By Bill Landauer

Randi Gill-Sadler, in her first year as assistant professor of English, has seen what she calls “the underbelly of America,” how the U.S. has taken advantage of nations in Africa and the Caribbean. Negative perceptions in the U.S. among people who’ve rarely strayed far from the border have forged policies that have created real hardships in countries such as Haiti, Grenada, Nicaragua, and Jamaica.

Randi Gill-Sadler, assistant professor of English

Stereotypes are “perpetuated and permeated in ways we don’t readily recognize,” she says. “And ultimately it shapes American policies.”

That’s the heart of Gill-Sadler’s research—the evolution of Black intellectual thought in the U.S. and elsewhere on decolonization, destruction of exploitative power relationships, and replacement of them with logics and power structures that allow for more freedom.

“By freedom, I’m not talking about legal definitions of freedom exclusively,” Gill-Sadler says. “I’m talking about more expansive ideas about what it means to be a free human. Freedom to exist as you are. Not having that taken away from you based on race, gender, or nationality.”

Through literature, Gill-Sadler is studying the effects of imperialism and resistance to it. Not just the classic chestnut of wooden ships from the 16th century sailing into a tropical harbor, but the more recent phenomenon of neocolonialismone example being how the tourist industry has pillaged the economies of Caribbean countries.

Gill-Sadler first became interested in the topic as an undergrad, reading the work of writers such as Antiguan-American novelist Jamaica Kincaid. She found writers who were critical not just of the British Empire, such as within Kincaid’s essay “A Small Place,” but the U.S. empire. In other texts, such as Praise Song for the Widow by Paule Marshall and Zami by Audre Lorde, she found “solidarities” between African American and Afro-Caribbean women within the texts, shared experiences across the diaspora.

“Issues of imperialism represent themselves in a variety of ways,” Gill-Sadler says. She’s found critiques of U.S. imperialism in 19th-century travel narratives, political essays, and other archival works. Those include letters from African American soldiers who fought in the Spanish American War in a work called Smoked Yankees and the Struggle for Empire. In A Small Place, for example, Kincaid examines the privilege of tourists in Antigua to show separation between the lived experience of locals and neocolonial views.

“It’s using this very sarcastic tone to bring out criticism of the tourists,” Gill-Sadler says, and how tourist locales both hide and exploit less photo-friendly realities of a region.

As Gill-Sadler’s research progressed as a graduate student at University of Florida, she discovered just how influential American perceptions had been in the Caribbean. American attitudes toward Haiti were complex. During the Haitian Revolution in the early 19th century, slaves revolted and successfully threw off the yoke of French oppression.

American proponents of slavery feared something similar happening in the U.S. Perceptions of the Haitian revolution altered U.S. policy toward the fledgling nation. Some of those ideas persist today.

You can never learn too much about the consequences and effects of imperialism

“You can never learn too much about the consequences and effects of imperialism,” Gill-Sadler says. Much of the way American history is taught is insular, she says, and U.S. students seldom examine how actions of their own country affect the rest of the world.

Such study “can dispel the idea of American exceptionalism,” she says, the idea that the U.S. is the protector and advocate of democracy throughout the world without acknowledging how the U.S. has fallen short in many places.

Gill-Sadler is working to turn her Ph.D. dissertation into a book. She wrote about 20th-century Black women’s travel writing and is hoping to reshape the manuscript into a book about Black feminist intellectuals traveling in the 1980s.

“The ’80s was a time when there was a lot of neocolonialism in the Caribbean and the United States,” Gill-Sadler says. “But this also happens to be the same time that you have many Black feminist intellectuals being invited to the Caribbean to share their literature.”

The Black Scholar, one of the oldest journals of Black studies in the United States, sponsored a trip to Cuba for Black women writers in 1985. This was part of the Black Women Writers Cultural Tour. One of its goals was for Black women writers to share their work outside the U.S., and to discuss and critique issues like imperialism that are exploiting Black people worldwide.

Some of the writers who went were Audre Lorde, Rosa Guy, and Toni Cade Bambara.

Gill-Sadler’s work will examine the solidarity between Caribbean and American writers and also areas of disagreement as they relate to U.S. imperialism.

The literature paints a grim picture of imperialism over the centuries, but Gill-Sadler has found just as strong a tradition of resistance in African American and Caribbean literature.

“Reading African American, Afro-Caribbean literature inspires me even in the midst of overwhelming colonialism,” Gill-Sadler says, “because I understand that literature makes it possible to think of the world outside of exploitative power dynamics.”

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