August 1, 2019

A Critique of Gwyn Campbell's Article: "“The African-Asian Diaspora: Myth or Reality?"

Indian Ocean world historian Gwyn Campbell wrote an essay critiquing the ‘African diaspora’ turn in Indian Ocean studies, calling those who employed an African diaspora lens, ‘academic essentialists’, and claiming that there was insufficient evidence of an African diaspora consciousness in the Indian Ocean world to justify the use of that framework. [1] In a recent review of Indian Ocean scholarship, published in the Journal of World History, the late Joseph Miller similarly denounces the use of diaspora as a ‘modernist imposition’, while praising Campbell’s focus on environmental history. Such critiques are part of the aforementioned tension between the scalar ambitions of world history and the literary reflexivity of diaspora studies. Campbell has subsequently followed up with provocative essays exploring the politics of global and comparative history in relation to poverty and undervelopment in the Indian Ocean world, as well as producing numerous edited volumes on all aspects of the Indian Ocean slave trade: including demographics, gender, women and children, abolition, marronage, as well as comparative slavery and comparative regional history. It may be that he has had occasion to revise and refine his views in the years since the essay was written. Miller is a world historian for whose work I have the highest respect. But Campbell and Miller's ideas are common enough among world historians to be worth engaging with fully.
            Campbell begins by rightly observing that many slaves in the IOW were ascribed a low social status, and were incorporated as ‘inferior members of the host society.[2] He insists that Africans who dispersed into the IOW possessed ‘no common centre of origin’, and ‘few African-Asians today have a clear idea of their African origins.’[3] Campbell goes on to define what he will accept as an instance of diaspora consciousness in the historical record, but his attempt to carve out conceptual clarity dismisses the entire political project of diasporic affiliation with Africa. Do those who claim an African diaspora mantle in the Americas come from a common center and have a clear idea of their African origins? The criteria chose would appear to invalidate any conscious affiliation to Africa in the Atlantic world as well. Perhaps the failure is one of missing the nature, utility and necessity of what it means to identify with 'Blackness', 'African origins' or 'African descent', or, more generally, what the needs are of those who suffer from social discrimination on the basis of a marginalized identity.
            Campbell repeatedly insists that diasporic Africans in the Indian Ocean world want to be Asian, not African, and “the overwhelming tendency of African-Asians to seek a local Asian identity runs counter to the desire of ‘Diaspora scholars’ to awake an African-Asian diasporic consciousness.”[4] He writes,In contrast to the Americas, where communities of African descent either underwent creolisation or developed an ‘African’ diasporic consciousness, the overwhelming majority of people of African-Asians quickly, and often deliberately, shed consciousness of their African origins, and sought assimilation into local society where they assumed a new ‘local’ ethnicity.”[5] Campbell attributes the lack of African ‘diaspora consciousness’ to the ‘desire to forget the role of ‘fellow Africans’ in enslaving and selling their own kind.’[6]
            First, this is a set of strange and contradictory insistences. For if the African diaspora in the IOW possessed no common centre of origin, then how could one even recognize ‘fellow Africans’ outside of a diaspora situation of exile? Did not recognition occur on the basis of shared  predicament before shared language, shared home country, shared ethnicity or shared religion. I believe the Afro-pessimists have made a valuable contribution, if for nothing else than to show the importance of material racism in the making of Black identity. Is it not globalized European racecraft, and the patterns of labor organization and stratification it produced, rather than some putative culture-racial commonality, responsible for producing the context for decisions of association and community formation One such context is America after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and again after the Civil War. Another is the ferment caused in South Africa by the militarized arms of European merchant-states. as ‘African diaspora’ leaders wrestled with the true nationality of ‘freedmen’ in a ‘colonial’ society that denied them full civic citizenship and mocked and degraded their ethnic and cultural origins. Laura Fair has pointed out that such associations germinated in the sports clubs and cultural associations of peri-urban Zanzibar, a place called ‘Ngambo’ and sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘Swahilini’.
There are further problems. It is inconceivable that cultural expressions from Africa were simply abandoned as ‘primitive’ or ‘undesirable’ even within second generation born ‘creole’ African communities on the Indian Ocean rim. Surely Campbell knows of the long history of immigrant Arabs taking local Swahili-speaking wives from the local population of Black Muslim freedwomen. Does he imagine their contributions to the acculturation of the next generation as insignificant?[7]  Identity is also, of course multiple, rather than singular, and any given identity is always already intimately related to a host of other related ones within the self. We need to recall, as well, that a self-conscious or discursive identity is most often produced in relation to an external negative stimulus (such as one’s citizenship being questioned). ‘Identity’ may exist collectively, albeit implicitly, in the complex ties between language, descent and ritual, but it is not always politically necessary to articulate. African diaspora scholars from the US may ‘convince’ communities in the Indian Ocean (such as the Sidis), to identify more closely with being of ‘African descent’ in concert with the U.N. call, and the advantages of such an affiliation to the Sidis is related both to new and assertive images of the self that may be produced or cultivated, as well as the material benefit to the Sidis themselves, in relation to the community’s need to make a living and develop a base of wealth for itself. Identification with Africa is an ongoing process, and its future is not confined to the search for autochthony as a way to identify with Africa.
            The ambiguity of diaspora thinking is that some of the founding fathers of Black nationalism, most notably Edward Blyden, were qualifiedly pro-colonialism. They wanted colonialism, with a human, Black face, a progressive force of modernity, providing a lamp for African communities to see their idealized future in the modern Christian Black subject from the Americas, ‘Ethiopia’s sons’ returning home. Not all Black thinkers agreed with Blyden, Delany or Crummell. Free blacks in the Americas often pursued similar strategies of de-emphasizing African origins and assuming a localized ‘free’ ethnic identity.[8] The first use of diaspora in the Anglophone world to describe black people dates from 1910, almost a century after the end of the legal slave trade in the United States.[9] African Diaspora consciousness was always the project of scholars with political aims rather than simply primordial sentiment. Intense debates around naming the free black community were centered arond the idea of self-consciously associating with Africa.[10] 
            Furthermore, in Eastern and Southern Africa, the nineteenth century was a period of intense global turmoil, as slavery was abolished using the coercive and violent arm of the European colonial state and war was waged by British and Afrikaner settlers against a variety of African states.[12] Assimilation of ex-slaves into local communities varied widely, and many continued informal relationships with ex-masters into post-abolition society. Some found themselves in colonial military service, far from their homes of origin, which could be as far as West Africa. Others joined the Germans during World War One. Cycles of famine, some of them colonially induced, meant that some marginal areas of the world economy with slavery had their divisions reduced by a state of generalized poverty at the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century (this is Matthew Hopper's argument).
            Miller and Campbell are not interested, even strangely unreflective of the thoroughly modernist discursive constructions of world historical terms such as ‘the environment’ and ‘the economy’. The ‘Indian Ocean world’, as a self-conscious idea, far from being a natural product of antiquity, is a discursive product of the same colonial era which birthed Africanity.[14] Ignoring the history of that construction elides the colonial context for the emergence of civilizational-colonial racisms in the Indian Ocean world, closely tied to the very same intellectual currents that created an Indian Ocean public sphere.  Yet I doubt that Campbell would be prepared to argue that Indian Ocean world is a myth.  It seems conceptual modernism is mainly a problem when scholars attempt to draw commonalities between the experiences of natal alienation and anti-blackness in Atlantic and Indian Ocean slaveries. [15] Political concerns today shape the concerns of scholarship, indeed the very idea of the Indian Ocean world. As Robert Kaplan argues, “The Indian Ocean…is an idea, because it provides an insightful visual impression of Islam, and it combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the importance of world navies, in order to show us a multi-layered multipolar world above and beyond the headlines in Iraq and Afghanistan.”[16] Politicized Africanity and an African diaspora consciousness in the Indian Ocean world are ideas as well, and they provide similarly insightful impressions into the dynamics of colonial rule and postcolonial present realities in East Africa.[17]
            Campbell’s idea of African diaspora has not taken into account the postmodernist and deconstructionist turn in African diaspora scholarship, a move indebted to Stuart Hall. In a landmark essay, Hall remarks on the search for ‘origins’ in Caribbean culture, and the ‘reworking of Africa in the Caribbean weave’ as being “the most powerful and subversive element in our politics in the twentieth century.” Hall famously and eloquently puts the case for constructionism:  “This is not primarily because we are connected to our African past and heritage by an unbreakable chain across which some singular African culture has followed unchanged down the generations, but because of how we have gone about producing Africa again.”[18]
Those who Campbell labels as “essentialists” for having the gall to assume there is something called an African diaspora in the Indian Ocean are preferable to the naivete of Campbells’ formulation of Africanity as a kind of cultural given, to be empirically recognized through the presence of a certain threshold of different sociological factors determined by the analyst. Vindicationist scholarship of African diaspora race-pride is preferable to an assumption of ‘Africanity’ through ‘Africanisms’ or ‘cultural survivals.’ The imprisonment in these static cultural categories of African culture ultimately leads Campbell to argue, conservatively, in a passive voice, and without citations, that, “some might argue that the best way to promote the status of African-Asians is to downplay their differences from, and promote their integration into, local society.” But precisely where is this ‘local society’ in relation to to slave trades ‘within’ Africa?  Is local the equivalent to ‘within’ and why should that matter? Does Zanzibar count as local? Does the boundary of the local stop at the shores of the Indian Ocean? Why? Campbell himself points out that full integration has eluded many of those whose descent is known to be from the enslaved. A more forceful assertion of Africanity as politicized anti-racism is an invaluable political tool that responds to the prevalence of Asian anti-black racisms that are ‘derivative discourses’ of European colonial rule, both in its indirect and settler oriented manifestations. This muscular anti-racism is also a response to the tepid color-blindness of ‘generic anti-colonialism’. Campbell’s culturalist conception of Africanity also forecloses political solidarities around Blackness that might encompass politically conscious Arabs and Indians in the fight against racism.
Campbell and Miller’s blind spot, it seems to me, is in imagining that geography and deeply embedded social structure is determinative of ideas in the final instance. Neither seem to contemplate that the global circulation of ideas could transcend these geo-historic paradigms of longee duree interaction, introducing new ideas about race and nation in East Africa, and producing diasporic consciousness of Africanity, yet in a situation of colonial hierarchical rule, in which Africans were figured as the lowest of the colonially subject races, after Arabs or Indians.[19] Now, let me be clear, world historians of slavery are correct to engage it historically. But I am not so sure they are aware of how much the narration of that history matters. They do not seem particularly attuned to the creative potential of the thought of the Black Atlantic world’s interaction with the Asian world more generally. As Antoinette Burton notes for African Indian interaction: “figuring the impact of American struggles to size might allow us room to see other spaces of Indian-African encounter in diaspora (Uganda, Guyana, Trinidad) more clearly, and to afford them their rightful place in more meaningfully global postcolonial histories as well. Or to the allure of global Black Americans serving as as models for subaltern people in the Indian Ocean world.[20] I see no point in essentializing geography: trying to answer whether South Africa part of the Indian Ocean world? Or are its dynamics those of the Atlantic? Campbell suggests that it would benefit Afro-Asian communities in the Indian Ocean world to pursue their interests through integration into society, rather than through affirming an African identity which would emphasize their difference. This seems to me a profoundly conservative, almost organicist reading of Indian Ocean societies, in which attempts to raise and politicize issues of marginalization, poverty and discrimination of dark-skinned peoples is seen as ‘dividing’ society, rather than attempting to hold it responsible for a set of attitudes shaping the marginalization of targeted groups. This is ironically a problem of generic ‘anti-colonialism’, in which other societal cleavages were temporized in favor of first throwing out the colonizer. Although race has not structured life chances in the profound way it has in the Americas, episodes of overt racial discrimination still occur in a variety of ways that suggest that attempts to distance oneself from African origins is a coping strategy in an already profoundly racist society. Put another way, African-descended peoples attempting to put distance between themselves and their origins was also a ubiquitous feature of the anti-black white settler societies of the Americas, whether Anglo or Latin American, as much as it was of the Indian Ocean world. It is not for the researcher to declaim the search for self-love, overcoming of structural obstacles through positive ethnic identity, and the revolutionary possibilities of this consciousness, as simply an undesirable imposition by certain 'essentialist' scholars.

[1]           Campbell, Gwynn. “The African-Asian Diaspora: Myth or Reality? AAS 5: 3-4, 2006.
[2] 308 Larsen's argument of diaspora consciousness because of African's “acute and lasting sense of foreign, servile origins” in the Indian Ocean world  diverges from the conclusion Campbell draws. See Pier Larson, "Horrid Journeying: Narratives of Enslavement and the Global African Diaspora," Journal of World History  19(4): 2008., 447.
[3] Campbell, 307
[4] Ibid. “In contrast to the Americas, where communities of African descent either underwent creolisation or developed an ‘African’ diasporic consciousness, the overwhelming majority of people of African-Asians quickly, and often deliberately, shed consciousness of their African origins, and sought assimilation into local society where they assumed a new ‘local’ ethnicity. Individual slaves sought to forge linkages not with other slaves but with slaveholders who alone could ameliorate their conditions and station. Currently identifiable African-Asians, often the product of the nineteenthcentury slave trade, are equally undergoing assimilation. Vestiges of cultural origin, such as the Zàr healing ceremony practised by ex-slaves in the Gulf, are insufficient basis for a separate consciousness to be maintained. Indeed, most African-Asians continue to deny an African, and instead affirm, a local Asian identity.”
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] see John Mugane, The Story of Swahili, Chapter 6
[9] Stefen Dufoix, Diasporas
[10] Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture
[11] Ibid.
[12] Leonard Thompson, History of South Africa.
[13] Gwyn Campbell
[14] see works by Thomas Metcalf, Nile Green, Sugata Bose, Jim Brennan, Emma Hunter, and Sana Aiyar.
[15]         Larsen's argument of diaspora consciousness because of African's “acute and lasting sense of foreign, servile origins” in the Indian Ocean world contrasts with Campbell's. See Pier Larson, "Horrid Journeying: Narratives of Enslavement and the Global African Diaspora," Journal of World History  19(4): 2008., 447.
[16] Robert Kaplan, Monsoon, xiii
[17] Campbell, African-Asian Diaspora, 306
[18] Stuart Hall, “Thinking the Diaspora, in Transnationalisms: Diaspora and the Advent of a New Disorder, 69
[19] Christopher Lee, Unreasonable Histories
[20] Joseph Miller, "Review of Fahad Bishara, Matthew Hopper, Thomas McDow" Journal of World History
[21] Prashad, cited in Burton “Introduction”,n38, p 25
[22] Glassman, War of Words, War of Stones,
[23] Bloke Modisane, Blame Me On History, 17


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