View upcoming events at Boston College
Books by alumni, faculty, and staff
Order books noted in Boston College Magazine
Join the online community of alumni
View the current BCM in original format
A wandering word and its shifting meanings
The Greek noun diaspora derives from the verb diaspeiro, a compound of dia (over or through) and speiro (to scatter or sow). The word emerged from the proto-Indo-European root, spr, which can be found today in such English words as “spore,” “sperm,” “spread,” and “disperse.” In all of its various uses, diaspora has to do with scattering and dispersal. To the ancient Greeks, diaspora seems to have signified mainly a process of destruction. Epicurus used the term to refer to the decomposition of matter and its dissolution into smaller parts. Human communities subject to the destructive force of diaspora were similarly split asunder. Thucydides, in the History of the Peloponnesian War, described the Athenians’ destruction of Aegina and the banishment and dispersal of its people in this way. Whereas Greek colonies retained close and mutually beneficial relations with their mother cities, the victims of diaspora enjoyed no such connections. In its original Greek sense, then, diaspora referred to a destructive process, rather than to a place, a group of people, or a benign pattern of population dispersal.
It was in Jewish history that diaspora assumed a now-familiar form. The early parts of the Jewish story derive from biblical narratives. The history ancient Israelites told to themselves, which lies at the core of Jewish identity, was based on displacement, exile, and longing for a homeland. Most accounts of the Jewish diaspora begin with the Babylonian captivity in 586 B.C.E. But according to the history related in the Bible, Jewish people had been migrating for centuries before that critical event.
The story of the earliest Jewish migrations is told in Genesis and Exodus. The Jewish people descended from Abraham, who led his people from Babylonia (in presentday Iraq) to Canaan, the land of Israel. Famine soon drove Abraham’s descendants out of Canaan to Egypt, where Joseph, one of their kinsmen and an advisor to the pharaoh, welcomed them. Their position in Egypt gradually deteriorated until Moses, commanded by God to deliver the Hebrew people from slavery, led them back to Canaan. Moses caught a glimpse of the Promised Land before dying and, as subsequent books of the Hebrew Bible recount, his followers went on to build the nation of Israel, with the city of Jerusalem as its capital. The very earliest phase of Jewish history, then, involves the familiar cycle of migration, suffering, and return.
The kingdom of Israel later split into two states, Israel and Judah. When the Assyrians invaded Israel in the eighth century B.C.E., they sent its leaders and some of its population into exile. Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon conquered Judah in 586 B.C.E., destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and carried the Jewish elite back to Babylon. It was during this critical period of upheaval and exile that Jewish leaders in Babylonia wrote down their history, their law, and the tenets of their faith in a systematic manner. When the Persians took over the Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C.E., many Jews returned to Judah. But the era of the Second Temple came to an end with the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. After a final Jewish revolt in 135, the emperor Hadrian razed Jerusalem. From then until the foundation of the modem state of Israel in 1948, the Jewish people lacked an independent state.
The Greek words diaspeiro and diaspora, applied to Jewish history, came into widespread currency in the translation of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Septuagint (circa 250 B.C.E.). In this work, Jewish scholars based in Alexandria translated into Greek the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which Christians later referred to as the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). The verb diaspeiro occurred more than 40 times in the Septuagint, and the noun diaspora a dozen times, describing a condition of spiritual anguish and dissolution that accompanied the dispersal of the Jews by an angry God. It was used to translate the Hebrew term za-avah, which means “a horror,” “trouble,” or “an object of trembling.” In the words of Deuteronomy 28:25, “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them; and you shall become a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary cites this passage in support of its primary definition of diaspora, “the dispersion of Jews among the Gentile nations; all those Jews who lived outside the biblical land of Israel.”
Diaspora in this sense was at heart a theological concept. In Deuteronomy, God had threatened his people with banishment if they disobeyed his word. According to rabbinic teaching, the destruction of the Second Temple made this threat real. Bereft of a homeland, the Jews were in a state of physical exile and spiritual anguish; their only hope was to repent; the sign of their repentance was obedience to the law; and their potential reward was that God might return them to the land of Israel. The Jewish conception—which decisively influenced all others—was therefore forward-looking, anticipating eventual redemption, rather than a simple lament over exile.
Other than the Jewish case, the Armenian diaspora is probably the best known. Armenia’s strategic importance—and its historical misfortune—was that it lay in the path of several successive empires. These included the Persian, Greek, and Roman in ancient times, the Byzantine in the medieval era, and the Ottoman and Russian in the modern period. Located at the crossroads of Eurasia, in the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea comprising parts of present-day Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran, Armenia stood little chance of maintaining its territorial integrity.
The successive invasions and occupations triggered waves of forced and voluntary Armenian migration. By the fifth century C.E., Armenians had planted colonies in the Balkans. In the seventh century, many Armenians were deported to Byzantium, and others moved there voluntarily. Since the 10th century, Armenians have had a continuous presence in Venice, Paris, London, and other European cities. Armenian migrants established settlements throughout eastern Europe in the 11th century, in Palestine and Egypt in the 13th, and in Persia in the 17th. In the 20th century, large numbers moved to the United States. Today, there are an estimated seven million people of Armenian extraction globally, including three million in the Republic of Armenia and 1.5 million in the United States.
Armenians migrated to a wide variety of places, but many migrant groups have done that. The basis of their special claim to diaspora is that they also lacked an independent state between the collapse of Cilicia (on the southeast shore of present-day Turkey) in 1375 and the proclamation of the present-day Republic of Armenia in 1991. For more than six centuries, then, Armenians abroad maintained a cherished sense of a homeland, yet they had no place of their own to return to.
In 1864–96 and again in 1909, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire suppressed an incipient Armenian nationalist movement, killing hundreds of thousands and compelling tens of thousands more to emigrate (many to neighboring Syria or to the United States). Further suppression of the Armenian minority in 1915–16 resulted in the deaths of some 1.5 million people, out of a population of only two million. Most of the survivors fled to the short-lived Russian Republic of Armenia (1918–20), to Egypt, Iran, and France, or to Argentina and the United States.
The Armenian genocide assumed an even more tragic layer of significance by association with the Holocaust. If all modern conceptions of diaspora derive from the Jewish model, then the events of the 1940s added a terrible new dimension to the narrative of upheaval, exile, and suffering. Armenians are regarded as one of the paradigmatic diasporas not simply because they scattered widely and lacked a homeland for most of their history, but also because, like the Jews, they experienced genocide in the 20th century.
The third most widely recognized diaspora, alongside the Jewish and the Armenian, is the African. The scale of the African slave trade, and the suffering that accompanied it, is staggering. About 11 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The slaves and their descendants in the Atlantic world developed the idea of an African diaspora, drawing heavily on the Jewish model of exile, suffering, return, and a sense of being chosen by God.
Exodus provided the central theme. The 19th-century spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” based on Exodus 7:14–16, begins: “When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go / Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my people go / Go down, Moses, / Way down in Egypt’s land, / Tell old Pharaoh, / Let my people go.” Here, Israel represents the African-American slaves, Egypt is America, and pharaoh signifies the slave masters. The Exodus story continued to inspire African-Americans in the 20th century, from Zora Neale Hurston to Martin Luther King Jr., but it was not until the 1960s that the word “diaspora” came into widespread currency as a description of forced African migration.
The term has since proliferated in both academic and popular usage, to cover migration of all kinds. People who use it often do so to make claims about nationalism, race, or the politics of identity. Diaspora has expanded in meaning due to a series of related historical developments beginning in the decades after World War II:
• The dismantling of European empires, which inspired transnational solidarity, especially among people of African descent, and which also led to the displacement of certain populations in Asia and Africa, including Indians out of Burma, Chinese out of Indonesia, and South Asians from Uganda.
• The classification by the United Nations of involuntary migrants as refugees who are due international recognition and protection.
• The dramatic increase in number of international migrants, facilitated by improved international travel and communication.
• And efforts by national governments to reach out to their overseas populations in search of economic and political support, such as the “diaspora bonds” issued by Israel and India, or Ireland’s declaration of 2013 as the “Year of the Gathering.”
These developments help explain why the media carry stories on the Afghan, Chinese, Eritrean, Haitian, Iranian, Irish, Indian, Mexican, Russian, Somalian, Taiwanese, and Tibetan diasporas, to mention but a small sample. The concept of diaspora has also become central to the humanities and social sciences, especially to the disciplines of history, political science, sociology, international studies, ethnic studies, and literary criticism. The field of diaspora studies now has its own centers and journals, covering virtually every group, theme, and topic imaginable regarding the subject. Dozens of books emerge each year with the word “diaspora” in their titles.
The expansion in meaning, inevitably, has led to a certain incoherence. One scholar nicely captured this problem in an essay titled “The ‘Diaspora’ Diaspora,” which argued that the concept had been “stretched” in so many directions that the very meaning of diaspora had undergone a “dispersion.” Another made the same point by invoking the sense of decomposition and dissolution inherent in the original Greek idea, and then suggesting that the idea of diaspora is in similar danger. If everyone is potentially diasporic, and every migration or ethnic group a diaspora, then how much analytical value can the concept retain?
Over the last generation, scholars have produced a bewildering variety of typologies seeking to pin down what diaspora is and what it is not. The most influential of these classification systems are so comprehensive that almost every form of migration counts—not just the catastrophic cases (Jewish captivity, African slavery, the Armenian genocide, the Irish famine), but also the migrations of merchants, workers, and even colonizers. Yet choosing some criteria at the expense of others can result in a biased and incomplete accounting. No single group could satisfy all the criteria in the broadest of current typologies. But if one settles for, say, six out of 10 criteria, it becomes difficult to compare groups in a meaningful way, as the criteria often belong to different orders of experience (the political origins of a migration, say, versus the unifying experience of racism abroad). Given this confusion, one line of inquiry is to ask not what a diaspora “is” but what its manifestations are likely to be in the cultures that migrants form abroad.
This approach can be quite powerful, especially when studying literature and other forms of cultural representation. But it is not possible to analyze diaspora in this way unless people leave evidence in words, images, or material culture. The majority of migrants throughout history have been poor and barely literate, and the written evidence that has survived was produced for the most part by elites. Attributing a diaspora to an entire group of people on the basis of this sort of testimony has its pitfalls.
So this leaves us at a crossroads. People use diaspora in so many incompatible ways today that one might be tempted to jettison the term altogether. It has become a synonym for population movements in general, not just involuntary mass migration. It is also used as a shorthand measure of the number of people from a given country living abroad—an “ethnic group,” in the simplest definition. In adjectival form, it describes a range of activities and conditions, from the trauma of exile to political mobilization to cultural creativity.
To use diaspora as an explanatory device, it is necessary to make at least some stipulations on the origins and nature of the migration and on the types of interconnections the migrants and their descendants establish abroad.
Here are stipulations I would propose: Although many migrants travel through networks, diaspora tends to have greater explanatory power when applied to forms of involuntary migration rather than to migration in general. Nonetheless, groups who move voluntarily—the great majority—can engage in diasporic activities abroad, depending on the types of connections they establish. At the most straightforward level, these connections occur when migrants or their descendants in one country continue to involve themselves economically, politically, or culturally in the affairs of their homeland. Irish-Americans, for example, sent millions of dollars in remittances to Ireland in the 19th century, and played a leading role in the movement for an independent republic. The idea of diaspora carries its greatest explanatory power when it involves communication not only between a given overseas community and a homeland but also among various overseas communities of common origin, conceived as nodes in a network or web. Musicians in 20th-century Kingston, London, and New York, for instance, collaborated to produce reggae, the music of diaspora par excellence. And Irish nationalists in New York joined their counterparts in Boston, Toronto, and Sydney in an international conversation about the liberation of Ireland. Inherent in the idea of diaspora, finally, is the notion of return to a homeland. Return can be literal, as in the case of Zionism, but more often it has been metaphorical or spiritual. Most people of African descent have known they would never return to Africa—Marcus Garvey and the Back-to-Africa Movement of the 1930s notwithstanding—but this very improbability helps explain the fervent expressions of a desire to do so.
Phrases such as “the Armenian diaspora in America” or “the Pakistani diaspora in Bradford” are simply shorthand for a considerable number of people from a given location living abroad in a particular place. In themselves, they explain little. But the idea of diaspora, in the flexible sense proposed here, can illuminate the world that migration creates, revealing a dynamic range of patterns, connections, and interactions. Diaspora enables people to make claims about their world, and this is true of impoverished migrants seeking coherence in their disrupted lives; nationalist leaders in overseas communities building links with their homeland and with fellow exiles elsewhere; and journalists, professors, and students who choose it as their subject.
Kevin Kenny is a professor of history at Boston College and the author, most recently, of Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction (copyright © 2013 by Oxford University Press), from which this essay is drawn and adapted with the permission of the publisher.
The last chapter is giving its author trouble.
The book, still in manuscript, is a political history of Indians in Kenya. It tracks from the beginning of British colonial rule in the late 1800s—when large numbers of Indians from Gujarat and Punjab found work building the railroad between the Indian Ocean and Lake Victoria—and it concludes with the mass exodus of Kenya’s Indians in the 1960s following the country’s independence. Fifty thousand of Kenya’s 180,000 Indians left between 1962 and 1969, of which 35,000 emigrated between September 1967 and April 1968, after passage of exclusionary immigration and trade legislation. The author, MIT historian Sana Aiyar, is on campus February 26 at the invitation of the Faculty Seminar on Diaspora and Global Migration, a monthly lunchtime gathering of a dozen or so Boston College faculty. Members come from the departments of history, English, theology, Romance languages, political science, and African and African diaspora studies, as well as from the Law School and the program in pastoral ministry at the School of Theology and Ministry. Aiyar is here to present her research for feedback.
Historically, Aiyar says, Indians in Kenya tended to be materially better off than their African neighbors. In their family-owned, family-run shops, they purchased produce from native African farmers at low cost, and sold the everyday necessities at high prices. Rarely, if ever, did they hire African employees. This bred resentment. Aiyar wants to make the point in her draft chapter that Kenya’s Indians were, as she puts it, “complicit in their own marginalization.” She poses a question to the scholars seated around the conference table at 10 Stone Avenue: How might she successfully frame that argument within the context of other dynamics—of race, class, and citizenship, and of competing visions for Kenyan nationhood—that contributed to upending the lives of Kenya’s Indians?
The diaspora seminar, which is sponsored and hosted by the University’s Institute for the Liberal Arts, started in the fall of 2012 and is the brainchild of history professor Kevin Kenny. As Kenny, a specialist in the study of Atlantic migration (see his The American Irish: A History, 2000), explains, “a significant number of faculty at Boston College, across schools and disciplines, were working on issues of migration and diaspora, [but] most of us did not know one another.” The seminar, he says, has “allowed us to move beyond the confines of our own disciplines and see familiar issues from unfamiliar perspectives,” providing a catalyst for deeper understanding of the lives of diasporic peoples.
Each month, a guest scholar or a faculty member offers up a paper for discussion. Presenters during this academic year have included assistant professor of French Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, speaking on the Haitian-American musician/politician Wyclef Jean; and Westy Egmont, who gave an account of the Immigrant Integration Lab, which, as director, he helped launch in December 2012 at the Graduate School of Social Work. History professor Marilynn Johnson distributed the final chapter of her manuscript for a book about immigration in Boston since 1965; and Len Lyons, an independent scholar, shared his research on the Ethiopian Jews of Israel, who, he said, were unique among diasporic peoples in that they sought and secured their repatriation to a land—Israel—to which they had no historical connection. With cosponsors such as the Irish Writers Series and the Lowell Humanities Series, the seminar also helped bring to campus, for its own meetings and for public lectures, the Irish-American novelist Colum McCann and the British novelist Zadie Smith.
At the meeting in February, members have many questions for Aiyar—about the racially defined roles of Europeans, South Asians, and Africans on the eve of Kenyan independence; the involvement of Kenya’s Indians in the politics of India; class and generational divisions among Kenya’s Indians; and the role that the religions of Africans played in the treatment of Indians.
To Aiyar’s main question—how best to argue that the Indians of Kenya contributed to their own marginalization—Kenny has a suggestion: that she expand her scope and look comparatively at what was happening to Indians at the time in Tanzania, Zanzibar, and Uganda.
Jeri Zeder is a writer based in the Boston area.
Read more by Jeri Zeder