Thoughts on Diaspora and Hybridity, 1994

“Thoughts on Diaspora and Hybridity.” Unpublished lecture at Wellesley College delivered to the Wellesley Round Table faculty symposium on Miscegenated Family Album.

© Lorraine O’Grady, 1994

Written shortly after the “Postscript” to “Olympia’s Maid,” this lecture delivered to the Wellesley Round Table, a faculty symposium on Miscegenated Family Album, takes a retrospective look at O’Grady’s earlier life and work through the prism of cultural theory.

Perhaps I should begin by giving you some background on how the topic of “Diaspora and Hybridity” relates to me personally.

My parents both came from Jamaica in the 1920s. They met each other in Boston at the tea table during a cricket match in which one of my uncles was bowling. It was the post-World War i period of the great West Indian migration, and most of their compatriots had settled in Brooklyn. In Boston, the tiny West Indian community could barely establish and fill one Episcopal church, St. Cyprian’s.

Growing up I understood that, as a first-generation African American, I was culturally “mixed.” But I had no language to describe and analyze my experience. It’s hard to believe, but it’s been just two or three years since words like “diaspora” and “hybridity” have gained wide currency for the movement of peoples and the blending of two or more cultures. The lack of language, plus pressure to fit in with my peers, combined to keep me from thinking about my situation consciously, from understanding how I might both resemble and differ from my white ethnic classmates and my black friends.

As a teenager with few signposts and role models, I was trying to negotiate between: (1) my family’s tropical middle and upper class British colonial values; (2) the cooler style to which they vainly aspired of Boston’s black brahmins, some of whose ancestors dated to before the Revolution; (3) the odd marriage of Yankee and Irish ethics taught at the public girls prep school where, after six backbreaking years that marked me forever, I was the ranking student in ancient history and Latin grammar; and (4) the vital urgency of the nearby black working-class culture, constantly erupting into my non-study life despite all my parents’ efforts to keep it at bay.

I had a wildly unproductive young adulthood, spent rebelling against the conflicting values instilled in me. But though it may have been easy to say “a pox on all your houses,” eventually I realized that I had to inhabit each of them. Looking back, I can see that the diaspora experience, however arduous, has been critical for my life and work. Not so much in the mixed details of my background as in the constant process of ( … )

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