Theses Doctoral

Mapping the Global Black South: Aesthetics, Labor, and Diaspora

McInnis, Jarvis Conell

Recent scholarship on black transnationalism and diaspora in the early twentieth century has largely focused on migration to the urban centers of the US North and Western Europe. “Mapping the Global Black South: Aesthetics, Labor, and Diaspora” revises this discourse by exploring the movement of people, cultural practices, and ideas between the US South and the Caribbean as an alternative network of African diasporic affiliation. According to Caribbean theorist Édouard Glissant, “the Plantation system” created a “rhythm of economic production” and a “style of life” that links the US South to the Caribbean and parts of Latin America. Building on Glissant’s geographic frame, this dissertation establishes the plantation—a fundamentally modern form of labor organization—as the figural and literal organizing principle of “the global black south”: a matrix of diasporic articulation, subject formation, and knowledge and cultural production. Through close readings of works by Booker T. Washington, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Price-Mars, this study examines how African American and Caribbean writers and intellectuals mobilized aesthetics—literature, music, photographs, and performance—to imagine alternative futures within and against the legacy of the plantation.
By drawing on theories of the plantation in Caribbean and New Southern Studies, “Mapping the Global Black South” makes critical interventions in the field of African American Studies, where the plantation is almost exclusively regarded as a metonym for slavery and anti-modernity. In Caribbean Studies, by contrast, scholars have proposed a more nuanced rendering of the plantation as the genesis of black modern life and culture, and in New Southern Studies, it has been reconceived as the link that tethers the US South to the global south (based on similar patterns of underdevelopment). Through an interdisciplinary and multimedia methodology, then, this study interrogates the paradox of the plantation as at once local and global, fecund and barren, static and fungible—as a site of agricultural production that animates the flow of global capital, on the one hand, and a modern technology of power that exploits the land and the bodies forced to work it, on the other. In so doing, it establishes the plantation as a matrix of global black south cultures that revises traditional understandings of black modernity and creates new systems of connectivity and legibility for contemporary scholarship.
Moreover, in reconsidering the plantation as a crucible of black modernity, “Mapping the Global Black South” reconstructs the historical significance of the Tuskegee Institute—a former plantation turned industrial school—as a nodal point of black diasporic affiliation and a model for resolving one of the fundamental predicaments of New World blackness: the problem of free labor. Given that slavery was a system of coerced and exploitative labor, the greatest challenge of emancipation throughout the global black south was transforming a mass of formerly enslaved persons into autonomous workers. Thus, by the turn of the twentieth century, black artists and intellectuals from across the region began to embrace (and adapt) Booker T. Washington’s vision of an agrarian and industrial future (by way of Tuskegee) as a strategy for racial uplift and self-determination. Whereas Washington’s reformism is commonly reduced to a foil for W.E.B. Du Bois’ radicalism, this dissertation resituates Washington within a hemispheric framework to reconsider how his theories contribute to a more capacious epistemology of the “plantation” in African American Studies.
“Mapping the Global Black South” is thus organized around two interrelated concerns: the plantation as an alternative framework of black transnationalism and a site of cultural production that evinces the persistence of black life within structures of social death; and Tuskegee’s significance as a symbol of modernity and a nodal point of diasporic articulation at the turn of the twentieth century. In so doing, it illuminates how the plantation shaped the new futures that emerged in the US South and the Caribbean in the aftermath of slavery.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Griffin, Farah J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 1, 2015