Friday, March 28, 2008

[Black] West Indian and African-American Tension: My Two Cents

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the tension that exists between Black West Indian immigrants and African-Americans. I started thinking about this subject after reading Moving Back to Jamaica’s blog and finding myself in a heated debate with a fellow Jamaican on a message board. As a Jamerican, I feel like I'm the rope in a game of tug-o-war. I’ve always argued that African-Americans and West Indians have far more in common than some people like to acknowledge or admit. Yes, there are differences in culture, language, and sometimes in perspective but in the end we’re both Black people coming from a legacy of slavery. In America we are both affected by the sting of racism.

Caught in the Middle
When I was younger, being Jamaican/West Indian was not considered exotic or beautiful. To be Jamaican invoked images of a very dark-skinned person with dreads who smoked ganja incessantly, listened to nothing but reggae music and spoke with a “funny accent.” People (more pointedly, African-Americans) would ask me if Jamaicans lived in trees and wore grass skirts. I remember being called a “West Indian monkey” or “coconut.” People cracked jokes about my family members having three jobs (courtesy of the ‘In Living Color’ skits.) In fact, I was told that we came over here and took jobs from the African-Americans who needed them. To add insult to the injury, we behaved as if we were better than other Black people. (A friend of my family actually went into a rage when we were discussing the subject. He eventually told me to ‘go back to where I come from.’) I can’t count the amount of times I’ve listened to African-American women characterize Jamaican and other West Indian men as crazy, abusive, possessive and backwards. Similarly, I’ve heard African-American men say that Jamaican and other West Indian women are psycho, lustful, and the type you need to keep your eye on since they (we) practice voodoo.

By the same token, some of the Jamaican/West Indian family and friends I was around had their own thoughts. I was told that African-Americans were criminals. You had to be careful when around “them.” Rather than work hard and invest in their (our) communities, they (we) were content to live on welfare. They (we) blamed racism for their condition when it was clear all they really needed to do was sacrifice and work hard for what they wanted. Pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Some of us had come here with nothing but we were making a living, why couldn’t they? I was warned away from African-American men who would surely impregnate me and run away, leaving me with a baby to care for on my own.

Passing: My Identity Crisis
Despite the negative images of African-Americans I was given by other West Indians, I made a choice about my how I was going to identify. Sadly, as a young person, I didn’t want to associate myself with my Jamaican heritage. I was in the Midwest where there were few Jamaicans or West Indian families. To embrace that identity meant to mark myself as permanently “different.” I wanted to have friends, date boys and be accepted by my peer group. As shameful as it is to admit (even now), I didn’t want to be Jamaican. I didn’t want to be associated with the nappy-headed, ganja smoking representations of Jamaicans in the United States (even if I knew it was untrue.) I shunned any connection to my Jamaican heritage. I didn’t want to speak Pawta or take trips back home. It was hard enough being poor (which meant not having the latest clothes), being accused of “talking White”, and being considered a nerd. Adding another layer of difference to my identity? No thank you.

Once I was in college I began to rethink my choice. I was learning about Marcus Garvey (and other West Indian contributions to the Black American liberation struggle), the history of slavery in the Caribbean and the United States and the Pan-African movement. At the same time I was embarking on a study of my family history (which meant frequent conversations with my grandmother- the unofficial preserver of the family's Jamaican heritage). Slowly, I was forging the bonds again. I spent hours on the phone and in person speaking with my grandmother about our family. With her encouragement I took trips back home in order to reconnect with my family. By the time she passed away, I had become completely absorbed in my Jamaican culture. Shamefully, I admit to shunning my African-American side just as I had done previously with my Jamaican side. (You'd think I had learned).

Moving to South Florida didn’t help my predicament at all. The tension between West Indian immigrants and African-Americans down there was worse than anything I’d seen in the Midwest. If I ever felt like I had to choose between my two cultures it was then. Since I had reconnected with my Caribbean identity, it was only fitting that I chose to identify myself as Jamaican instead of African-American. (If you had met me during that time, you’d swear I’d just stepped off the plane from Jamaica. You’d never guess I had African-American family or that I’d previously passed as African-American).

Once I was living as a “full Jamaican” I realized how much insensitivity there was towards the plight of African-American people. I remember having lunch with a few of my co-workers who were from Latin America and the Caribbean. Somehow we started discussing race. Pretty much everyone agreed that African-Americans were “too sensitive” when it came to the subject. They wondered why African-Americans couldn’t simply “get over it”. We were in a new age where opportunity was abundant. Instead of complaining, African-Americans needed to apply their energy towards a career or an education and stop using race as a crutch. I quickly figured out the ethnic/racial hierarchy in South Florida. It went like this: White Americans (on top), White Latinos (starting with Cubans) followed next, Black Latinos and other Caribbean Blacks (minus Haitians) were after that, followed by African-Americans and lastly Haitians.

Yes, I was enjoying the status of being a West Indian but my soul was troubled. I was bothered by the way people freely promoted stereotypes about African-American people or spoke about them (us) as if they (we) were the most depraved people on the earth. Close friends of mine made comments about not wanting to be associated with “those people” and said they’d be upset if their children ever brought home someone who is African-American. I saw how some friends of mine did everything they could to distinguish themselves from African-Americans (even if it meant trying to hold on to their Caribbean accent with all their might.) The very same people never seemed to recognize the achievements of African-Americans locally or nationally. Most of the West Indians I was around clung to their view of African-Americans as ghetto, criminal, violent and lazy. West Indians who engaged in drug trafficking or violence were dismissed as exceptions to the rule.

To be fair, I’m sure there are African-Americans in South Florida who also have negative views of West Indian immigrants. Since I was passing I was not privy to those conversations.

The Broker
Like many bi-cultural and bi-racial people, I eventually came to place where I reconciled my two identities. Passing was not only emotionally taxing but dishonest. In some ways I felt like an ethnic voyeur. I realized I owed it to myself and to my family to proudly represent both cultures. More importantly, I needed to challenge stereotypes and prejudices displayed by both groups. (Otherwise I was complicit in the behavior). In some situations I have been called a traitor for being honest about the prejudice I’ve seen on both sides. In the spirit of political correctness, people don’t want to admit to the horrible things they say or think about each other. They definitely don’t take kindly to interlopers like me revealing their behind-closed-door discussions to the other party or to the public. But I’ve never been a fan of denial and certainly don’t believe in sugar coating things.

As I said in the beginning, I feel that African-Americans and Black West Indians have more in common than not. Both of us suffered the traumatic experience of slavery (slaves were often shipped back and forth between the Caribbean and the United States), were cut off from our African homelands (forcing us to create a new identity in the new world), and both of us have Black skin in a racist society. Jockeying for White attention and acceptance is not going to change the racist power structure in any way. Perpetuating stereotypes about one another won’t help us either. What we need is to build alliances with one another. Though I am prone to skepticism, in this situation I actually believe there’s hope. After all, I’m here aren’t I?

I’m interested in hearing your feedback…


muslimahlocs said...

as salaamu alaikum sister,
this topic is of particular importance to our family. my dh is from the caribbean and i am from here. although we both define ourselves as "black" and focus on the commonalities, we are acutely aware of those forces, even within our families, that seek to focus on the differences and define each other as the "other".
i am more concerned that our child, hmc, won't get to experience much of her father's culture since we live here and have not been back "home". i want hmc to be proud of being "black" and to embrace both cultures, insha Allah.

Jamerican Muslimah said...

Walaikum salaam muslimahlocs, how are you?

Your hubby is from Dominica right? So your daughter is a "Domerican?" Yes, I invented the term, lol. Maybe your daughter will have to experience her culture through her father and the Dominican community in the United States. I've been thinking about how I will connect my future children (insha'allah) with their Caribbean culture.I don't want it to end with me. My hubby is African-American so it will be on me to make sure it happens.

It's sad when people try to place their prejudices on others. It's the story of my life. A Jamaican friend mine recently called me to tell me about her move to another city. She started complaining about the fact that the only other Black (Muslim) people she could find in her new city were African-Americans and she didn't want her daughters around "them." Not even thinking about it, she said, "You know what I mean." I was so shocked to hear those words come out of her mouth! And I was just about to tell her I got married...I don't have to guess how she must feel about it.

Charles Hassan Ali Catchings said...


See, this is one of the many reasons we need that full-fledged site.

Anyway, this breaks my heart. I remember when I was told of my West Indian history. As a boy I always bugged my mom, uncles and aunts about why the older people talked funny. As a kid, my line of thought was, if you talked funny, you weren't black or were 'African'. When my Mom finally told me my grandmother's father was Indian, I assumed she meant he was Native American...until I saw a picture of him later. The dude was Indian, East Indian and that blew my mine. As it turned out he was one of thousands of East Indians hired to come over and work in the Antilles.

I felt bad because I didn't know this until I was a teenager. My grandmother was, and is a very secretive person so she didn't like to answer questions about her history.

Even though she cooked certain foods, I never thought that the food was 'different'. I just ate it. Later, I started traveling the world and went back to St. Kitts and Trinidad where I was told some of my folks still were. I was accepted as West Indian, sort of, until I wanted to get with a local girl. Then I became all parts American and Black. And to this day I have no way of refuting that. I mean, my great-grandad was almost Garvey's elder. What claim do I have really?

Now granted, for you JM, I feel worse because Jamaicans are not quite like Kittitians. Jamaicans to me, tend to be a little rougher about lineage. I think Kittitians 'lime alul moah' than Jamaicans with regard to heritage because St. Kitts still has a lot of Dutch whites.

Sometimes I get sad because my lineage gets drowned and replaced with Black and American, which, in comparison, seems rather drab.

USA BLUE & GOLD said...

I have decided to call myself a true American. Why, because like the country I am everything. Bajan (although Irish and Black Bajan grandparents) and American black ( although grandmother is 100% Cherokee ). I am the product of a melting pot. I wonder what my poor nephew will think of himself. His grandparents are as follows: parental grand father bajan (half black half white), maternal grand father chinese, maternal grandmother 100% black trinidian and Maternal grandmother half black half Cherokee . Do you have a name for him? I do, "A Blessed Mess", LOL.

When I was growing up I was called a half breed by both sides of the family. I was part foreigner aka coconut and American aka Yankee. I laugh at this now and remember, everyone ate the same foods thats for sure. Especially fish on Fridays. Go figure .

His maternal grandfather wants him raised the chinese way, what every that is. He is teaching him Cantonese.

The Black Snob said...

It always depresses me when black people hold ignorant views of other black people. On face value that seems patently ridiculous and if confronted all sides would deny they would ever beat up on their fellow AA, black Muslim, West Indies, South American, African brothers and sisters.

But the reality is, we do. And it has always annoyed me. Especially when people would argue that it was better that we were brought to the "New World" as slaves considering things were so "awful" in Africa. I try to point out to people that this logic is faulty as the current state of African is directly do to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and eventual colonialism that brought us here in the first place.

So I just don't get it. I wasn't raised that way and save for some pretty ignorant thoughts my classmates had about Africans, I've mostly avoided the sheer stupidity of this logic.

What's REALLY depressing about it all that essentially all black and African people have the exact same negative stereotypes for each other, the same stereotypes western Whites and Europeans gave us. You think people would listen to themselves. We're all unceremoniously labeled as shiftless, lazy, morally loose, repugnant, violent, prurient beasts with animal-like behaviors and sensibility.

It's all just nonsense and I hate it. Black people have enough problems to be wasting time fighting with one another.

Anonymous said...


I understand your feelings and thoughts. I have the same problem with being half dominican...

But when asked what I am I never know what to say. When in the Dominican republic they remind me of my american-black status....
and when in the US they remind me of my dominican black status..

hmmm I guess I don't know how to I get in where I fit in and sumtimes that is no where at all....

I hate being in the position to have to choose? why? what for?

oh well....

muslimahlocs said...

"domerican". i like that. as long as i don't have to footnote it each time i use it, i think that i just might.
i know how those types of comments just let the wind out of your sails, but just momentarily becuase they caught you off-guard. i am still trying to wrap my mind around two siblings that i "black" and one "other". and, yes they have the same two parents.

Sister Seeking said...

Salaam’Alaikum Jermican,

Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal struggle, and journey with us.
My husband is from West Africa (Senegal), and I’m African American—I too am from the Midwest. Your article has provided me with much needed insight to what my daughter may experience.

You’re an excellent writer—I love how you can write from your being! I felt my self right along besides you as you spoke of your journey. It could be because I as an adult have experienced some of the conversations with African immigrants—including those who are Muslim.

I don’t know your schedule but I believe that you could write a short story about your experience for all children who are bi-cultural. I hope you can make dua about this, and consider it seriously. I’d love for my daughter to get to know some one like you.

Now back to entering time cards!


: )