A Center of Afro-Diasporic Possibility

This post is part of our online roundtable on Kaysha Corinealdi’s Panama in Black.

Young girl holding Panamanian flag at The Fiesta D.C. Parade, September 29, 2018, Washington, D.C. (Shutterstock)

Every October since 1995, Panamanians in Brooklyn have gathered in Crown Heights for an annual parade to celebrate Panamanian independence. Thousands of people – both lifelong New Yorkers and community groups traveling all the way from Panama –  march, drum, and dance in comparsas along a 7-block radius between Franklin and Classon Avenue. At the end, a street festival with a block party soundscape spills out into Ronald McNair Park and the surrounding streets for the rest of the evening. The Panamanian Parade in Brooklyn is all at once a distinctly local, transnational, and Black Caribbean commemorative event, drawing on a multiplicity of identity intimately familiar to Panamanians of Caribbean descent. Kaysha Corinealdi’s new book, Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean Diasporic Worldmaking in the 20th Century, engages this multiplicity as constitutive of a particular world, and retraces the making of that world, where Afro-Caribbeans are its crafters.

At the center of Corinealdi’s book are the multiple generations of Afro-Caribbeans whose migrations to Panama began largely in the 1850s as the main labor force for the construction of the U.S. Panama Railway. These migrations from islands to isthmus continued through new imperial projects, including the French attempt to build a transoceanic canal at the turn of the 20th century, and peaked during the building of the US-owned Panama Canal between 1904 and 1914, when nearly 200,000 Afro-Caribbeans arrived.

Panama in Black focuses largely on the fifty-year period following canal construction, and in many ways, decenters the Panama Canal as the primary locus of Afro-Caribbean Panamanian history. Here, Corinealdi’s work already extends a meaningful intervention in a field that has most often related to Afro-Caribbeans in Panama solely through the prism of physical labor and U.S. political governance in Latin America. Instead, Corinealdi prioritizes Afro-Caribbean strategies of community self-making and survival, and the vital role of Black diasporic activism in shaping their path. Said another way, Corinealdi tells a story of ethnogenesis; though not so much how Afro-Caribbeans became Panamanian, but how diasporic politics offered them a route through and beyond the racist exclusions of 20th century Panamanian nation-building, where an ethos of “ser Panameño,” positioned Afro-Caribbean immigrants as perpetual interlopers in a nation bound to mestizaje as the tune of its sovereignty.

Panama in Black reverberates an emerging and exciting turn toward work on Blackness in Central America – led primarily by Black feminist scholars – and reanimates scholarship about race in Panama after what we might call a generational gap. In this latter field, Corinealdi forges a new path in her refusal to examine racism and xenophobia as the sole purview of the imperial U.S. Panama Canal authorities. Instead, she carefully retraces the legal and discursive architecture of state anti-Blackness as it develops in the Republic of Panama, including national policies that for years rendered Afro-Caribbeans stateless. She also highlights moments of complicity and collaboration between Panamanian elites and the U.S. government, countering a broad scholarly and popular portrayal of Panama only as imperial victim.

In this sense, Corinealdi’s Panama in Black marks a radical shift in the literature on 20th century migration and Black communities in Panama. Corinealdi joins others in Afro-Latin American Studies by critically attending to racial hierarchy in Latin America while drawing on a Black Studies tradition that engages diaspora not only as a descriptive quality of community migration, but a form of praxis. In Corinealdi’s documentation of Afro-Caribbean worldmaking, diaspora is a thing a community does to renew its own being. By building their own community institutions and cultivating hemispheric networks of Black activism, Corinealdi argues that Afro-Caribbeans in Panama authored new meanings of citizenship that both expanded and exceeded Panamanian national belonging. In naming these practices of citizenship as “worldmaking,” Corinealdi proposes that Afro-Caribbeans in effect claimed Panama as a global center of “Afro-diasporic life and possibility” (p. 2).

To reconstruct this diaspora formation, Corinealdi turns to the Black press, and to the Panama Tribune in particular – one of the first West Indian newspapers in Panama. Founded by journalist Sidney Young in 1928, the Tribune was meant to fill a gap in reporting on issues that affected not only the Caribbean community, but Black people more broadly, in and outside of Panama. In this sense, the paper was imagined as a tool of Black diasporic politics from the start, creating a forum for community members to voice opposition to the “unrelenting presence of anti-Blackness and xenophobia,” engage in conversations about race and citizenship, and amplify activist struggle from both “Isthmian and hemispheric” perspectives.

The Panama Tribune circulated in urban centers throughout the circum-Caribbean, including in Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and parts of the U.S. And as Corinealdi notes, in focusing most coverage on the places in Panama that were home to the largest Black communities – namely the Atlantic city of Colón and the colored towns of the Canal Zone – the Tribune editors generated an alternative national geography that centered Black life.

Although the newspaper’s editorial board was comprised almost entirely of men, Afro-Caribbean women like Linda Smart Chubb also used the newspaper as a platform to critique gender hierarchies in Black activist spaces and to articulate a more horizontal vision of community work in which women were not made to “‘express their views through proxies'” (p. 33).

Throughout the book, Corinealdi continually draws our attention to such hierarchies, highlighting the peripheralization of women in both Afro-Caribbean political spaces and in primary sources. Rather than naturalizing women’s absences as a feature of the archive, she takes historical silences as an invitation to expand her sources, and as a site of gendered analysis in and of itself. Fragmented records of Afro-Caribbean women’s political subjectivity and relationships become more whole through persistent returns to those same women – as Corinealdi explained in a recent guest lecture at Harvard University, the book is structured by “a commitment to making sure that people’s stories would continue throughout…rather than drop-in as momentary evidence.”

Black women like Smart Chubb, Leanor Jump Watson, Esmé Parchment, Anesta Samuel, and others, weave in and out of the book’s chapters, appearing most vividly in her final chapter on Panamanian diasporic community in Brooklyn, as represented through the work of Las Servidoras.

Founded in 1953, Las Servidoras was an all-women organization that focused on community service and advocacy, and drew from a tradition of entrepreneurship among Caribbean women. Though the organization operated from an ethic of middle-class Christian respectability, their institutional collaborations, cultural aesthetics, and commitment to Black youth subverted the norms of Panamanian nationalism back home. These choices – for instance, a lifetime membership to the NAACP – contested “the homogeneously linguistic and supposedly raceless articulations” of Panamanian nationalism (p. 151).

Even while foregrounding diasporic belonging, Corinealdi never underestimates the material stakes of citizenship within the nation-state. Over the course of her first three chapters, she tracks the escalating and pervasive anti-Black rhetoric that circulated throughout Panama, alongside its legislative counterparts. The 1940s revocation of birth-based citizenship for children of “prohibited immigrants,” under President Arnulfo Arias appears here as the violently racist exclusion it was, and to many readers, will seem to foreshadow the legal architecture of anti-Haitianismo in the present-day Dominican Republic.

Thus, Corinealdi points us toward precarity as a distinct aspect of Afro-Caribbean life in Panama, and not just in the Jim Crow-like apartheid of the U.S. Canal Zone. From this precarity emerged a perhaps more compromising set of politics among prominent Afro-Caribbean activists – like journalist and sociologist George Westerman – who at some moments, pursued community assimilation as a pathway to national inclusion, and at others, wielded “state-specific nationalism,” to advocate for racial equality.

Corinealdi’s deft consideration of these survival strategies prompt urgent questions in our current moment: how do we envision a future beyond the hostile boundaries of the nation while also accounting for the realtime, unevenly distributed consequences of contested citizenship? How does anti-Blackness reorder its grammar across space, time, and language? And in what ways might diaspora politics help Black people name difference and organize across it?

Indeed, Afro-Caribbean Panamanians protected themselves from state alienation within both the U.S. Canal Zone and the Republic of Panama by drawing on the repertoire of knowledge that came with their migratory history. Through successive migration to the U.S., they also sustained community kinship bonds, and articulated different possibilities of belonging across each of their geographical homes.

In some ways, today’s enthusiastic celebration of national independence at the annual Panamanian Parade in Crown Heights might seem ironic, given the persistent refusal by the Panamanian government to recognize Afro-Caribbeans as full citizens throughout much of the 20th century. Yet Corinealdi’s Panama in Black provides essential context and reframing. We might turn to a moment in her last chapter, where she writes about a 1952 Brooklyn party documented in the Amsterdam News: in that festive space, “emblems of a static Panamanian identity…became the domain of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians. Their bodies, their mobility, and their ability to gather a wide array of other Black men and women challenged the fixity of…ser panameño” (p. 155).

Negotiations toward assimilation as community survival, retranslations of Panamanian Hispanidad in Black Brooklyn, and diasporic politics are all threads in this story. The parade, however, perhaps most directly reflects what Corinealdi describes as the community’s forceful knowledge “that they were not alone in the world.”

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Maya Doig-Acuña

Maya Doig-Acuña is a writer and PhD candidate in African & African American Studies at Harvard University. Her research interests include Black diaspora formation, family history, migration, and memory in the Circum-Caribbean world. Her dissertation draws on Black feminist methods to examine how Afro-Caribbean commemorative practice between Panama and New York illuminates the quotidian, affective, and gendered dimensions of 20th century Black diaspora-making. Their essay, “The Most Caribbean of Stories,” was selected as one of Southern Cultures Journal’s Top Ten of 2021. You can find her other published work in Remezcla, Guernica Magazine, Lampblack Magazine, and elsewhere. Maya is a born-and-raised Brooklynite, though she currently lives in the Boston area.