In his essay, Cultural Identity & Diaspora, Stuart Hall suggests that cultural identity is a matter of becoming as well as being:
Cultural identities belong to the future as much as to the past. They are not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history, and culture. They come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere recovery of the past, which is waiting to be found, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.
As a visual artist and researcher, this has me thinking a lot about how identity is shaped and represented.
Before Christmas, I read the pointed article published in the Guardian by Cornel West directed towards writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his short indictment, West accuses Coates of representing Black experiences monolithically and speaking to the concerns of Black communities without fully interrogating the ways power and capitalism shape those struggles. This was not the first time West, and other public Black intellectuals, had come after Coates for what seems like an abstraction of Blackness; proposing reparations without progressive state policies or waxing poetic about Barack Obama’s presidential brand as his own burgeons on social media from a predominately White readership. Coates responded intentionally on Twitter, highlighting articles he wrote that in fact challenged Obama on the ways he spoke to his constituency and raised questions about the role of narrative as a radical act of resistance in a moment when Black testimonies are urgent and necessary.
Yet, as Robin Kelley pointed out, crucial political and philosophical issues were shrouded by the public’s need for the spectacle of pinning black intellectuals against each other. Our very way of viewing debate is framed by the euro-centric notion of dialectics where contradictions must be reconciled instead of being allowed to flourish and form as a constellation of thought. Through rigorous critique, Black intellects have historically led and defined postcolonial scholarship. Yet, the spaces for these discussions have been scarce and the market forces that select such voices often work towards an ulterior agenda.
The “continuous play of history, culture and power” that Stuart Hall used to describe cultural identities plays out in the way a marginalized people name their condition, the modes they use to speak, how they represent their experiences and the tools they use to reconstruct their lives. These changing expressions, though critical to the project of liberation, are never finite and often reveal their proximity to power.
It is no coincidence that in the same week that editorials were going viral about Coates and West, I saw a host of disagreements and criticisms fly in my own community that seemed to resonate. Several Puerto Ricans living on the island were accusing Diasporicans on the mainland of commercializing their relief efforts after Hurricane Maria. Groups like Defend PR , PR on the Map and comic publishers like Lion Forge have been working to raise money for projects they are leading to help rebuild. Yet, discussions surrounding privilege and performative activism abounded:
When political firebrand and scholar Rosa Clemente compiled a team of Latinx journalists from the mainland to cover unreported stories on the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, she was met with staunch criticism. Branded an evangelist for her dramatic delivery, flashy online presence and procurement of outsourced commercial talent, questions arose as to whose voices were being centered and how stories are being mediated during a time of rebuilding when the unemployment rate is at 11% and cultural producers on the island are struggling for visibility.
When Defend PR began working with a distributor in Brooklyn to manufacture bottles of gourmet coquito to raise funds for their rebuilding efforts, marketing to the local NY demographic of Diasporicans, it set off a wave of dissenting voices on the island that critiqued the initiative as gentrification and cultural profiteering.
The Puerto Rican Comic Book with no Black Puerto Ricans
Latino Rebels first broke the story of a benefit comic book anthology called Puerto Rico Strong by publisher Lion Forge, which sought to “highlight some of the unique voices in the industry with a deep connection to Puerto Rican heritage.” Lion Forge Editor Desiree Rodriguez said. “For many, Puerto Rico is often considered a foreign land rather than a part of the United States. What we hope to accomplish here is showcasing the vast diversity of our community and our history.”
But, beyond dancing around the status of PR as a possession of a colonial power, the glaring problem with the project is the erasure of Black Boricuas in the promotional images— a painful reminder of the whitening of Latinidad. To add insult to injury, proceeds from the comic series will go to Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hispanic Federation, a non-profit funded by some of the same corporations and banks that have ravaged the island like Pfizer and JP Morgan.
So, what do we do with this and how de we channel it into meaningful discourse?
As Foucault suggested, “discourses are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning." They are ways of constituting knowledge which is inextricably connected to power. "Discourse transmits and produces power by reinforcing it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile— making it possible to thwart.” For discourse to work, we need non-hegemonic spaces. Spaces that render difference. Spaces that render conflict. Spaces that allow for incommensurability. But, these spaces of difference are often inadequate, because in a white supremacist culture, they are limited and limiting. What spaces are afforded to us for dialogue and what allowances are we given to disagree amongst ourselves?
Situated between two worlds of a whitened upbringing in the diaspora and the veiled blackness of my family on the island, my identity as a Puerto Rican shifts depending on the spaces I inhabit. I have experienced poverty and institutional violence in my family growing up in the South, but I’ve also benefitted from an education and a network of resources that eludes most of my fellow Boricuas. I attribute this to access over talent. I began photographing in Puerto Rico to bring visibility to my family’s own assimilation story, but in the process, encountered colonial landmines I had the privilege of sidestepping. Hurricane Maria brought this privilege into sharper focus as I watched the best and brightest of my colleagues—activists, educators and artists—struggling to survive. These are the people, right now, whose stories need to be uplifted. The ones who are grieving, the ones who are fighting for their careers and the livelihoods of their families. A platform is needed for their autonomy and self-representation.
We should be clear about why their platforms are few. The space for them to speak has been limited by an imperial grip that has stifled their ability to self govern and economically support their communities. The space for them to speak has been obstructed, at times, by a Puerto Rican diaspora that has latched on to a dream of statehood that undermines the struggle for sovereignty on the island. The space for them to speak has been overshadowed by Broadway musicals and parades that serve to bolster the aesthetic of Puerto Ricaness over actual Puerto Rican interests.
The larger question emerging in communities of color as of late has less to do with in-fighting and attacking expressions of identity and more to do with examining the ways in which the market elevates certain voices over others. The supply of these voices will remain restricted so long as the demand for complexity and multiplicity wanes.
The only way to reimagine the grand narratives of history is to rewrite them...disrupt them. Perhaps it is essential that Cornel West’s analysis of empire accompany Ta Nehisi Coate’s We Were Eight Years in Power. How does one articulate the meaning of a Black president without navigating the white supremacist value system that informed his policies? It seems critical that as we watch PR on the Map’s coverage of Hurricane Maria's destruction that we also read Dr. Hilda Lloren’s excellent prose on the depictions of disaster that have shaped the representation of an occupied people. As multiculturalism seeks to define Puerto Ricans as a single body (Tres Razas. Una Cultura), maybe we could engage in the difficult conversations brought on by young bloggers like Dorothy Bell Ferrer who invite us to reconsider our circles of privilege and the hierarchies that support them in the Caribbean and Latin America. As we raise funds and talk about the social mobility of Puerto Ricans living in the wake of power outages and school closures, now is the moment to think about gentrification and privatizing forces like Walmart that are contributing to the climate of gutting public services as we applaud viral videos of celebrations in their stores.
This is what a liberatory space looks like; a space for asking questions and allowing for contests of meaning. The answer isn’t to belittle the work of others, shut down criticism or retreat off of social media. The answer is to engage in this struggle as a family and create as much space for these discussions to grow.