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Response to Review of Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age

I am very grateful to Jacob Zumoff for his thoughtful and generous reading of my book, Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age. His review locates my contribution within the broad and distinguished scholarship on Caribbean migration, and points to important areas where further research is needed. What I would like to do here is to second his comments about the work remaining to be done, taking forward the discussion he has initiated.

As Zumoff notes, in Radical Moves I try to show the organic interconnection of history ‘from above’ and history ‘from below’: to track both the initiatives of Caribbean people crossing borders and the initiatives of the states that by the 1930s claimed the right to decide when they might do so. In researching, I tried to seek out sources that captured migrants’ own actions, choices, and thoughts. In writing, I tried to keep working-class Afro-Caribbeans’ understanding of their own lives at the center of the story – even when outside observers’ views of those lives were far more accessible, egregiously racist, and eminently worth criticizing.

For instance, in a previous publication I had looked at the evolution and resonances of racist accusations regarding Caribbean ‘witchcraft,’ including the tales of ritual sacrifice that became central to elite lore about obeah and ‘voodoo’.(1) In Radical Moves I pushed myself away from those questions, tackling instead the task of systematizing the glimpses that sources from around the region offered of actual patterns of faith, worship, and protective ritual. I wanted to know what Caribbean migrants thought and feared, rather than what outside observers thought of them or feared about them.

In many ways, looking away from elite discourse brings us into a world of far more interesting variation. It is not quite true that all elite ideas about black people’s culture were alike in the inter-war years – but frankly, it’s not that far from true. In contrast, Caribbean people’s own beliefs and opinions and practices and daily lives showed continuities and variation over space and time that are well worth trying to map out. They matter because they mattered to those people then. And they matter because what scholars claim shapes immigrants’ lives matters to policy-making today.

My hope is that, just as Professor Zumoff urges, the region-wide account in Radical Moves serves as stimulus to further study. One way in which a panoramic and comparative account can do so is by denaturalizing things that have come to seem natural at different sites. From within Costa Rica it looks natural that British West Indians abroad were both Garveyite and anti-Communist; in Kingston in 1938 it looked natural that returnees from Cuba fused Garveyism with admiration for the Cuban Communist party.(2) Noticing the wide variety of outcomes should encourage us to treat each one as something that demands explanation. Grenadian men in Venezuela routinely married local, Spanish-speaking women? That's interesting, because in Panama they didn't.

Building comparison in shows us the inadequacy of either ‘human nature’ or ‘culture’ as default explanations, requiring us to look instead to economic, political, social, and demographic processes to explain why immigrant communities evolved as they did. Migratory experiences, patterned differently for different waves, themselves shaped immigrants’ ideas in crucial ways. Labor market conditions did so too. Laws about border crossing and denizens’ rights did so too: laws not as written, but as applied (as I stress in chapter three, a very different thing).

It is particularly valuable to be forced to question culturalist explanations for immigrant outcomes, because those are universally the explanations that feel most right to receiving-society observers, and indeed to immigrants themselves. Surely our people have always seen this this way, in contrast to outsiders around us? Surely the reason funny-talking newcomers do that rather than this has to do with the funny ideas they came with?

Again and again, as we examine the circum-Caribbean migratory system, we see that the answer is no. Cultural practice turns out to be radically more malleable than it seems, even or especially to the people enacting it. Outcomes along all kinds of dimensions have varied sharply over time and between different destinations, even though the island heritage mix that migrants carried from their homelands was demonstrably the same. This is not one of the arguments of Radical Moves – the book ends in the late 1930s, and thus does not trace longer term developments in the destinations studied. But it is one of the reasons that the further research of the kind Professor Zumoff calls for can be especially fruitful.

By making visible variation from the dominant trends, research into less-recognized corners of the Caribbean migratory sphere has the power to change our understanding of key conditionants in the system as a whole. Doing research on British Caribbeans in Venezuela was illuminating precisely because I didn’t find so many of the patterns my research in Costa Rica, Panama, and New York had led me to expect. I was delighted to see Professor Zumoff point to the material on Venezuela as one of the most valuable aspects of Radical Moves. Venezuelan history remains hugely understudied by international scholars – and within Venezuela, the politicization of the past (by groups at both ends of the political spectrum) has radically constrained the topics considered relevant to historia patria. Yet archives in Caracas and state capitals alike hold a rich variety of documents that invite study of a wealth of issues. Those archives are, in my experience, staffed by generous and dedicated public servants eager to help any researcher intrepid enough to make his or her way to their doorstep.

Professor Zumoff notes that Radical Moves leaves unplumbed the question of Anglo-Caribbean/Hispanic Caribbean interaction at different immigrant destinations. I join his call for more research on this topic. Its importance was brought home to me again as I completed a recent essay on cricket and boxing among British West Indians abroad – in some ways a kind of seventh chapter to Radical Moves, and one whose absence from that book was glaring, since sport fandom was clearly just as important as music (and trumped only by religion) in the popular cultures of these communities. In the realm of sport we see significant connections being forged across the anglophone/Latin divide, even at the height of xenophobic nationalism: cricket skill shaping Latin American baseball traditions; multilingual boxers moving between Panama, Jamaica, Harlem, and Havana and collaborating with English- and Spanish-speaking promoters, trainers, journalists and fans at every step of the way.(3)

I would love to see more research on the interactions between British West Indian and Puerto Rican immigrants in interwar Harlem, where each group numbered around 50,000 (or twice that size, if you count locally born children) circa 1930. Professor Zumoff notes that masterly research has already been done on Caribbean migration to New York in the first half of the 20th century. I fully share his admiration for the work of Irma Watkins-Owens and Winston James, but so much more remains to be explored. Consider the contrast with scholarship on British Caribbean migrants in Limón, Costa Rica, where in the past generation book-length studies by Ronny Viales, Ronald Harpelle, Avi Chomsky, Trevor Purcell, Diana Senior, and myself (and articles by Nicola Foote, Elisavinda Echeverri-Ghent, Zumoff himself, and others) have importantly complemented classic studies by Quince Duncan, Charles Koch, Jeffrey Casey Gaspar, and Roy Simon Bryce-Laporte. You could not come up with a list nearly as long of investigations into pre-1970s British West Indian New York, where the total number of immigrants was five times as large.

Equally distorting is that certain topics have not been studied for certain places, a pattern that becomes self-reinforcing. We ask about the political theories propounded by Caribbean migrants from stepladders on Harlem sidewalks or the Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner, yet rarely interrogate the political theories their brothers and cousins debated in Panama rum shops or Trinidadian oilfields. We have noted the persistent power of Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions in Costa Rican backlands, but failed to look for the same in Harlem basements. Such oversights invisibilize key pieces of the tale, again naturalizing assumed patterns rather than pushing us to ask if interregional differences existed, and if so, why they did so.

Ultimately, building a fuller picture of migrant experiences around the Greater Caribbean – and carrying that picture forward in time to create critical histories of the present that can unsettle received truths – are urgent tasks for all who want history to speak clearly in the immigration debates of today.

1          Lara Putnam, ‘Rites of power and rumors of race: the circulation of supernatural knowledge in the Greater Caribbean, 1890-1940’, in Obeah and Other Powers: The Politics of Caribbean Religion and Healing, ed. Diana Paton and Maarit Forde (Durham, NC, 2012).

2          Illuminating analysis of this very issue is found in J. A. Zumoff, ‘Ojos que no ven: The Communist Party, Caribbean migrants and the Communist International in Costa Rica in the 1920s and 1930s’, Journal of Caribbean History, 45, 2 (2011), 212–47.

3          I am hardly the first to note this: see for instance Rob Ruck, The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999) and Ruck, Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (Boston Beacon Press: 2011).