Our first Forum author is Dr. Peter James Hudson. Dr. Hudson is an Assistant Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. He received his PhD in American Studies from New York University in 2007. His research focuses on the history of capitalism, the history of American imperialism, and the history of the Africa diaspora in North America. He is currently completing a manuscript, titled “Dark Finance: Wall Street and the West Indies, 1873-1933,” which examines the political and economic history of US banking and financial institutions in the Caribbean. In this Forum article, Dr. Hudson urges scholars to consider the usefulness of racialized global capitalism as a vantage point for considering African diaspora experience which, he argues, is as powerful as (and possibly even more relevant than) the broad trope of “culture.”
Peter James Hudson, Vanderbilt University
“Culture” has proven itself to be among the most generative tropes for approaching the history of the African diaspora over the past few decades. Certainly, culture has provided the theoretical grounds for some of the richest arguments for and examples of modes of Black trans-Atlantic solidarity and affiliation. In culture – in the New World histories of syncretism, creolization, and hybridity, as well as in the literary, performative, and religious “practices” of Black transnationalism – we have found the stubborn means of Black survival, the persistence of radical Black memory, and the shelter of vindicationism from anti-Black racism.
But what has also emerged through the “uses” of culture is not only its analytical ambivalence but also, I would argue, its analytical exhaustion. Everyone, it seems, claims culture while culture makes a claim on every last thing. Culture provides the material for both the so-called essentialisms of Black cultural nationalism and Afrocentrism and for the dispersed lineages and paradoxical disavowals of post-national and post-racial disaffiliations. Culture has been evoked as the site of liberation, agency, and self-determination – yet it also carries the stain of pathology and collective restraint and is evoked as an impediment to modernity. For African Diaspora studies, then, culture is both resistance and acquiescence. It is both agency and constraint. It carries the seeds of freedom while it wears the cloak of bondage.
Where once Black culture could be evoked for its oppositional relationship to the capitalist market, on one hand, and the racial state, on the other, now it has been defanged, denuded of dissident valence, and repurposed for the expansion of markets and the neutralization of progressive Black politics. The noble plea for the incorporation of difference has become the celebratory promotion of Difference, Incorporated while the improved conditions of Black representation (at least in certain visible areas) have had little effect on improving the actual conditions of Black life.
Given these contemporary conditions, we would do well to ask if recourse to culture still provides the necessary critical apparatus for thinking about the paradoxes and “predicaments” of Blackness and of the African Diaspora? Culture, of course, will always be with us in one form or another – it is precisely its malleability and openness that makes it so attractive and analytically productive. Yet if all is culture, is culture all? And can what is arguably the hegemony of culture in African Diaspora studies be displaced in favor of other analytics and approaches?
One way around the apparent hegemony of culture is through the development of what I’m calling a “corporate turn” in African Diaspora studies. The corporate turn could mark a renewed attention to the institutions, individuals, and entities of exchange and exploitation that have forged the structural contexts in which black identity, the conditions of black life and, ultimately, Black culture, have emerged. The corporate turn calls for the reincorporation of political economy and business and economic history with African Diaspora studies and it demands that we take seriously the institutional history of what Cedric Robinson has termed “racial capitalism”: the simultaneous, and intertwined emergence of whitesupremacy and capitalism in the modern world.
Already, the corporate turn can be found within the tradition of Caribbean political economy pioneered by the West Indian scholars associated with the New World Group as well as in the scholarly and activist work interrogating the racial economies of the prison industrial complex. The corporate turn has also appeared within the Africanist context where there have been calls to reassess the writing of African business history. And of course, the corporate turn has its intellectual precedents in the intellectual history of Black Marxism, the analytical approaches of Black Marxists, and the ontological dispositions of the Black radical tradition.
Yet the corporate turn would require not merely exhuming the biographies of the exceptional figures of Black radicalism. It requires going beyond simply reclaiming their characters to extending their critiques. It requires, as Fanon wrote of Marxism in the colonial context, “stretching” the historical approaches to racial capitalism so as to make them relevant to both modern conditions and contemporary apprehensions of the past. Another way of framing the analytical horizons of the corporate turn in African Diaspora Studies is to consider the kinds of critical projects that the progenitors of the Black radical tradition and Black Marxist thought would take on today, in our own historical moment. How, then, would W. Alpheus Hunton consider the relationship of the global expansion of Citigroup and other multinational banks to global racial formations? How would George Padmore critique the rise of AFRICOM and US commercial and strategic aims in Africa? What lessons would CLR James offer on the course of the Arab – or, more precisely, African – Spring? How would Claudia Jones view the rise of the new, transnational monopolies of Google and Walmart and the growth of multicultural neoliberalism? How would Hubert H. Harrison view the effects of the financial crisis on the Black World? How, in short, can contemporary scholars of the African Diaspora reinvigorate this traditional of radical black political economy and anti-colonialism so as to bring it up to speed with the specific conjunctures and questions of present?
In all cases, it requires analyzing racial capitalism conjointly with financial capitalism, capitalist globalization with global whitesupremacy, neoliberalism with neocolonialism, and, ultimately, the formation of Black culture with the and through the historical practices of corporatization.
Recourse only to culture cannot begin to address such modern Black entanglements. Following the corporate turn in African Diaspora studies can.
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