Citizenship from the Margins: Vernacular Theories of Residence, Rights, and the State from the Caribbean Fringe of the British Empire, 1924–48

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:20 AM
Michigan Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Lara Putnam, University of Pittsburgh
By the mid-1920s, the travels of two generations of Afro-Caribbean women and men had generated a circum-Caribbean migratory sphere that stretched from Venezuela in the south to Panama in the West to Cuba in the center to Harlem in the North.  The rise of nativist populisms across these receiving societies (as elsewhere in the interwar world) placed unprecedented race-based constraints on the entry and employment of black migrants. 

In the emerging international order, one role of sovereign states was to defend the interests of their nationals abroad: to project state power as a bulwark against migrants’ disempowerment.  But when British West Indians tried to insist that insults to them were insults to Britannia herself, the colonial government demurred. Again and again, the sequelae of restrictive legislation exposed British ambivalence over its possession of colored subjects and those subjects’ possession of British rights. 

For Afro-Caribbean observers—and there were many, since for scores of thousands their (literal) next move depended on the high politics of negotiated migration treaties—the fact of the Crown’s acquiescence as British subjects of African and Asian ancestry were stripped of their right of entry by nation after nation undercut the pretense of race-blind imperial equity.  In this emerging international order of racially justified nation-states, did not “Our People” need a state of our own? 

This essay tracks everyday usage of the term “citizen” within the anglophone Afro-Caribbean press across the restrictionist era, noting the divergence between vernacular constructs of community membership, and Colonial and Foreign Office definitions of British subjecthood and citizenship and their transmission.  Mobility rights—the right of entry abroad; the right to return “home”—became a crucial arena of dispute, as British Caribbeans of color demanded a state that would take action to transform their nominal belonging into effective entitlement.