Thursday, September 25, 2014

Jason McGraw

Jason McGraw is associate professor of history at Indiana University. His new book is The Work of Recognition: Caribbean Colombia and the Postemancipation Struggle for Citizenship (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Cara Caddoo is author of Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (Harvard University Press, 2014).

Caddoo interviewed McGraw about The Work of Recognition:

What led you to this topic (Afro-Colombians, Colombia, this era)? I was thinking of a question that gets to your personal story if you are comfortable with that. Did you say you backpacked around South America during college?

That’s right, I traveled across northern South America and Central America in the 1990s, mainly to see places my family had lived. But I was very wary of going through Colombia, since those years were the height of the conflict there, and as a typical person from the States with limited knowledge of the place, all I could think about was drugs, guns, bombings, and kidnappings. But I did go through the country (instead of around it). And it was incredible. I fell for the place.

The Caribbean coast of Colombia was particularly fascinating. It has some of the oldest European and African settlements in the Americas, and it is still home to some of the first peoples to make contact with Europeans after 1492. As I began to do research in Colombia, I found a lot of information about former slaves of African descent. That was a history I knew about from other places, and I was in school to study that subject. Yet despite Afro-Colombians make up about one-quarter of the population, there was little written that described what happened after slavery ended in 1852. So I thought to myself, “Job security!”

What I found in Colombia was a version of what happened in many countries after they freed their slaves. The time after slave emancipation was a crucial period for making sense of what freedom would look like, of who could take part in public life, and of what it meant to have and to practice rights. Colombia (like other places) freed its slaves without agreement on what freedom meant. This lack of agreement created a great deal of conflict between former slaves, free people of color, political bosses, church leaders, lawyers, and merchants.

How can this story help us understand today?

Many of our ideas of freedom come from the period after slavery was abolished, and they are contested today just as they were then. Groups from the NRA and Tea Party to the Occupy Wall St. movement and protest movement around the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have made political claims based on freedom. Everyone claims to fight for freedom, but no one agrees on what it means. Although I’m not trying to offer lessons for today, perhaps understanding that these ideas have been disputed for a very long time could open up new ways to think about the moment we are living through.

I will admit that the idea of freedom has resonance more in the United States, whereas in Latin America justice or social justice is the more powerful concept. Yet you do see various Latin American social movements embracing the idea of libertad.

I also hope that by contributing to Afro-Colombian history I can offer something constructive to the politics and community building currently taking place in their country. I want readers to know that black people cannot be equated with slaves—which is a common perception in Colombia—that people of African descent have engaged in freedom struggles for a long time, and that this process did not end when slavery was formally abolished in 1852.

Is there anything strange or unexpected you discovered during your research?

The strangest find by far was the story of a man who appeared on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in 1898 calling himself El Enviado de Dios—“The One Sent from God.” He was a messiah figure who carried on his back an invisible cross, and he went around blessing newborns, performing marriages, claiming healing powers, and preaching to the poor about spiritual renewal. He quickly amassed about 10,000 followers. These men and women forced Catholic priests out of their communities, occupied parish churches, and began taking cattle from ranches to feed themselves and other impoverished Colombians. All of this so unnerved the church and state that the government sent a military gunship to take him out—a late nineteenth-century version of a drone strike, if you will. But once the messiah was eliminated, his followers erupted in violence. They armed themselves and began assassinating local government officials and priests. For almost a year they fought the Colombian army to a standstill. In fact, the authorities never were able to wipe out the movement, and some of the descendants of the original followers are, we could surmise, still living in rural communities across the coast.

What are some common misconceptions about “citizenship” that you book addresses?

What a great question! I think there are two main misconceptions. The first is that citizenship has never mattered in Latin America. There is a deep pessimism about legal and political rights in the region, with its history of military dictatorships and widespread government corruption. The second misconception is something of the other side of the coin: that all citizenship rights flowed down from the top. According to this belief, whatever the small cliques who ran governments chose to impart as the rights of the people is what counted as citizenship.

I think both assumptions are wrong for very much the same reasons. I want people to consider citizenship as, yes, existing, and also as the product of people who created it as part of their everyday lives. Recognition is a concept I use to make sense of this citizenship (borrowed from philosopher Charles Taylor), and I see this recognition as a from-the-ground-up dynamic. Ordinary citizens demanded to be recognized as citizens, and they demanded the right to grant recognition to others. They did not wait around for the government or the constitution or small ruling groups to tell them what their rights were. This did not always work out for them, and that is where the struggle of my title comes from. Citizenship, then, was created through struggle—between the powerless and powerful, poor and rich, uneducated and overeducated, people of color and white people. Citizenship is not a fixed set of rights and duties but the outcome of social relationships.

Your next book is about Jamaican music. How did you get from this topic to that one?

So, from nineteenth-century Colombia to ska and reggae seems like a stretch? I guess it is, but I have been a fan of, and doing research on Jamaican music for going on 20 years. In 1996, I went to see the Skatalites, one of the most influential Jamaican bands of the 1960s, and I was blown away by their sound and virtuosity. It was this music that inspired me to study slavery, emancipation, and the African Diaspora in the first place.

Jamaican music is one of the most written-about music cultures in the world. So, why write another book about reggae? I have two things to offer to the story of Jamaican music. The first is to show how ska, rocksteady, and reggae were made by people crossing borders. Music came into and flowed out of Kingston, Jamaica, and it was the constant circulation of people, recordings, and ideas from the Caribbean to Britain to the United States and back that created this music. The transnational nature of Jamaican music is known and often remarked upon, but no one has written a narrative of how fundamental it was to artistic creation. The second thing I have to offer is what I call the social history of the music. The musicians, singers, sound system operators, and producers were central to the music industry. But this was dance music! So, I want to put the dancers, record buyers, and listeners at the center of my story. They were also important to creating the music, and the music existed for them. (Besides, audiences and performers were not so distinct, since they usually hailed from the same Kingston neighborhoods.) It was these audiences, moreover, that carried the music across borders. The outcome of all this was the worldwide reggae explosion from the 1970s until today.

Are you reading anything right now that is influencing your writing?

I’ve been reading Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. This book is what happens when a poet lets loose on the ostensibly academic topics of history, literature, and culture. It’s a thoughtful and rhetorically powerful take on black American cultural traditions, from the slave narratives through gospel and blues to jazz and hip hop. What has struck me about Young’s book are the connections to my own work. It is helping me see new links between Jamaican music and American soul music of the 1960s—and also to see new dimensions to soul music. But Young also connects music to poetry in ways that remind me of how I used poetry in my book on Colombia. Sometimes it takes another thinker/writer to help you triangulate your ideas and establish the trajectory in your own work. Maybe I should say it always takes another to do that!
Learn more about The Work of Recognition at The University of North Carolina Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Work of Recognition.

--Marshal Zeringue