Neptune on Putnam, 'Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age'

Lara Putnam
Harvey R. Neptune

Lara Putnam. Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. xiii + 322 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-7285-7.

Reviewed by Harvey R. Neptune Published on H-Socialisms (August, 2016) Commissioned by Gary Roth

“Race,” Exoticism, and the Black Radical Pass

Going to the root illuminates what is hidden from us, largely because most structures of oppression and all of their various entanglements are simply not visible and not felt.[1]

The word ‘radical’ does, of course, come from the Latin radix, meaning ‘root,’ and a radical, then, is a person trying to get to the root of matters.[2]

Congratulations are due to Lara Putnam for Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age. This book, focused on the travels and travails of British West Indians across various Western Hemisphere locales in the early twentieth century, will inform historians working in several fields (from labor studies to diaspora studies to musicology, to name just a few). Read thoughtfully, it should also indict the profession, alerting us to our conventional ways of geopolitical discrimination. Radical Moves uncovers revealing events in places we have been taught not to look as well as draws insightful connections among populations we have been taught to segregate. Purposefully reorienting our historical imagination, this work reinforces the lesson--once given in a fictional discussion of the British West Indian past--that history is only half understood if taught apart from geography.[3] Illuminating as scholarship, Radical Moves also delights as literature. Composed with explicit ethnographic aspirations, the narrative moves as if guided by a most knowledgeable, fluent, and charming “native” informant. Reviewing this book turned out to be the rare professional obligation that doubled as a private pleasure.

The savvy of the authorial voice is not incidental to the work’s success; it is fundamental in an account intended to chart and vivify a long-lost and difficult-to-imagine “Greater Caribbean” world. This world, built largely by itinerant, black, laboring-class British West Indians in the high Age of Empire, was dissolved during the violently progressive interwar decades by virtue of the emergence of anxiously racist modern state-craft. Parts of it have been recalled and studied, to be sure; much of this migratory sphere, however, remains obscure to scholars in the North Atlantic. So while we now know, for example, just how intimately island cities like St. George’s, Bridgetown, and Fort de France were linked to metropolitan centers like London, New York, and Paris, we have remained largely ignorant up until now about the centrality of places like El Callao and Colon in the geographic imagination of British West IndiansRecapturing the vitality of these overlooked “Latin American” locales to modern Caribbean life is perhaps the signal accomplishment of Radical Moves.

Moreover, by bringing these marginalized locations into sharp relief, the book amplifies the chorus of influential historical scholarship that has cast Afro-Caribbean migrants as conspicuous sources of “radicalism.”[4] Reinforcing the story told by studies set in Western metropoles, Radical Moves depicts British West Indians abroad in peripheral New World settings acting as fundamental disrupters of modernity’s dominant cultural politics. These “not-very-powerful-people in not-very-prominent-places,” as the introduction observes, “believed themselves to be at the center of linked processes they recognized as fundamental to the modern world: the transformation of race, of nation, and of empire. Believing, they made it so” (p. 3).

Though it is impossible not to admire this brilliant effort to big up the British Caribbean laboring classes as cosmopolitan activists, to grant them great worldly “agency” (to use our academic slang), a serious bone, nevertheless, must be picked with the author.[5] The issue, it should be said from the outset, turns not on scholarly craft but on political purpose. What is the point and consequence of casting the book’s protagonists as “radicals” with lessons relevant for today? These, after all, were black people who, despite opposing white supremacy, essentially saw race as inherent in nature rather than instituted in history. Who benefits in our present from this naturalistic way of thinking about racial categories like “black” and “white”?

First, though, to recount the story told in Radical Moves. At the heart of this account is a mobile way of British West Indian living that waxed during the first two decades of the twentieth century and waned thereafter. In the aftermath of emancipation and the consequential decline of the plantation economy in Britain’s Caribbean colonies, emigration emerged as a critical part of the survival strategy of the largely black majority. From Jamaica to Trinidad, the “problem of freedom” (as Thomas Holt tagged it[6]) sent many within a mostly materially poor population to seek solutions in “foreign” lands. These venturesome British West Indian Victorians went wherever they could find work and a way, and, by the opening decades of the twentieth century, had fashioned a mode of living that linked communities in South, Central, and North America. Life on the move was hardly sunny for these Caribbeans abroad; yet whatever the enormities of their struggles, one of the few things migrants had in their favor was the claim to imperial identity. Outside of their lands of birth, Great Britain’s West Indian subjects could turn to British consuls for succor. This debatable privilege of empire, Radical Moves underlines, began to disappear during the interwar years, imperiling further the mobile Caribbean way of life.

For purposely wayward West Indians, however, protection meant something more than material; it also took otherworldly forms. Spiritual guides and guardians filled the migratory sphere, and the study devotes ample energy to tracing the role of religion and “high science” in the lives of Caribbeans whose travels invited all kinds of tribulations. Through this emphasis, it becomes patent that even as West Indians had faith in the British Empire, they never abandoned belief in African spirits. For them, modernity was not incompatible with a taste for knowledge considered occult by many in the West. Not surprisingly, those Caribbeans who turned to syncretic religious forms like “myal” and “Bedwardism” often found themselves rebuked by others in the name of respectability. The arena of spirituality, Radical Moves reminds us, was one of continuous skirmishing between the classes and the masses. No less a figure than Marcus Garvey consistently denounced Rastafarianism as little more than superstition.

Still, neither the highest Anglican church nor the best obeah could save British West Indians abroad from the unfortunate interwar turn in nation-state politics that quickly rendered them unwelcome, racially unfit outsiders across the Americas. The story of their exclusion, a tale of the intersecting politics of nationalism, eugenics, and immigration reform, is not unfamiliar within academic precincts.[7] Where Radical Moves advances the scholarship is in its demonstration that this discriminatory, state-sponsored transformation occurred throughout the hemisphere. The Unied States, in other words, was hardly exceptional in its official prejudice against foreigners, non-Europeans in particular.  Everywhere across the New World--and the West, in fact--elites sought to secure greater national loyalty from their own masses in part by erecting formidable barriers (not yet quite beautiful walls) to non-natives, especially those with doubtful claims to civility. During the interwar period, West Indians abroad thus found themselves casualties of a racist, populist trend that defined modern nation-making. For them, there was no escaping this new, exclusivist political fashion.

So fashionable was this transformed immigration policy that Great Britain quickly fell in line. Unlike in the nineteenth century, Radical Moves underlines, British officials chose now to ignore the fate of Caribbean subjects victimized by restrictive new laws in lands where they labored. In fact, a twistedly telling sign of the wide appeal of this novel way of imagining and managing political community was the call for its adoption among British West Indians themselves. Victims of nativism, this study ironically reveals, could turn into advocates. Garvey, for example, lent his voice to nativist politics in Britain’s Caribbean colonies during the late 1920s, proclaiming “Jamaica for Jamaicans” and demanding prohibition against Chinese immigration. Such xenophobic wishes, however, amounted to little in the region--unlike in other parts of the hemisphere. Promoted mostly by people of African descent with dismissible claims on the colonial state, exclusivist ambitions in the British West Indies were bound to practical futility. Moreover, as Radical Moves points out, the Chinese government had enough clout with British officialdom to prevent the introduction of legislation that discriminated against its citizens. Little wonder that British Caribbean nativism is ultimately dismissed in this account as superficial, merely “skin deep.”

With black British West Indians increasingly feeling abandoned by the empire in the interwar years, they reckoned that it was time to secure their own backs. This sharpening sense of racial alienation and imperial neglect, according to Radical Moves, defined the context in which British Caribbeans embraced and contributed greatly to the making of an imagined, transnational community of blacks. West Indians’ place in the making of this interwar “Negro World” has been a subject of substantial works of scholarship. For the most part, though, this literature on the “Black Diaspora” has centered on publicly compelling leaders based in New York, London, and Paris (individuals like Garvey, W. E. B. Dubois, C. L. R. James, Aime Cesaire, and more recently Claudia Jones).[8] Radical Moves distinguishes itself within this area of interest in two ways: it reorients attention away from North Atlantic locales as well as takes a more demotic attitude. This book features less the doings of recognized spokespersons in capital sites than the popular activism of those dwelling in what appear to be far-flung places from the vantage point of the “First World.”

The typical protagonist in Radical Moves is unsung and striving. The book centers individuals like Sidney Young, a Jamaica-born journalist and organizer of public opinion who moved to Panama. Sympathetic to Garveyite goals, Young wrote for and edited the Panama American, one of several newspapers that helped to cultivate a counterpublic of race men and women in Greater Caribbean locales like Panama City. In fact, threading the narrative is a Grenada-born woman named Louise Norton who, at the turn of the century, moved to Montreal, where she met and married a Garveyite named Earl Little. The Littles then relocated to Michigan, raising a family in which children customarily read the kind of newspapers put out by people like Young, the kind of publications that made the “Negro World” imaginable during the interwar years. One of Louise’s well-informed sons would grow up to become the iconic postwar Negro nationalist, Malcolm X.

More than a globalized print capitalism and an engaged proletarian readership, however, made the interwar transnational black community viable. In an era often shorthanded in North Americanist historiography as the Jazz Age, popular dances and their musical accompaniment proved no less crucial to the imagining of an African diaspora among British West Indians. In this performative sphere, it was not the enlightened language of the literate but the less legible signs of youthful bodies moving to music that spoke volumes about the fate of the race. While many adults across the Greater Caribbean turned to the written word to advance the cause of black people, “the young people,” as Radical Moves observes, “had other things on their minds” (p. 153). They were busy imagining themselves as belonging to what might be best called a “New Negro World,” a world that moved to and through “jazz.” This “jazz,” it should be noted, was decidedly cosmopolitan. The form is figured in this study as music made across the Americas rather than made in America; it appears, moreover, as part of an international entertainment scene in which local calls and responses echoed across a migratory sphere that easily linked places like Harlem, Kingston, and Port Limon.

However worldly, the young British West Indians showing off their terpsichorean skills were certainly not the unequivocal toast of transnational towns. Their modern corporeal moves (not unlike “primitive” spiritual beliefs like obeah) often came in for condemnation as unrespectable and even backward steps in the journey toward racial progress. Publicly upstanding columnists like Sidney Young chided black youth for displays that, to him, betrayed inadequate piety toward the race. To his troubled mind, their dances depicted decadence. Incidentally, the discussion of the moral panics sparked by the apparently addictive youth culture of jazz across the Greater Caribbean leads to a “philological detective tale” that should be of particular interest to scholars of the region’s musical history. One of the festive activities denounced in Port Limon in the 1930s was described as a “regge dance,” a private, money-making event where live music--including mento and fox-trot--was played. These “regge” dances, the author suggests, merit consideration as one of the roots of “reggae,” the name for a musical form that would eventually place Jamaica on the global map four decades later. In this philological excursion lies an index of the book’s larger lesson in historical geography. A proper history of postwar popular culture in West Indian places like Kingston cannot ignore the influence of migrants returning from Greater Caribbean spaces like Costa Rica.

Dance floor moves and secular musical styles were only part of what British West Indians abroad brought back when political circumstances compelled them to return to the lands of their (or sometimes their parents’) birth. These returnees also packed oppositional politics that included dreams of their own nationhood. Yet return itself was no straightforward matter and, in some instances, simply impossible for many of those migrants no longer welcome in their receiving societies. Despite often conceiving of themselves abroad as part of a “British West Indian” community that often transcended territorial identity (as Bajan or Trini), many mobile Caribbeans learned that elites and authorities thought in more provincial terms. Once republics across the hemisphere closed their borders, natives of Grenada or St. Vincent, for example, discovered that other British Caribbean colonies were no less welcoming. In Trinidad, they faced unsympathetic authorities insistent that habitation on the island was only for those who could prove they had been born there. In a most atrocious incident, British West Indians deported from Venezuela were refused entry into Trinidad for lack of proof of Trinidadian birth and wound up tortured in the South American republic. Such difficulties with repatriation provided yet another reason for the wave of popular protest that fatally shook the British Empire in the Caribbean in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, many West Indians who did find their way back home played major roles in the region-wide unrest. Radical Moves emphasizes that Leonard Howell, for example, a founder of the Rastafarian faith, had been to Harlem and Cuba before returning to Jamaica to inspire a religious movement. Similarly, the study contends that the appeal of leaders like Alexander Bustamante and Turbal Uriah Butler (in Jamaica and Trinidad, respectively) was unimaginable minus the Caribbean migratory sphere. The turbulence associated with figures like Bustamante and Butler would help to compel Great Britain to unwind its Caribbean empire and allow subjects there to take a path to citizenship rights already secured in republics across the Americas. By the late 1950s, independent nationhood was on its way to the black majority in the British West Indies. Meanwhile, up north in Harlem, the son of Grenada-born Louise Little was set to lead the Nation of Islam.  Decolonization thus provides the thematic denouement to Radical Moves.[9]

Yet the book does not end exactly on a triumphant note. It concludes, rather, somberly, with an admission that the new nations forged from the British Caribbean faced “dilemmas” as they struggled to offer a full sense of belonging to non-blacks, in particular, to people of South Asian and Chinese descent. Afro-Caribbeans, the study suggests, had learned too well, perhaps, the lessons they received from the more advanced societies across the hemisphere.

Radical Moves presents a tightly argued case of terrific historical scholarship. Though some critics may carp about an exaggeration of “agency” (the sense that West Indians could do anything they put their mind to), this work by and large exemplifies excellence within the state of our professional craft. Between its pages lie ample evidence, acute analysis, and sophisticated story-telling that supports the study’s introductory claim that British Caribbean migrants, even from the margins of the North Atlantic, figured fundamentally in the making of twentieth-century modernity. Serious students of the history of the modern world can ignore Radical Moves at their own intellectual peril. Convincing as well as lively, that is to say, written with nerve and verve, this book, to put it as a blunt Trini reviewer might, is boss.

Yet, from the perspective of the “politics” of historical scholarship, the work worries. The problem stems from author’s embrace of the racial ideas of the narrative’s protagonists as still “good to think with.” Recuperating the Jazz Age British West Indian past as usable in our present is doubtful, at best. At worst, it actually militates against organizing a genuinely radical racial politics for our moment, which should envision not only the end of racism but also the uprooting of the “race-fare system” as we know it. For those of us who would like to see the eradication of the entire institutional complex that endows “race” with its apparently natural power to organize and delimit modern life, Radical Moves marks an ambiguous if not conservative step.

After all, the overwhelming majority of actors in this book turned out to be essentially Negro nationalists; as such, these thinkers were disposed to treat “race” as if it were a natural phenomenon. They mostly did not comprehend “race” as an act of the human imagination, an invented classification rationalized in the past two centuries principally and broadly through biology. Rather, the exemplary figures in this study took “race” to be part of the visible reality given by nature. For them, it was the universe’s empirical way of dividing human groups. How “radical” is this view?

The author’s willingness to champion black nationalists’ essentialist racial views as “radical” warrants concern because it is, by my estimation, symptomatic of a larger problem in the literature. By and large, the writing has exoticized “black” nation-building as an object of study.  Conceptually, it places this racial project outside of the current of critical detachment that has defined the work on nationalism in the North Atlantic since the 1980s.[10] Whereas “postcolonial studies” has adopted a consciously skeptical if not irreverent pose toward nationalist claims of “radicalism,” the mood in most publications on nationalism identified with the name of “blackness” remains decidedly loyal.[11] Down to the sharpest and most informed critics betray an attachment that compels them to respect black nationalist pieties (and banalities).[12] Even the sophisticated “Afro-Pessimists” effectively--if unwittingly--articulate the nationalist position by minimizing contingency in the construction of “race.” For these scholars, black bodies appear as always already doomed by white subjugation and plunder. “Race,” as a result, assumes a virtual naturalness. It becomes a “fact,” a vicious inevitability of North Atlantic cultural politics.[13]  While scholars’ assumption of a black nationalist rendition of “race” is understandable given its commitment to combating the ongoing brutalities of white supremacy, isn’t it still risky intellectual business to sympathize with political mobilization that seeks inherent solidarity in “race”? And shouldn’t the enormity of this risk be patent in our violently Trumpian present? After all, the fight against white supremacy does not necessarily have to be waged under the banner of some racial community given as “black.” It is possible, we have to realize, to resist both racism and naturalist renditions of “race.” 

Let me elaborate. The figures in Radical Moves certainly opposed white supremacy, often in militant fashion. Their “bad-assness”--as our youths might say--is beyond debate. The critical point to appreciate, however, is that the book’s protagonists did not depart fundamentally from the conventional racial logics of the time. Their premises about race differed little from those of their white supremacist antagonists.  Radical Moves bears barely any evidence of activists challenging the concepts and categories that have conditioned modern society to take the “reality” of race for granted. To the contrary, their thinking tended to reinforce existing conceits about the obviousness and naturalness of race. At best, the actors in Radical Moves, as the introduction admits, “wrestled in their own way with the core tension between essentialist and constructionist paradigms” of race (p. 5). In their minds, it was still an open question as to whether the color line was “dictated by God, or biology or the capitalist system” (p. 5). Rastafari founder Leonard Howell, for example, merely inverted, with religious militancy, some fantastic white supremacist premises. For Howell, racial identity was not a social construction, not a product of human activity, institutions, and consciousness. Rather, race was virtually divine to him--as it was to the many like-minded figures found in this book.

The conservative limits of these actors’ comprehension of race can be clarified by brief comparison with that of contemporaries like C. L. R James and Eric Williams, to name conveniently two well-known examples of thinkers who viewed race not as natural but as socially instituted in history. The writing of James and Williams wittingly illuminated the problematic “color line” in terms of its intimate ties to enlightened liberal capitalism. History was the key to them, not theology or biology.[14] Unequivocally ant-racist, neither had patience for essentialism--not even of the strategic kind--when it came to “race.” Both James and Williams emphasized the “Negro” as an invention of modern vintage. And, if they ever imagined “black” as a country, it was as a nation that existed not so much under the feet people of African descent as in their minds.[15  “Race,” these two British West Indians understood, was as a powerful illusion. For them, it was a way of seeing the world that should be subverted, not a given to be embraced. Their insights continue to inform the most productive efforts to expose the deep-rooted conceits inherent in the Eurocentric myth of modern “civilization” as “progress.” Thinkers like James and Williams, in short, continue to deserve the designation “radical.”

The author is not unaware of the difficulties in promoting the protagonists in Radical Moves as “radical” on the race question. The book, in fact, ends with a brief acknowledgment of black nationalists’ record of institutionalized racial prejudice in the decolonized Anglo-Caribbean.  In nations like Guyana and Trinidad, observes the final substantive chapter, independence leaders and their followers cultivated an image of “the people” that tended to discriminate against non-blacks, most controversially descendants of South Asians. Revealing, though, is the rationalization that quickly follows this disturbing observation. “Should we wonder that some of the masses held tight to the one political logic available that made them central rather than marginal to their homeland futures? Not only did race-based nationalism echo the nativist populism that across the hemisphere had proved the most reliable route for working classes to claim social citizenship; but Caribbeans facing a political system in flux might well believe it was all they had” (p. 229).

This regretful rationalization of the not-so-radical postwar denouement of the story of British West Indian cultural politics is telling of a problem characteristic of studies of black nation-building. Namely, it betrays the unspoken presumption that black nationalism would somehow fundamentally escape the chauvinistic norms of the modern project. Radical Moves, like so much of the relevant literature, presumes that the provincial pitfalls typical of the nationalist mode of imagining community did not apply to those who did so in the name of “blackness.” In practice, the account treats race-based nationalism practiced by people of African descent as if it were excused from conventional historical currents--little wonder the work ends with a rationalization of the unfortunate normalcy of the eventual outcome.  From this critical angle, what becomes remarkable in Radical Moves is not the nativism and race-based exclusions that characterized the decolonized British West Indies but the optimistic expectation that in this part of the world things should have turned out otherwise. What warrants attention, in other words, is the author’s unspoken analytic exoticism, the presumption that Negro nationalists belonged to an historical world in which North Atlantic norms of assessment were to be suspended. This exotic framing, we should realize, is crucial in enabling the scholarship to pass off characters like Howell as “radical.”

Yet like all exoticisms indulged in the West, this one exacts a heavy intellectual price. In setting the nationalist production of “blackness” outside of the kind of critical analysis commonly trained on the politics of people-making, the literature abets in the naturalization of “race.” This unwitting habit of conceptualizing “blackness” as uniquely created can be found in one of our moment’s most celebrated works concerned with racial politics in the North Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me. On one hand, Coates’ book admirably acknowledges the fictiveness of race by referring to “people who believe themselves to be white” rather than simply “white people.”[16] Yet, strangely, this sophisticated conceptualization doesn’t cross over to the other side of the color line. Nowhere in the text can be found any analogous notion of “people who believe themselves to be black.” Rather, Coates writes straightforwardly of black people, sometimes of black culture and, more often, of black bodies. Left unconsidered is the fact that “black” requires the same kind of imaginative labor as “white,” or “Chilean” or “Cuban” or “Canadian” for that matter. Reflected here in the genius of Coates is a wider tendency to mistake the black community as empirically given in politics, as logically obvious rather than a product of politicized craft. A grave consequence of this error is that it encourages the confusion of the idea of race with visible physical facts, a confusion that has worked out well so far mainly for white supremacists with dreams of atrocious grandeur.

Radical Moves actually comes frighteningly close to affirming this biological comprehension of race at the end--even as the author acknowledges its association with genocidal violence. The book’s very “final story” relates a research experience involving the author and two Venezuelan interviewees. One of them, after being asked about Garvey, happily observed that at Garveyite meetings “they could tell you exactly where in Africa you came from, just by looking at the shape of your nose.” Although the comment provoked laughter among the two Venezuelans, it was taken up by the author to sow doubts about the constructionist view of race and, further, to entertain a biological alternative: “These days, North American academics find it useful to describe race as a social construction. The idea of race as a physical inheritance smacks of the biological essentialism used to justify the worst violence of the twentieth century. College professors these days do not look at people’s noses and tell them where in Africa the came from. But really, who are we to say?” (p. 240).

Really? Can we afford such complacency? Betrayed in this rhetorical wonder is a dose of populism and anti-intellectualism whose dangers should be spectacularly clear to us today. After all, who will be able to say that this understanding of “race” as biology is detrimental when it is spoken not from the lips of Venezuelans with Garveyite black nationalist sympathies but from the mouths of US citizens sympathetic to the white nationalism preached most enterprisingly and vulgarly these days by Donald J. Trump?[17] The faith in race is no less fatal when expressed as folklore (it might be worse, in fact, in a democracy). And while politicians with their minds set on winning elections might often feel compelled to pander to “the people,” scholars should feel no such compulsion--thanks to tenure, while it lasts!

To the contrary, we have a professional obligation to address the public with the best of our critical knowledge. For those of us who share the purpose of upending the racial order, that ought to include taking an unequivocal stance--after Paul Gilroy--against race. We should insist, following Dorothy Roberts, that race is not a genetic fate but a “fatal invention.” Racism, an infamous historian once wrote, is the “emptiness to end all emptinesses.”[18] Genuinely radical scholarship should embrace as a major ethical responsibility the work of emptying race itself of all intellectual validity.

Acknowledgements: Along with my regular gang of inside critics, Krista A. Thompson made important contributions to this essay. It is dedicated to my graduate school teachers, especially Robin and Ada, who insisted on making us not only critical readers but also careful and respectful ones.


[1]. Robin D. G. Kelley, “Black Study, Black Struggle,” Boston Review, March 7, 2016,

[2]. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Decline of Radicalism: Reflections on America Today (New York: Random House, 1969), 9.

[3]. Alec Waugh, Island in the Sun (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Cudahy, 1955), 182.

[4]. For a historiographical sample of this “radical” casting of Caribbeans outside of the region, see Winston James, Holding Aloft The Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in America, 1900-1932 (New York: Verso, 1997); T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Negritude Women (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Michelle Ann Stephens, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Black Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); and Minkah Makalani, In The Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

[5]. This perhaps would be the appropriate moment for a full disclosure of the fortunate fact that the author is not only a professional colleague but also a familiar friend. Professor Putnam is unfailingly remembered by my mother and sisters as part of the “really nice family from America.”

[6]. Thomas Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1838-1938 (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1992).

[7]. For an influential example, see Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[8]. Along with works cited in footnote 2, see Carol Boyce-Davies, Left of Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Durham, NC: Duke University Press , 2007).

[9]. Another Grenada-born figure, unmentioned, who might have shown up in the narrative is Eric Gairy. After spending significant time abroad (in Trinidad and the Dutch Caribbean), Gairy returned to the island to dominate its politics from the early 1950s through the 1970s.  His omission might be read, on one hand, as an incidental consequence of the overall absence of Aruba and Curacao from Radical Moves. On the other hand, Gairy’s presence might trouble deeply the author’s effort to portray the migratory sphere as an incubator of “radicalism.”

[10]. “Black nationalism” refers here not only and not mainly to the ideas and programs associated with “Black Power” dissidents of the sixties and seventies. It refers rather to the broader array of banal, popular premises and assumptions that continue to constitute things, performances, institutions, and affects as “black” in everyday life. For a helpfully reflective recent essay on this practice of racialization, see Sanjay Sharma, “Black Twitter? Racial Hashtags, Networks and Contagion,” New Formations: A Journal of Theory Culture and Politics 78, no. 1 (2013): 48-64.

[11]. A pioneering example of this skeptical “postcolonial” mood in studies of nationalism is Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and The Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? (London: Zed Books, 1986).

[12]. See, for a very recent example, We Are An African People: Independent Education, Black Power and the Radical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). A bit further back, see the collection of essays edited by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.: Is It Nation Time? Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). Within this volume, the struggle to criticize and yet redeem the “progressive, radical edge” of black nationalism is most sharp in E. Frances White’s now classic essay, “Africa on my Mind: Gender, Counterdiscourse and African-American Nationalism,” 130-155. For sure, there are exceptions, but exceptions they are. See, for a couple of examples, Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond The Color Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); and Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science and Big Business Recreate Race in the Twenty-First Century (New York: New Press, 2011).

[13]. In an important sense, “Afro-Pessimism” presents a black nationalism that is bereft of hope, a political romance after the love has gone. While Frank Wilkerson is perhaps the name most associated with this academic mood, the work of Saidiya Hartman might be the most revealing intellectual guide. See Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[14]. C. L. R. James, Black Jacobins; The San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1963); Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

[15]. My language here acknowledges the influential thinking of Nikhil Singh, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for American Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), and Steve Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[16]. Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), 6.

[17]. Is it relevant here that the police officer who recently shot Ferdinand Castille described him as having “wide-set nose”?

[18]. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Decline of Radicalism, 167.


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