Book Review: Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, by Kevin Kenny

Kevin Kenny’s book, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, is part of a series of short introductions on a wide range of topics published by the Oxford University Press. As a very short introduction with just 109 pages of content, Kenny does his best to avoid becoming bogged down in historical details and instead focuses on elucidating the theoretical framework of diaspora itself. Kenny argues that the term diaspora has been used in so wide a variety of situations that it has begun to lose its utility as a tool of study. To combat this trend, Kenny tries to narrow the definition of diaspora by identifying three key attributes that diasporic groups possess: movement, connectivity, and return. He supports and expands on this framework for diaspora by analyzing a geographically diverse range of population movements.

Kenny’s conception of diaspora is heavily rooted in Jewish tradition. He traces the word diaspora back to its use in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures from approximately 250 BCE. He argues that the Jewish understanding of diaspora, which was originally meant to convey the idea of spiritual estrangement from God, became conflated with galut, a Hebrew word which means physical exile (Kenny, 4-5). So, the Jews saw physical and spiritual exile from the land as being part of the same experience or process. Kenny positions this process of catastrophe, forced movement and a hope for redemption through return as the most useful structure of diaspora as a concept.

Is Kenny’s understanding of diaspora sound? Does it make sense to only apply the term diaspora if a migratory group’s situation conforms to the Jewish experience of exile and a hoped for divine redemption, or does that privilege Western understandings of history unnecessarily? One could argue that a word must have a set meaning, but the meanings of words have always changed over time. Also, for an academic study, it might make more sense to define a term in a way that does not rely on a specific set of religious ideas, especially if the goal is to make it generally applicable for groups of differing religious and cultural backgrounds. Because of how Kenny positions the idea of diaspora, at times it feels as if he is stretching the experience of the immigrant groups he examines to push them into the box he has built. He also fails to examine in any meaningful way the experiences of groups that would challenge his construction of diaspora. That may not be a fair critique for a very short introduction, but considering his conjecture that there are many opposing viewpoints of what constitutes a diaspora, including an example could have benefitted readers. Also, if Kenny is committed to the idea of scholars having the obligation to create a specific definition of diaspora and maintain it, why does he backpedal in his closing chapter by asking, “But if a given group chooses to define itself as a diaspora for its own purposes, who is the author of a short introduction to disagree? (Kenny, 109).

Kenny’s book is arranged thematically, rather than by group. He defines how he understands diaspora in chapter one and then spends the next three chapters expanding on the experiences of a handful of groups to elaborate on that definition. On the one hand, arranging his book this way makes it difficult to follow the individual experiences of the groups he reviews. In most cases, there are no chapter subheadings to orient the reader if they were interested in just one group’s experiences, making the reading experience potentially more laborious. Arranging his book thematically also leads to the repetition of information in some cases, which is space that could have been used for opposing views or the analysis of additional groups. On the other hand, organizing the book thematically allows the reader to clearly see the similarities between the experiences of the different groups, which better suits the author’s purpose of attempting to define diaspora.

Kenny’s first qualifier for a group to be a diaspora is an initial movement from a homeland. This movement must have a catastrophic element that creates a sense of imposed exile. Because of his concern for overextending the use of the word diaspora, Kenny is careful when discussing the history of the migration of different groups to differentiate between normal migration and a forced migration that creates a diaspora. His best example to support this idea is his discussion of the continuous migration of Irish to other countries over a period of hundreds of years, beginning in the 1700s. He points out that it was the potato blight in 1841to1855, which caused massive famine and a sudden, massive increase in the number of people migrating out of Ireland that was the defining moment in the creation of an Irish diaspora. The Irish who went abroad blamed England for their circumstances and for the deaths caused by the famine. They felt that England engineered the blight to eradicate them. This feeling of oppression created a sense of exile that reinforced their identity as a diasporic community. He also shows how the Jewish diasporic community suffered a catastrophic event that began a period of diaspora, though he oddly positions the beginning of diaspora in 586 BCE with the Babylonian exile. While historically accurate, Jews see exile and return as cyclical and the most recent exile, imposed by the Romans in 70 CE after they destroyed the Second Temple was the defining event for the majority of diasporic Jews. It marked the end of Jewish sovereignty for approximately two-thousand years and, unlike the Babylonian exile, removed almost the entirety of the population from the area.

Kenny’s second qualifier is connectivity. This is an interesting idea, but it does not seem as well-developed as Kenny’s explanations of either the initial migration or of the desire for return. Or rather, it seems that in each category a different group fits more neatly into Kenny’s definition of diaspora. For the initial migration, Irish and Jews clearly fit into the model of catastrophe leading to diaspora. For Africans, there was certainly a catastrophic event, but Kenny points out that Africans were victims of being sold into slavery in other parts of the world as well. Kenny attempts to downplay the experiences of African slaves in other areas of the world to bolster his claim that Atlantic slavery was definitive in creating an African diaspora. It seems more likely, however, that rather than the initial experience of being sold into slavery, it was racialization that created a feeling of commonality between Africans, which is something that Kenny brings up, but only in the sense that it created a sense of connectivity among Africans in the Atlantic world. This brings up another point. What is connectivity? Did Africans in South America actively communicate with Africans in the southeast United States or the Caribbean? Or is Kenny simply referring to a feeling of solidarity and common experience?

The third qualifier, which focuses on the idea of return, is the most interesting. Kenny focuses on the fact that many members of diasporic communities may not choose to return, even when given the opportunity. He oddly situates a discussion of this regarding Indians in South America in the chapter dealing with connectivity, but it is relevant here as well. This speaks to Kenny’s definition of the desire to return as being a desire to return a homeland that may be more imagined than real. His explanation of return focuses most heavily on the Jewish experience and the Rastafari movement. The Jewish experience was extremely informative because it shows what can happen when a diasporic group attempts to become a singular nation. The differences between the waves of immigrants that arrived in Israel shows that life in the diaspora has an effect on migrant groups. They become partially assimilated the cultures they live in. One could almost say that they stop being part of the same group in almost every sense of the word, becoming something in-between, rather like the Japanese experience in the American west. This is something that Kenny touches on when discussing the reasons why diasporic groups may choose to remain outside of their homeland. His discussion of the Rastafari movement was fascinating, though it seemed out of place. Kenny attempted to present the entire African diaspora in the Atlantic as connected, but used the experience of one group to show a general desire for return to Africa.

There were other odd additions to Kenny’s narrative that seemed out of place. One was the long discussion of the Palestinians in the chapter on return. Why add in a new group of people but only discuss them in a specific chapter, rather than as a part of the whole narrative? This may have been a limitation of the decision he made to structure his book thematically, but if that were the case, it may have presented a cleaner narrative if the Palestinians had not been included. However, since they were included in the narrative, the way they were approached feels like a missed opportunity. Rather than describing in excessive detail the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, Kenny could have examined the Palestinians as a diaspora. Even more, he could have looked at the dynamics between the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas and discussed how they affect, or possibly reinforce each other. Another odd inclusion was the discussion of ancient human migrations out of Africa. Was this necessary for a discussion on diaspora?

Despite any problems that Kenny’s book may have, he is tackling a topic that is hard to define and hard to discuss, especially in a very short introduction. With a book this short, Kenny necessarily must take a certain point of view and stay with it. His desire to give the term diaspora a set meaning is reasonable, especially if we want the term to be useful as a tool for studying migration, and he presents a definition that seems to fit the groups he chooses for analysis reasonably well. Kenny spent time on subjects that were not necessary to his topic, but they do not detract from the book in a serious way. He also seems to broaden and bend his definition based on the group he is analyzing. As an introduction to diaspora, this book is well worth the time it takes to read and, if the reader has more questions, Kenny provides a list for further reading based on chapter.

 

References

Kenny, Kevin. 2013. Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Universy Press.

Bible in Pop Culture Week 6: Cartmanland and Job

“Cartmanland,” the sixth episode of season five of South Park, contains a specific reference to the Book of Job. In the story, Cartman’s grandmother dies and leaves her entire life savings to Cartman, because she believes the rest of her family would just spend the money on crack. Cartman decides to use the money to fulfill his dream of having a theme park all to himself. So, he purchases a theme park that was on the verge of going out of business and renames it Cartmanland. Cartman uses the park solely for his own fun and makes it a point to advertise on television that no one else may enter the park or ride the rides.

Kyle is horrified that a person as despicable as Cartman is experiencing such good fortune and questions his faith in God. Kyle’s faith is further damaged by the discovery that he has a hemorrhoid. Kyle and Stan decide to try to break into the park by climbing the fence, but this only makes Kyle’s situation worse: his hemorrhoid breaks and becomes infected, leaving him hospitalized. Kyle’s parents try to cheer him up by reading him the Book of Job, but they forget to mention the ending, where Job receives more material wealth than he previously had. Kyle is horrified and his health begins to fade as the hemorrhoid infection spreads to his lungs.

Kyle’s health only improves when he discovers that Cartman’s plan to have Cartmanland all to himself fails and he ends up worse off than he was before inheriting the million dollars. Cartman had to allow in guests to defray operating expenses, was fined by the IRS for not keeping tax records, was sued by Kenny’s parents because Kenny died in the park, and ends the show by losing the park and being $13,000 in debt to the IRS, sprayed with mace and crying, restoring Kyle’s faith in God.

Reading Response – Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae Ngai

Ngai’s main argument is that illegal aliens were created through acts of positive law rather than through bad character, conduct, race or culture. In other words, prior to legislation that designated certain individuals as being in the country illegally, the category did not exist. Further, she argues that illegal immigration is a necessary by-product of a restrictive immigration process and that, in the American context, illegal immigration was not a side-channel to legal immigration. She argues instead that illegal immigration was used as a primary means of entering the U.S. by many immigrants and played a major role in populating the country. It seems that what she is attempting to clarify is the fact that many people immigrated to the country illegally, but found ways to have their status legalized after the fact, with the moral implications of illegal entry being dependent on race and the time-period examined.

While touching briefly on Filipinos, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants, Ngai’s narrative focuses primarily on migrants and immigrants from Mexico and how their experience has shaped the modern discourse regarding illegal aliens in the United States. She presents Mexicans as the archetypal illegal immigrant in the American imagination. In Ngai’s view, the focus on Mexicans as illegal immigrants is a result of the border culture in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico as well as U.S. labor practices and policies. Ngai’s aim seems to be to show that the push by southwestern agriculturalists for cheap labor drove the importation, legal and otherwise, of Mexican laborers. Because the legal avenues for migration for work purposes became increasingly odious, many Mexicans preferred to cross into the country illegally.  The best example she gives for this is the bracero program, which put Mexicans in a situation that left them generally worse off than if they hired themselves out on an individual basis.

Ngai’s argument is reasonable. She points out that illegal immigration from Mexico was the result of a failure on the part of the U.S. government to create adequate structures for legal entry by Mexican workers. She also points out that the drive for cheap labor that created the bracero program was based on a failure of the U.S. government to stand up to greedy agriculturalists and insist on fair wages for American workers. Ngai argues that this happened because the way people thought of America as a nation shifted. Laws were created to create the desired legal population. This shift created avenues for Europeans to become legalized but left Mexicans excluded from belonging to the nation in the American imagination. This exclusion was also the case for Japanese and Chinese immigrants, regardless of their legal or illegal status and whether they were citizens by naturalization or birth.

Ngai’s use of the Japanese and Filipino experience in the context of illegal immigration seems out of place. Did she include these groups to present a broader contrast between the way that Asiatic and Latin American immigrants were treated in comparison to Europeans? The experiences of these groups show that racism played a part in defining European Americans’ view of the nation, but “nullification” of citizenship rights and decolonization with voluntary repatriation are not the same as being considered an illegal entrant. The concept of being illegal connotes a violation of the law and a lack of citizenship status. For the Japanese, or at least the Nisei, their citizenship was never in question and neither was the legality of their status as Americans. The Issei did not enter the country illegally. They did not have access to citizenship but they were accepted legally, if not socially, as residents. With the Filipinos, repatriation was voluntary, rather than forced, indicating that their position was not illegal in the sense that they could be forcefully deported in an immigration sweep like Operation Wetback.

Ngai’s work is especially important in the way that it reveals the underlying assumptions about how the national body was viewed and how that view created the legal structures that created illegal immigrants. The immigration system was constructed in a way that ignored existing labor migration and pandered to the desire of agriculturalists to maximize profit with cheap labor. The willingness of Mexicans to take on jobs that were considered low paying to Americans fed into a racial image of Mexicans as undeveloped, while simultaneously painting them as lazy or arrogant if they refused to be cheated out of their wages or benefits. The Mexican stereotype that developed seems to have been applied to all non-European immigrants and work like Ngai’s helps to correct that historical narrative.

Reading Response: Becoming Mexican American… by George Sanchez

Considering the title, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, one would assume that George Sanchez’s book would be a history about the growth and development of a unique Chicano culture in Los Angeles between 1900 and 1945. However, the scope of the book becomes increasingly far-flung as the narrative progresses, much to the detriment of the author’s stated intention of examining cultural change in Los Angeles. Instead, Sanchez’s book shallowly covers multiple topics and areas, from labor history to radio programming, from rural villages in central and northern Mexico to El Paso, TX and points beyond, leaving the reader with the impression that much ground has been covered, but not in detail on any given subject. Despite the wide range of topics covered, Sanchez uses a variety of records and information from numerous fields of research to support his arguments, including Mexican consular documents, American government records, transcripts of oral testimonies from Mexican immigrants, and letters to provide a broad understanding of the factors that impacted Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles and their descendants.

One of the areas where Sanchez’s work excels is in his depiction of the social and economic interconnectedness of Mexico and the southwestern United States as a result of pre-existing Mexican communities in the area as well as through labor migration that led to cyclical and, eventually, additional permanent settlement. Part I of Becoming Mexican American… describes this process and is, in effect, a transnational historical narrative. Sanchez states that he wants to show that the culture that immigrants brought with them to the United States was not stagnant, but was rather a vibrant, complicated amalgamation of rural and urban mores that developed in Mexican villages in in the second half of the 19th century. However, this does not come through clearly in his writing. For one, the implication is that rural laborers somehow came to possess urban culture while migrating along rail lines for work. Additionally, it implies that laborers arrived in Los Angeles with a fully formed and static culture. It seems more reasonable to say that the process of cultural change that took place in Los Angeles was a continuation of what began in small rural villages in central and northern Mexico.

Sanchez’s comparison of labor migration within Mexico and the United States builds on the idea of regional interconnectedness. He demonstrates this primarily through his discussion of the Mexican rail system that connected northern Mexico more fully to the U.S. than it did to the rest of the country. The opportunities for labor created by the rail system pulled manual laborers away from their homes to travel and work on the rails. As they reached areas closer to the border with the U.S., they saw opportunities to perform the same labor for higher wages. However, this discussion, along with the highly detailed habits of border checkpoint guards, does not seem highly relevant to the topic of the development of a unique Chicano culture in Los Angeles.

Certainly, the openness of the border led to continued migration into the U.S., part of which created the community in Los Angeles, but why was a third of the narrative devoted to what feels like only partially relevant background information. It would have been more useful if the author had provided a brief overview of this topic and then spent more time explaining what the culture of Mexicans in Los Angeles was and how it developed over time. For example, Sanchez devotes an entire chapter to religion, but never goes further than saying the immigrants practiced what Catholic priests in the U.S. considered “folk Catholicism”. What is folk Catholicism? Exactly what were their beliefs and how did they contrast to mainstream Catholicism? Similarly, why did Sanchez spend so much time describing propaganda to encourage Anglos to move to Los Angeles? Why should we care what a Mexican intellectual who is not a resident of Los Angeles thinks about racial homogeneity in relation to the topic of this work? Also, why does Sanchez treat buying a radio as a special sign of cultural development? Is it not normal for people to be interested in purchasing devices that make their lives more comfortable, like the sewing machines he notes were prominent in rural Mexican households in Mexico?

While Sanchez’s book clearly has a lot to offer in terms of in-depth research about regional migration and labor history, most of what he presents is only coincidentally relevant to the community in Los Angeles and how their view of themselves and their position in relation to other inhabitants in the city changed over time. One is left with the feeling that certain sections of the book were originally meant to be stand-alone articles and that an original, cohesive text was supplemented by partially relevant, sometimes dense, textbook-style prose that was book-ended with an argument to attempt to tie everything together.

“Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last Saturday, I went over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue to conduct a scavenger hunt for certain types of items in this exhibit and then drafted up an essay response, but I thought it might be useful to people thinking about going to see the exhibit itself, so I’m posting it here as well.


The exhibit, “Jerusalem: 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven,” is being shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 26, 2016 to January 8, 2017. Like the title of the exhibit implies, the selection of art being displayed includes pieces that are representative of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the “People Under Heaven” in the Abrahamic tradition.

Jerusalem 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven
 

One of the displays contains a set of astrolabes, which, according to the description, were devices that were “used to answer questions related to time, geography, and the position of the stars.” The three astrolabes on display were all created in Andalusia and include the city of Jerusalem. The text on the astrolabes were written in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew and Latin. Another interesting item with text in multiple languages is “Slaughter of the Amalekites and Saul’s Last Stand,” which contains marginal notes in Latin, Persian and Judeo-Persian, written by subsequent owners of the book.

Most of the items were in pretty common languages used in the area, like those mentioned above, though there were exceptions. There is a text called “The Book of Kings” which I assume is written in an Ethiopian language, but I cannot be sure because the language used is not included in the description. More clearly labeled is a Copto-Arabic Book of Prayers, written in the Bohairic dialect of Coptic Egyptian. There is also a Book of Saints’ Lives written in what I can only assume is Georgian, again because the description is not clear.

There is a very large variety of items on display. There were at least three different versions of the Bible: a Samaritan Bible from 1232 CE in Yavneh, a Bible from northern Europe, ca. 1300, and a Bible from 13th century Rome or Bologna. There are also Jewish liturgical books like “Opening Prayer for Shabbat Parah” from 1257-58 CE, “The Catalan Mahzor” from 1280 CE, and “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a Haggadah from 1360-1370 CE. There were also choir books, swords, vases, amazing Jewish wedding rings, pillar capitals and reliquaries.

Two items that really caught my attention were the “A Knight of the d’Aluye Family” and the “’Umra Certificate.” The “Knight” sculpture was the covering of a burial place for a Crusader, dated to between 1248-1267 CE. What piqued my interest was the sword depicted in the sculpture, which is Chinese in appearance. It was fascinating to see actual proof of the exchange of items between Europe and Asia during that period. The ‘umra certificate from 1433 CE, which belonged to Sayyid Yusuf bin Sayyid Shihab al-Din Mawara al-Nahri, fascinated me because it emphasized just how important pilgrimage was and perhaps continues to be in the Islamic tradition. Going on the Hajj to Mecca had a direct impact on a Muslim’s social standing and warranted adding the honorific al-Hajj or al-Hajjah to one’s name. The ‘umra scroll shows that pilgrimage to areas in and around Jerusalem were nearly as important and warranted their being added to a certificate that could be displayed when the pilgrim returned home.

The exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is definitely worth attending. It shows the central importance that Jerusalem played to a huge range of areas between 1000 and 1400, with items on display from Africa, Europe, Persia, and various places in the Middle East. It would be nice if there were translations of the texts on display, or if the languages being shown were at least clearly labeled. The grouping of the items could have been somewhat clearer as well, either chronologically or thematically. On the other hand, the items were displayed in a way that made them easy to view and appreciate. It is definitely a worthwhile way to spend an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon.