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Review of Gendering the African Diaspora: Women, Culture, and Historical Change in the Caribbean and Nigerian Hinterland


By Karen Cereso

Gendering the African Diaspora: Women, Culture, and Historical Change in the Caribbean and Nigerian Hinterland. Judith A Byfield, LaRay Denzer, and Anthea Morrison (Eds). Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2010. Pp. 275. ISBN. 978 0 253 22153 7 (pb). $24.95.

In introducing Gendering the African Diaspora editors Judith Byfield, LaRay Denzer, and Anthea Morrison define diaspora as ‘the product of articulated linkages that connect the disparate parts’. The definition is well justified by this amply situated collection of articles where linkages of geography, of past and present, across culture and class, and of means of representation, make a fascinating read. The narratives presented bring alive diasporan women as they negotiate, contest, make and reproduce linkages between communities. They cross and enmesh historical, national and continental boundaries through and despite their economic, social, cultural and political positions.

Through the fiction of Maryse Condé and Paule Marshall, Anthea Morrison shows the ambiguity of identity relationships between women in the Caribbean and their imaginings of the African ‘homeland’ as a site, after Aimé Césaire, ‘of memory and obsession’. The protagonists in these works challenge impositions of race and gender, and indeed challenge Eurocentrism: ‘small islands’, enriched by imagined returns to Africa and localised narratives of the arrival of their ancestors, stand up to the brutality and banality of Britain, France and the USA.

The volume reveals the pioneering endeavour in women such as Jamaican born Amy Ashwood Garvey, a founder in what would become the West African Student Union, ‘the main African anticolonial organisation in Britain for more than thirty years’ (Adi p200). The reach of Ashwood Garvey’s activities between the Caribbean, the USA, Britain and Nigeria is astonishing, but, her pan-African activism and later focus on women’s politicisation notwithstanding, she was situated by her time and in her relationships with men such as Marcus Garvey and Ladipo Solanke. Hakim Adi explores, through diaries and letters, Ashwood Garvey’s responses to inequalities of wealth, power, race and gender, while LaRay Denzer reviews newspaper accounts and biography evidencing Ashwood Garvey’s work in Africa improving girls’ education to redress ‘her concern about “the backwardness of the African woman”’ (p268 quoting the Pilot). Nigerian women may have found Ashwood Garvey to be ‘patronizing, inadequate, and irrelevant to the Nigerian situation’ as she urged women to ‘“sustain your men in the battles ahead”’ (p273).

Other narratives include that of Jamaican doctor Dahlia Whitbourne (developing reproductive health services in Nigeria and championing the rights of women workers in the sector) and Henrietta Millicent Douglas (born in England, estate manager and philanthropist in Grenada, pan-Africanist journalist in Lagos) revealing the many patriarchal obstacles negotiated as they ‘opened new frontiers in employment, leadership and organization’ through the cross-continental diasporan networks they revived (p247).

Such twentieth century leaders are linked through diasporic networks to their predecessors. African and European descended Jamaican Mary Rose refuted the categorisation of  ‘“Mulatto”…creat[ing] a new legal and social category… as persons in an Atlantic diaspora’ to gain rights ‘“as if” she had been born to English parents’  (Sturtz p60). The recategorisation was a work in progress ‘manipulated … for the benefit of herself and her descendants … [while] selectively sustaining the institution [of slavery]’, as she, for example, secured the freedom of ‘favoured slave women’ (pp65-6).  Her reticent partner Rose Fuller never married her despite probably being the father of one of her children. As housekeeper in Jamaica, however, she exerted considerable power and responsibility as mentor and patron in his absence as revealed by Linda Sturtz’ analysis of her correspondence written between 1756 and 1760.

It is through intentional publication, in ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’, that we see the work of a 19th century ‘lodge keeper, trader and doctress’. Also of African-European ancestry, Mary Seacole negotiated ‘in linguistically slippery ways’, the categorisation of race by targeting ‘the interest and sympathy of a white male reader’ (MacDonald-Smythe, p95). Besides race, gender, class, time and place, labour is crucial: Seacole ‘trades her Creole identity for an English one’ as writer, and as ‘doctress’ in Panama and the Crimea. However, Gendering the African Diaspora shows us that it is also through labour that women who are not of the socio-political elite are positioned by, and renegotiate local and global contexts. Gloria Choku shows how women in Eastern Nigeria, despite gender inequalities, with urban expansion and increased demand for food during the 1940s and inter-war years, gained increased female responsibility for household, kin and production activities, and acquired lead roles in the communities and beyond, e.g. on the National Council of Nigeria and in the nationalist movements leading to independence. Janice Mayers surveys gender and education policy in Barbados from 1875-1945 finding gender inequalities for pupils and teachers often mirroring those in West Africa. Eastern Yorubaland from 1975-1920 is the focus of Olatunji Ojo’s examination of polygynous marriages: here Yoruba nationalism and the ‘creation of a creolized society’ produced new local and regional communities.

Rape and the construction of race and gendered identity is also the subject of Verene Shepherd’s chapter on ‘sexploitation’ on 19th century emigrant ships to the Caribbean. Black men were often made scapegoat for white men whose crimes of rape aboard ship escaped scrutiny or incurred minor reprimands. Some cases, including the rape and death in 1885 of Maharani, a young Indian woman, resulted in legal process in Britain and the colonies. Shepherd here uses official documents of the colonial offices and medical evidence. Another type of official source, this time from the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), informs Brinsley Samaroo’s chapter on Maria Jones, brought to St Vincent and Trinidad from West Africa aged just seven. Emancipated at age 58, she used every educational opportunity available, and we are reminded that religion, also, intersects with the other subjectivities and institutions in the diaspora: Maria’s biography, extracted by the BMS, provided ‘virulent anti-Roman Catholic propaganda’ (p138).

Faith Lois Smith’s chapter also analyses from a Christian text, here the 1887 lecture by Church of England Reverand Douglin in Trinidad. As the volume’s first chapter following the editors’ introduction, it critiques social scientists’ reluctance to consider the types of evidence preferred by Cultural Studies approaches. Smith emphasises the volume’s concern with the continuing linkages between Africa and the Caribbean, often dismissed as lost in the cataclysmic events of slave transport and transposition in the new world. The book’s geographical and historical audacity is complemented by its epistemological approach: the diaries, registers, letters, and other primary sources themselves constitute linkages, as different generations of women refer to and remake the narratives. The volume authors continue this: Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome, for example, is co-editor of on-line journals of diasporic writings and she rounds up the book with an analysis of the role of globalisation in diasporic discourse and reproductions of power relations. There is concern at the increasing power of multinational corporations, and about the opportunities for surveillance and disciplining of migrant communities enabled by global technologies. But there are also new spaces – particularly through Internet technologies- for diasporic community support and intellectual productivity.

It might be argued that an additional chapter could usefully re-link the different writings and revisit the issues raised at the beginning by Smith. The introduction refers to the volume’s ‘comparative analyses of women’s experiences’ but comparative considerations within chapters notwithstanding, there is no overall comparative analysis of the approaches and experiences embodied in the chapters.  The role of narratives as reproduced through the sources, and their reshaping by the women considered, could have provided a focus for such a chapter. Nevertheless, this is a strong and enjoyable contribution to deepen our understanding of complex gendered processes, serving as an antidote to studies of diaspora that ‘obscure ideas of class and nation [and] gender as well’ (eds. p3), and an antidote to accounts which present women too readily as victims.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 76-79]

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