Melanesia, Creoles, and Ideas of Blackness

*This post is part of our roundtable on Quito Swan’s ‘Pauulu’s Diaspora.’ Dr. Swan will be in conversation with Dr. Keisha N. Blain on Clubhouse on Friday, July 2nd at 12noon Eastern. Click here for more details.

Voting Rights Demonstration (Allison C. Bailey / Shuttershock.com)

I had just returned to the UK from five years in Aotearoa New Zealand. As I worked through the archives, experiences and commitments that would come to form a book called The Black Pacific: Anti-colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections, I presented some of the materials to the long-standing Pan-African Society Community Forum in Brixton, London. Let me be honest. I was coming fully imbibed and overflowing with the previous five years of living in Oceania. And I was concerned that bredrin and sistren would too easily ascribe African-ness to the phenotypically Black peoples of the Pacific. I wanted to be sure to make the case that these Oceanic peoples had their own histories, genealogies, concepts, languages, cosmologies and politics. It would be the same, I reasoned to myself, as imagining that the simple ascription of Blackness to Accra Ghanaian, cockpit country Jamaican, British-born-X, Muslim Oromo etc. by itself solves the politics of pan-Africanism instead of setting the coordinates for struggles towards solidarity. So anyway, the question/claim sure enough came and I responded. An elder, one whom I respect greatly, rejoined: “yes, but they should be made aware that they are indeed African, and then it’s up to them what they do with that knowledge.”  

Quito Swan’s agenda-setting book examines Black internationalism as a capacious and expansive movement of peoples, thought and politics. Pauulu Kamarakafego’s Pan-African diaspora, as Swan tracks it, is an incredibly diverse yet interconnected world that has not one but multiple centers all of which constantly shift in constellations of struggle and creativity. Rather than anchored in a safe harbor, this diaspora is a latticed sail. Bermuda tacks towards franchise politics; the US tacks towards education and representation; Tanzania tracks towards self-reliance; but, as the final chapters reveal, it is the Melanesian littoral of the West Pacific wherein Kamarakafego’s contributions to environmental justice most clearly come into view.  

Allow me to take a brief detour into conceptual history. While French naval officer Dumont d’Urville is usually presented as the creator of the colonial map of Oceania, it was his fellow officer, Bory de Saint-Vincent, who in 1825 came up with the racial-demographic term “Melanesia.” Saint-Vincent acknowledged that Black peoples populated parts of the Pacific. But he was also convinced that they differed from Africans. As a solution he offered the nomenclature “Mélaniens” – from melas, the Greek root of Black, rather than from negro, the Romance root. 

Similarly, d’Urville described Melanesians phenotypically by imperfect analogy to “Kaffirs” (the Islamic-derived term for African heathens): “curly, fuzzy, fluffy but seldom woolly hair [my italics]”, albeit with as much “variety in skin colour, build and features … as among the numerous nations who live on the African continent”. Again, there is a distance marked between Blackness and African-ness. Yet despite the imperfect phenotypical analogy, d’Urville’s cultural/behavioral analogy with Africans was in complete correspondence to characteristic anti-blackness: Melanesians were “organized into tribes … but very seldom into nations”, lived in a “barbaric state” with “no governing bodies, no laws, and no formal religious practices”, and their chiefs exercise authority “just as tyrannically as any African despot.” 

In the Oceanic diaspora that Kamarakafego works in and through, Blackness and African-ness are not identical commitments. Certainly, there are those from the Western diaspora, such as AfriCOBRA cofounder Jeff Donaldson, who speak of “Pacific Africans” (p.242). They are entitled to do so – it is a gesture of Black solidarity, after all. And no doubt, (as I also found with regards to Māori in New Zealand), there are points of ancestral orientation and genealogical connection amongst Pacific peoples to the African continent. That said though, the political record provided by Swan and others suggests that Blackness in Oceania has been primarily refracted not through the continent but through grounded struggles of national self-determination. 

One might even say that currently, those national struggles, which in Kamarakafego’s time were linked to global struggles via a commitment to Black Power, have substantially morphed into discrete sub-regional commitments. For instance, the Melanesian Spearhead Group seeks to strengthen economic cooperation between Melanesian states (Fiji, PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu) including both one independence movement, FLNKS, and associate status for an old colonizer of Melanesians – Indonesia.  At the level of state administration and diplomacy, Black Power in Oceania has to some degree shared the fate of so many peoples and nations who comprised the twentieth century constellations of pan-Africanism by breaking upon the rocks of ethnicization, nationalization, and regionalization.  

Nevertheless, rather than seeing in all this only a defeat of movement and an unraveling of solidarity, we might glean something else in the challenge of responding to colonial analogy. We might construe Black internationalism less as a question of ontology, typology or defined political interest and more as a case of endless creative commitment. I am taking Swan’s own prompt here: he begins his acknowledgments by recalling the “thinking, dreaming, researching, and writing [my italics]” that went into the cultivation of the book. So, what does it take to commit to global Black Power, wherein pan-Africanism charts courses beyond or besides colonial cartography? In my opinion, dwelling upon and thinking through this question is the seminal contribution of Pauulu’s Diaspora. 

To conceptually un-anchor Black internationalism from balkanized narratives is to admit that Blackness does not diffuse globally in a modular form – a singular ready-made language turning into various “pidgens” and derivatives. Linguist Nicolas Faraclas can help us here. He argues against colonial logic that there is no such thing as (proper) language versus (derivative) creole; rather, there are only many creoles. Black creoles are not reducible to vulgar “vox populi” but are rather spiritual, cultural, economic and political orienting devices. Their grammars are integrally equipped with a relatability, although this faculty might well be variously circumscribed and deflated by national or cultural exclusivity and exceptionalism. 

It is possible to hear these Black creoles at various points in Pauulu’s Diaspora. In fact, I see in Swan’s introduction a methodological commitment to charting the constellations of Black internationalism through creoles rather than (one) language. Or, in his words (p.6), the narrative is “centered on dialectic relationships between global black spaces.” Swan references (p.7) Lee Kauvaka’s notion of “berths” – “spaces of reciprocal exchanges that signify, create and maintain relationships over distance and across time”. Berths imply co-habitation, which prompts a polyglot form of port-side communication. The theorist in me would have loved Swan to explain in more detail how this notion of berths could be considered a hermeneutical method by which to un-moor Black internationalism from a singular nationalized language.  

Still, this kind of method clearly guides Swan’s narration. Take, for instance, a densely packed page 122. Swan bemoans, as he does in the introduction (p.16), the over-reliance of state surveillance archives for the way in which they privilege the “masculinity” of Black power voices. He then implicitly counterposes this rigid archive with “networks of global radicalism” woven by Anansi for a “tapestry of ironic possibilities that linked the Black world sometimes through contradiction, coincidence, and intentionality”. Briefly, Swan even drops into an Anansi creole: “it was a stepping razor that would have walked into Rome and started a fire…” Here, Swan refers to Peter Tosh and the Rastafari cosmology that presents redemption in geographically capacious terms as slavedriver/death/biblical Babylon/Rome (of the 1452 Papal Bull enabling “perpetual servitude” and of the 1935 fascist invasion of Ethiopia)/the settlers’ Americas/the West/the iniquitous system of global capitalism | versus | the enslaved/sufferers/livity/Black Israelites/Ethiopia-Africa/Zion/freedom/righteousness/abundance/humanity. Rastafari is transmitted through roots reggae, an island music – potentially any island’s soundtrack, sounded with different drums and scripted with diverse creoles.  

Kamarakafego himself must have developed the capacity to communicate in these creoles rather than the codes of colonial surveillance or, indeed, a nationalized Black master language. On page 231 we are told that Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Officers hoped that Kamarakafego’s message and approach would be “’so novel and sophisticated as to be somewhat above the heads’ of Vanuatu’s rural communities.” Yet, these officers were to be disappointed: not only did they feel that Kamarakafego had been “well-briefed” but that he was also skilled at “matching his style for the occasion”. To me, this reticent acknowledgement affirms an incredible acuity by Kamarakafego to cross thresholds of meanings and interests, just like Èlegba, the West African spiritual agent that Swan salutes in his acknowledgements. 

The ability to cross over, to translate creatively, and so to bind in commitment without losing the integrity of one’s extant grounds, is clearly shared by many of Kamarakafego’s interlocutors and the creoles that they draw upon, as evidenced by Swan. Consider the resonance of Tanzanian Ujaama but by way of Papua New Guinea’s philosopher Bernard Narokobi and his excursus on “self-reliance”, or via ni-Vanuatu priest Walter Lini and his articulation of “Melanesian socialism”. Take, also (p.244), the call and response cry of the New Hebrides National Party – seli hoo – the quotidian use of which pertains to laboring together, sometimes accompanied, as Swan tells us, by a raised fist. 

Above all, though, the creoles that constellate Black internationalism resonate through the technologies of environmental justice that Kamarakafego seeds as he travels the diaspora – watertanks of bamboo and cement, and houses for every family. I am still mediating on how this material history affects my understanding of Black internationalism. I asked Swan what the “Me One” in the title of Kamarakafego’s autobiography implied. Swan explained: “whenever someone was asking for support to fight a just cause, then [Kamarakafego] would raise his hand and say, ‘Me One’, as in, ‘I am one’ or ‘count me in.’” That was Kamarakafego’s own explantion to Swan. But Swan also imagines that the phrase is an equivalent of the Rastafari pronoun for we – I and I. The creoles of Black internationalism calling and responding in the pursuit of environmental justice; I and I as praxis. 

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Robbie Shilliam

Robbie Shilliam is Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. He researches the political and intellectual complicities of colonialism and race in the global order. His most recent publication was Decolonizing Politics: An Introduction (Polity Press, 2021). He is the co-editor of the Rowman & Littlefield book series, Kilombo: International Relations and Colonial Question. Shilliam was also a co-founder of the Colonial/Postcolonial/Decolonial working group of the British International Studies Association and is a long-standing active member of the Global Development section of the International Studies Association. Over the past six years, Shilliam has co-curated with community intellectuals and elders a series of exhibitions–in Ethiopia, Jamaica and the UK–which have brought to light the histories and significance of the Rastafari movement for contemporary politics. Follow him on Twitter @RobbieShilliam.

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