism in which the defacto institutionalization of heteropatriarchy targets immigrants both here and there: “When I conjure this child . . . I imagine that s/he yearns for two things only: to be loved, of course, and to be safe” (179).
Glave begins the subsequent section delineating immigration as a system. “During my many travels,” writes Glave, “I have often thought of that child and her/his dreams. In the dreary halls of immigration, while wondering which passport to use on this trip or that one, Jamaican or U.S.—which citizen I will be this time, (re)entering ‘my’ country?” (179). Like many others, Glave’s nonnormative sexuality “immobilizes” him within his own country. Given that citizenship is based on rights, civil participation, and protection, Glave is, unlike Elisa, already exiled in his own country.10 He exists in the era of globalization, wherein capital and the elite are freely mobile but not the bulk of the world’s population, and wherein the nation-state permeates, manages, and interdicts movement.
Nations are inherently normative and territorially circumscribed systems that produce and discipline their subjects and include or exclude them based on race, gender, sexuality, and various other identity-markers. Globalization indeed produces, for Etienne Balibar, “a gigantic inequality with regard to the right of circulation and the mobility of persons.” Against this, Balibar calls for a counter-phenomenology that analyzes “dissymmetries (think of the access to passports and visas, the fact that certain strategic borderlines can easily be crossed one way but not the other way) and includes differential repression.”11 Glave’s queer migritude addresses differential repression in terms of the intersection of race, migration, sexuality, and globalization and thus acts as a counter-phenomenology: “Third-world trade long ago made a reality by marauders, [is] tightly held in place by those of today: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the transnational corporate behemoths, and, first and foremost a nexus of all three, the United (severely capitalist, fiercely indifferent to human and most life) States.” Glave’s critique of globalization also links immigration and sexuality with the systems that shape and mediate them. As Glave’s imagined child dreams of “the freedom of not having to migrate . . . no more for him/her, the long queues in front of embassies where people wait for visa applications to nations interested only in their cheap labor,” s/he also dreams of the right of nonnormative sexualities in the same breath. “S/he prays not to be perceived as ‘other,’ perhaps, by those among whom s/he has long dwelt” (179). Further, the utopic child sexually reproduces her-/himself in ways obviously outside the bounds of the nuclear patriarchal and racialized family—outside the species even—given her/his annual brood of “brazen dolphins,” brilliantly disrupting the borders of what is considered “human” and not.
If “migritude” literature critically focuses not solely on individuals who cross borders but on collective patterns of immigration and the structures that manage them, and given that migritude authors link the institutionalization of migration to an imperial past while refashioning anticolonial and antiracist literature of the black radical tradition into their own present era of global capitalism, I argue that Glave’s work in Our Caribbean furthers migritude by explicitly articulating the connection between the policing of sexuality and gender with immigration. Paulette Nardal’s colonial-era short story “In Exile” represents an antecedent to queer migritude literature because she illustrates the irreducible linkages between migration and the reproduction of gender, between diaspora and desire. In the final section of “Whose Caribbean?” Glave shifts to the first-person plural we, referring to “this body we call humanity.” Yet this universal body becomes something other than, and in excess to, its myriad normative categorization(s) within and between nation-states. For Glave, the we-as-humanity, both more and less than human, “are not at all surprised at the deepening blue of our breasts . . . the emerald rod between our legs, now a deeper green than ever—the most secret tone of the sky” (187).
Christopher Ian Foster is a doctoral candidate in the English program at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a dissertation fellow with the Committee on Globalization and Social Change and with the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and Caribbean. He has taught widely in the English department at Queens College, and he is an organizer for the Postcolonial Studies Group Colloquium Series at the Graduate Center.
1 Kamau Brathwaite, “Sir Galahad and the Islands,” in Roots (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 7.
2 Thomas Glave, “Introduction: Desire through the Archipelago,” in Thomas Glave, ed., Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 1, 4. The quote used as an epigraph is found on 2. LGBTQ refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer.
3 See T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Negritude Women (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
4 Christopher Ian Foster, “Home to Hargeisa: Migritude, Pan-Africanism, and the Politics of Movement from Banjo to Black Mamba Boy,” Ufahamu 38, no. 2 (2015).
5 Paulette Nardal, “In Exile,” in Sharpley-Whiting, Negritude Women, 116; hereafter cited in the text.
6 Fatou Diome, The Belly of the Atlantic, trans. Lulu Norman and Ros Schwartz (London: Serpents Tail, 2006), 172.
7 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove, 1967), 111, 112.
8 Alys Eve Weinbaum, Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 4; Rahul K. Gairola, “A Critique of Thatcherism and the Queering of Home in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,” South Asian Review 32, no. 3 (2011): 126; Gary Wilder, The French Imperial Nation State: Négritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 132.
9 Thomas Glave, “Whose Caribbean? An Allegory, in Part,” in Glave, Our Caribbean, 177; hereafter cited in the text.
10 Glave, “Introduction,” 2.
11 Etienne Balibar, “Toward a Diasporic Citizen? From Internationalism to Cosmopolitics,” in Francoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, eds., The Creolization of Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 217.