Letters

Letters Archive


Fall 2007, Vol. 15, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

“Conceptualizing Diaspora, Reconceptualizing Europe:
Black Europe, or Diaspora Studies in Europe”

Lucius Outlaw and Tracy Denean
Sharpley-Whiting

An Interview with Lucius Outlaw and Tracy Sharpley-Whiting

Conceptualizing Diaspora, Reconceptualizing Europe: Black Europe, or Diaspora Studies in Europe,” the 2007–2008 Fellows Program at the Warren Center, will focus on the newly emergent field of Black European Studies that has entered into conversation with various disciplines, periods, and methodologies within the academy. By engaging black diasporic presence throughout Europe and the relationship between black historical positions—as conquerors, slaves, and colonial subjects, for example—the Fellows will enter into a larger conversation about race, identity, and origins. Lucius Outlaw, professor of philosophy and Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education, and Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and French, are this year’s co-directors. Professor Outlaw and Professor Sharpley-Whiting recently met at the Vaughn Home to discuss the program with Letters.

Letters: In your proposal, you focused on the concept of ‘Black Europe’ as an emergent sub-field of African diaspora studies. Could you say a little bit more about the idea of Black Europe and about the cultural context that has led to its growing importance?

Sharpley-Whiting: I think we’ve been doing Black European Studies for quite awhile—it just wasn’t called that. We can go all the way back to Frank Snowden’s work on the engagement of race in Europe, specifically in antiquity, and the questions of blacks in Europe. I think that what has happened of late is that more scholars are coming together to create a sub-field of diaspora studies in which they collectively explore this idea of Black Europe. There’s also a growing population now of blacks in Europe, and so there has been a desire on the part of scholars to explore their experiences in Europe, how they differ from one another and how their experiences differ from the African American experience; because, of course, generally, when people think of Black Europe they often think about African Americans in France, which is a very different experience from those people who migrated to Europe from various colonies or who were born and raised in places throughout the continent. We’re hoping to look at these issues broadly—the African American experience as well as the Black European experience. I think it’s also important because the concept of black Europeans is also a relatively new concept, because race is an issue that’s very contested in Europe—in Germany in particular the word is, well, verboten. In France, people don’t typically recognize ‘race,’ and so the idea that people would identify themselves as black French, black Germans, or black Europeans is radically different given particularly the French position that everyone is simply French. So these studies challenge the idea of what it means to be French, to be German, to be Spanish, to be Italian. Equally, scholars are also trying to challenge this notion of European-ness because, of course, these countries had been individual nation-states uninterested in forging a collective identity, but the Euro has put them in an interesting position by which they function as a kind of United States of Europe under the European Union. So the idea of what it now means to be European is also a very new concept.

Outlaw: I’m very grateful that Tracy initiated this seminar project and invited me to join in, because it will give me a chance to learn and grow. So the fact that I asked her to begin is a key reminder that she brought me in on this. We want to take a look at the whole notion of this something called ‘Europe’ and how it has been constituted and reconstituted over time—traces of the notion of ‘union’ have put an entirely new set of pressures on this concept as various peoples who became nation-states now try to reimagine themselves as something more unified. Each of these renegotiations is pretty challenging and demanding—but then you throw into the mix something called ‘black folks,’ and you have to think of them as being pulled from the U.S., from various parts of Africa, and you have to consider that those positions are different. Folks from Francophone Africa are not exactly the same—though not totally dissimilar—from the folk from British Africa, or Dutch Africa, or Portuguese Africa. All of those construals of identity, history, culture, and politics are up for serious consideration as to what they mean and what their interactions mean. I’m also very interested in another direction of this project, which is the consideration of something called ‘Europe’ on something called ‘Africa.’ Because the developments of both are inextricably related—and this stretches over several centuries of development—you can’t understand one without understanding the other. It’s, for me, a tremendous opportunity to learn and to do so in the presence of people from a number of different disciplines. In some sense, I have this title of co-director when, really, I’m a disguised student.

Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting

Sharpley-Whiting: I feel like Lou is a natural partner in this because his work has always challenged the ideas of ‘Europe’ and ‘European-ness.’ And like he said: this notion of Europe simply could not exist without a notion of Africa. Most Europeanists simply don’t recognize that; Americans, of course, are enthralled by Europe and emulate all things European. What they assume to be European, however, is not necessarily European-derived—very simple things, even, like the ritual of high tea or drinking tea associated with the British. There are no tea plantations in the United Kingdom, and yet this is something associated with European high culture. I think there are all kinds of ways in which we are trying to unpack the idea of Europe and what it means—and I think Europe appears, in many ways, as a culturally impenetrable place, that people believe it can export ideas about technology and development to all of these distant places and not itself absorb and take from those places. Certainly we know Europe took raw materials, but it took more than raw materials and peoples; it equally absorbed other cultures, and so Europe is just as fluid culturally, just as mixed culturally, as the Caribbean, for instance.

Letters: Given these ongoing conversations about Black Europe, what gaps or issues do you hope the group will address? Considering the kind of mutual absorption you’ve been discussing, is this kind of study something we can only accomplish through interdisciplinary?

Outlaw: Yes. There’s no way that any single purported discipline can appropriately handle all of the relevant questions and seek answers to them, because no discipline has the scope of conception or of method to pose and resolve all of the pertinent questions. Take, for example, the single issue of tea that Tracy mentioned before; with my training as a philosopher, I couldn’t trace that issue because I wasn’t trained to do it, and I would have to consult a food anthropologist to help me. I would have to say, “I need someone who knows something about trade, about colonialism, about enslavement.” Because, given a background in academic philosophy, I—and people like me—am miseducated to even begin to deal with issues like that. If you were to look internally to academic philosophy, you couldn’t even begin to formulate these questions—the questions are not even there in the disciplinary literature base for me to get at the presumptions. You have to generate the questions from outside the norms of the discipline to even get at them, much less begin to resolve them.

Sharpley-Whiting: I would love to get back to Lou’s point about this whole idea of Europe, its identity and what it means. I could explore, particularly, the relationship between France and the West Indies that were absorbed into France-proper as part of France overseas; they function as part of France, partaking in things like the national elections. So they are, in fact, ‘Europe,’ although they are located in the Caribbean. Already we have this messiness in which Europe is not as bounded geographically as we think it might be—this is something I’d like to push because I’m a person who was trained in French studies. Most French scholars don’t think of France in that context; there is still a metropole-former-colony paradigm. So what does this say about where Europe, or France, is—especially when you look at the Euro dollar and see such countries as Martinique, Guadaloupe on the dollar? This opens up discussions about the expanse of the European Union and about blacks’ condition and understanding of being European even when they are, as I like to say, in the southern-most parts of France, that is, where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic.

Outlaw: This brings us back to a notion that gets a fair amount of play—particularly in the past decade, decade and a half—and that is the concept of ‘Eurocentrism.’ There is a particular formulation that I hope we’ll work on and touch on in the seminar, because I’m sure that there’s a conception that covers a great deal of what we call ‘Europe’ and its component pieces, which becomes a fundamental driving force of the expansion and migration of peoples out of Europe and other parts of the world to create these various empires and colonies, even into the Americas. At the center of Eurocentrism are notions about race, and peoples, and a whole bunch of other stuff that has been driving what we call ‘histories of identity’. These histories have enormous consequences for large portions of this field of study and for peoples of ‘Europe’—and some of those consequences are hardly what we would call progressive. They are constitutive, in some senses, of the very notion of what it means to be European. I think the U.S. is still playing these forces out in Iraq, so we need to explore some of this. These issues relate back to our body politic and certainly to our identity formations. Thus they call for revisiting identities and identity histories. One of the ways in which I like to express this revisitation in academic philosophy is to look critically at the standard accountings of the history of origins of so-called ‘Western’ philosophy—supposedly Greece is the originary source, where there is a kind of emergence in one place, with no prior instance anywhere else on the planet, of a unique form of thought among human beings which then spreads across much of Europe. This is an absurd notion, but it’s a notion that has been definitive of the identities of peoples of Europe and North America, and it has been replicated in universities. But what if we consider Greece and its relationship to a continent that we now call ‘Africa’? Once you look back and start retelling that story, the whole identity that has been lodged in that story of origins has got to be reworked. The result is equivalent to folks finding out that their father isn’t really their father. You had your identity tied to a father who looked a certain kind of way and had a particular skin color, and it turns out that your father has very different skin color, a very different kind of hair, and so forth. Thus, I think a lot of these interdisciplinary intersections, explorations of these questions of origins, will be rather destabilizing to identities, histories, and supposed knowledge of origins. We may have to have some really serious counseling sessions before it’s all over!

Letters: The question of disciplinary origins and interactions is an interesting one; it becomes even more interesting when we consider that this seminar is bringing together scholars from English, French studies, history, and philosophy. How do you see these specific disciplines interacting with this year’s theme of ‘Black Europe’? How do they aid each other?

Sharpley-Whiting: English departments have always had a position on the cutting edge of cultural studies—but, of course, they’re also English departments. If you’re trained in the languages, it aids you in moving across the languages and cultures in interesting ways; it’s different if one doesn’t necessarily have access to those languages and that kind of comparative work. Those who are involved in the seminar have that interest in moving across cultures and languages, so I think it will be quite fruitful because, again, they’re all doing cutting edge of research. Most of that work has been done so far is in English and the Anglophone world, and that can limit accessibility and exchange when many scholars globally are writing in, say, French, or reading in French or in other languages. This will be a nice way to intersect and learn. History is also an extremely important discipline for me—I’m just delighted with the number of historians participating—it’s one of those foundational disciplines that are absolutely critical to the enterprise because we have to study how things change over time. At the same time, history is a kind of discipline where they’re trained methodologically in a certain way and are very fact-based. This will make things interesting because, in my field, French studies, we can draw assumptions; there’s a certain way in which we can make certain inferences between culture and literature, we can draw out ideas. At times historians can be reticent about that—they will say, “where is it in the archive? I want facts.” I think it’ll be an interesting dialogue in that sense because there will be a lot of give-and-take. Some historians have recently begun to think along those lines and explore the ways that literature itself can inform historical analysis; that’s a very radical concept. We’ll be dialoging and talking across these disciplines, and many of us are already doing interdisciplinary work—many of us are already involved in black studies, so that by its very nature the seminar is an interdisciplinary project. For those of us coming from a black studies background, we are already deeply involved in this project of interdisciplinarity because we had to cross-train. We couldn’t just read within our disciplines; we’ve had to read across the feminist canon, we read historical texts, anthropological texts, economics, and that makes the work a lot richer.

Outlaw: One of the interesting things about the seminar is that we’ve got a rather significant generational spread.

Sharpley-Whiting: A whole generation of historians to corrupt!

Lucius Outlaw

Outlaw: We’ve got people from several generations, disciplines, and a number of sections of the country and the world. For most of us, choosing a career in the academy wasn’t so much a matter of pursuing a specific discipline as it was about looking into certain kinds of issues. And so, though we all had to get degrees to play this life-game in the academy, we had to get degrees in disciplines that could help us look into those issues. So, while we pursued those issues on disciplinary bases, we’ve refused to be confined by the borders of those disciplines because our commitments were to issues, causes, people. And we’ve been very powerful critics of the disciplines of which we’ve been a part; we’ve been about asking questions and dealing with peoples and issues. We don’t have to make a case for interdisciplinarity because we’re cosmopolite intellectuals prepared to read across, through, under, over, and around all kinds of things. It will make things fruitful, but it also makes things unpredictable; that makes this a very exciting project.

Letters: The generational gap that you’re identifying doesn’t only occur in regard to the faculty. In your proposal, you mentioned that you plan to open seminars to graduate students pursuing work in African and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt. What influenced this decision? What do you hope that the graduate students will contribute to and carry away from these discussions?

Sharpley-Whiting: We’re actually proposing a certificate in diaspora studies at the graduate level, so we’re hoping that some of those students who may enroll in the course—it would be held in the spring and is called ‘Conceptualizing Diaspora’—will be able to interface with the seminar. Some of the reading will actually be pulled from this seminar; we’re hoping that the two will dovetail nicely. Again, many of them may be Europeanists, and they’ll be thinking in new ways about blackness in Europe; I think that France is really the only country that really has a commitment to black studies, and it ultimately winds up being African American studies and is very African American centered. It’s very easy to get caught up in that dialogue, and I’m hoping our seminar will kind of explode that so that people can see blacks in their diversity across the continent. I’m hoping that the students will just be able to take from that and find other linkages with their own work. We’d like to have the students participate if we have a conference or small gathering.

Outlaw: If we think about what it means for graduate students, we have to think about what it means to have new concepts and discussions emerging about Black Europe. They seem like new concepts, but they aren’t. It isn’t a box into which you can fit everything neatly, but more of a heuristic guide that allows us to deal with complexity. If you can get graduate students who are already becoming very skilled at taking very complex dynamic notions and figuring out how to concretize them for something in particular they want to look at without reifying it, you’ve got some people who will walk out the door with new and different intellectual skill sets that are marketable and applicable. Hopefully we can contribute to a generation of intellectuals who won’t have to be untrained to be retrained to do this kind of intellectual work. A lot of us, in some ways, had to free ourselves from very constricting notions about race, about ethnicity, about gender, about human nature, sexual orientation, about intellectual work. They can be free from the kinds of impediments that we ran up against and had to deal with before moving forward.

Sharpley-Whiting: Absolutely. As an interdisciplinary discipline, it’s important that the idea of diaspora studies looks beyond the interactions we typically discuss in terms of the Caribbean, Latin America, and places generally southward—putting Europe within that construct of diaspora brings something very different to the table and opens a different kind of dialogue. It’s important to recognize that Africa and the U.S. have a certain kind of centrality; but we should look to other places where blacks have migrated to or been, or experienced forced migration. Europe has always had this very interesting relationship to black studies—again, very limited—so I think that it’s important to explore those tensions. It’s not always going to be kumbaya, and when I think about this I draw on my own experiences with black Europeans and their perceptions of us not as African Americans but as Americans; from this perspective they’re very European, they’re indeed French, German, or what have you. There’s a certain admiration, but a certain tension as well. America holds an important place in world affairs, and while there’s admiration we’re not exempt from accusations of imperialism. For graduate students I think it’ll be a whole different experience to explore these tensions as well.

Letters: Both of you have extensive experience directing programs in diaspora studies—here and elsewhere. How do you each see those experiences influencing your desires to direct this program and defining your goals for the year?

Outlaw: Really, it’s a kind of easy, natural continuation. That is to say, for us old-heads and the second generation folk like Tracy, you get into this game and know that you’re immediately getting into a venture that requires a lot of politics. A lot of the work over the past thirty-five or forty years in this sort of second wave of black and African American studies is about figuring out what this is about, and what we’re defining methodologically, conceptually, and pragmatically. These are matters regarding which we’ve had to fight about professionally in order to get recognition for doing something that more than a few in the prevailing disciplines said wasn’t worth being done, but should be. So this is a continuation of effort for me, with subsequent generations building on Tracy and my generations, and this is a multidisciplinary effort. It’s easier to do this when you have already- accomplished people involved, young folk, especially, who already have research projects up off the ground, and have begun moving into a different, more advanced stage of their work, and who are engaging these questions while considering “what’s going to be the next project?” For me, this seminar will be a very stimulating and fun context for raising issues that are very challenging and productive in the contemporary historical and cultural context. It’s no longer about legitimating what we do.

Sharpley-Whiting: I agree. My generation has benefited from the previous generation legitimizing the work that we do—they had to do the battling for the project of black studies, so, often, we take it for granted that people understand that it’s a worthy intellectual endeavor. From where Europeans stand, it is as well; in my position as a professor or as a director of black studies, I’ve always done European studies, black European studies, but it wasn’t until much later that I began to interact with black Europeans and to recognize how important it is to really shine the spotlight on the way that this is an area of study that is as legitimate as studying the American black experience—to look at that experience globally. So what I recognize is that it’s a difficult question for them; the legitimacy question is a difficult one because you’re running up against old concepts of race. You have Germany, which has a history of being divided over the concept of race. The idea of difference in the study of race digs up a lot of nasty old history that, oftentimes, Europe would like, collectively, to wash away. It’s very easy for people to look at the United States and talk about racial tensions and “what we’ve done.” As a black person traveling in Europe, I hear all the time about slavery and racism, and how Europeans purportedly take a very different stand— “we don’t do that here, we don’t discriminate on the basis of race in Europe.” And yet you have this group of black Europeans who may not very well accept the term ‘black,’ but many of whom have had extremely marginalizing experiences; and it’s very important for us to know about those experiences, not just black people, but intellectuals in general. The black presence in Europe is not a new phenomenon, and that’s something that troubles the concept of European-ness.

Outlaw: Your mother and father aren’t who you think they are.

Sharpley-Whiting: Right! And you certainly wouldn’t be who you think you are without that other presence.

Outlaw: Again, it’s as I was saying before regarding the U.S.; if most white people in this country really understood how powerfully penetrating the cultural creativity and contributions and appropriations of African peoples have been to who they are, they would really have to think about themselves very differently. The contributions and appropriations are so deep and wide that most white folks don’t know about all of this—just don’t know. And to come to know requires rethinking who one is. We would have to begin with a notion of whiteness that doesn’t include supremacy. Such rethinking is going to take a lot of work. The seismic shocks from doing so are not going to be mild. Rather, they will be powerful, and we will all have to get to it and through the shocks, which will be challenging. Very, very challenging.

Letters: How does this renegotiation relate to past renegotiations of identity and race?

Outlaw: It actually makes me think about my very first trip to Europe, when I was an undergraduate, which would have been the summer of 1966—a pretty decisive period given the sit-ins and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s during this moment, while I was out in Scandanavia, that we get this first call for “Black Power!” In response, the U.S. and western Europe were having a hissy fit, asking “what does all of this mean?” For many in my generation of young black folks, it meant refusing to stand for the national anthem because we refused to identify with a racist U.S. It meant becoming disaffected with the U.S. However, when I got to Europe, Scandinavia, folks would greet us, “hello, Americans,” though all the while some of us were insisting, “no, no, that’s not what or who I am.” Having to deal with that kind of misrecognition is difficult; you have a sense of being distant from something while others identify you with it. Pretty soon you have to come to terms with the fact that you are, indeed, shaped by that identity you seek to deny, with which you wish to disaffiliate. Years later, in 1974, I was a part of a U.S. delegation of African Americans who traveled to East Africa for the Sixth Pan African Conference. When the first planeload of delegates landed on the African continent, there was loud applause for being ‘back’ in the Motherland, and several people got off the plane and kissed the ground of Mother Africa (of course, they were kissing tarmac laid by Israelis, which brings its own complications). However, two weeks later, when the plane carrying delegates landed at New York’s Kennedy Airport, there was even louder applause from many who were very glad to be ‘back home.’ In other words, there were a lot of people who, in a very short time, had come to terms with the fact that they were, indeed, Americans. On the way out of the country, they’d declared, “we’re against this racist U.S.” After about a week in Africa, some of the same folks had begun to say, “man, I sure wish I had a Big Mac!”

Letters: Thanks to both of you for joining us, and for giving us an exciting glimpse into what promises to be a fruitful and unpredictable year. Your project shows promise for destabilizing notions of identity and having an impact on disciplines across the humanities and beyond the university.

Letters Archive Index

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