Date: March 8, 2017
Manoucheka Celeste’s recently published book, “Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the African Diaspora: Travelling Blackness”, examines the ways in which citizenship — socially and legally — is challenged by one’s identification with blackness. Dr. Celeste’s book contends that identification with blackness often comes along with additional barriers and challenges to citizenship both in terms of social belonging and national citizenship. She analyzes the interplay between blackness and citizenship through a cross-national, cross-generational lens that encompasses recent incidents of police brutality, domestic terrorism, U.S.-Haiti relations, Cuban immigration policies, European colonialism, and the questioning of President Barack Obama’s citizenship.
Dr. Celeste begins her talk with a personal anecdote that describes her first experience with "travelling blackness". As a Haitian native, she travelled from Port-au-Prince to New Jersey as an 8-year-old where she first encountered "whiteness in the form of people, ideology, and even snow". It was her first time stepping out of an environment where blackness was the norm, and “white people were only seen on T.V." Decades later, the experience was reversed when she stepped into the classroom as an African American studies professor after years of majoring in communications, where she felt "Blackness as the norm was returned to [her]". She contrasts the isolation she felt upon inhabiting spaces where "your norm is not the norm" to the sense of belonging she felt in her early years when her personal characteristics were seen as an attribute of her individuality, rather than a indicator of a racial stereotype.
Dr. Celeste moves on from sharing her personal experiences with cultural norms to discussing citizenship and immigration, two societal structures that serve to reinforce cultural norms. The concept of "citizenship" can be used to signify and uphold the norms of the dominant ideology. Immigration serves to draw a line between the "us vs. them" binary between those who are "outside the norm" and those who are within the norm. The process of immigration, particularly the U.S. immigration process, is built upon on the idea of assimilation, in which the immigrant gains entry by shedding their "otherness" and taking up the values, norms, and ideology of the dominant group, which in the U.S. is defined by "Whiteness", despite the long-standing presence of people of color.
Dr. Celeste proposes that the destination of blackness is shaped by the definition of citizenship; the struggle for legal citizenship, social belonging, and legitimacy intertwine and intersect for black immigrants and citizens alike. Drawing parallels between the immigration policies affecting Haitians and Cubans to the rash of hate crimes and police brutality in 2015, she compares transnational blackness to the experiences of blackness in the U.S.
What can be done to ameliorate this struggle and disrupt this “us vs. them” narrative? Media, political, and cultural representations of blackness can play a key role in either perpetuating or dismantling this narrative. Portrayals of "blackness" as being "exotic" and "foreign", the association of certain nations (eg. Haiti) as being "more black", and caricaturized notions of African culture — perpetuated by both black and white U.S. citizens — serve to reinforce the "us vs. them" legal citizenship binary and the over-arching "white vs. non-white" social citizenship binary.