In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Nitasha Tamar Sharma. Sharma is Professor of African American Studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. Her book is Hawaiʻi Is My Haven: Race and Indigeneity in the Black Pacific.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Nitasha Sharma: Hawaiʻi Is My Haven is an ethnography of contemporary Black life in the Hawaiian Islands. It reveals what the Pacific offers people of African descent while illustrating the racial lens members of the African diaspora bring to illuminate racial inequality in Hawaiʻi. Through my ten years of fieldwork on the Island of Oʻahu (where Honolulu and Waikīkī are located), I analyze why Black residents considered the Islands their “haven,” “sanctuary,” and “refuge.” At the same time, Black residents—including locals who are from the Islands and transplants who move there as adults—discussed their experiences with antiBlack racism at home, in schools, at work, and with the police.
This book highlights the persistence of antiBlack racism in the Pacific and yet Hawaiʻi remains a place of “less pressure” for African-descended people compared to the places they left. Located in a colonial site of military occupation—indeed, the military is the primary vector through which Black men and women come to the Islands—this study addresses debates about Black abjection and agency. Hawaiʻi is a predominantly nonWhite society with a small Black population (c. 4%) that historically outlawed slavery and has a strong Indigenous presence (20% Native Hawaiian). This Pacific context troubles US binary categories of race (Black/White) while revealing how Black people unsettle the native/settler binary. The book also addresses the relevance and reception of the movements for Black life (BLM) outside of the continental US and zeroes in on Black and Indigenous relations in a predominantly Indigenous site.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Recent Black Lives Matter protests and gatherings in Hawaiʻi over the past year have led to some pushback from those who feel that antiBlack racism and police brutality is not a “local issue” but is rather something that happens “over there” on the continental United States. Additionally, the BLM activism (led largely by youths in the Islands) is sometimes framed as being in opposition to or taking attention away from Native Hawaiian movements for Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty. This book provides the context for these tensions while also articulating historical, political, and contemporary points of collaboration.
Activists and community members will learn that there are Black locals and that not all Black people are stationed here through the US military. Black people, and especially nonmilitary civilian residents, have been erased from the Islands, despite their over two-hundred-year history (I provide this history in the first chapter). Many people in Hawaiʻi reduce Black people to particular tropes: as military personelle, college athletes, or reggae artists; additionally, Black women are presumed to be military dependents or sex workers. The lack of local knowledge about local Black history as well as African American history and knowledge of the African diaspora leads to a significant gap in knowledge about Blackness that is then informed largely through racist depictions in the news and popular media.
In addition, the book articulates how decolonization, or the deoccupation of Hawaiʻi and Hawaiian sovereignty, cannot happen without antiracism. This includes the necessary self-reflection and structural change to address antiBlack racism at home. Both Native Hawaiian and Black peoples’ movements for self-determination go hand in hand. The Islands are structured by intersecting systems of oppression that these various communities, together, have to address. They include military occupation, (Asian) settler colonialism, racism, the unequal distribution of wealth and access to political and social power.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The first thing most readers will have to confront as they read this book is their dominant ideas of Hawaiʻi as a paradise! This includes the depiction built up by scholars and the tourism industry alike of the “50th State” as a beacon of harmonious multiculturalism illustrated by its diverse and multiracial population. Rather, we see how racism operates in Hawaiʻi, and this in fact is not limited to Black residents nor does it operate along a Black/White axis in this predominantly Asian locale.
Readers more familiar with the Pacific will have to unlearn the notion that Black people only arrive from elsewhere; that they are foreigners not in or of the Islands. There are Black locals and their life stories shed significant light on the contours of Black life in this understudied part of the African diaspora.
We will also unlearn several presumptions about race: first, the misconception that people are monoracial, or that people have (only) one racial identity. Second, we face the presumption that multiracialism is antiBlack, or that Black people who identify as multiracial have internalized racism or are running away from Blackness. And third, we confront the idea that multiracial people are White and some other race. This is not the case. Almost half of the sixty people I focus on in this ethnography are multiracial—they are most often the children of Black fathers and nonBlack mothers, and usually raised within their mothers families. In addition, this study is about nonWhite multiracials—about Black Hawaiians, Black Sāmoans, Black Okinawans, Black Filipinos, Black Mexicans, and so on. Within a context of normative multiracialism—where one fifth of the population identifies as more than one race—they identify not as “Black only” (as a result of the one-drop rule of hypodescent) but as “Black and ___.”
And the final thing I hope people unlearn that emerges from this focus on people who cross constructed boundaries: I hope to challenge the conception of “Black” and “Indigenous/Native” as representing two distinct peoples, with discrete histories, and contesting politics. We see, rather, how Black people are Indigenous (and vice versa) and how their histories intertwine, leading to shared political visions of liberation.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I am most inspired by a place rather than a person—the Island of Oʻahu, where I was born and raised. This place and its people continue to inspire me and inform my kuleana—a Hawaiian term referring to one’s right or obligation—which I see this book as responding to. I am inspired by activists for social change whose strategies address interlocking forms of oppression and who move us from words to actions. I’m also inspired by artists, particularly those who live outside of dominant institutions and who are moved by things that cannot always be commodified—they offer the feel, the vision, and the form. I’m also moved by the thinkers who provide us with expansive ideas of who “our people” are so that we can build large coalitions that lead to the liberation of all people. I am inspired by thinkers who think radically and expansively, including Stuart Hall, W. E. B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, Yuri Kochiyama, and Vijay Prashad. They connect global systems around the world and are not limited to nation state, racial, or identity boundaries. As Angela Davis says: our identities should be informed by our politics, not the other way around.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
In many ways, this ethnography is not visionary; it is concrete. It helps us ground our visions and theories in the day to day lives of people. While I’m moved by so much intellectual and visionary thinking that emerges in the academy as theories to understand life and its alternatives, in many ways totalizing theories are ungrounded and do not have the evidence that I find most compelling to back them up.
At the same time, I think to envision the future—of the futures that people are already enacting in many places around the world—we need to have a firm understanding of how systems of power operate and how individuals navigate them. That is what I provide. Then from that understanding, we can identify workings, structure, and problematics of oppressive systems and move to eradicate them. That can hopefully lead to spaces where we can enact visions of the future that are collaborative and more just and equal. To get there, we have to address the tensions that have developed over time and as a result of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, settler colonialism, imperialism, etc. And we get there through solidarities that don’t overcome differences, but that contend with them.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.