Pastel houses, pink sands and azure waters. In this episode of Race Beyond Borders, we journey to Bermuda, an island country that is also a British overseas territory. Our guest, award-winning historian Quito Swan, also takes us beyond his mid-Atlantic island home — to West Papua in Indonesia and to the global Black diaspora.
“Bermuda is an African country. Bermuda is a Black country. Bermuda is a Caribbean country. Bermuda is West Indian country,” Swan says of the island of his birth.
“Although, geographically speaking,” he adds, “it’s not in the Caribbean Sea.”
As a British overseas territory located off the east coast of the United States, Swan says, Bermuda is also caught between two imperial powers: the former historical and the latter economic. Growing up on the island, he was surrounded by Black people but racial segregation was ever-present.
“There are certain neighbourhoods that we don’t go into,” he adds.
Swan recalls a childhood experience of being shooed away by a white couple from a yard where he and his friends played many times before. He recognised the couple’s actions as racism in the individualised, interpersonal sense. Later, after reading Black consciousness philosopher Steve Biko, Swan understood that moment in relation to a wider system of racism.
Throughout his life and career as a scholar of Black internationalism, Swan has made these kinds of connections between Black thought and histories across national contexts. His work has filled gaps in scholarship on Black resistance in Bermuda, and Swan has also cast his gaze globally.
“We have to accept or be prepared to engage other diasporic experiences and also include Black people across Africa and the United States as part of the African diaspora,” Swan says. “Sometimes we are caught up in thinking the African diaspora means out of Africa and the African diaspora also means outside the United States.”
“We have to accept or be prepared to engage other diasporic experiences and also include Black people across Africa and the United States as part of the African diaspora”
In his book Pasifika Black: Oceania, Anti-Colonialism, and the African World, Swan shows how liberation struggles in Oceania actively engaged with Black internationalism in their battles against European colonial rule. Focused on West Papua, a province of Indonesia originally populated by dark-skinned Melanesian people, the book revolves around Afro-Asian solidarity that emerged around the Bandung conference and unanswered questions for Black internationalism about Indonesian colonialism in West Papua, Swan says.
Inhabiting much of Oceania, Melanesians are so named because of the high concentration of melanin in their skin and was a result of European attempts to classify people of the region by physical appearance, Swan explains. Political movements of the 20th century that Swan studied fought against the inherent discrimination of such classifications.
Relatedly, this work raises important questions for him about Blackness as an identity beyond borders:
“When do African people stop being African? Or, by extension, are no longer Black? Is it when we left Africa? Is it how we left Africa? Is [Blackness] only [for]… Africans who were enslaved by Europeans? Is Blackness only around because white people are in the story? But what about African communities who left Africa before Europe[an] colonialism? Are they not African anymore?”
"But what about African communities who left Africa before Europe[an] colonialism? Are they not African anymore?”
Quito’s insight into the African diaspora across world — including in places like Fiji, Egypt, Indonesia, Australia, the United States, and the Caribbean — leads him to reflect on the relationship between Blackness and Africanness in profound ways. In this wider context, though often overlooked, the Black Pacific represents an especially generative space for Black internationalism. Questions such as these that emerge from close study of race and racialisation in Oceania both challenge established notions of what it means to be Black and enrich our understanding of the multiplicity inherent in the Black experience across the world.
Text by T. O. Molefe