Recently I was telling my husband, Ohene, about the brilliant jazz singer Cécile McLorin-Salvant and played a bit of her music for him. Upon hearing the song, Ohene asked, "why are they calling her Haitian?" I replied, "Because her father is Haitian and she was born and raised in Miami." To which he countered, "But she sounds like an African-American jazz singer, nothing about the way her music sounds is Haitian." It is probably worth noting here that Ohene is a huge jazz fan. In school he took a jazz class about both the history of the music as well as the more formal elements of the genre.
Not being familiar with McLorin-Salvant's entire body of work, I could not verify his claim, but I did recall from an interview her own musings about how people in Paris assumed she was African-American and had been exposed to jazz as her cultural heritage. In fact, in interviews she explains that as the daughter of a French-Guadeloupean mother and Haitian father she was classically trained and more influenced by Caribbean soundscapes than African-American traditions.
As someone who thinks about the relationship between cultural identity and belonging and who is committed to getting beyond the identity politics attendant to how we "see ourselves," I think that McLorin-Salvant's music offers a compelling example of how some of these tensions play out.
When you google Cécile McLorin-Salvant under the link for her website it identifies her as a "French-American singer" but when you click on the actual website, her bio states that she "was born and raised in Miami, Florida of a French mother and a Haitian father." On the occasion of McLorin-Salvant's visit to Haiti and concert last fall, Roland Léonard described her trip as a "pilgrimage," clearly evoking the idea of return--so central in narratives of diasporic journeys--for an article in Le nouvelliste. Understanding that identification and misidentification are always a part of how we process the different ways that people identify and define themselves, there are countless questions that we can ask on this topic.
How do we define identity? What constitutes belonging? When does a generation in the diaspora cease to have ties to the homeland? At some point, does one's identity in diaspora overshadow any ties they have to the homeland? How does one reconcile a deep feeling of belonging that is based only on an imagined homeland? How do we think about cultural belonging in more fluid ways in the face of the rigidity of citizenship? These are the kinds of questions I have been having my students wrestle with in my two classes this semester--"Theorizing the Diaspora" and "Paris Noir: From la Négritude to le Hip-Hop." Of course, these are also questions that I wrestle with myself, as the USA born daughter of immigrants who always instilled in me pride and recognition of the fact that though born in the US I, too, am Haitian.
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall offers insight to some of these issues by arguing that cultural identity is both a matter of "becoming" as well as of "being." Tiffany Patterson and Robin Kelley would call this the processual nature of diaspora. Sociologist Régine Ostine Jackson takes on multiple ways for thinking about Haitian identity in relation to diaspora by focusing on the concept of "geographies." Indeed, scholars working on diaspora have been asking these kinds of questions and generating more for a long time, but how do those theories correspond to (if at all) to they way we think about and talk about these issues on a daily basis?