Race Fundamentalism: Caribbean Theater and the Challenge to Black Diaspora
Chetty, Raj G.
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This dissertation engages with radical Caribbean theater as a crucial literary archive that is nonetheless underexplored as an expression of political culture and thought. The theoretical grounding of the chapters emerges from the analytically generative thrust of a comment by C. L. R. James in The Black Jacobins: "to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental." While the phrase asserts that race cannot be neglected, it also cautions against ensconcing race as fundamental analytical priority, suggesting a powerfully fluid conceptualization of radical political culture. My chapters argue that radical theater projects in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic share this fluid conceptualization of radical politics with the Trinidadian James's own stage versions of the Haitian Revolution. These theater projects differ from more static paradigms within diaspora, transnational, and race studies that reduce political radicalism to race, precisely the "fundamentalist" approach to race against which James cautions. This reduction fails to register how race, diaspora, and nation continue to be fashioned within a context of persistent class struggle, colonialism and imperialism, and sexism. Furthermore, scholarly discussions of race and diaspora often are rooted fundamentally in U.S. experience, obscuring the ways race is negotiated differently in various New World diasporas, including those in the Caribbean region. The plays I analyze open up the articulations between race, class, and gender in anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-sexist struggles. Furthermore, I attend both to the intra-Caribbean differences that influence the development of radical political culture and to the important connections across areas too often analyzed along colonially fragmented lines. My pan-Caribbean approach avoids thinking of the region as exclusively understandable through linguistically-determined approaches. Across different linguistic and colonial histories, the plays I study cohere in the way they stage political agency through popular culture, collaboration, and spectator participation, all central to each play's aesthetic development and politics but irreducible to race. While race does feature in each play as the site for political radicalism, the performances of race, blackness, and diaspora in the plays are often unrecognizable to U.S. elaborations. Chapter 1, "The Tragicomedy of Anticolonial Overcoming: Toussaint Louverture and The Black Jacobins on Stage," focuses on James's 1936 and 1967 versions of his Haitian plays to disagree with David Scott's emphasis on tragedy in his reading of James's revisions to the history version of The Black Jacobins. James's use of comedy imagines possible futures in the face of tragic postcolonial failures to live up to romantic anticolonial expectations for total revolution. Comedy also challenges the reduction of both versions of the play to a single story of anticolonial black struggle, as the later version renders blackness secondary to post-independence African and West Indian class struggles. In Chapter 2, "Can a Mulatta be a Black Jacobin?" I argue that reading James as sole reviser of the 1936 play into the 1967 version elides the collaborations so important to the revisions. The most radical revision is the centrality of a militant mulatta, challenging scholarly depictions of James as, at worst, a paragon of patriarchy and, at best, a man caught between the feminist politics of the women in his life and the constraints of a male-centered revolutionary and anticolonial tradition. The next chapter, "`Listen, American Negro': Racial Performance, Dominican Street Theater, and `Global' Blackness," analyzes Reynaldo Disla's Un comercial para Máximo Gómez and Frank Disla's Ramón Arepa to counter the sense that Dominicans are "negrophobic." Such an indictment fails to account for the distance between Dominican articulations of blackness and "fundamentalist" versions of blackness, often emanating from the U.S., that masquerade as global. Both plays rely on black-affirming cultural practice in Afro-creolized Dominican carnival, a practice that is unrecognizable to those accustomed to a black-white binary and that does not depend on experiences with U.S. racism and anti-racist struggle. My final chapter, "`Teach his People the Value of Unity': Black Diaspora, Women, and Una Marson's Pocomania," engages Jamaican playwright Una Marson's play Pocomania (1938) for the way Africanness and blackness are sites of struggle that play out over middle and lower class women's power, and map onto the contrast between "proper" Christian practice and Afro-creolized religious practice in yard life. While the play connects Pocomania religious practice with African traditions, its focus is not in authenticating the Africanness of Jamaican culture. Instead, it underscores the intraracial struggles between African-descended Jamaicans, struggles marked not only by religion but also by linguistic, educational, and class-based hierarchies.
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