One of the most troubling incidents I experienced within the last few years was a visit from a poet. It was here in Copenhagen, and I had received a call if I had a place to stay for a poet from Brooklyn. Of course, I answered, no hesitancy needed. The poet ended up being someone whose work I had always admired, and I was happy to provide a space for this talent. Hailing from the Caribbean, this poet had managed to forge a career for herself with her outspokenness and strength. I admired her.
One evening, as we poured wine and exchanged experiences, the poet revealed that she had no big respect for African Americans. I was a bit thrown. Yes, I had grown up in the Caribbean and was familiar with the general condescending attitude many from the Caribbean had been indoctrinated to view the African American aspect of the Diaspora - but it was not something I had expected to hear from a poet, who although from the Caribbean, had experienced her success in the States.
It reminded me of the ignorance within my own community that I had to address. We from the Caribbean too often adhere to the system of European supremacy, all the while never questioning from whence it came and for the good of what do we embrace such sentiments? When I was a child growing up, it didn’t take much for me to do the math. I grew up with African Americans, most from the South. I ate their food, played their games, worked for them even. Even as a child I recognized the unique culture that I was privy to- and lamented when others refused to see the same.
Because my family hailed from the Caribbean, it was in my Brooklyn neighborhood that I learned what it meant not only to be American, but what it meant to be African American. The 70s and the 80s were equally full of promise and demise for many Black communities: Affirmative action promised to reverse years of racism (and assured me a place in college), the War on Drugs assured that many I knew would either succumb to addiction or to the prison industrial complex. I’m not saying that this is the African American experience. I’m only saying that it was mine. What was always abundantly clear to me, through all of this, was the richness of the culture that was distinctly African American. Whether it was the music my father played from his record player (Jazz greats) or the dances that my friends taught me (the Wop, the Smurf), the double-dutch I learned to play (Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jumped over the candlestick…), the way I popped my gum, or being accepted into a community that was not mine per say – what I learned in Brooklyn was that the culture of Africa America was pinnacle of what America thought she had to offer in terms of culture.
This sentiment again was not often mirrored by many from the Caribbean who held onto a supposed form of supremacy as tightly as they could – anything I suppose that gave them a semblance of power, never you mind that it dictates looking down on someone else in order to assume this so-called power. But there was something else I learned from my African American community and it would be a lesson that I would always carry close to me and that was the simple, magical gift that I was Black.
“I’m Black and I’m proud”, Tracy said to me. We were in the 3rd grade and I envied her tight cornrows and the way her dark brown face was so smooth. I wished my mother knew how to cornrow or even jump double-dutch for that matter. The strangest thing was, although I was in such a rush to trade in my own mother for an African American mother (you know, the one who will slap you into next week, who cornrows your hair, buys the best gear and stands up for you in all your schoolyard fights, instead of asking ‘What did you do now, Lesley?’) my American friends LOVED my mother and her sing-songy Trinidadian accent. Again it was proof of some kind of fishy reverse discrimination thing: How come all of the African Americans I had encountered as a child seemed genuinely interested in where my family hailed from, genuinely curious, and most of the people I had come across from the Caribbean assumed this superior attitude, despite the very similar social circumstances?
When I got into a discussion with the poet who doesn’t know it, I was reminded, yet again, of how little she knew of history. Like so many other white supremacists, she seemed confident that whatever failures that were being witnessed today on the part of the African American community, was solely the responsibility of African Americans.
“It was hard back in those days,” My mother would say, “They used to tell us to go back on the boats to where we came from.” Okay, I know the ignorance went both ways. I’m not going to sit up here and pretend that I didn’t witness or ever hear about or for that matter experience some ignorant things being targeted towards those from the Caribbean either. But when you think about our particular history, our unique history in terms of bondage, so-called emancipation and the like, you have to admit that there must have been a whole lot of migrations taking place among Blacks. We have always been on the lookout for a place of better living – which means that even if you think your ancestory comes from x, if you dig deep enough you’d find out how closely connected we all are. I met an older guy from Harlem the other day, and when he heard that my family hailed from Trinidad, he was quick to let me know that his great-grandfather hailed from Trinidad as well. Again, to imagine Black communities as stagnant, immovable entities is not fully understanding the universality and timelessness of our struggles.
My mentor, Marie D. Brown, is a literary agent who has been in the publishing business for over 40 years. From her point of view, segregation had managed to produce a stable community for cultural, educational and economic growth for Blacks, particularly African Americans, and she maintains that these opportunities have been gradually eroded, vaporized even, behind the rhetoric of progress.
She explains that during segregation, there was at least communities of Blacks that continued the tradition, the tradition of raising villages- despite the economic construct of the community we had found ourselves in. It’s the tradition of taking in other’s children, cause that is what we have had to do. It’s the tradition of feeding each other. It’s the tradition of teaching each other. This is what I learned most about African American culture. And I loved it.
Despite the general ignorance of many from the Caribbean regarding African Americans, there have been many who have identified themselves as part of the African Diaspora from the Caribbean itself. There have been many quick to highlight the similarities between the two groups – Marcus Garvey, C.L.R. James and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) to name a few. One of the victories of modern media is the ability to condition how we see ourselves and each other. Unfortunately for the African American, Hollywood was never a trusted friend.
I say all this because throughout the years I cannot help but wonder about the many Blacks I have met who feel uncomfortable to be aligned with each other. I get the issues of pigmentocracy – but what I find troubling is the unwillingness to truly find our own histories and to start to piece together our own identities- not what has been doled out to us, about us.
When I was a child growing up, there were African Americans who never locked their doors. Theirs was a door that was eternally open to a wild-eyed Caribbean girl with time to burn. There was always food to be eaten, responsibilities to be learned, clothes to be given. I felt an innate pride to be accepted by these people, and honored to be given access to drive in their cars, eat at their dinners and laugh at their jokes. Frankly, I felt more at home with them than I did with my own family. I especially liked the pride that was inherent in them, the pride in their color, their culture and history. The only thing that has ever been missing in many Black communities is opportunity, and a general appreciation from all those around who arrive in this country but sadly, never take the time to get to know their neighbors, or their own history, at that.
It’s truly time we liberate ourselves from oppressive ideologies and re-socialize ourselves anew, understanding that true power is y/our power.