To talk about citizenship in the Caribbean is to talk about an impossibility. As political anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla reminds us, “The majority of Caribbean polities are non-sovereign societies,”1 tethered in different ways and to varying degrees to the metropoles that once ruled them. From Martinique’s and Guadeloupe’s status as overseas departments of France, to Puerto Rico’s place in the United States empire, to the English-speaking Caribbean’s incorporation into the Commonwealth, the political configurations of Caribbean islands define them as territories that are both here and there. As “islands scars of the water,”2 they are both physically located in the Americas and administratively tied to imperial centers. If we understand citizenship in traditional and somewhat simplified terms as the relationship between people and the state, then non-sovereignty disrupts the primacy of the nation state in this equation and renders citizenship elusive. And yet, what is impossible about citizenship in the Caribbean is also what is generative about it. The region’s terraqueous topographies shape possibilities for migration, political movements, and intellectual exchange that challenge ideas about the insularity of islands.3
The artifacts assembled for this keyword were created by scholars, activists, and artists. Taken together, they illustrate the ways that Caribbean thought and experiences extend, disrupt, and even unravel notions of citizenship. They also show that impossibility is not absence. More than simply “Islands evidence of wounds/Islands crumbs/Islands unformed,”4 the Caribbean has always been and remains a site of contestation, kinship, and community formation. These artifacts therefore invite us to go beyond the narrow frame of the juridical and to consider citizenship in all its forms. Whether this means taking seriously the freedom claims made by enslaved people in flight, or charting current struggles for gender and sexual justice in the Caribbean, or foregrounding young people’s voices in civic discourse, these artifacts illuminate the historical, cultural, and artistic dimensions of citizenship.
The artifacts featured here span a range of forms and institutional homes. They are also at varying stages of completion. Some of them are grant-supported digital humanities projects that rely on external funding for their continued survival. Others are digital repositories for well-heeled institutions. And yet others seek to carve out spaces beyond the academy for teaching and researching otherwise. These variations highlight the promises and limits of digital scholarship that is both extensible and ephemeral.
Citizenship as concept and as lived experience can be similarly capacious and fragile. Paying attention to how it operates in the Caribbean requires us to be attuned to forms of community-making that may often fly under the radar of national discourses. If talking about citizenship in the Caribbean is talking about impossibility, it is also creating alternate modes of being in relation. Indeed, it very well may be imagining the world anew.
Curatorial Note: Musical Passage offers “a careful interpretation of a single rare artifact,” a page of musical compositions by Mr. Baptiste who was likely a free Black composer in Jamaica, recorded in Hans Sloane’s 1707 Voyage to the Islands. The site’s creators, Laurent Dubois, David K. Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold, invite users to encounter Baptiste’s music as it was performed in 1688 through audio recordings layered on top of the digitized page of musical compositions. The site weaves together the different locations that haunt Baptiste’s life and music as origins and spaces of belonging: Jamaica, Saint Domingue, Louisiana, Angola. Musical Passage illuminates the possibilities of sonic citizenship by recreating the soundscape of the early Caribbean and highlighting the foundational role of cultural production in imagining new communities.
Title: Le Marronage dans le monde atlantique: Sources et trajectoires de vie
Creators: Jean-Pierre Le Galunec and Léon Robichaud
Steward: Université de Sherbrooke
Curatorial Note: French-language resources on slavery provide a much-needed entry into national archives that are often structured around erasure and disavowal of France’s slaveholding history. Le Marronage dans le monde atlantique is a database of transcribed searchable advertisements for enslaved people on the run. Co-directed by Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec and Léon Robichaud, its geographic focus brings together Canada, South Carolina, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Jamaica, Louisiana, and Saint-Domingue in a collection of over 15,000 runaway advertisements. Le Marronage dans le monde atlantique foregrounds enslaved people’s flight as a refusal “to capitulate to the violence of racialized slavery” and thereby invites reflection on the ways that freedom through flight historically shaped notions of citizenship in the Americas. Users considering the violence of slavery’s archives will be drawn to the database’s cataloguing of 6,663 identifying marks on the bodies of enslaved people on the run.
Curatorial Note: The Five College Compass Digital Collections is a repository of the digitized archival holdings of Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges. The Digital Photographic Archive of Historic Havana is contained within this larger collection and includes over a thousand photographs of “the 1055 significant buildings in the Historic Center of Havana as determined by Dr. Eusebio Leal, Director of the Office of the Historian.” The photographs were taken in the 1980s to serve as a visual record of the renovation of the Old City of Havana. Today, the collection bears witness to the imperial traces on the urban landscape as it catalogues the neo-classical and baroque influences on Havana’s buildings. Particularly noteworthy are the photographs of buildings that have since been demolished. The mutability of these edifices that promise permanence in their preservation of a national identity through architecture reflects the similar mutability of citizenship narratives.
Title: Love | Hope | Community: Sexualities & Social Justice in the Caribbean
Creators: Rosamond S. King and Angelique V. Nixon
Steward: Caribbean Region of the International Resource Network
Curatorial Note: Love | Hope | Community is one of two online collections created by the Caribbean Region of the International Resource Network (Caribbean IRN). The multimedia exhibit is composed of video and still art, photographs, and poetry. In collaboration with the journal Sargasso, the collection also includes scholarly essays published in a special issue of the journal dedicated to exploring the growing “movements for sexual citizenship and equal rights for sexual minorities across the [Caribbean] region.” Under the direction of Rosamond S. King and Angelique V. Nixon, the site functions as both a reproduction and an extension of the print journal’s examination of the possibilities for community-making, activism, and cultural production in the movement for sexual justice in the Caribbean. Love | Hope | Community offers new language and new terms for thinking about citizenship beyond the traditional legal framework of rights and duties.
Curatorial Note: Citizenship as practice is understood largely as the domain of adults. If casting a vote is an expression of political will, it also often marks a rite of passage into adulthood. Create Caribbean is a digital humanities research institute that empowers young people to make important contributions to collective projects of rethinking, representing, and preserving Caribbean history and heritage through digital methods. The institute was founded and is headed by Schuyler Esprit, and its values of community and collaboration prioritize research and teaching “for the creation and implementation of policies and practices that serve citizens at all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum.” The institute runs several projects and workshops including the Create and Code digital literacy program for students aged 7-14, and the Dominica History/The Road to Independence multimedia exhibit that features resources for primary and secondary school students. These programs attest to the many modes of young people’s social, intellectual, and civic engagement in the Caribbean.
Title: “Jacques Martial interprète le Cahier d’un retour au pays natal d’Aimé Césaire”
Creator: Jacques Martial
Steward: La Première
Curatorial Note: This artifact is a video extract from the French television network La Première’s coverage of a dramatized reading of Aimé Césaire’s landmark long poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal/Notebook of a Return to the Native Land by the actor Jacques Martial. This public performance in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil took place on the occasion of the centenary of Césaire’s birth. The extract begins with an oft-cited stanza in the poem in which the poet shows the institution of slavery and the long struggle for its abolition to be the violent historical conditions that stamp his far-reaching thumbprint (“mon empreinte digitale”) on the map of the Atlantic world. Martial’s reading calls on viewers to contemplate the stakes of national commemorations of imperial pasts, and the role that poetry and performance can play in articulating a more expansive, diasporic vision of citizenship beyond the nation.
Annette Joseph-Gabriel is Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on race, gender, and citizenship in the French-speaking Caribbean, Africa, and France. She is the author of Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire (University of Illinois Press, 2020).
Bonilla, Yarimar. Non-sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment. University of Chicago Press, 2015
Césaire, Aimé, Albert J. Arnold, and Clayton Eshleman. The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Wesleyan University Press, 2013.
DeGuzman, Kathleen. “Wide Sargasso Sea’s Archipelagic Provincialism.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 23.2 (2019): 1-16.
Stephens, Michelle. “What Is an Island?: Caribbean Studies and the Contemporary Visual Artist.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism (2013): 8-26.
Image used under a Pixabay license