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The Caribbean in the World: Imaginative Geographies in the Independence Age


"Wherever the sugar plantation and slavery existed," wrote the famed Trinidadian scholar C.L.R. James, "they imposed a pattern. It is an original pattern, not European, not African, not a part of the American main,...but West Indian, sui generis, with no parallels anywhere else." These lines appear in James's 1963 essay "From Toussaint L'Ouverture to Fidel Castro," which he appended that year to a new edition of The Black Jacobins, his seminal history of the Haitian Revolution first released in 1938. Writing at a time when the British West Indies' attainment of independence, coincident with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, had prompted many Caribbean politicos and intellectuals to propose that the region's diverse territories confederate into one regional nation, James argued

that those territories, no matter their divides of language and history, should be understood to share a common culture and destiny. He also argued that the peoples of the Caribbean "nation" - belonging, as they did, to societies created and shaped for centuries by their links to European powers - had a unique and special role to play, among the world's formerly colonized peoples, in shaping the future of world civilization.

This dissertation engages with James's arguments to explore how, across the past half-century, the Caribbean has been imagined - both in the Caribbean and worldwide - to be a coherent cultural region. Engaging with broader debates among geographers and other scholars about the uses and abuses of the "region" as analytic and political tool, I use the concept of "imaginative geography" to explore why and how various representative figures - from popular musicians to novelists to theoreticians - have shaped understandings of "Caribbeanness," both in the islands and worldwide. Today James's dream of formalizing the West Indian "nation" into a unified state is long past, but the impetus to think in terms of region that he once exemplified has persisted - and indeed grown - among Caribbean thinkers. Moreover, I argue, his predictions about the import of Caribbean cultures in the cultural landscape of the wider world, aided by the massive outflow of Caribbean emigrants to Northern cities, have in many ways come true. From the emergence of Harry Belafonte as "the first black matinee idol" in North Atlantic pop cultures; to the rise of Fidel Castro as figurehead of the non-Aligned Third World during the Cold War; to the emergence and continued salience of Bob Marley as the "first Third World Superstar"; to the outsized number of brilliant writers, from Walcott and Marshall to Díaz and Danticat, who in addressing experiences particular to the Caribbean, have spoken with often unexcelled eloquence to universal themes - these exponents of the Caribbean as region and idea have succeeded, for better or worse, in supplying to the world some of our most widespread stories about bondage and freedom; racial purity and mixture; art and politics. This dissertation offers an account of how and why this has came to pass, in the decade's since C.L.R. James published his revised history of the epochal slave revolt in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue by which, as he put it, "West Indians first became aware of themselves as a people."

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