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Issue: 7.1: Fall 2008
Guest Edited by Lisa Bloom, Elena Glasberg and Laura Kay
Gender on Ice

Taking the Temperature of True North

Monica L. Miller

Despite the fact that I am, as W.E.B. Du Bois would say, a New England Negro, I do not like the cold. Another thing that I do not like, especially in an academic talk, is too much reference to the autobiographical. So, in defiance of my two dislikes, I will, in this essay, talk about the cold, myself, and the contours of the diasporic blackness that Isaac Julien images so beautifully and provocatively in True North.

As a scholar of African American literature and cultural studies, questions of diaspora concern me nearly everyday. As Brent Edwards points out in his essay on "Diaspora" in Keywords for American Cultural Studies, the 20th century saw many minority cultures claim "diasporic" status as a way to link them to other "like" minorities in other places, to strategize bids for representation and power trans-nationally and trans-culturally.[1] This change in perspective, from minority to diaspora, gave the multifarious gatherings of black people dispersed across the Atlantic by the trade in slaves a relation to one another that could be historicized, analyzed, strategized and politicized. A claim for diaspora became a claim for globalized community, a claim for a diversity of related, but not at all essentialized blacknesses. In my own work, I have been concerned about how, for example, New England Negroes and black British "luxury" slaves expressed their identities through clothing in the 18th century. I have examined the campy and fantastical self-portraiture of a Nigerian-born American artist in New York and his collaboration with an African American artist who spent some formative years in Tanzania—they called their double-portrait "Sisterhood."[2] As I do this work in my writing and in the classroom, I am always concerned with what Paul Gilroy calls the "routes" that black people and blackness as an idea has traveled—whether the route leads to an interrogation, as in Countee Cullen's famous poem, "Heritage," in which the poetic persona is pre-occupied with the question of "What Is Africa to Me?" or if the route leads instead to the North Pole, as in True North, what "roots" these investigations nurture and what they preclude is uppermost in my mind.[3]

Although Julien's film does not ask, explicitly, "What does all this ice mean to me?" I think about this question all the time, not in my work, yet, but in my personal life. I'm married to a Swedish man and spend every summer and every other winter holiday season in Stockholm. You can imagine that more than once, on a bitterly cold day in late December, with no sun in sight, I have absolutely found myself saying, "what does all this ice mean to me?" The beginning of True North was shot in the Ice Hotel (Is Hotellet) in Jukkasjärvi, northern Sweden; I still have an unused gift certificate for a weekend there given to us as a wedding present. Last summer, my family vacation took place entirely above the Arctic Circle and in the midnight sun, ending in Tromsø, Norway, home to the world's northernmost university, brewery, botanical garden, and planetarium, and very close to the northernmost golf course. We spent most of our time on a series of islands to the north west called Lofoten, home to tiny fishing villages with great food and, surprisingly, the odd charming boutique hotel. In every single place we went last summer, I fully expected to be the only black person or person of color for kilometers. While there would, of course, be no replay of James Baldwin's alienating experience of African-diasporic singularity in Switzerland, recounted famously in his 1955 "Stranger in the Village" essay, I nevertheless expected to be adding the diversity to this northernmost landscape.[4] I was wrong. People, indeed "folks," had gotten there before me and not just to visit—in every single place we went (and my husband is a lover of the off-the-beaten track), another diasporic person was in evidence. These villages are in the diaspora now.

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© 2008 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 7.1: Fall 2008 - Gender on Ice