Calypso and Caribbean Migration: Lara Putnam’s “Radical Moves”

The following review of Lara Putman’s Radical Moves was written by John Cline and published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, June 2, 2013.

IN 1987, THE EMINENT ETHNOMUSICOLOGIST Richard K. Spottswood compiled an LP for Arhoolie Records titled Where Was Butler? It was subtitled “A Calypso Documentary from Trinidad,” and features many of the stars of the island’s music scene from the 1930s, including Attila the Hun and Growling Tiger. While this record has never been re-released on CD, nor is it available on iTunes, its 16 tracks constitute one of the most fascinating calypso collections ever produced. Long before Public Enemy’s Chuck D proclaimed his oft-repeated maxim that hip-hop is the “black CNN,” calypsonians from Trinidad were narrating the struggles experienced by the island’s oil field workers, led by one Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler. In addition to being a labor leader, the Grenada-born Butler was also a Spiritual Baptist preacher, a faith practice then outlawed in Trinidad due to anxieties provoked by its Pentecostal-like emphasis on shouting and physical “possession” by the Holy Spirit.

You Tube – “Where was Butler”, Raymond Quevedo -Atilla The Hun.

Butler is a major figure in Lara Putnam’s Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age, his life illustrating the core thesis of her book. In her conclusion, Putnam states that:

black-internationalist and anti-colonial movements that would shake the twentieth century were rooted in the experiences of ordinary men and women — not only the cosmopolitan streets of Harlem and Paris but also in the banana ports and dance halls of the tropical circum-Caribbean.

Radical Moves thus implicitly offers a corrective to conventional histories of African Diaspora. Paul Gilroy’s 1993 The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness stressed the international character of the literature and politics of African-descended peoples in the 20th century, and focused his attention on major figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright. In the ensuing years, scholars like Brent Hayes Edwards and Minkah Makalani have expanded on Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic,” focusing on metropolitan centers like New York, Paris, and London, filling in the details with somewhat lesser known individuals and organizations. These authors, like Gilroy, prefer to write about individuals with international profiles and concrete political movements, from Claude McKay to the African Blood Brotherhood in Harlem and from George Padmore to the International African Service Bureau in London. In Radical Moves, however, Putnam chooses to focus instead on “the forgotten editors of port-town newspapers and the many thousands of men and women who read their pages and debated the merits in rum shops and butcher store queues.” Within the historiography of the African Diaspora, this is a shift akin to that between the union-centric studies of the “Wisconsin School” of labor history and the opening up to the quotidian of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.

For the full original report: Los Angeles Review of Books – Calypso and Caribbean Migration: Lara Putman’s “Radical Moves”