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Imagining Ourselves: What Does it Mean to be Part of the African Diaspora?

Tina Campt talks to Think Africa Press about black European subjectivities, the US' dominance in diaspora studies, and how photographs tell us more than we might realise.
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James Barnes (left), maternal grandfather of Tina Campt. Photograph courtesy of Tina Campt.

Tina Campt, Director of the Africana Studies Program at Barnard College, Columbia University, has been examining gender, race and diasporic formation in black communities in Germany and Europe more broadly for the last decade.

Her earliest works were insightful contributions to the growing scholarship on the overlooked history of African communities in imperial and post-colonial Europe. Her first book, Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender and Memory in the Third Reich, was an oral history acknowledging the participation of African minorities to the German history, from the Weimar Republic to the postwar period.

More recently, Campt has deepened her intellectual reflection by exploring the crucial issue of visual representation. In Image Matters: Archive, Photography and the African Diaspora in Europe, published last year by Duke University Press, she traces the emergence of a black (European) subject by analysing a rich photographic documentation that intertwines her own family albums with snapshots of black German families and studio portraits of West Indian migrants in England.

In an interview with Think Africa Press, Campt talked to the French scholar Jean-Philippe Dedieu about the intellectual discourses on diasporas across the Atlantic as well as the significance of photography for allowing black people to imagine themselves, freed from racial prejudice.

A couple of years ago, the sociologist Rogers Brubaker noticed the increasing diasporisation of the word “diaspora.” What’s the difference between diaspora and migration?

Migration is focused on movement and the transformations that occur in the process of physical displacements. Diaspora for me, on the other hand, is what happens when it stops. Diaspora is not about what happens when you move; it's what happens once you decide to stay in one place. That's why I focus on the concept of dwelling. It's when you begin to set up homes, and this is again one of the features of diaspora – that it is not about sacrificing a relationship to elsewhere, it's about maintaining a relationship to here and elsewhere and putting them in constant dialogue. This produces new ways of being in the place where one is, yet it’s always in dialogue with the place that you came from, and being at home at the same time.

In an article co-authored with Deborah A. Thomas, you suggested there might be a “dominance of US-based cultural and intellectual discourses on diasporic relations, origin stories, and authenticity narratives.”

I can tell you what I meant by it then and I'll tell you what I think about it now. When Deborah and I were writing this piece and putting together the volume, one of the things we were trying to do was talk back to the way we saw African-American Studies exercising a disproportionate voice in Diaspora Studies through scholarship generated not only about African-American cultural politics and history but by African Americans on the African diaspora. And so we were really trying to say that we need to mark the fact that the site of production of a lot of the scholarship about blackness in the world is the United States, and that needs to be marked in order to position it, to emphasise that it's not disinterested. We weren’t trying to say that it was either good or bad; we wanted to identify it and in doing this, try and open up a space to think about how other voices and scholarship has to position itself in relationship to this. In many ways, that means it’s not an equal discursive playing field because academic institutions in the United States wield disproportionate influence in the world. And that's just a fact. Part of our motivation was to situate ourselves within this discursive field and speak to the fact that it's not necessarily an equal.

Today, based on criticism I've gotten from colleagues of that position, part of me wants to give more nuance to these statements. Some of the criticism I've encountered maintains that just because there's a differential relationship and we're not all situated equally, doesn't necessarily indicate a hegemony or a hegemonic power formation. But I am still concerned with the extent to which we make room for the work of other scholars of the African diaspora to engage in the conversation. So that's the before and after. Some people were provoked by the notion of a diasporic hegemony because it's premised upon a notion of oppression, a kind of relationship black folks don't want to see us exercising towards one another. But I think it's important to look at the fact that we're not all equally situated vis-à-vis the transnational circulation of scholarship and ideas. We don't all have the same resources to draw upon, and our scholarly output and production is necessarily shaped by that.

For your first book Other Germans. Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender and Memory in the Third Reich, you had to travel extensively in Germany. What is your feeling regarding the academic discourse on diaspora there, and in Europe more broadly?

When I began writing Other Germans back in ‘89, there was far less material available and what was there was disciplinarily focused – you had historical studies, you had literary studies, you had anthropological studies, and they were all very discrete and very partial. There were a number of studies of Blacks in English literature, or the Black in German literature, or you would have the history of African migration to Germany or colonial settlements in German Southwest Africa. But to actually talk about Black Germans, that was very seldom written about.

The category of Black European was emerging in the context of colonial and the post-colonial studies, and that was incredibly important since it set up the conceptual, intellectual, theoretical framework for work that came later. Its intervention was to enable a discussion of Black German, Afro-French, and Afro-Dutch populations, and produced to interdisciplinary scholarly recognition. I remember when, in Germany, it was only possible to do work on Black Germans in American Studies Programs or in African Studies Programs. The fact that it is now possible to study race, racial formation and diasporic formations in so many more places than before is really impressive to me. I'm impressed not only by the quality of the scholarship but also by the fact that it's being generated by younger scholars. They're struggling to find recognition, but they're actually finding it. I've worked on a number of projects that are trying to cultivate Black European Studies in different institutions, and I'm truly excited by this.

How did you end working on Afro-Germans?

Serendipity. The first time I went to Germany, I went to Berlin to pass my language exams in graduate school. I was in Berlin before the wall fell, in ‘87, and it was an extraordinary experience because I had never been outside the United States and I had never experienced the particularly bizarre form of racism I encountered there. It was a concatenation of exoticism and ignorance that just did not fit with any of the forms of racism that I was familiar with as an African-American who grew up in Washington DC. When I went back a second time, I was studying in Bremen in a context with other African-Americans and Africans. That was incredibly revealing, and taught me more about how to understand some of the responses I was getting.

Toward the end of my stay I happened, literally happened, to meet an Afro-German man on the street and had a conversation with him about being black and German, and there was something that distinguished his experience from mine because, as he described it, he had no point of reference. I remember him saying, “I am only German. I don't have a history of slavery. I don't have a history of a community that has fought racism or that has battled discrimination. I'm at the point where I am trying to gather that, to martial that as a set of resources that I can draw on to create this thing that I call Blackness in Germany, or Afro-German. I'm doing that in the absence of what you have – your history as an African-American.”

And it was that notion of being alone with the experiences that I had that struck me. As an African-American, I have a family and a history of my community that I can fall back on. We talk about the forms of racialisation that we've experienced. And he was describing having similar experiences, but not having the community or the resources to draw on, and the fact this was just starting for him. He explained to me that he had actually just begun to talk about his experiences with other black people, and that this was part of a new movement of Afro-Germans that was forming in the mid-80s.

This was about a week or so before I was leaving to come back to the US, and I got on my plane and I came back home and that was when I started researching the history of black people in Germany. And I started learning more about myself through that history. So it was literally that conversation – that one serendipitous conversation in Bremen on a corner at a street fair – that made me want to understand how a black community comes to take on the identity of blackness in the absence of a pre-existing community or even other black family members.

 Campt images 2

Moving on to your more recent work on photography, how do you envision the use of vernacular images – i.e. photos of everyday things and subjects, often taken by amateurs – in historical research for documenting history as well as historical subjectivities?

Vernacular photography is different from art photography because it's frequently unintentional, usually produced by non-professionals, and often produced for personal rather than public display. I love working on vernacular photography because of the fact that it is neither a top-down nor a bottom-up view or perspective. You're not necessarily dealing with the levels of intentionality that formal photography is usually displaying, but it's also not random in any way, shape or form. It forces us to tease out the relationship between the intentional and the happenstance, and in that little corner between the two you get the most amazing insights into social relationships. For me, vernacular photography is always about establishing a social relationship, a relationship between the photographer and the sitter, a relationship between the photographer and the person who has or who keeps the photo, and the connection that's forged in the handing on and handing off of the photograph.

Vernacular photographs are always about connecting people and that's not necessarily the case in other kinds of photography. These are in no way static images. For example, we usually look at a school photograph to identify people in class or school in a particular moment in time. But I actually like to look behind the photograph and think about the relationships happening in the picture, or those that made that picture come together. For example, in the school photographs I analyse in the book, what struck me were a series of questions: What kind of energy does it take to get together three dozen little boys to stand still for a moment in front of a camera? What does it mean to centre the only black child in that photograph? How must it feel when he's all the way at the back in the corner? What is the relationship between those school children and their teacher? So, again, when you think about the photograph as establishing a number of relationships, vernacular photography is trying to stage them and to engage us in ways that have different motivations than other forms of photography.

Campt images 1

One of the most useful concepts you use throughout the book is “haptic” (meaning ‘of relating to touch’).

The haptic is about how photographs are objects that are touched but also objects that touch. They move us to respond and solicit responses from us. I use haptic in the broadest sense of touch, meaning physical touch as well as emotional and affective touch. Photographs are uniquely haptic objects because we want physical contact with them – we only make them to be able to have them physically present in our lives, and we make them to allow them to touch and to move us.

In Image Matters, you juxtapose private pictures from your own family albums with images from black communities taken either in Germany or in the UK. What were you looking for by juxtaposing them?

One of the reasons I find it necessary to juxtapose the images that blacks in Birmingham made of themselves against the images those of other black communities, as well as those that were made of Blacks for example in the Picture Post, was because I believe these photos are actually trying to speak to and speak back to each other. What's at stake for me in doing this is what I talk about in the last chapter. I talk about my own family photographs and why I'm not yet able to do the kind of analysis of those family photographs that I do of other family photographs. I can't do it yet because my proximity, my emotional and affective proximity, to them is too intense. But the impetus for me to actually write this book was that in looking at these images I was seeing my own family in them. But they're not my family. They're very different people, and I have to respect that and have to learn to understand those differences. But I also have to honour the connection I feel to them.

These are people making photographs of themselves in ways that project dignity, that claim a space of dignity within their country, over and explicitly against the racialisation of them as cultural and racial ‘others’. So the diasporic link between them is that we are mobilising visual culture to create diasporic subjectivities in our specific cultural and historical contexts. What is intrinsically diasporic for me about the conversation between these images is the extent to which I borrow from the Black British context and the Black German context in order to understand the complexities of diasporic formation. I can't understand diaspora through only African-Americans – there's no way I can do that. I can only understand diaspora by understanding my own location in relationship to other communities, how they struggle with, and actually thrive, under circumstances of racial oppression. So to me, again, diaspora is what happens when you're in one place and still have to connect to and utilise the resources of other black communities to make sense of your own.

 Campt images 3

Photographs courtesy of Tina Campt (all rights reserved). 

Photo panel 1 (from left to right): Barnes-Hammond Family, maternal grandparents, aunts and uncle of Tina Campt. Cora and Vinie Brooks, maternal great aunts of Tina Campt. Douglas Campt and Noel Hammond Campt, parents of Tina Campt.

Panel 2: James Barnes (left), maternal grandfather of Tina Campt. James Barnes, maternal grandfather of Tina Campt.

Panel 3: Photos of women taken by the English studio photographer, Ernest Dyche 1948-1960.

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For further reading around the subject see:

 

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Comments

By far one of the most insightful interviews given! Thank you for this!

As an American African (American being the adjective describing the noun - in the same manner that we say Western European, East Asian or Western Chinese)  I agree with her take on the contribution of American African discourse as a work when considered with the whole. I'd never even thought about this it before but it is another way to percieve my relationship with the country of my birth. Regardless the experience of Africa's Children in the country, by virtue of the relationship this country has had with the rest of the World, African voices eminating from within it take on many of the signature aspects of this country's voice. This just simply is. At the same time all listeners should be conscious of this. Such a perspective helps to properly consider information when received especially when the info has to be compared or co-articulated with that of contributors from other parts of the world. Just last week I asked a good friend why his energy was so different from that of other Nigerians I know. Actually I said, "What kind of Nigerian are you?!". He rolled his eyes and said, "Brother, my tribe is different from theirs. We are from the North and don't find all that necessary but they are a lot of fun.". In like manner, it may only be one or two tribes from Nigeria that have become the face of Nigeria to non-Nigerians just as due to geo-politics South Africa, and now Nigeria and increasingly Kenya and Zimbabwe command more attention when speaking on things of Africa. It doesn't make them definitive sources necessarily but it does make them feel like it when one is the listener and not familiar with the beautiful dynamics of The Great Mother.This is the primary reason say Madiba is held in such high regard while it seems quite easy to dismiss Mugabe. I could no sooner tell you which is right or wrong but I would definitely say a Mandela beholden to reconciliation would be a media darling for the West vs. a Mandela who was more practical about the intractable nature one gains from a 1000 + years of unabated conquest. In this regard Mugabe seems much more spot on. Obviously I don't know President Mugabe or if any of the accusations against him are true. If so, I would then only consider that you're telling me he's a brutal leader along the lines of say, de Klerk, who interestingly received a Nobel Peace Prize and probably wouldn't have been referred to the ICC were it in existence. This is why it is very important to consider the history and the origins of a voice, as one considers what ever its being tasked to in the moment, for you run the risk needlessly assigning it power.