Racialized Geographies: A Conversation with Susan Gillman

By Cherene Sherrard-JohnsonOctober 20, 2022

Racialized Geographies: A Conversation with Susan Gillman

American Mediterraneans: A Study in Geography, History, and Race by Susan Gillman

GOLD FAME CITRUS, Claire Vaye Watkins’s dystopic novel set in the aftermath of a post-drought apocalypse in the West, pithily sums up the mythic draw of California: “Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage.” I recently relocated to Southern California from the Midwest. After a harrowing house search in the most expensive and competitive market in the United States, this summer I sat down in a chair on my patio to read Susan Gillman’s new book American Mediterraneans: A Study in Geography, History, and Race. The allure of the “mirage” clashed with the material reality of my desiccated plants and dying lawn.

American Mediterraneans is a prescient work of comparative literary geography sparked in part by the transnational turn in American studies. Its focus on race places it in dialogue with other trending “Mediterraneans,” like the concept of the “Black Mediterranean” — which is also the title of an essay collection dealing with the migration crisis in Europe and Black activists’ challenges to how bodies and borders impact civil rights, citizenship, and access to amnesty. Gillman is an agile cultural historian. Having previously investigated racist pseudoscience in her 2003 book Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult, she now explores how racial hierarchies shape geography and architecture. 

As I reconnect to Los Angeles’s sprawling architectural footprint, built on the ancestral lands of the Tongva people, I recall that California was once thought to be an island. Geographic confusion about the Baja Peninsula led to multiple fictions reinforced by this 1650 map by Joan Vinckeboons (see above image). If California is an island, Gillman would argue that it’s an island in an American Mediterranean. This idea resonates with my own writing about how the art and culture of the circum-Caribbean moves transnationally and connects, archipelagically, to the US shoreline. Another takeaway is that mapmakers are also storytellers.


CHERENE SHERRARD-JOHNSON: One of the reasons this study sparked my interest and curiosity is that it offers a comparative oceanic framework that resonates with conceptual thinking arising from Archipelagic American studies. Archipelagic approaches build bridges between areas with similar political and geographic configurations that challenge rigid national boundaries and decenter continents. The term Mediterranean means between two landmasses, whereas archipelago means chief sea. One term emphasizes land, the other water, even as archipelago has come to describe a coronet of islands. If “archipelagraphy,” to quote Elizabeth DeLoughrey, enables conversations between, say, US Virgin Islands literature and the poetic tradition of Guam or Fiji, does the concept of American Mediterraneans work in a similar fashion? In other words, how does your interpretation of Alexander von Humboldt’s coinage work within the transnational turn in American studies and/or alongside the claims and concepts advanced by Archipelagic American studies? 

SUSAN GILLMAN: The American Mediterraneans (AM) are simultaneously less capacious and less prescriptive than archipelagic or transnational American Studies — they’re driven by turning away from the nation to a plethora of other formations. And I would say that all of these frameworks can be and have been oriented toward land-sea interconnections — as in the common geo-concept of the “littoral.” Even more, I’m thinking here of the oft-quoted Édouard Glissant sense of each Caribbean island as an “opening,” the Caribbean “an estuary of the Americas” (see Le discours antillais, 1981), “a sea that explodes,” “diffracts,” to be distinguished from the Mediterranean as “an inner sea surrounded by lands, a sea that concentrates” and a geography of unity that imposes “the thought of the One” (see Poétique de la Relation, 1990). Glissant’s emphasis here on an island-sea-land continuum that produces both openings or plurals and closings or singularities sums up the advantages of bundling all of these geo-oceanographic paradigms. And his association of islands with openings resonates for me with the open-endedness that I soon realized is essential to the narrative of the AM: always more and different ones to be identified.

I’m so glad that you brought in Glissant! It also reminds me of Derek Walcott’s literary mapping of the Caribbean as a “litany of islands,” a “rosary of archipelagoes” in poems like “The Sea Is History.” You describe the concept of the American Mediterranean as a “folk” geographic theory — can you explain what you mean by this, in terms legible to those of us who are geographically challenged?

It’s informal, neither technical nor codified in any recognizable body of geographic knowledge. “Folk” in that it circulates widely, erratically, used rarely by card-carrying geographers — Ellen Churchill Semple, first woman president of the Association of American Geographers, and the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus are the exceptions (Humboldt is really a polymath). It’s more of a magnet for other cultural phenomena, borrowed, cherry-picked to work with specific geo-terms. Climate is a big one for the 19th-century AM touristic and political writers alike, who grapple with climatology as a subset of emerging environmental determinism. AM acts as a giant metaphor from source to target — not seamless, though, not a grand synthesis à la Darwin, Marx, Freud — but ragged at the edges. Unwoke to boot! No one in the academic world today wants to herald an American anything.

Your book charts what you call “the strange career of the American Mediterranean” as a shifting, recurring, and fraught “folk geographical concept” overlaid with raced, imperialistic perspectives. Why resuscitate this term? How do you avoid reinvigorating colonial vocabulary? What purchase does AM give us that Black Atlantic or transoceanic or the circum-Caribbean do not? I’m thinking of how “Caribbean,” the name of a sea, became a marker of identity and transnational or diasporic connectivity for people across race, living within and without its geographic parameters, such that you can find the Caribbean in the boroughs of Manhattan, enclaves in Miami, or the “suburbs” of New Orleans.

The biggest purchase is AM’s multiple reference points. As you say, you can find the Caribbean in so many places in the United States — in your own SoCal neighborhood, either Venice in Los Angeles or Naples in Long Beach, two of the premier examples. So, the AM includes both the California-Pacific and the Gulf-Caribbean.

Going even further, we could argue that AM also gives us the Atlantic as an assumed historical context for both. The triangular history of the slave trade underwrites the Caribbean Mediterranean, just as the movement of goods, people, and ideas across the Atlantic forms the prehistory of the Pacific Mediterranean. And so, this is part of the [concern], “why resuscitate this unwoke term?” The deep historicity, the big historical arc or long fetch of its development, is an idea we could use right now. Think of contemporary political and academic focus on migration, not just in the Caribbean and Mediterranean regions, but in terms of global processes, such as the turn towards vocabularies of cultural incompatibility that serve as novel, seemingly “postracial” technologies of exclusion. All the Mediterraneanizers confront in one way or another the American legacies of European imperialism and slavery, as those histories give shape to different racial struggles, coalitions, and possibilities.

As I write these questions, the Los Angeles area is in the midst of strict water rationing to combat our ongoing drought. Mike Davis’s characterization (in his 1998 book Ecology of Fear) of the “dialectic of water and drought that shapes Mediterranean environments” feels especially urgent. Can you speak to what advantages your framework has to offer for understanding this oscillating dynamic between the mythos of the American Mediterranean as an Eden or Paradise and a space of unforgiving aridity?

Mike Davis, totally in character, zeroes in on the foundational contradictions that American Mediterraneanism embraces without smoothing over. This is the apocalyptic “imagination of disaster,” as he calls it in Ecology of Fear, that energizes Los Angeles as an urban space. Davis is totally attuned to the kind of conflicting place-race associations that drew me to the whole extended history of the AM. When space is racialized — loaded with half-spoken racial associations, as Italians have been, especially in all the AM afterlives — a series of fatal links connects race, place, and power. The Mediterranean as a historical unit is invariably mobilized with and through racial thinking, a.k.a. a Mediterranean race or stock. Another of my favorite cultural geographers, George Lipsitz, would say that a primary goal of landscape architects and other citizens concerned with the built environment should be to disassemble those links.

I’ve recently relocated to California, and we’ve been attempting to plant so-called “native” plants that appear to have been imported from other nations, like Bermuda and St. Augustine grass, or Spanish bougainvillea. What interest does your study hold for the home gardener or landscape architect interested in a “return” to an indigenous landscape with native plants? And can I just say that I’m extremely tickled by the idea that Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884) might be responsible for my choice of patio furniture, or even that I have a patio? 

I love the skeptical way you invoke the “so-called native,” so attuned to the whole speculative-comparative complex that is Mediterranean thinking of the Americas. Ramona imprinted itself on the built environment with the character’s fictional name used for streets and towns all over California, especially in the southland. And Jackson is credited with single-handedly importing via Ramona the whole faux-Mediterranean or Mission/Spanish Colonial Revival art and architecture. So, there’s really nothing native about any of it — yet the “Home of Ramona brand,” emblazoned on fruit crates, came to identify SoCal so perfectly in that imported Spanish authenticity. White-washed adobe, one historian calls it, captures the way this Ramona heritage substituted Spanish for Mexican, exotic and foreign for despised and foreign.

One of the most tantalizing sections is your discussion of José Martí’s transcultural adaptation of Jackson’s Ramona, in which he labels the title character an “arrogant mestiza” and affirms that “Ramona est una otra Cabaña” [“Ramona is another Uncle Tom’s Cabin”]. Can you elaborate/speculate further on why this novel was so appealing to Martí? Is his translation work analogous to what Jean Rhys does with the character and plot trajectory of Bertha Mason from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre?

Well, Martí’s Ramona is an actual translation, whereas Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is an adaptation, a prequel to Brontë’s novel, almost in the radical experimental way that Caryl Phillips imagines Rhys’s biography in A View of the Empire at Sunset (2018). The best clues as to “why Ramona?” are two instances of the translator’s prerogative to adapt the original, in the preface, where Martí mentions “la mestiza arrogante,” and in the subtitle, Novela americana. He turned both the character and the novel into “ours,” part of what a little later would become his signature “Nuestra América.” Here we could say Martí’s 1888 Ramona is akin to Roberto Fernández Retamar’s 1989 Calibanism. Retamar, tracing the derivation in The Tempest of the name Caliban as “Shakespeare’s anagram for ‘cannibal’ […] that comes in turn from the word carib.” This term itself refers to the Carib Indians, whose “name lives on in the name Caribbean Sea,” concludes with a wry parenthetical on the Caribbean, “referred to genially by some as the American Mediterranean, just as if we were to call the Mediterranean the Caribbean of Europe.” So, both Martí and Retamar produce their own “as ifs,” their otras, Cabaña and Caliban. 

I’m fascinated by Jackson’s conviction that she was doing for the Indigenous people what Harriet Beecher Stowe did for the enslaved. You refrain from a full exegesis of the novel and its adaptations; instead, you illustrate how — rather than launching a great war, as the apocryphal story goes for Stowe’s protest novel — Ramona inculcates everything from architectural design and street names to commercial citrus marketing. The idea that Ramona spawned an assembly of paratextual material, including a D. W. Griffith film adaptation in which the star is the California ranch home instead of the titular mestiza heroine, is fascinating. Did you expect this novel and its translatability to emerge as the central fictional text of your study? Am I right in guessing that you prefer the paratextual iterations over the story/romance itself? This section also provides an intriguing bridge that looks back to your previous work on Mark Twain.

Yes! I gravitated to the paratexts because they’re perfect evidence of the speculative thinking that I associate with AM. The term is almost always used only as a title or in epigraphs, then dropped, so it’s few and far between rather than systematic. Plus, there’s a pretty striking pattern of negation when the term AM is invoked. My favorite example is the epigraph to Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), from the Spanish priest José de Acosta’s The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies (1604): “To this day, they have not discovered at the Indies any mediterranian seas as in Europe, Asia and Affrike.” I decided to make a virtue of the negative in the whole history of the AM, so little used except in one-offs in those paratexts; I wanted to honor their negative, somehow make it mine, too.

Your pioneering methodology is particularly attuned to elements of revision and speculation. Who is your imagined audience for this book? Cultural historians of the Global South? Interior designers? Amateur geographers?

Wishful thinking is any and all of the above. More realistically, my ideal audience would be someone interested in popular history and popular geography as they are mobilized in literature — readers who like nonfiction, who appreciate lavishly illustrated works, heavy on maps and landscapes. I tried to imitate my authors by including an image gallery with maps, landscape panoramas, ethnographic portraits, advertisements. And, of course, there are the many maps of California as an island that would appeal to those with geographic imaginations, like Rebecca Solnit’s, attuned to places that don’t exist.

“The Black Spartacus” makes a scene-stealing cameo in your study. Can you say more about what ties this particular hero/myth/historical agent has to the geo-politico-historical formation of American Mediterraneans and how it reveals what you call the racialized underbelly of the term?

I’d like to do much more with that figure and his amazing name — I tried a light touch in the book, ventriloquizing C. L. R. James’s work on him in The Black Jacobins (1938). There’s a recent biography by Sudhir Hazareesingh, titled Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture (2020), that offers tantalizing avenues for more thinking. Other, later 19th-century figures who weigh in on Toussaint use the kind of racialized comparison that makes Hazareesingh’s portrait so different from other celebratory or accusatory views. The best example is Chateaubriand, who lamented Toussaint’s death in a frigid French prison in the Jura Mountains, “the Black Napoleon […] imitated and killed by the white Napoleon.” The almost impossibly contradictory layers of racial meanings start with the more or less derogatory first term and end with the caustic whiteness of the second one. So much more remains to be said — that’s part of the AM advantage, hard to exhaust its meanings and variants. 

I can’t wait to read those new biographies. The geohistory of Humboldt’s Méditerranée de l'Amérique lays out the unfinished past of slave revolt as a repository for future reactivation in the islands of Haiti, Cuba, and, by extension, all the slave societies of the New World Mediterranean. This is an ambitious, far-reaching claim — matched, I think, by your provocative intellectualism and speculative thinking. What did you leave out of your study?

Such a great question because it immediately points to the way I wrote the book — AM is meant to be a digestible bite, an opening, not a 600-page definitive tome! This meant that Toussaint plays exactly the role you say, a cameo. Like the idea of an AM itself — a speculative, counterfactual, really, so many different possible candidates. In James’s famous book on the Haitian Revolution, there are many Black Jacobins, Black Spartacuses, Bonapartes Noirs, and Black Robespierres (Toussaints all!). And as you say about Ramona and translatability, James takes on the question of Toussaint’s names — in a footnote, a paratext, of course: “As a slave he was called Toussaint Breda,” but later he becomes his assumed name, Louverture — literally, the opening. I took that opening and tried to make it my own. Beyond simply the application of or corrective to a “classical” European model, the AM is both a talking back and an opening out onto future worlds elsewhere, other possible Mediterraneans, past and future. The wager is to read my book not only as jeremiad, or a warning (geohistorical metaphors have often served as quasiscientific projections of a Western right to conquest), but also as inspiration, speculating on alternative revolutionary futures emerging from the unfinished business of the past — all brought together under the umbrella set of the American Mediterraneans.


Cherene Sherrard-Johnson is a poet, scholar, and essayist. She is a professor and chair of English at Pomona College.

LARB Contributor

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson is E. Wilson Lyon Professor of Humanities at Pomona College. She is the author of Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color (2012) and the poetry collections Grimoire (2020) and Vixen (2017).


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