An Often-Forgotten Corner of the African Diaspora: Afro-Caribbean Panamanians

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

Traditional Congo dance in Portobello, Panama, April 7, 2015 (Shutterstock)

Central America’s Caribbean coasts are on the margins both geographically and conceptually of the Black diaspora despite the vast and rich histories of the isthmus’ prominent role in the earliest trans-Atlantic slave trade or the fact that peoples of African descent constituted the majority of nonindigenous communities long thereafter. Central America is a geopolitical region that is predominantly Black and Indigenous, yet the nation-building racial project of mestizaje politically and discursively grounded in anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity constructs a racialized national imaginary that is non-Black and non-Indigenous. Therefore, we often lose critical histories of how communities of African descendant built the very nation-states that negate their very existence. Black diaspora historian activist Kaysha Corinealdi breaks ground for us to center the histories on the political, cultural, intellectual labor activism of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians on the isthmus and in its multiple diasporas. In Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean World Making in the Twentieth Century (Duke University Press, 2022), Corinealdi invites us to an intimate examination about how Black men and women practice local internationalism and create diasporic communities beyond the stubbornness of a boundedness to nationalism, nation-state, and anti-imperialist manifesto. More importantly, Corinealdi poignantly highlights how Afro-Caribbean Panamanians within and beyond the isthmus engage diasporic world making as Caribbean history and as Panamanian history, as well as Caribbean Panamanian history as Latin American and United States history, and world making as African diaspora history.

Borrowing from the work of the late Black Political theorist Richard Iton’s conceptualization of diaspora as anaform, we are encouraged, then, to put (all) space into play disrupting geographical fixity, hierarchy, and hegemony, Corinealdi’s deep multi-sited archival engagement of speeches, yearbooks, photographs, government reports, radio broadcasts, newspaper editorials, and oral histories as we journey alongside key points of entries/routes of the African diaspora. I’m struck by how her conceptualization of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians diasporic world making as political activism on and of the isthmus deeply centers their multiple forms of political mobilization vis-à-vis newspapers, cultural presentations, educators, lawyers, Canal Zone workers, and so many neglected sources to piece together to often forgotten/neglected Black history of Panama. As Corinealdi notes, “No history of Caribbean or Afro-Latinx New York is complete without an understanding of how Afro-Caribbean Panamanians, with their direct experiences of U.S. imperialism, bilingualism, and multiple migration histories, brought together disparate regional, diasporic, and national histories” (p. 24). Rather than a simple grand narrative of West Indian migrant diasporas to and from Central America’s Caribbean Coast, Corinealdi builds on the Black Feminist diasporic genealogies of scholars such as Katherine McKittrick to excavate new terrains of knowledge production and geographical formulations that resist colonial hierarchies of geography and cartographies of Blackness disrupt nationalism and national identity, but makes a clear contribution to how multiple geographies in conversation with one another create new possibilities of Black worlds that are not beholden to colonialism and imperialism.

We enter the lives of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians such as Claudia McIntosh, Sidney Young, Linda Smart Chubb, Amy Denniston, Esmé Parchment, Anesta Samuel, Las Servidoras, and countless others who are named and unnamed. Corinealdi’s attention to gender and class in every page turned is urgent, timely, and such a refreshing contribution to the continued unarchived histories of how Black women have shaped from the beginning Black political mobilization in the Americas. Throughout the African diaspora, education has been a key political (both public and private) arena for Black life to resist white supremacy’s ideological pathologies in an anti-Black world. By paying close attention to the political and intellectual labor being curated by Afro-Caribbean Panamanians in and out of the classroom it probes us to re-imagine the world making practices that make Afro-Caribbean Panamanians engage with making them a nuanced corner of the African diaspora. Las Servidoras were a Brooklyn-based scholarship-granting organization created by Afro-Caribbean Panamanian women who migrated to New York City starting in the late 1940s. In 1963 they became lifelong members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), a diasporic gesture by an African American political organization which was not an uncommon practice, as African American history is hemispheric history as well and whose political consciousness is astutely aware of the broader Black diaspora in and out of the United States. Corinealdi brings to life the multiple negotiations and diasporic nuances that Afro-Caribbean Panamanian women engaged with in New York’s 1960’s Black migrant communities in Brooklyn. One of the most highlighted events was the invitation by Las Servidoras extended to Shirley Chisholm whose Bajan heritage and educational attainment made her an ideal luncheon special guest speaker, but also highlighted the multiple subjectivities of most members of Las Servidoras: English-speaking Caribbean heritage, educational pedigree, and post-colonial independence of Barbados (1966). The richness of Chisolm’s presence at a 1968 luncheon organized Las Servidoras centers for us the borderlessness of Blackness, but more importantly the ways in which Afro-Caribbean Panamanians made worlds beyond the nation-state while still engaged in multiple political and intellectual projects of nation-building, national belonging, while still carving a world where the Caribbean was at the center of their geopolitical terrain not simply folding back into the limitations of Panamanian nationalism and citizenship, but one that disrupted its boundaries and demanded for an expansion of it.

Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean World Making in the Twentieth Century (Duke University Press, 2022) is a necessarily urgent and timely contribution to our continued histories of hemispheric Blackness, Black women’s political mobilization, and how Central America’s Caribbean worlds who are often forgotten have not been at the margins of the hemisphere but quite literally at the very center of how hemispheric Blackness disrupts the borders and boundaries on and of the isthmus. Scholars and students of the African diaspora, Black women’s activism, and Black Latin American histories need not walk but run to pick up this book, teach it and cite it.

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Paul Joseph López Oro

Paul Joseph López Oro, Ph.D. is a transdisciplinary scholar of Black Studies whose teaching and research lies at the intersections of multiple fields/conversations, such as Black Queer Diaspora Studies, Afro-Latin American/Afro-Latinx, Caribbean Studies, Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, and Native American & Indigenous Studies. Grounded in Black Queer Feminist methodologies and epistemologies he uses multi-sited archives, oral histories, film, social media, and critical ethnography to unearth the often understudied and undertheorized intellectual, political, spiritual, and cultural contributions embodied by Garifuna (Black Indigenous) women and queer- identified folks who are at the forefront of decades-long hemispheric movements of preserving Indigenous Blackness. His first book manuscript Indigenous Blackness: The Queer Politics of Self-Making Garifuna New York is a transdisciplinary ethnography on how gender and sexuality shape the ways in which transgenerational Garifuna New Yorkers of Central American descent negotiate, perform, and self-make their multiple subjectivities at the intersections of their: Blackness/Indigeneity/Central American Caribbean Latinidad.