Tammy Brown's City Of Islands: Caribbean Intellectuals in New York
Reviewed by Dominique Jean-Louis
In her 2015 book, City of Islands, Tammy L. Brown states as her premise that “personal lives serve as windows into the broader political landscape of any given time and place. The best biographers not only recognize this truth, they embrace it” (3). The book uses the biographies of five prominent Caribbean-American New Yorkers (Unitarian preacher Ethelred Brown, activist Richard B. Moore, dancer and anthropologist Pearl Primus, politician Shirley Chisholm, and novelist Paule Marshall) to trace the impact of Caribbean intellectual contributions on New York culture and politics, particularly within New York’s black community. While her commitment to the symbolic and narrative power of biography is convincing and demonstrated well, the book’s insufficient consideration of Caribbean identity limits Brown’s ability to unite her mini-biographies to ultimately say something larger about Caribbeans in New York.
Brown begins her book on Caribbean intellectuals with a dive into her own biography, as an African-American woman whose ancestry traces back to plantation slavery of the U.S. South. Her interest in the topic emerges from the cultural friction between black American students and black immigrant students she observed as an undergraduate student at Harvard University, and her growing interest in the way these encounters challenged the black-white racial paradigm. By including her own biography in the study, she emphasizes the idea of “objectivity” as nonexistent, and encourages the reader to think of their own biography as existing within a historical narrative, not outside it.
The strength in Brown’s approach lies in her vivid and thoughtful introductions to the individuals that people her study, and the diverse methodologies that she calls upon to conjure their stories and analyze their impact. Many readers, especially undergraduate students and non-academics, will likely be encountering lesser-known figures like politician Richard B. Moore, dancer Pearl Primus, and religious leader Ethelred Brown for the first time, and Brown’s talent for storytelling may ignite further study and engagement with their work. Brown scaffolds her first chapter on the life and career of musician Hazel Scott, using the title concept of “islands of the city” to demonstrate how a performer like Scott built her world in New York among a collection of smaller “islands,” like the influential Harlem Renaissance venue Cafe Society, the Trinidadian community within the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and later on, her suburban married life in White Plains, NY. While Brown does not consistently use this “islands of the city” concept later on in the book,here, it allows the reader to not only immerse themselves in the biographical details of Scott’s life, but also to draw connections among networks of artistry, family, faith, and heritage.
Her mini-biographies also allow her to cover an impressively large time period, beginning with the nineteenth century and preacher Ethelred Brown’s conversion to Unitarianism in Jamaica, and concluding with the twenty-first century uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s use of the biography-chapter also allows her to show how the lives of these individuals overlap and intersect, both with one another and other well-known Black intellectuals. Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, and Claude McKay all feature prominently as her story moves through the Harlem Renaissance, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. These connections not only enhance the story, in many cases, they become the story.
For instance, dancer Pearl Primus is used as a “window” onto an emerging tradition of anthropologist-artists along with her contemporaries Zora Neale Hurston and Katherine Dunham, artists who also used the tools of social science field research to inform and inspire their creative output. While Primus’s interest in field work and immersion in the artistic circles of Harlem tied her to these women, it was also her own family history of West African healing traditions that fueled her interest in the relationship between folk life and dance. Tammy Brown joins Columbia scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin in recent efforts to pull Pearl Primus from relative obscurity, pairing with Griffin’s own mini-biography offering, Harlem’s Nocturne (2013). Both scholars make the important intervention of establishing Primus’s place in the canon of African American dance, but more importantly, they argue that Primus’s curation of African, Caribbean, and contemporary traditions as a choreographer is intellectual work, not just performance skill. Brown’s vivid description of footage of Pearl Primus dancing alongside Josh White playing “Hard Time Blues,” (available here) does valuable work in describing this interplay between critical thought and virtuoso performance. “This kinesthetic and rhetorical strategy,” Brown writes, “was rooted in Primus’s conception that dance is a language-- capable of conveying not only emotion but also intellectual ideas, when words fail” (118).
While strengths like these make a case for City of Islands as a valuable addition to the canon of New York Caribbean history, the book is not without its faults. Throughout the book, Brown insists on disassociating her subjects’ Caribbean-ness with other facets of their identity. For instance, when describing Brooklyn politician Shirley Chisholm’s carriage and composure, Brown admits that “Chisholm undoubtedly had a way about herself-- a certain savoir-faire, which she attributed to her Caribbean-ness,” but she ultimately rejects Chisholm’s self-description, claiming “I,however, attribute Chisholm’s intellect and boldness as a personal characteristic cultivated within the context of her family and educational experiences,” failing to connect that those family experiences and educational experiences were Caribbean, and that her identity as a member of her family and as an educated woman were inextricable from her identity as a Caribbean-American woman. Herein lies one of the shortcomings of Brown’s execution- in an attempt to push against Caribbean exceptionalism, she ends up arguing against her subjects’ expertise on their own identity.
As her final biography chapter focuses on the life and work of novelist Paule Marshall, Brown decides to juxtapose Marshall’s biography with a handful of oral histories to “show how Marshall’s life story and creative writing reflect the lived experience of Caribbean New Yorkers.” While this approach does allow us to extrapolate out from Marshall’s work and consider a broader range of Caribbean women, the juxtaposition, rather than a deep analysis, leaves the reader unresolved on the extent to which she wants each Caribbean intellectual to be an exceptional individual, capable of distinguishing him- or herself as a leader in their respective fields, and to what extent their biographies are important because they are emblematic of larger trends in African diasporic history.While an individual can indisputably be both, Brown neither offers a resolution for this tension, nor allow these Caribbean intellectuals to dwell within it.
City of Islands serves as an extensive, interdisciplinary introduction to the individuals that Brown has selected, and the chapters work very well as standalone pieces. But for an overarching statement on the significance of Caribbean intellectual life in New York, this book should be supplemented with more cohesive histories in the genre like Winston James’ Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, or Irma Watkins Owens’ Blood Relations, or the work on Caribbean immigration by sociologists Mary Waters and Philip Kasinitz. And while further engagement is necessary, since scholarly attention to the many Caribbean individuals and communities in the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx are still sorely underrepresented, the need for research in this topic is urgent. Five of the top ten countries of origin for New York’s immigrants of today are Caribbean countries. Historical background, including books like Tammy Brown’s, are more important than ever to better understand today’s city of islands.
Dominique Jean-Louis is a Ph.D candidate in U.S. History at NYU, and an Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral History Fellow at the Museum of the City of New York.