headed south to durham tomorrow to spend several days helping my sister-in-law fix the gaping hole in her new little house. looking forward to a lil' more warmth than we're currently experiencing in cambridge. (don't get me wrong, though: breaking 50 feels very good.) besides soaking in some sun and hammering some nails and such, i plan to have lunch with deborah thomas, professor of cultural anthropology at duke, who's new book, modern blackness, is a tour-de-force for us scholars of jamaica, cultural politics, and (trans)nationalism.
recently, i wrote a review of the book for the poco journal, interventions. it was a good oppotunity to engage the text as deeply and rigorously as i knew i should, considering its direct relevance to my dissertation. if you're into reggae, jamaica, the caribbean, post-colonial studies, or any variation thereof, this is a must-read. especially for those who, like me, are looking to make sense of young jamaicans' embrace of north american (black) popular culture in a way that pushes beyond the ol' "cultural imperialist"/"creative resistance" framework.
given the book's expansive purview and the review's limited wordcount, i'm afraid that i wasn't able to do much more than outline the overall argument and offer some deserved praise. since few folks will probably see the interventions review, i'm copying some of the text here. (you'll notice that the appearance of capital letters signals "non-internet" discourse for me--a simple, and perhaps silly, way of demarcating my writings. and, yes, a nod to edward estlin cummings--not to mention bell hooks, and emailers everywhere.)
Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica. By Deborah A. Thomas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2004. Pp. xiv + 357. ISBN 0822334194. $23.95.
In Modern Blackness, Deborah Thomas maps out and analyzes the complex, shifting political terrain of race and national belonging in Jamaica. Against the state-sponsored ‘creole multiracial nationalism’ that has projected a national identity where ‘Out of Many, One People’ unite in self-rule, Thomas observes an articulation of ‘modern blackness’ in the popular cultural practices of Jamaica’s black lower-class. As a race-based notion of community frequently tied to urban, cosmopolitan/transnational, and migratory identities, modern blackness militates against creole multiracial nationalism’s tendency to obscure enduring inequalities along the imbricate lines of race, class, and gender--inequalities linked to colonial hierarchies of value and status and which, to some extent, have been reinforced by recent globalization processes. Thomas’s ethnographically-informed, historically-engaged, interpretive reading of contemporary cultural practices--in particular, the ‘selective appropriation’ and ‘use’ of America and, especially, of African-American popular culture--presents a compelling, nuanced argument about the significant shift in conceptualizations and representations of Jamaican national identity since independence in 1962. Scholars of Jamaican history and society will undoubtedly find much of value in Modern Blackness, as Thomas’s thesis challenges with ambitious scope and copious evidence a number of commonplace assumptions about the nexus between race, class, and culture in Jamaica. As a suggestive, provocative case study examining the intersections of politics and culture, race and nation, local and global, Modern Blackness also offers a number of insights to scholars of the Caribbean or Afro-Diaspora, as well as to those interested in post-colonialism, globalization, critical race studies, or cultural studies more generally.
Thomas’s argument focuses on the interplay between the local, national, and global, and her book embodies this analysis with a tripartite structure. Seeking to demonstrate the mutually constitutive character of these three points of reference and ‘to clarify the links between global processes, nationalist visions, and local practices’ (p. 19), Thomas uses paired groupings to explore their relationships. In part one, Thomas focuses on the ‘global-national’ axis, outlining the foundational struggle between blackness and creole ideology. Constructing a genealogy of pre-Independence nationalism, Thomas demonstrates the way that early articulations of a race-based concept of nation, as advanced by the authors of Jamaica Jubilee (1888), were ultimately incorporated by creole nationalists, whose projection of a multiracial Jamaica would become hegemonic by independence in 1962 and whose coded discourse of middle-class ‘values’ served to reproduce colonial hierarchies. She then explores how the post-independence government’s cultural policies institutionalized this vision by relegating Afro-Jamaican cultural practices to the realm of indigenous ‘heritage,’ denying contemporary popular practices (from Rasta to Rudie) which drew on folk as well as foreign forms and excluding racially-explicit mobilizations of community.
In part two, Thomas turns to the ‘national-local’ to examine ways that ‘ordinary’ Jamaicans negotiate nationalist policies and popular ideologies to construct their own sense of belonging. Here the author interprets interviews and observations from her ethnographic study of a predominantly lower-class community (referred to here by the pseudonym ‘Mango Mount’) in order to show how national ideologies about the fixity of color, class, and culture are reproduced and challenged at the local level. Tracing trends in occupation, land ownership, marriage, migration, and social status across several generations, Thomas provides a detailed map of patterns of mobility and the correlation between class position (which articulates closely with race) and autonomy in Mango Mount. She explicates community members’ ‘lukewarm’ symbolic appreciation for state cultural initiatives (such as the re-institution of Emancipation Day as a national holiday) by revealing the common perception that poor people’s opportunities have not changed significantly since independence and that the state does less to provide for individual and community development than, say, family members living abroad.
Thomas shifts focus to the ‘local-global’ context in part three to show how various strategies employed by poor Jamaicans to ‘move forward’ constitute contemporary embodiments of modern blackness. She outlines a shift by the late 1990s to a racialized, somewhat deterritorialized conception of nation which, powered and projected by popular culture, now supersedes creole multiracialism in the public representation of Jamaican-ness. The ‘amplification of a diasporic consciousness’ via transnational migration and media represents another subversion of British colonial class and color hierarchies, and Thomas’s analysis of Jamaican ‘uses’ of America moves beyond the well-worn binaries of imperial hegemony and local resistance. Modern blackness emerges in these final chapters as urban, migratory, youth-oriented, influenced (but not dominated) by African-American popular style, individualist, ‘radically consumerist,’ and ‘ghetto feminist.’
Thomas concludes by reminding the reader that modern blackness is, ultimately, complex. It is neither imitative nor oppositional, neither totalizing nor coherent. Her analysis is consistent with contemporary anthropology in its careful evaluation and preference for description. Even so, one comes away from the book with a clear sense of modern blackness’s critique of state-sponsored identities and colonial hierarchies, not to mention its liberatory potential. Thus, while modern blackness is, on the one hand, simply “a framework within which present and future possibilities are evaluated” (p. 231), it is also “a call for the fulfillment of a dream that has remained unrealized” (p. 270).