The Small Spaces of Global Struggle

*This post is part of our roundtable on Quito Swan’s ‘Pauulu’s Diaspora.’

Black Lives Matter (Flickr/Geoff Livingston).

Global struggle is forged through mass protests, boycotts, and rallies, but it is also made in small spaces: in living rooms, where experienced activists pass down their knowledge; in the hallways of conference centres, where contacts are exchanged; in bedrooms, where parents read stories to their children that seek to shape an international consciousness. Quito Swan’s epic study Pauulu’s Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environmental Justice thrives in these small spaces, providing a deeply textured exploration of the many fronts and forms of Black Power activism in the twentieth century.

While the book focuses on Bermudian activist Pauulu Kamarakafego, Swan states from the outset that it is not a biography: rather, the book is “a political narrative of twentieth-century black internationalism logistically anchored by Kamarakafego’s globe-trotting activism” (20).  It could be seen as a global microhistory, using Kamarakafego’s experience as a microcosm to explore broader structures.1 Following Kamarakafego allows Swan to connect the dots between white supremacy and Black activism in Cuba, South Carolina, Liberia, Tanzania, Kenya, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and beyond. Kamarakafego was also uniquely talented at networking: he “seemingly knew everybody in the black political world” (197).  As a result, this is a story that covers a vast geographical expanse but remains driven by human agency. We see the daily work and choices that build bonds between distant actors and reinforce ideological principles. In discussing key Pan-Africanist conferences, for example, Swan draws our attention to the small details, like Kamarakafego’s efforts to offer reimbursement so that Aboriginal activists can come to Atlanta and his decision to buy food from local farmers in Dar es Salaam. 

Although Kamarakafego occupied the limelight at times, more often he played a less immediately visible role: he was one of many participants in a strike, he sat on planning committees, he wrote drafts, he gathered contact information from those attending a talk. He knit sweaters, cooked meals, got people together, taught them how to make oil from coconut. In essence, he did the kind of subtle behind-the-scenes organizational and emotional labour often associated with women’s participation in social movements. Perhaps because of the association with women, this kind of work has often been seen as “auxiliary,” as secondary to the main event.2 As if the great man’s speech would have an effect if there was no one there to hear it; as if people could mobilize solely on an ideological basis without personal connections. Swan pushes us to move past the dominant actors who wrote “with lyrical wit, in bold fonts, and in all capitals” (10), to see the footnotes of Black internationalism: the actors who organized supply drives to help support families at risk for signing a controversial petition in South Carolina (48), or handed out pamphlets on the situation in of Black people in Australia at cricket matches in Jamaica (209).

This is also a story of small places. The islands of Bermuda and Vanuatu are allotted the same weight in the narrative as the more commonly conceived hubs of Black internationalism. This is deeply refreshing, allowing us to decenter our understanding of where and how global movements are made. You didn’t have to live in Harlem or London to see the connections between local struggles in diverse locales and the need for a Black internationalist vision; it was apparent from Hamilton and Port Vila. Perhaps it was even more immediately evident from these places that lay at the intersection of so many worlds, fitting everywhere and nowhere at once. Bermuda sat geographically, politically, demographically and culturally between the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean; Vanuatu, between Melanesian, British, and French worlds. Did this positioning lend itself more naturally to an internationalist vision? Did the long history of globalization in these locales facilitate transnational connections? Did the smallness of these places and the need to travel outside for education compel the deep cosmopolitanism we see in actors like Kamarakafego?   

Whatever the answer, I hope this book sparks more interest in small places as sites of historical action and repositories of historical knowledge with broad relevance. The Afro-Bermudian Recorder newspaper utilized by Swan, for example, is a particularly rich primary source, with a number of editions available in digitized, searchable format online. It covered local and international Black activism through the unique standpoint of local Bermudians and Bermudian emigrants writing from the United States and United Kingdom. The Bermuda Archives also hold a range of collections that provide insight not only into local history, but also into the contradictions of British imperialism more broadly and the immense influence of American tourism (so powerful a player in Bermuda’s economy, for example, that it justified explicit systems of racial segregation well into the twentieth century). Swan’s discussion of his research in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea further illustrates the value of following the narrative trail, physically, to less obvious locales. I can only imagine the feeling of meeting the Black Oceania activists that appear in Kamarakafego’s stories face to face, or seeing the wells he built there still standing. Through Swan’s full investment in the journey, his book is able to maintain the commitment to contextualized, local, place-based research often absent in transnational histories.3

The only missing link for me in this rich narrative was perhaps the smallest of small spaces: Kamarakafego’s intimate life. Swan takes care to mention Black women’s social activism whenever he sees it, points out when it is missing or explicitly excluded, and touches occasionally on the gender politics of Black Power. But the women in Kamarakafego’s own life – his early wife and children, his relationships with Vanessa Griffen in Papua New Guinea and Rose Cuong in Vanuatu – receive only passing mention. Swan acknowledges this as a lacuna that must be “left to another project” (298). Quite likely, this reflects the limitations of his sources or boundaries set by interviewees. Still, I could not help but wonder: how might the story change if we were to collapse the distinction between the public and the private and dig deeper into Kamarakafego’s gender praxis, as studies have done for other anticolonial leaders?4 Did Kamarakafego attempt to integrate his ideological principles into his own relationships? Did his experiences in the home influence his ideology and approach to activism? What opportunities were taken up or missed for an even more revolutionary agenda? Griffen’s efforts to integrate Kamarakafego’s ideas of environmental sustainability into her activism for women, for example, suggest intriguing connections between environmental justice and feminism worthy of a chapter in itself.

Indeed, I would be thrilled to read a sequel that takes Griffen, or any one of the other astounding women mentioned in the book, as its starting point. As with any cutting-edge scholarship, Swan’s book thus opens up infinite possibilities for future projects: there are hundreds of other stories here to tell, all of which could help us further understand the personal trajectories, immense reach, and intimate tensions of twentieth century Black internationalism.

  1. See John-Paul A Ghobrial, “Introduction: Seeing the World Like a Microhistorian,” Past & Present, Volume 242, Issue Supplement_14 on “Global History and Microhistory,” (November 2019): p15.
  2. See Susan Geiger, “Tanganyikan Nationalism as “Women’s Work”: Life Histories, Collective Biography and Changing Historiography,” Journal of African History 37.3 (1996): 465-478; Amina Mama, “Sheroes and villains: Conceptualizing colonial and contemporary violence against women in Africa,” In Feminist genealogies, colonial violences, democratic futures, ed. M.J. Alexander and C.T. Mohanty (1997):pp. 46–62; Mrinalini Sinha, “Gender and Nation,” in Bonnie G. Smith, ed. Women’s History in Global Perspective, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), pgs 229-274
  3. See Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” The American Historical Review, Volume 121, Issue 2, April 2016, Pages 377–402
  4. See for example Suresht R. Bald, “The Politics of Gandhi’s ‘feminism’: Constructing ‘Sitas’ for Swaraj,” in Sita Ranchod-Nilsson and Mary AnnTetreault,Women, States and Nationalism: At Home in the Nation? Women, States and Nationalism (London: Routledge, 2000), 83-100; Karen Bouwer, Gender and Decolonization in the Congo: The Legacy of Patrice Lumumba. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010
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Nicole Bourbonnais

Nicole Bourbonnais is an Associate Professor of International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Her research interests include global population politics, reproductive rights, and transnational activism in the twentieth century. She is the author of Birth Control in the Decolonizing Caribbean: Reproductive Politics and Practice on Four Islands, 1930-1970 (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Her next book project will expand outward from the Caribbean to explore the transnational networks that linked together birth control campaigns, family planning activists, and reproductive rights movements across the globe since the 1920s.

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