Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora

Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora

by Nadia Ellis


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Nadia Ellis attends to African diasporic belonging as it comes into being through black expressive culture. Living in the diaspora, Ellis asserts, means existing between claims to land and imaginative flights unmoored from the earth—that is, to live within the territories of the soul. Drawing on the work of Jose Muñoz, Ellis connects queerness' utopian potential with diasporic aesthetics. Occupying the territory of the soul, being neither here nor there, creates in diasporic subjects feelings of loss, desire, and a sensation of a pull from elsewhere. Ellis locates these phenomena in the works of C.L.R. James, the testy encounter between George Lamming and James Baldwin at the 1956 Congress of Negro Artists and Writers in Paris, the elusiveness of the queer diasporic subject in Andrew Salkey's novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement, and the trope of spirit possession in Nathaniel Mackey's writing and Burning Spear's reggae. Ellis' use of queer and affect theory shows how geographies claim diasporic subjects in ways that nationalist or masculinist tropes can never fully capture. Diaspora, Ellis concludes, is best understood as a mode of feeling and belonging, one fundamentally shaped by the experience of loss.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822359289
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/14/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.54(d)

About the Author

Nadia Ellis is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Territories of the Soul

Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora

By Nadia Ellis

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7510-4



In the countryside of Trinidad, around the 1920s, a young girl named Anita Perez worked in the cocoa plantations from morning til night and dreamt about a boy. Each night, laconic Sebastian came down from the hillside, where his several acres and settled home meant he did not have to work, and he sat on a bench by the door of Anita's house. Chiefly, he smoked; for Sebastian was self-conscious and Anita shy. They admired each other and ritually enjoyed their quiet company for two years. Anita, meanwhile, hoped he loved her and was never sure. Finally, prompted by the image of herself in the mirror veering toward the haggard — and by the nosy and self-satisfied inquiries of a married aunt — Anita became desperate. Would she ever be married? Would Sebastian take her and her mother away from their dull life in the cocoa? Anita's aunt sprung into action: to the town of Siparia Anita would go to visit the statue of La Divina Pastora, the patron saint of the town, who granted the wishes of those who importuned her. Anita went to Siparia, arrived at the church, stood before La Divina, and offered the only thing of value she had: a small gold necklace. This necklace she usually wore on Sundays, and it was a delicate gesture of a thing that distinguished her from the girl who worked ten hours a day in the fields, a gesture to the self who aspired to charm, leisure, and romance — everything she hoped Sebastian would offer her. Anita draped the chain around La Divina and prayed for the love of a man. A week later, returned from Siparia, Anita was met by a taxicab that had been ordered to bring her to Sebastian immediately. So quick had been the results of Anita's pilgrimage that she was startled. For when Sebastian had made his nightly constitutional to the Perez family house only to find Anita gone, he had known instantly that he could not stand to lose her. He declared himself the moment she returned to their little countryside town, not even waiting for the cab to arrive at his house but running down the hill to meet it. The lovers were to go out to a dance together in the next night or two, and so it would be complete. Everyone would know that Sebastian loved Anita, and marriage and all the rest were sure to follow. As Anita prepared for her entrée into the publicity of feminine romance, she dressed carefully. Arranging her blue Sunday muslin dress while admiring in the mirror the beauty her new-found excitement lent her, Anita suddenly thought everything perfect, except for one missing thing: her little gold necklace. With regret in her voice she found herself wishing she had it. It was the second time Anita youthfully forgot herself, vis-à-vis the speedy good fortune La Divina had sent her. Earlier, when met by the cab on arriving back home, she had been so overwhelmed by the speed of the occurrences with Sebastian that she had almost forgotten it was the saint who was responsible. And so it was that at the dance a little cloud formed between Anita and Sebastian, who tired quickly and was miffed at Anita's wanting to stay out. And in the car home, the two were silent, each a little worried and annoyed. Anita set aside her brief notion that she might kiss Sebastian that night, perhaps even make love with him. We shall make it up tomorrow night, she thought. Back home and undressing, Anita hung her dress and replaced some hairpins in the cigarette tin in which she kept her thises-and-thats. Stunned, she looked at the tin and saw that her necklace had been replaced there too.

Maybe you can't have everything at once. Perhaps multiplicity requires a relay. You can have the delicacy of the gold necklace confirming your femininity once a week. Or you can have the love of a man to take you away from the drudgery of the field. But once you wish for both at the same time, once you dare to imagine "having it all," the one falls away, the other returns.

C. L. R. James's story "La Divina Pastora" (1927), my version of which I have offered as an overture to this chapter, is one of two short narratives he wrote that feature young working-class girls striving for more than they have. ("Triumph" [1929] is the other.) And I start here — in 1920s Trinidad — even though my chapter is going to take me further afield and later into James's career, because it was in reencountering these stories in the wake of my study of James's writing on America that I got a hold of what James offers to a rethinking of diaspora.

It is not, as I originally thought, that James provides a model of what it looks like to belong in multiple places. It is that he occasions the possibility of describing what this multiplicity feels like.

Certainly, James clarifies an account of diasporic belonging that emphasizes multiplicity because his life in different countries exemplifies the possibility, sometimes the necessity, of claiming multiple spaces as sites of attachment and affiliation. But it is not only this that James offers. Like his numerous forebears — Claude McKay, say, or Una Marson — James is a figure of Caribbean exile par excellence. And yes, James's multiple excursions and stretches of residence in England, the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean offer an example of cultural and political cosmopolitanism that makes him a compelling figure for this study. But the effect of scattering that diaspora describes, when applied to a single person, conjures up an image of subjective splitting that, while figuratively compelling, requires some explaining, some effort to describe just how multiple national cathexes are possible. In this chapter, I will be interested to demonstrate not just the fact of James's attachments to multiple places but also how these attachments were forged. For apart from multiplicity, James models a structure of diasporic belonging that is enabled by the mediation of other bodies. The gendered dimension of these mediations is very compelling, and to my mind the most striking contribution to a rereading of James for contemporary understandings of the experience of black diaspora. Far from overlooking James's early stories of women's dilemmas, as the voluminous scholarship on him generally does, I want to begin by offering these narratives as paradigmatic of James's formative curiosities, however subterranean or transmuted they became in his later work.

For early on, James was fascinated by "women's troubles," a term I use as a call out to Lauren Berlant, whose account of feminine emotional prostheses informs my reading of James's American career. James's barrack-yard fiction, so-called, which includes the aforementioned stories as well as his only novel, Minty Alley(1936), evince a keen interest in the feminine management of economic, affective, and sartorial affairs. For instance, a persuasive rendering of the allegorical meaning of "La Divina Pastora," it seems to me, is not the more obvious bromide be careful what you wish for. Rather, were I to allegorize "La Divina" for Jamesian diasporic belonging, I would say that the story means Anita must choose between the labor of the land — onerous, though potentially meaningful in the Brodberian b 1a c k s p a c e sense — and the work of feminine beauty — easier but extremely tenuous in its effects. That these choices are in direct opposition to one other is only half of the lesson (you can't have it all). The other half of the lesson, buried at the heart of Anita's story, is that if she wants to find somewhere to rest, she must work. For Anita does want somewhere to set herself down, some permanent veranda she can lean back on. And in order to attain this space of her own, labor she must, whether in the cocoa or in front of the vanity mirror.

James's attention to the poignancy of Anita's plight, a peculiarly feminine poignancy because one of her two choices rests on the uniquely feminine gossamer of beauty, establishes his interest in the gendered features of spatial dominion. Setting oneself down, resting for the evening — this kind of easeful leisure presupposes a confident sense of belonging. Anita never achieves it, nor, in a sense, did James, who though confident in his political engagements in many places, lived a peripatetic and restless life, one increasingly marked — if his letters are any indication — by a desire to stay some place he ultimately would not be allowed to. But the labor attending the desire to belong is interesting labor, especially when it is informed by the work of others, as it is for James. His attachments to the Caribbean, to England, and to the United States each required different laboring bodies, at least one of which — that of the white American actress — James's critics have paid almost no attention. If we are to get anything out of C. L. R. James's journeys over his long, radical life, apart from an adoring interest in the spectacle of his brilliance and his ability to work in multiple settings, then we have to pay attention to the people, the performers, who embodied what he thought of as national character. James's relationship to specific kinds of performed embodiment helped him to understand, to attach, and to imagine himself into various social formations. This was a cathexis of a rather feminine kind — at least if we consider the stark duality of Anita's choice in "La Divina Pastora" as particularly feminine in its precarity and emphasis on embodiment. For in James, even in his investment in "male" forms, such as cricket, I detect a desire to rest in the body of another, and I sense that this desire is in tension with a roving tendency of his to labor on his own.

Even before James found himself embroiled in an emotional drama with an American woman who figured for him America itself, even before he wanted to help transform America as well as to be "universal," somehow above its nationalist confines, we can observe him desiring two things at once — the magnificence of West Indian triumph on the sporting field and a cultural solubility with Englishness. James managed that twin demand by forging an attachment to England through absorption in the body of the West Indian cricketer. In the case of James's American cathexis, the role that femininity, precarity, and indeed eros, played in his fifteen-year stint in the United States is made vividly clear through his relationships to female actresses. I do not believe the perspective of James as a lovesick man taking in Bette Davis movies of an afternoon has been sufficiently remarked, much less folded into an account of his political meaning. In this chapter, I will do just that, with a specific focus on how a counterintuitive reading of James in America provides a model for diasporic belonging. James's national attachments as a black Caribbean radical relied in profound ways on his reading of, and experience with, feminine desire and disappointment.

Loving James and Giving Him Up; or, James in Ellis Island and Other Confined Spaces

C. L. R. James seems to belong in many places. And judging by the sheer number of scholarly works in multiple disciplines produced in his name, he belongs to many people. Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1901, James traveled and wrote to such an extent and with such prodigious profligacy that he very quickly became a "man of the world" in every sense of that term. Moving to England in 1932 (leaving his first wife, Juanita — the attachment to her apparently less compelling than that to the imperial center), James made his way in radical circles, introduced by Learie Constantine, the West Indies cricketer playing in the north of England, and became a Marxist. From there, he traveled to the United States, commissioned by Trotskyites to work on "the Negro Problem." That James had no previous experience with the particularities of US race politics proved no barrier to his belief that America was exactly where he belonged, even that America needed him, and he set about his work with alacrity. When he was finally deported in late 1953, he appeared to be genuinely shocked. The letters he wrote from Ellis Island while he awaited deportation orders show him to be incredulous that America could not feel his love as demonstrated by his mastery of what he argued was its key text, Moby-Dick. He felt profoundly misunderstood. For a black radical, this is a curious sentiment to have about America at a moment when leftist trust in the government's capacity to understand, let alone sympathize with, radical politics was approximately nil. Yet in February 1953, James wrote a letter about his book of Melville criticism, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways (1953), to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., then professor of history at Harvard, making a case for his literary criticism as a form of investment in the American national project. Displaying a customary ease with institutional prestige and a typically sanguine estimation of his own work, James writes:

I send you a copy of my book on Herman Melville. I believe my book will interest you because I think it demonstrates among other things, that no other writer grasped the totalitarian personality, the nature of the modern intellectual neurosis, and at the same time had so profound and comprehensive a conception of the great uneducated masses of the world in contemporary civilization. It is to me very illuminating that all this should receive such remarkable expression in the work of an American.

The special circumstances of the publication are fully explained in Chapter VII, but I am confident that this will at least prove no obstacle to your serious consideration of [the] book.

The passage is extraordinary in several ways: in the broad sweep of James's claims; in the slippage between Melville and James himself, demonstrated by that ambiguous phrase "no other writer"; in his note of surprise that "an American" should have had the wherewithal to gather up all the important issues of modern society. It is extraordinary as well in its intriguing combination of hubris and innocence, and in its intense, if covert, intertwining of the intellectual and the personal. For "the special circumstances" James notes in his letter to Schlesinger are, of course, that he is writing from his holding cell. He had been detained in Ellis Island ostensibly for visa violations, though his alliance with the American far left certainly didn't help, and he was housed with the communists. Within a few months, he would be sent back to England.

The letter to Schlesinger established James's sense that he belonged in the community of American Melville scholars even as it was an implicit plea for help in the exigencies of his political trials. James only delicately mentions his troubles to Schlesinger, but he included in the package to him a letter he wrote to Willard Thorp, English professor at Princeton, which contained slightly more information about his political woes as well as the emphatic insistence that "I am asking no one, absolutely no one, to use any influence or say a few words to any influential person or anything of the sort." The 1953 chapter 7 of Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways expands on the difficulties of his detention in great detail — the bad food and how it exacerbates his stomach problems; the callousness of the staff; the loneliness — belying this assertion that he wants no help. James is abject in that chapter, and he folds his abjection into his critique of America's failures to live up to the revolutionary potential of the Pequod. Nevertheless, help from these high literary quarters was not forthcoming.

It was his revolutionary friends who found a way to publish Mariners, and it was this first edition he circulated to Melville scholars, as well as members of Congress, in a plea to remain in the United States. The 1978 edition excised chapter 7. (The 2001 version introduced by Donald Pease restores it.) James was apparently unconcerned about his readers seeing him explore personal pain. Indeed, he writes letters to members of the highest echelons of cultural prestige because he thinks the quality of his mind gains him access there, and because he expects his personal pain to be transmuted by the rigor of his argument. Furthermore, James's most profound point in Mariners is that what Paul Gilroy might refer to as the "conviviality" of the men of different races on the ship is what produces the revolutionary potential of American democracy. Far from exhibiting reticence about the personal in his Marines project — a reticence presupposed and imposed by the editors of the 1978 edition who excised the book's most personal chapter — James's political interest in Melville's novel is generated by the affiliative and homosocial bonds of shipmates that the novel depicts. And it is within that key of the affective that James diagnoses America's failure, allegorized by the fact of his being locked away in inhospitable circumstances.


Excerpted from Territories of the Soul by Nadia Ellis. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction. The Queer Elsewhere of Black Diaspora  1

1. The Attachments of C. L. R. James  18

2. The Fraternal Agonies of Baldwin and Lamming  62

3. Andrew Salkey and the Queer Diasporic  95

4. Burning Spear and Nathaniel Mackey at Large  147

Epilogue. Dancehall's Urban Possessions  177

Notes  192

Bibliography  221

Index  233

What People are Saying About This

Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice - David Scott

"Territories of the Soul is a work of such profligate complexity and counter-intuitive imagination that it defies stable definition. It aims, above all, to figure a queer aesthetic of diasporic sensibility that exceeds any simple dialectic of belonging and displacement, sameness and difference. Through its uncanny juxtapositions it challenges us to think against our normative assumptions of the limits and satisfactions of black identification. Nadia Ellis has written a sensuously queer manifesto of diasporic loss and utopia."

The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory - Tavia Nyong'o

"Fearlessly following the roving movements of black desire, Nadia Ellis reformulates the classic diasporic tension between 'roots' and 'routes.' In gorgeous prose, she skillfully employs the insights of queer and affect studies to produce original readings of belonging and migration in Black Atlantic literature, music, and art. This is a timely and needed intervention."

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