1. Vanessa K. Valdés, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at City College of New York-CUNY, “An Archive of the Word: The Writings of Arturo Schomburg”
The idea of Caribbean specters is especially apt for Arturo Schomburg, who by the 20s was signing his name “A.A. Schomburg.” By virtue of his acknowledged vocation as a collector and an archivist, his presence could be described as spectral — that is to say, despite his very real contributions to the work of writers, scholars, and artists in his time, for many in the current historical moment, he is nothing more than a trace. By 1926, when the Carnegie Corporation buys his collection for contribution to the New York Public Library, Schomburg has already written several pieces in Crisis and Opportunity. The 1920s saw the publication of his most famous essay, “The Negro Digs up His Past,” (1925); it also saw him participate in the ongoing conversations about primitivism with a reference to the religious systems of Vodou and Abakuá in a 1926 article published in Opportunity called “West Indian Composers and Musicians,” an article which focuses entirely on artists of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Finally, there are the articles that he published in the aftermath of a trip he took to Spain after the sale of his collection (“In Quest of Juan de Pareja” (Crisis 34, 1927), “The Negro Brotherhood of Sevilla” (Opportunity 5, 1927), “Negroes in Sevilla” (Opportunity 6, 1928), “Notes on Panama and the Negro” (Opportunity 6, 1928) in which he consistently relates marginalized histories of an African presence in Spain and the Americas. This presentation argues that Puerto Rican-born Schomburg never leaves his Spanish Caribbean origins behind; on the contrary, his subject position as an Afro-Latino, though certainly not the nomenclature of the time, is the guiding presence for all of his activities, including the crónicas that he published in the leading African American publications of the day. “The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future” – so begins “The Negro Digs up His Past.” For Schomburg, “American” referenced the continent, not just this country, and “Negro” implied all peoples of African descent living in this hemisphere, not just those who spoke English.
In addition to the physical repository named for him in Harlem, the Schomburg Collection for Research in Black Culture, Arturo Schomburg’s writings are themselves an archive, a record in English of those events and persons of African descent in the Spanish-speaking Americas that have contributed substantially to the history of the world. The subjects of his writings had previously been overlooked by dominant historical narratives in both English and Spanish; with his articles therefore, he not only salvaged these men and women from obscurity, he also bolstered their prominence by publishing these narratives in popular African American publications such as Opportunity and Crisis in the first decades of the twentieth century. His chronicles broaden the parameters of his audience’s conceptions of Blackness so as to include the Spanish-speaking populations of African descent. This presentation examines representative pieces that reveal not only Schomburg’s dedication and commitment to the acknowledgement of Afro-Latinx contributions to the hemisphere but that also highlight the complexities of Afro-Latinx subjectivity.
2. Imani Owens, Assistant Professor of English at University of Pittsburgh, “Avoiding the ‘Drama of Propaganda’: Eulalie Spence and the Politics of Black Performance”
This presentation explores the work of playwright Eulalie Spence. Born in Nevis, West Indies and raised in Brooklyn, Spence played an important role in the development of Harlem Renaissance theater, engaging in famous debate with W.E.B. Du Bois on the uses of black drama. Turning away from “race” plays in favor of comedic folk drama, Spence advised playwrights to “avoid the drama of propaganda if they would not meet with certain disaster.” Such a pronouncement has been too easily read as a turn away from politics. Rather than rehearsing the false dichotomy between art and politics, the presentation argues that Spence crafts a drama of comedy and satire that subverts monolithic notions of blackness, draws attention to colorism, and moves beyond a black-white binary to explore multi-racial themes. Spence’s experience as a Caribbean migrant informs her approach to racial themes as well as black aesthetics. She draws upon the uses of folklore and ritual prevalent in Caribbean theater, and anticipates the performance strategies of later artists who used dialect, humor and audience engagement to craft a socially relevant art. Finally, the presentation re-interprets Spence’s curiously ominous statement that black artists might “meet with certain disaster,” reading it as a warning against the ever-present threat of violence that threatens to erupt into black art. Following theater scholar Marvin Carlson’s claim that plays are “ghosts,” the presentation explores the haunting recurrences of violence that lay just on the other side of laughter.
3. James C. Davis, Professor of English at Brooklyn College, “Clare Kendry, Gorgeous Zombie”
In Nella Larsen’s novella Passing (1929), Clare Kendry is protagonist Irene Redfield’s scary double, an incompletely repressed alter ego that Irene must destroy in order to preserve the sense and shape of her rational, goal-oriented life. Clare is a kind of phantasm, a projection that takes the human form of an old friend of Irene’s from childhood. Passing is usually read as a meditation on color and gender, but new layers of meaning emerge if one reads it as a zombie tale. Larsen’s upbringing in Chicago complicates her Caribbeanness, but as a writer of mixed Danish-West Indian descent, the haunting at the center of the novella evokes Caribbean zombies, fire hags, and soucouyants. Irene’s schemes to kill Clare off – to banish her from her world if not from existence – propel the story, which ends with Clare’s violent death. Scholars tend to read Larsen’s story as social commentary, dramatizing the intersection of race, class, and gender among the era’s black bourgeoisie, and some highlight sexuality because of the libidinal dynamic between Irene and Clare. But the novella’s real achievement is that it masquerades as a realist narrative while its antagonist, Clare, is not a realist character at all but a projection of Irene’s desire and a figment, not exactly of her imagination but of a psychic disavowal, a repression Irene performs reflexively in order to maintain her identity as a stable, black, female subject with conventional domestic arrangements. This presentation acknowledges the distance between Nella Larsen and her West Indian roots; her father, a Virgin Islands native, died when she was an infant, and her formative international influence was from Denmark. But it challenges the notion that, as her most recent biographer puts it, “she had no real connection to Afro-Caribbean identity, for she had grown up completely cut off from it.” In so doing, it contributes to scholarship on Africanist survivals in diaspora literature of the early twentieth century and places Larsen in a Caribbean-American tradition that emerged alongside the U.S. New Negro literary movement.
4. Raphael Dalleo, Associate Professor of English at Bucknell University, “Eric Walrond, the Exoticized Caribbean, and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti”
This presentation argues for contextualizing the Caribbean specters already discussed in terms of U.S. imperialism of the period, particularly the occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The occupation of Haiti was frequently justified in terms of bringing rationality to a savage culture, and U.S. audiences learned to see the Caribbean through the lens of exotic supernatural practices captured in images of voodoo. The occupation brought Caribbean culture to the forefront of U.S. consciousness, evidenced in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1920) or popular travelogues like William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929) that would inspire the first zombie movies. The versions of primitivism and black culture circulating in the U.S. during the 1920s drew from these stories about Haiti. Eric Walrond, although born and raised in the English-speaking Caribbean and Panama, deploys imagery of voodoo, suggesting how he saw himself responding to U.S. expectations about the region shaped by the occupation. British West Indians during this period have been understood as responding only to English colonial discourse: the presentation shows how Caribbean writers such as Walrond (as well as other West Indians like Spence and McKay) also wrote back to U.S. imperialist visions of the region.