MLA Keyword: Diaspora (Under Peer Review)

Thrilled and honored to be asked to curate the “Diaspora” keyword for the MLA’s digital pedagogy commons.


The keyword is subject to (and currently under-going) open peer review, but a draft is up already on github. I shared the draft first on Facebook; I am sharing it here as well and am happy to take any early feedback. It is a work-in-progress.

The list of artifacts is limited to ten items and anything can happen in peer review so don’t be too tied to this list yet. There is an incredible amount of work I didn’t get an opportunity to list–this is NOT an exhaustive list of African diaspora or diaspora work online. I am also taking a page out of the beloved Adeline Koh’s book–I am determined to include academic and non-academic items. But do read on, explore the list, and feel free to leave feedback in the comments below.

For an example of how the MLA digital pedagogy keyword commons operates, check out Anne Cong-Huyen’s curation of “Gender” and Koh’s curation of “Race” from last year.

See below for my “curatorial statement” on the keyword diaspora:

In 2001, African diaspora historian and Brazilianist/South Atlanticist Kim Butler described diaspora study as addressing five elements. The first element concerned the reasons for and conditions of dispersal, with an emphasis on the forced (structural or literal) dispersal of peoples from a place they identified as their homeland. The second and third elements concerned the relationship (fictive, biological, or otherwise articulated) between the diaspora and its homeland and hostland. The fourth and fifth elements concerned relationships internal to and between diaspora communities. Butler’s goal, at the time, was to “identify categories of analysis relevant to all diasporas, regardless of size or type” (n. pag.). To be certain, these five elements still have the potential to guide, disrupt, and cohere diaspora study, methodology, and thought in productive and generative ways. Omise’eke Tinsley, discussing the black queer diasporas of the Caribbean, brings much of this to life in her appropriation of Deleuze and Guattari’s exposition of the rhizome: “What vocabulary works for African diaspora grammars of gender and sexuality in the English-, French- and Dutch-based creoles that spread rhizomatically through the Americas’ (former) slave societies?” (n. pag.)

To be explicit, however, as this is not the moment for ambiguities, diaspora means more than to spread, network, or engage multiple complexities. To draw on Edouard Glissant describing the “subterraneous convergence of histories” revealed by the Caribbean archipelago, diaspora also evokes things hidden, trailing, and drowned. Diasporas exist and come into existence out of power and violence. Diasporic subjects, as a result, take on many forms, from liberated beings who, as Scottish-Zambian singer Emeli Sandé crooned, thrive by “breathing underwater” to metahumans who, as Somali-Canadian poet K’Naan mused, find themselves “sailing on graves,” brave but caught between and amid waves of migration. Diaspora is not seduced by the promise of a home/hostland; never stops seeing the missing, the dead, or the dispersed (“don’t think I didn’t notice those tombstones disguised as waves”); is incessant in its longing. Attuned always to those lost beneath the sea, silenced in archives, or disappeared behind electrified carceral fences, diaspora work means working with the living and the dead without knowing who is here, who is gone for now or gone forever.

How to capture these diverse and dispersed elements of diasporic life and thought online? What do digital tools, media, or technology offer in opening up thinking around diaspora, histories of dispersed communities, and cultures created from dispersion?

Darlene Clark Hine describes the five characteristics of a black studies mind as intersectionality, non-linear thinking, diasporic perspectives and comparative analyses, oppression and resistance, and solidarity (Hine). These likewise describe key elements of diaspora study and can be helpful in how diaspora study can translate into the digital. Non-linear thinking is especially important to those doing work on diaspora and the digital lends itself well to elucidating this. Non-linearity captures elements of fluidity, dispersal, mobility, and resilience/resistance, alongside violence and the embodiment of violence (structural, personal, and intimate); force (involuntariness) and non-consent on macro as well as micro levels; loss and hauntings (echoes); and the themes of heartbreak, absence, and silence that appear and reappear in diaspora work.

In curating artifacts for the keyword diaspora, it is easy to become lost in minutiae. In the end, instead of diverting into and through the history of the many diasporas that have existed and continue to exist in human history, this list holds one diaspora experience constant: the African diaspora. The historical content of each of the artifacts emerges out of the historic and centuries long displacement of people of African descent, most notably during the period of Atlantic slavery from the mid-fifteenth century into the second half of the nineteenth century. Each artifact was also chosen facing fully the reality that there is no mainstream baseline for the study of Africa or its diaspora. When it comes to the study of the African continent, subjects of African descent, or histories of slavery, race, and empire, students enter the (digital) classroom or encounter (digital) texts with preconceived notions of what they will find. Whether it means confronting Gone With the Wind-generated fantasies of U.S. slavery populated by hoop skirts and black servants, myths of pathology and underdevelopment in places like Haiti, or the pernicious and persistent interpretation of Africa as a country and not a diverse and massive continent with many complex histories, teachers will find that students do not often agree on what “Africa” means, much less have a handle on how to understand “diaspora.” The artifacts chosen were chosen with an eye toward confronting this lack of understanding head on through a range of material from first-person testimonies, to data-rich archives and image visualizations of social and political histories, to audiovisual media capturing a wide-range of historical and cultural experiences.

However, although each artifact is specific to the African diaspora experience, each was also chosen for the way it elaborates on those five elements of diaspora as described by Butler. In other words, while the subject each artifact tackles is one specific to people of African descent over time and place, each artifact’s method, theory, and praxis illuminates something beyond the needs of one diaspora community. Each artifact demonstrates how the digital informs the study and formation of diasporic communities, and the practice of being diasporic. Each artifact engages in diasporic processes and the range of procedures is quite diverse. Once again, there can be no single, linear mode of engaging diaspora, no single definition of what diaspora is as a whole. Indeed, whether describing Jewish, Irish, or South Asian diasporas and diasporic formulations, the constituent elements of diaspora require multinodal thinking, non-linear humanistic formations, and a political praxis that is attuned to what has been pushed out, what has been deemed whole/canon/legitimate, what is silenced, and the violence inherent in making and breaking each of these as historical events. Diaspora, as these artifacts show, can be neither innocent nor voluntary. Diaspora suggests state, imperial, and therefore structural violence alongside beautiful and defiant resistance to dehumanization. How pedagogy grapples with the tension between these must be a crucial part of any digital diaspora practice today.

View the Diaspora keyword here: digitalpedagogy/ at master · curateteaching/digitalpedagogy · GitHub


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