Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 9, 2018
Leigh Raiford and Heike Raphael-Hernandez, eds. Migrating the Black Body: The African Diaspora and Visual Culture Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017. 392 pp.; 21 color ills.; 64 b/w ills. Hardcover $30.00 (9780295999579)

Leigh Raiford and Heike Raphael-Hernandez have done a great service to the field of visual culture studies with the publication of Migrating the Black Body: The African Diaspora and Visual Culture. They have brought together an important collection of recent essays on the eponymous themes and topics, but they have also produced with this volume (stemming from a 2014 VolkswagenStiftung-sponsored symposium in Hanover, Germany) a nodal point in the broadening network of intellectual activity concerned with questions of blackness and the visual among academics and artists, from the emerging to the established. This rich scholarly collection bridges the gap between art history and visual culture in the interdisciplinary field of Africana studies, moving along the contemporary routes traveled by its collective authors, whose very biographies no doubt highlight the world-historical transformations they examine across the modern era. From the Americas to Asia and back again, the text crisscrosses the prime meridian of international reference marking the deep entanglement between Africa and Europe, defining and redefining the principal antagonism within which the image and figure of the black body arises through its displacements past, present, and future.

We learn, upon reading through the book’s eighteen chapters, that the displacements of the black body that create and recreate the African diaspora are irreducibly various and sundry, and the publication itself reflects that diaspora both in approach and in production. All of the essays are carefully researched, deftly organized, and well written, and each either expands or deepens our evolving understanding of blackness and visual culture, especially: Cedric Essi on the complexity of African-descent genealogical writing or “documemoir” that returns to Europe as unheimlich, Cheryl Finley on the touring culture of contemporary diasporic visual artists inhabiting states of perpetual motion, Tavia Nyong’o on the critical provocations of recent cinema on slavery for working on and against the terms of racist mythology, and Darieck Scott on the oft-neglected and denigrated form of the graphic novel for thinking about relations between art and politics. Each of these texts offers particularly compelling arguments on that score, upending notions of who or what is black and why, where and whether black folks might call anywhere home, and the means (forum, genre, material, medium) by which all such inquiries might be depicted, imagined, and visualized.

The volume sets out to dramatize the dialectic of diaspora, exploring vicissitudes of connection and separation, identity and difference, asking how it is that people of African descent navigate relations to one another across time and space and differences of constituted power, however designated. Migrating the Black Body is also interested in how white and other non-black people have deployed a range of representations of blackness, alongside concrete relations of depredation from early modern slavery onward, to craft social identities within Europe, Asia, and the Americas as much as between the West and its supposed others. The sweep runs from abolitionist Britain to post-revolutionary France to imperial Sweden and Russia. It ranges as well from postcolonial Ghana and Senegal to South Africa and on to Cuba and Jamaica; all mediated by twentieth-century revolutions espousing the struggle for international socialism, but most especially the movements for African independence and black liberation.

Migrating the Black Body builds upon arguments laid out in earlier foundational texts like Nicholas Mirzoeff’s Diaspora and Visual Culture, and reads well alongside recent entries in this growing field like Tina Campt’s Listening to Images, Kobena Mercer’s Travel & See, and The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art edited by David Bindman, Suzanne Preston Blier, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (the last of these a long-awaited counterpoint to the multivolume project, The Image of the Black in Western Art, We could, of course, add to that list of titles many of the standout works written by the roster of contributors themselves, including Raiford’s Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare and Krista Thompson’s Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice, Migrating the Black Body should also be situated within the artistic and academic context forged by the international Black Portraiture(s) Conferences launched in 2004 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard and cosponsored since by the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and Villa La Pietra at NYU Florence.

The volume consists of four parts—Making Blackness Serve, Dreaming Diaspora, Differently Black, and Afrofabulation—but it is largely organized around two major scholarly aims, namely, to examine the framing (in both senses of the term) of blackness in an anti-black world and to explore the myriad forms of self-fashioning and self-representation pursued by variously positioned black people across the globe. It pursues those ends along a central axis of division—object/subject—which is to say it seeks to stage and explore the contrapuntal tension between the objectification of blackness in and as image, body, body-image, or image-body, and the practices of subjectification among African-derived people in the historic instance. The editors sum up this tension as “the interplay between black bodies as visual objects and subjects; as visual specters and spectacles and visual spectators; as objects of visual culture and as visual producers in a transnational context” (5). In this, Migrating the Black Body is not unlike much of the literature it consults and critiques in art history and visual culture studies, and it handles that dynamic with considerable success.

The careful reader will notice, however, that both of the scholarly aims referred to in the previous paragraph are actually addressed in every chapter of every part in the collection, and so a curious doubling comes into relief, what we might even call a symptomatic redundancy of purpose, suggesting a certain worry that the discourse generated therein will be misread; that the analysis will inadvertently rehearse and reinforce the problem of dichotomization it attempts to take on and take apart. Perhaps it is for good reason, too, given that the leading metaphor of the publication and its inaugural gathering provides the vehicle for a misconception so prevalent and encompassing it nearly dictates the terms of field formation. R. A. Judy identified this issue more than fifteen years ago in a review of Paul Gilroy’s Against Race as the “error of confusing diaspora with nomadism.”1 We might recast the issue here as an anxiety, to borrow another phrase from Gilroy—from The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness—about “roots and routes.” Judy reminds us that the concept of diaspora “has the very contamination of lost rootedness” in contrast to nomadism as a form or way of “being without a fixed local, having instead a field of movement.” The anxiety could be characterized as a crisis of meaning for the alternate routes of passage that precede, exceed, and supersede the transatlantic slave trade, those migrations of the black body that orient themselves with known origins, destinations, and itineraries.

Migrate, from the Latin migratus, meaning departed, gone away, carried off, transported, transgressed, violated. The title Migrating the Black Body suggests a certain agency under examination, but the use of the gerund form, migrating, allows for an unsettling ambiguity regarding the source of the drive. In its use of the polyvocal terms of migration and diaspora, moreover, the collaborative project stumbles, rather productively, right back to where it might imagine it started, with “the baggage of slavery” clipping it in the heels. Charles Nero uses the phrase acerbically in his contribution, “Differently Black,” but it could be read differently still for present purposes. It is not the slave (alone) that has baggage, but rather everyone else (too). Throughout the anthology, the “Middle Passage epistemology” (a formulation coined by Annette Henry and challenged of late in Michelle Wright’s Physics of Blackness) is evoked and dissimulated as point of departure, revealing how the objection to the assumption that the African diaspora is reducible to an effect of slavery, or, better, that the visual culture of black modernity is overdetermined by slavery, is already a displaced concern about how best to understand slavery as a paradigm of power and its attendant possibilities tout court, a question about the status and the station of the slave from which the very conception of racial blackness emerges in world history.

The problem that plots the overarching trajectory of Migrating the Black Body is less one of subject/object and more one of subject/predicate. From the introduction to the index, we find that blackness is not a “what” but rather a “where” and a “when,” a spatiotemporal situation in which existence precedes essence. But non-substantialist concepts of blackness, if preferable to the problems posed by notions of blackness as substance, do not escape the problem of being by shifting our attention to the processes of becoming, any more than a philosophy of difference dispenses with the problem of identity, or a more inclusive and expansive epistemology does away with the problem of exclusion. It might invert or involute it. The Middle Passage is not escaped by reference to any origin or destination or itinerary whatsoever; it is the non-transcendable negation of such references.

Blackness appears against the grain of the text as the condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility for every project of self-fashioning, whether that self-relating action concerns bodies or bodies politic; persons, places, or things. If blackness is a form of nomadism, then it is one enabled by deracination rather than wanderlust, a disoriented field of movement that lends direction, and distress, to the determined motion of others.

1. R. A. Judy, “Beside the Two Camps: Paul Gilroy and the Critique of Raciology,” boundary 2 28, no. 3 (2001): 207–16.

Jared Sexton
Professor, African American Studies and Film & Media Studies, University of California, Irvine