Empire in the Air
Airline Travel and the African Diaspora
Published by: NYU Press
224 pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in, 6 black and white illustrations
- ISBN: 9781479843473
- Published: December 2017
Honorable Mention, 2019 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing, given by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology
Examines the role that race played in the inception of the airline industry
Empire in the Air is at once a history of aviation, and an examination of how air travel changed lives along the transatlantic corridor of the African diaspora. Focusing on Britain and its Caribbean colonies, Chandra Bhimull reveals how the black West Indies shaped the development of British Airways.
Bhimull offers a unique analysis of early airline travel, illuminating the links among empire, aviation and diaspora, and in doing so provides insights into how racially oppressed people experienced air travel. The emergence of artificial flight revolutionized the movement of people and power, and Bhimull makes the connection between airplanes and the other vessels that have helped make and maintain the African diaspora: the slave ships of the Middle Passage, the tracks of the Underground Railroad, and Marcus Garvey’s black-owned ocean liner.
As a new technology, airline travel retained the racialist ideas and practices that were embedded in British imperialism, and these ideas shaped every aspect of how commercial aviation developed, from how airline routes were set, to who could travel easily and who could not.
The author concludes with a look at airline travel today, suggesting that racism is still enmeshed in the banalities of contemporary flight.
"Bhimulls luminous work is much more than a deeply researched and compellingly argued study of British civil aviation in the interwar period. It is a radical attempt to consider the place of empire, colonialism, and race, in a history from which they have been systematically effaced. It is a declaration of the importance of reading the Caribbean, and the perspectives of those racially subjected there and elsewhere, back into the center of empires third dimension. At the heart of Empire in the Air, and perhaps its most unsettling implication, is an exposure of the violence of flight in the present, as much as in the past: of the ways in which imperial privilege and racism continue to take to the air in ways generally ignored from above, even as they remain acutely visible, from below." ~Paul Eiss, Carnegie Mellon University
"By sheer coincidence, I read Chandra Bhimulls masterful book on a long, red-eye flight from L.A. to São Paulo, with a layover in Panama City. My Copa Airlines flight exemplified what Bhimull calls the brown corridor; I traveled with descendants of imperial subjects and working people caught in a neoliberal landscape of migrant, precarious labor. I never slept; I couldnt put the book down. Gripping, eloquent, poetic, Empire in the Air strips the history of air travel of its romantic aura to expose the racial operations and experiences of the fittingly named Imperial Airways, and the manner in which imperial subjects came to seeand be seenat an altitude of 25,000 feet. I read the last pages upon our descent at São Paulo/Guarulhos International Airport. Like everyone on board, I applauded." ~Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times