Our America

By David Knight, Jr

The Purloined Islands: Caribbean-US Crosscurrents in Literature and Culture, 1880–1959, by Jeff Karem
(University of Virginia Press, ISBN 9780813930862, 320 pp)

Flags over San Juan, Puerto Rico

The US “Stars and Stripes”, alongside the flag of Puerto Rico and the Spanish military “Cross of Burgundy”, flying over San Juan. Photograph courtesy Nicholas Laughlin

Scholars working within the field of transnational American studies are a group who proudly call themselves revisionists. When it comes to understanding the culture of the United States, they propose a new framework. Culture is never so simple as what goes on inside national borders, they argue. The real story is what goes on across borders, or in spite of them. Like so much that conforms to the politics of globalisation, this brand of twenty-first-century work on US culture and history often holds a fundamental tension. It may be an irresolvable one.

The relationship between those who study culture and those who use it towards nationalist ends is not lost on these contemporary Americanists. Neither is the meaning of the word “nationalism” in the United States, and its connection to expansionist policies. Studying American culture from a US university becomes, for many, an ethical bind and a source of anxiety. How does one escape becoming a collaborator in empire? Transnational American studies proposes to solve this problem by positioning the United States as nothing more or less than a participant in a global conversation, or at least a hemispheric one. In their studies of US and Caribbean cultural dialogues, transnational Americanists have often recalled George Lamming’s words that “America is one island only.”

The Purloined Islands is a work that emerges out of this tension within American studies — a tension which has everything to do with power. This, to be clear, does not make it a less interesting book. The fact that The Purloined Islands opens with an admonishment of US media sources and closes with a critique of US military detention centres goes a long way towards proving this study is never too far removed from contemporary political issues in the United States. Nor is it meant to be. Jeff Karem, who teaches at Cleveland State University, is interested in the ways in which various nationalist interests in the US have encouraged the “purloining” of Caribbean cultural contributions — a fact that has reduced important hemispheric dialogues on subjects like Pan-American Modernism, Pan-Africanism, and the New Negro Renaissance into North American monologues. In short, Karem, true to the current mood of his discipline, is asking probing questions about cultural ownership. He writes:

I aim to uncover the “patterns, arcs, or bridges” that already exist between these Caribbean and US literary traditions, but that have been hidden by subsequent history, canonisation, or criticism.

This premise raises an important question, one that will occur to many readers of The Purloined Islands. For a work built on the value of transnational dialogue, in what ways does its thesis predetermine the national dimensions of its audience? As provocative as Karem’s arguments may be in an American studies context, many Caribbean readers may rightly wonder where, and to whom, these patterns of influence are hidden. After all, West Indian literary contributions that have been ignored or appropriated in the United States remain central and canonical in various Caribbean nations. I imagine that Claude McKay’s Jamaican roots, for instance, are not lost on his Jamaican readers, no matter whether he has been posthumously nationalised in the US, as Karem suggests. Likewise, modern-day Caribbean Pan-Africanists may be surprised by Karem’s assertion that, in the United States, Pan-Africanism is often treated as “essentially autochthonous intellectual property.” To be fair, these ideological clashes are symptomatic of the exact issue Karem is trying to address, and not of any flaw in his approach. It will nevertheless be alienating for some readers to find that The Purloined Islands begins from a position in which some of the most deeply felt aspects of Caribbean reality — those related to identity, empire, and race — are not just peripheral, but “hidden.”

The period to which Karem confines his study of cultural crosscurrents — from roughly the beginning of American imperial ambitions in the Caribbean to the end of the Cuban revolution — is not incidental. Karem insists that Caribbean writers were often the most clear-sighted chroniclers and critics of the United States in the twentieth century — many of them already working within the sort of transnational framework that is agreeable to recent developments in American studies. Karem locates in the Caribbean a historically early engagement with American power that would predict many later discussions on the subject in the United States. Turn-of-the-century works such as Anténor Firmin’s 1905 study of US-Haitian relations, M. Roosevelt, Président des États-Unis et la République d’Haïti, strike Karem as particularly prescient. He writes:

Firmin recognises from the start of his book that a central challenge in understanding US history is that a nation founded in the name of liberty could be simultaneously committed to militaristic expansion (and hence, subjugation of others) from its earliest days — a paradox that would not be substantively explored by US historians until much later in the twentieth century.

The appeal of early-twentieth-century Caribbean intellectuals like Firmin to contemporary Americanists with anti-imperial sensibilities is fairly obvious. Their engagement with the issue of US power during the waning days of European empire, coupled with their impassioned examinations of race, racial prejudice, and democracy, are the beginnings of a thread that is carried through to the final pages of The Purloined Islands, developing through the US occupation of Haiti, the birth of American Modernism, and the intense cross-cultural exchange that was the New Negro Movement in Harlem.

Karem’s chapter on Harlem in the 1920s and 30s is indeed where he makes his most effective argument that Caribbean literary and cultural contributions have been “purloined” in the United States. This is the high point of the book. Karem finds himself in agreement with the words of Hubert Harrison, a Harlem writer and activist from St Croix who wrote that “almost every important development originating in Negro Harlem … has either been fathered by West Indians or can count them among its originators.” The multinational character of the New Negro Movement, according to Karem, has often been ignored in the United States in the decades since, despite the fact that many of the artists and writers involved were uncomfortable with — if not explicitly opposed to — American narratives of exceptionalism and global leadership. One should not ignore, for example, McKay’s status as an outsider and his conflicted feelings towards the Harlem intellectual establishment. Karem writes:

The complex feeling of community and isolation in the city stands in marked contrast to Locke’s and Du Bois’s confidence in Harlem as a metropolitan Zion and a kind of synecdoche site for global blackness.

This subversion of US narratives in the works of Caribbean writers has not always been so subtle, and Karem attends to this as well. He finds that the most explicit critiques of American imperialism in the short stories of Guyanese-Bajan writer Eric Walrond — and later in the work of Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén — were simply left out when American editors anthologised and published their works in the US.

If there is one surprising absence within The Purloined Islands itself, it is Puerto Rico. Although Karem mentions Arthur Schomburg in the chapter on Harlem, and he explores William Faulkner’s use of the Puerto Rican town of Rincón as a setting rich with symbolic meaning for US readers, I am struck by the general lack of Puerto Rican voices here. This conspicuous silence is puzzling.

Space does not permit me to map all the terrain that Karem’s study covers over the course of its 262 pages. One of the book’s strengths is its scope, and Karem has done a good job of examining a diverse collection of texts, from major works by canonical authors in the US and the Caribbean to the sort of sensationalist (and often racist) travel writing that would have passed into irrelevance by now if it didn’t occasionally echo in contemporary tourist media. Karem looks not only at the works of Caribbean migrants within the borders of the US but also at the important place that the region itself has often occupied in the American literary imagination. His approach is admirably multilingual, and although some of his arguments oddly presuppose the invisibility of the Caribbean to his readers, his research is done in the spirit of reciprocity.

Karem’s study should interest those who, for varying reasons, live within these “crosscurrents” between the US and the Caribbean, and are looking to develop their own voices. There are many of us. Unfortunately, dialogues between the US and the Caribbean are often marked by the special sort of miscommunication that can only come from desire — whether it be for an imagined paradise, or for a vision of metropolitan spaces that is equally unreal. The Purloined Islands charts the history of these cultural exchanges across the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps its true revelation is the extent to which so many of the important questions raised in these exchanges have not been resolved.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2013

David Knight, Jr, is a writer and photographer from the US Virgin Islands. He is co-editor of the online journal Moko, and a contributor to ARC magazine and The Caribbean Writer. His photographs have been exhibited in the United States and the Virgin Islands. He is currently based in St John.