What is it to be black in the United States? And why can’t we, as the African diaspora, all just get along? These are two questions that I’ve struggled to answer since I was a child. Even with the experience and knowledge that time has afforded me, I still find it difficult to succinctly explain what blackness means to me and why relations between members of the African diaspora are the way they are.
Growing up as a first generation Jamaican American, I – and those around me – struggled to fully understand my ethnicity and my nationality. I didn’t neatly fit into their ideas of what blackness was in the small, semi-rural Central New York town I grew up in. With a limited understanding of Jamaican culture, I was grudgingly “accepted” by white people and thought of as “other than” than by most American black people.
Because I felt uncomfortable and misunderstood among the majority of my peers, regardless of their race, I found solace in solitude. I desperately wanted to fit in and be as American as possible, but I also realized that the language I spoke, the foods I ate, the holidays I observed, the beliefs I held, and all the things that made me who I was, were unapologetically Jamaican and I may as well have been from another planet.
My parents never shied away from having difficult discussions with me, and one of the most difficult was a conversation about American blacks. I was often bullied and ridiculed by American black people for wanting to be white, “talking” white, and for eating strange foods among many other things. When I could no longer hide this from my parents, they went on to explain a belief that many non-American blacks share; American blacks are lazy, don’t value education, lack culture, and we as Jamaican immigrants, weren’t like them.
Like many black immigrants, my parents subscribed to the belief that American blacks were like crabs in a barrel, continuously clawing at each other and pulling those down who dare reach for the top. Like all immigrants, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, my Jamaican parents saw the United States as a land of abundance and unlimited opportunities. They did well for themselves in Jamaica and even better here in America, and often criticized American blacks for not taking full advantage what they saw as a headstart of sorts; being born an American citizen.
Dealing with ignorance and racism as a young child struggling with their identity was bad enough, but having to face it from my black peers rubbed salt into the wound. As Jamaicans, my parents have always been especially proud of their African ancestry. I distinctly remember both of my parents teaching me about mighty African empires, and how their influence helped to shape civilizations in Europe and beyond. Africa’s heavy influence is readily seen throughout the Caribbean, a fact which my parents celebrated and made sure I did too.
Despite this knowledge and pride, my blackness was constantly called into question. To this day, I still don’t feel at home in my hometown. I only feel a sense of nostalgia when I visit my parents in their home. With a singing parrot, tons of tropical plant life, fragrant dishes, fresh fruit, and of course the musical sounds of Patois being spoken, my parents home is like a slice of Jamaica in the middle of nowhere.
My own story is far from being unique. Issa Rae, best known for creating Awkward Black Girl and HBO’s Insecure, struggled to honor the African identity of her immigrant parents after being being bullied and teased by her black peers throughout her time in school. Rae eventually used this as a source of inspiration, using comedy as a way to further explore and understand her identity struggles. And like myself, Rae’s trying experience only pushed her further into her identity and into understanding what blackness means in general. Rae went on to major in African and African-American Studies at Stanford University.
Even within the Caribbean, there is distrust among blacks from neighboring islands, and the relationship between Caribbean blacks and African blacks is equally complex and tense.Though my parents had close African immigrant friends that eventually became more like family, I was never blind to the love-hate relationship that existed between the Caribbean and the Motherland, especially West Africa. In fact, to many West Africans, black people from the Caribbean and the West Indies are viewed the same way that black Caribbeans view African Americans.
I believe that although rivalries existed between African tribes long before white Europeans ever set foot on the continent, chattel slavery only made matters much, much worse – and that’s an understatement. Many of the sentiments that black Caribbeans feel towards each other, such as the negative views Dominicans have towards Haitians, are rooted in slavery. And though the Transatlantic Slave trade ended sometime ago, the attitudes born from it, such as colorism, persist into the modern day.
Slavery in the Caribbean differed from slavery in the Americas, but both experiences were equally damaging. Separated by physical distance and influenced by the racist ideologies of their white masters, blacks throughout the Caribbean, North, Central, and South America began to develop prejudice towards other slave colonies.
As Bob Marley so passionately sang, it’s up to us as a people to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery and critically examine and do away with these dated prejudices. Blackness may look and feel different depending on culture, ethnicity, and nationality, but regardless of how different it is, it’s still magic.