Black Women’s Worldmaking

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination

Eslanda Robeson in Germany, 1963 (German Federal Archive)

Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination makes an important contribution to the intellectual history of decolonization. It shows the range of political visions that Black leaders in Africa and the Caribbean put forward as they worked toward the end of colonialism and the beginning of what they hoped would be a new, more egalitarian international world order. Getachew focuses on the political thought of seven prominent figures: Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.E.B. Du Bois, Michael Manley, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, George Padmore, and Eric Williams to highlight what she terms “worldmaking.”

Worldmaking is an expansive project of decolonization that reaches beyond the nation-state to imagine interconnected “juridical, political, and economic institutions in the international realm that would secure non-domination” (2). The United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, and the West Indian Federation were all arenas in which the struggle for self-determination was fought, and Getachew presents the multiple, complex, and often interwoven strands of this struggle with great clarity.

The West Indian Federation exemplifies at least three crucial elements of Worldmaking After Empire. First, it was one example of anticolonial nationalists’ worldmaking because it was conceived of as a political configuration that would “erode the relations of dependence and domination that subordinated postcolonial states in the international sphere” (109). For many political leaders in the Caribbean, their islands’ small size left them economically and politically vulnerable to external imposition. A federation of multiple “small places,” as Jamaica Kincaid describes them in her book A Small Place, would be a more formidable force on the world stage.

The West Indian Federation is also an example of the clarity and precision with which Getachew analyzes the promises and pitfalls of Black anticolonial thought because although it only lasted four years, it was a complex negotiation of the competing political and economic interests at play in the Caribbean. In carefully analyzing its rise and fall, she disentangles two key concepts, federation and federal state, and shows how their conflation by Black federalists such as Nkrumah and Williams, limited their visions of the consequences of centralization for the smaller members in the union.

Finally, Getachew’s examination of the West Indian Federation is also one of the many entry points for a productive conversation between the Black men who are centered in this text and the many Black women thinkers and political actors who made crucial contributions to anticolonial worldmaking projects. The seven political figures that are central to this work are indeed crucial for understanding the different paths not taken, those taken and abandoned, and those that ultimately came to be as a result of anticolonial struggles. However, as numerous scholars including Keisha Blain, Brittney Cooper, Ashley Farmer, and Tiffany Florvil have shown, the intellectual genealogy (to borrow from Cooper) of Black political thought includes Black women, not as cordoned off into a separate and parallel lineage of scholarship, but as integral to Afro-diasporic intellectual histories.

Engaging with Black women’s contributions to the political vision of the West Indian Federation as a project of worldmaking, highlights the importance of Claudia Jones’ thought to these debates. Caribbean unification as a strategy of anti-imperial resistance was very much at the heart of Jones’ writings about the United States as an empire. In March 1958, Jones expressed her support for the West Indian Federation in an article for The West Indian Gazette. She saw the envisioned union as “a first, halting but unfailing new step towards national independence for the Federation and a complete self-government for its units.”

Despite this support, Jones also recognized that the United States government’s backing for any movement should be cause for pause. She noted as much in her 1958 article, “American Imperialism and the British West Indies” published in Political Affairs, where she sounded the alarm about the “bald faced” establishment of military bases in the Caribbean. As Jones warned her readers, “the danger of the new West Indies Federation falling into the pit of U.S. imperialist domination cannot be sounded too often.”

Jones viewed this danger of American interference through the Marxist-Leninist lens of capitalist domination and therefore emphasized the exploitative economic dealings between Caribbean bourgeois-nationalist leaders and the American government, couched in the seemingly benevolent language of loans and foreign aid. She saw beneath the thin veneer of the language of aid: “We know, of course, that as its foundations totter, imperialism seeks more flexible methods of governing the colonies and seeks to devise new means to camouflage its rule.”

She believed that workers would be the ones to unsettle the tottering foundation of American imperialism in the Caribbean and cited strikes and protests by port workers in Jamaica and Barbados, and workers in the sugar industry in St. Vincent and Trinidad as heralds of a collective movement of resistance against economic exploitation. Jones pointed to the many examples of working-class solidarity and opposition to exploitation as the way forward in contesting American imposition on the federalist project.

Claudia Jones was not a lone voice decrying American imperialism and the dangers it posed for the West Indian Federation. She stands in a long line of Black women thinkers who offered perceptive analyses of American encroachment on anticolonial projects. In the French-speaking tradition, Eugénie Éboué-Tell, the first Black woman deputy in the French Parliament and vice president of another federation, the French Union, attended the West Indian Conference in St. Thomas in 1946 and left disconcerted by the United States’ support for a Caribbean Federation. Éboué-Tell wrote in her post-conference report that “a Caribbean federation, politically, financially, and economically cut off from the current metropoles, will fall, according to the order of things, into the orbit of the United States, which would then have complete control of the investment of capital and, consequently, of the external trade of these countries.”1 For Éboué-Tell, the challenges of federation in the English-speaking Caribbean held lessons for identifying and eroding similar imperialist tactics in the French Union.

In their writings about Africa and Haiti respectively, African American anthropologist Eslanda Robeson and Martinican intellectual Suzanne Césaire also made crucial contributions to these political conversations that sought to reconfigure world relations and imagine more egalitarian international communities. Certainly, as Getachew persuasively argues, “neither Nkrumah nor Williams was naive about America’s aspirations to global dominance” (120). Robeson and Césaire, however, held none of the illusions that Nkrumah and Williams did, “that America might be persuaded to remember its anti-imperial past against its imperial aspirations” (120). Their prescient warnings about external domination complement in important ways the internal challenges to federation that Getachew identifies in her work.

Black women have always been central to imagining anticolonial liberation. Their intellectual work was always in conversation with that of more visible Black men and sometimes moved beyond the limitations that these more prominent male leaders could not see or would not engage. Their worldmaking was as expansive as the visions put forward by Nkrumah, Williams, Nyerere, and others, if not more so. Intellectual histories that account for these generative conversations illuminate the range of decolonial visions and hopes for liberation that were operative at a critical moment in history.

  1. “Conférence de la Caraïbe,” qtd in Clara Palmiste, “Le vote féminin et la transformation des colonies françaises d’Amérique en départements en 1946.” Nuevo mundo, mundos nuevos (June 2014): 12.
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Annette Joseph-Gabriel

Annette Joseph-Gabriel is a scholar of contemporary Francophone Caribbean and African literature with interdisciplinary specializations in Black transnational feminisms and slavery in the Atlantic world. She is currently an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan. Her book, Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire, (University of Illinois Press, 2020) mines published writings and untapped archives to reveal the anticolonial activism of Black women in the French empire. Her articles have appeared in Small Axe, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Slavery & Abolition, Nouvelles Études Francophones, and The French Review. She is managing editor of Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. Follow her on Twitter @AnnetteJosephG.