An avid follower of Awesomely Luvvie on facebook, I came across this post on youtube and it had some interesting insights to the disconnect between Africans and African Americans. It interested me because here in the Caribbean, there is a sense of disconnect from Africa as well and from aspects of the African American experience. Some things are different though; so some Caribbean perspective (specifically my African Caribbean perspective; others will disagree) on some of what Luvvie says here.
“I actually hadn’t heard about slavery until I came to the US…so coming to the US is when I actually started understanding race too because …we were the default, everybody’s black…so the concept of being black wasn’t real to me until I came to the US.”
For me (black and barn yah/born here), growing up in the Caribbean was different. I grew up being taught about slavery and understanding that my ancestors had been enslaved. In fact, some (points to self) would argue that that’s all we learned of our ancestors in the formal education system, and often from the perspective of the enslaver (with the notable exception, in my case, of To Shoot Hard Labour, which showed us our post-slavery history through the eyes of a black working class Antiguan man, Papa Sammy Smith). Some (points to self again) would further argue that because all we think and know of our ancestors is that they were “slaves” (as opposed to “enslaved”, never mind that they were people before that), we reject that past (feeling a shame that’s not our own). This is, by extension, a rejection not just of the people who suck sal’ so that we could still be here, but of our ancestral home, Africa (for all sorts of nebulous reasons, beginning with “they sold us in to slavery” and the colonized mind’s perception of it as a dark and backward place…we’ve evolved quite a bit in our understanding of Africa, though, I want to think). And in as much as we continue this self-abnegating behavior, we continue to reject ourselves, all while humming Redemption Song.
Antigua and Barbuda’s enslaved people were ‘freed’ in 1834 and endured slave-like working conditions for generations beyond that, enforced by law and low wages. Pre the labour union movement (of the very late 1930s and beyond), this abject reality, it could be argued, was one of the things binding them to a life without a come-up. We remained a colony until 1967 when we moved in to Associated Statehood (effectively internal self-government) and finally Independence from Britain in 1981 (where we’re responsible for our own affairs internally and externally, though with the Queen still on our money and the Queen’s representative, the Governor General, still in place as Head of State; and still at 170 square miles and 100,000 – give or take, subject to environmental, political, and economic storms bigger than us).
So I would say that growing up in the Caribbean, you have a sense of your black history (albeit as told to you by another) and your precarious present (and in case we forgot, the big bad recession is still reminding us). There is an awareness of being a small axe but with the bravado or confidence (take your pick) that the small axe had the capacity to now and again chop down the big tree.
As for being the default, we are a black majority country, that is true; but slavery had leeched so much of our appreciation for our African-ness out of us, the reclaiming is still a work in progress. And between Empire (on which the sun never set) and being in America’s armpit (her cultural, financial, and political reach re-shaping our societies in ways we still struggle to come to terms with), and leaning these last many decades on tourism and foreign investment, we still struggle to centre ourselves in the narrative of our lives, to vision ourself for ourself. Plus, economically, the mass of the people, with notable exceptions, don’t have a whole ton of power (the power to amass and transfer wealth down the generations, or the ease of access to influence that some have even without great wealth). There are still, still issues related to classism, colourism (an off-shoot of racism that privileges lightness for its closeness to whiteness…in Antigua, we call them butter skin – see my book Musical Youth for more on that subject), and cronyism to overcome. But through social vehicles like education even the poorest could envision a way up. So, I would say the concept of being black was very real to me growing up in a Caribbean black, working class community; and fed a steady diet of music, literature, and film from outside, usually the US, with Carnival being a once a year cultural/artistic palate cleanser on which we over-indulged. I would say, at least in my lifetime, that we had things all around us, right there in our backyard, to remind us of who we were and what we could be in spite of the obstacles. That our experience of systemic racism wasn’t as raw and grating an experience as for black Americans who are a minority in a majority white country. I would say, though that we had enough awareness to feel some kinship with their experience – we see overlaps in our experiences (slavery, obviously, but also colonialism to Jim Crow-ism), our movements (such as black power, pan-Africanism, and more recently solidarity with #blacklivesmatter), and our arts (soul, calypso, reggae, dance hall, hip hop are all linked up if you trace the roots).
“They do buy in to the whole African Americans are lazy and African Americans are criminals…not thinking about what 400 years of people telling you that you’re not a real human being can do to the psyche; we come here because our whole lives we’ve been told we’re going to be great and that being enforced to you is something that’s really powerful because even in the face of being talked down to and in the face of being told that you’re nothing, you’re like I know I’m something…They don’t get the exposure, they don’t get to understand that people aren’t just lazy, people aren’t just criminals, it’s the whole system, just a web of oppression that’s causing all of this.”
To be honest, some Caribbean people think this way, too (and tell ourselves that our societies have none of the issues the black American communities have); think African Americans are just not trying hard enough to get over it (and that our islands are literal paradise…which, no). But, to me, that’s part of the rejection of ourselves and failure to inform ourselves about the ways our journeys intersect. After all, the Caribbean was one of several slave markets in the West (using enslaved people for its own sugar cane production and feeding enslaved people in to the southern plantations of the North).
And the slave experience in the Caribbean wasn’t any gentler than in the US (you’ve seen or read Alex Haley’s Roots; well, also read slave narratives like The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, Matthew Parker’s historical Sugar Barrons, or Marlon James’ fictional Book of Night Women for some perspective). I suppose we think we’re able to tell ourselves that we’ve evolved from that by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and if we can do it…but it’s an argument that rejects the context. That many African Americans have done just that, in spite of systemic racism; and that we (again, my generation, at least) grew up with black political leaders running things, black teachers in our classrooms, black police men, black lawyers, black doctors etc. That it was normal to see black faces in all places (well, except, when I was coming of age, the upper echelons of hotel management and ownership, and generally the investor class) made all of these things real possibilities in our lives, even if, depending on class and economic barriers, we might have to get more of a running start. We saw our parents through hard work and hustle, throwing box and cutting and contriving, make a way out of no way, and families move in a generation from didn’t get the opportunity to go on to secondary school to graduated university, from my mom was a market vendor to I’m a political mover and shaker, and while we’re still playing catch up on a lot of things, we have a sense that we own our destiny in a way that it’s harder to if you can feel the knee of your oppressor in your back. And yet look what our people here and there have done even with the false start that slavery subjected us to here and there. I’m just saying, instead of judging each other, it would serve our interest and our sense of being part of the same family, which we are, to try to understand each other.
“We (Africans) get marginalized when we come here (to America) because of our accents.”
This, the fact that the assumptions and biases and prejudices also flow in the other direction is part of the problem.
“It’s a two-way street and we need more open forums where we bring both groups together and have these really tough conversations.” – Luvvie