Do black Caribbean Americans identify with their African American counterparts in the United States? As a citizen or resident of the U.S., how do native islanders fit in? Turns out Caribbean Americans, a small share of the total foreign-born population in the U.S., may feel the need to establish their own voice.
According to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, Caribbean nationals reached nine percent of the total immigrant population in 2009. However, this group has seen a relative decrease in growth each decade since 1970. The largest number of Caribbean Americans reside in the state of Florida, at 40 percent, followed by New York’s 29 percent.
“Second generation kids are really talented at code switching, moving back and forth between the two communities,” Thomas explained. “…On one hand they differentiate, but there is so much circulation in terms of music, fashion, style. It’s not like they are not part of the African American culture anyway or that Jamaica (and the Caribbean) is not part of the U.S. popular culture. There is so much overlap.”
Dr. Andrea Queeley, assistant professor of anthropology and African and African diaspora studies at Florida International University (FIU), agreed. “There has been circulation and exchange in terms of music, performance, and also political activism,” she said, “the exchange among artists, intellectuals.”Dilemma
Thomas also sees divergent history as part of the dilemma between the cultures of most Caribbean Americans and African Americans. “To come from a majority black society that has a colonial history that is still very evident in the present, gives you a much different sense of yourself, sense of how you measure difference than in the U.S. where African Americans are a minority with a very different history of racial segregation and oppression,” Thomas explained.
“The people who migrate are never the worst off economically,” she added. “…It requires a certain savviness. And once you have been able to do that you don’t want to be positioned with others who they see are being treated like the bottom of the barrel.
“So, African Americans see Caribbean people as denying their blackness. But Caribbean people feel that they came to this country not to be black, but to get ahead. This is sometimes where the tension arise.” Dr. Queeley had a similar view.
“So much of it, with all immigrants not just Caribbean immigrants, is distancing themselves from what they perceive to be the lowest category in the social hierarchy,” she explained. “So, the idea is you don’t want to be confused with being African American…If you come here from the Caribbean and are perceived to be African American, depending upon the context, that could be seen as being a real step down.”
Wollaston’s perception bears out the positions ob both academics.“African Americans have been taught how to survive or how to get by; whereas Caribbean Americans have been taught to always want more for themselves, to be prideful in the work that they have accomplished, and strive for more without forgetting yourself,” she said.
Guyanese-born Miami resident John Morant (name changed to protect identity) takes a stronger stance. “I refuse to be characterized as an African American because, as a result of my findings, I can safely conclude that they are no longer ambitious and devoted to any cause,” said Morant.
“This quality is very predominant among the males. The cooperative struggle to soar above the normal expectations of idealism among African Americans is rapidly becoming extinct.”
Dr. Queeley, whose grandparents came from Montserrat, attributed these strong feelings to fear of feeling dehumanized.
“Some people may be resistant to homogenizing black people because they come from the perspective of knowing that part of the white supremacist project is to say that we are all the same, all disposable, and it’s dehumanizing,” she explained.
“So by saying ‘I am from Jamaica, I am from Trinidad, I am from Barbados, I have a very specific cultural history’, it’s different. What is potentially destructive is when that becomes a way to place oneself above.
Although Phillip Grant, a 24-year-old college student who migrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean five years ago, does not see himself as African American, his views are not as damning as Morant’s.
“I went through culture shock because of the significant differences you encounter on a daily basis,” explained Grant. “Certain standards and values I would expect, say in the school environment, is so different from what I am used to. The disrespect I’ve seen toward elders and parents goes against everything I know.”
Asked how African Americans and others reacted to his ‘difference’, Grant said: “When I first came the reaction to me was both negative and positive. Because people don’t know the difference between the islands, many would assume I was from a particular country, or even from Africa. Sometimes there were attitudes, but most people appreciated my accent and even tried to mimic the way I speak.
“I am strictly Jamaican. It’s doesn’t matter how long I am here, I will hold on to who I am. I try my best to keep my Jamaican values and morals, I don’t see myself as African American.” A seven-year U.S. resident, 25-year-old Jamaican-born Tafari Plummer also holds fast to his regional roots.
“I identity as Caribbean,” said Plummer. “Normally if I am filling out an application form and there is ‘African American’ and ‘Other’, I will choose ‘Other’ because I am not African American.” Like Grant, Plummer has had good and bad reactions to his obvious non-U.S. accent.
“A lot of people in my age range, when they hear my accent they start to question,” he said. “But they are positive questions. So, I try to open up and teach people about the Caribbean way of life. But there have been times when people, who don’t understand the immigrant’s desire for a better life and opportunity, see me as another immigrant who is stealing precious resources. In fact, I have had comments like that directed at me. So, it’s a double-edge sword.”
Plummer noted that he has had to adapt to the American way of life and has had no problem “fitting in.” He takes pride in the fact that many Caribbean leaders are black and is also encouraged by the progress blacks in the U.S. have made.
“I might not be African American, but we are all of African descent,” Plummer explained. “This country has never seen a black president before. I take pride in President (Barack) Obama because if a minority can get this far in life it shows that if you put your mind to something and work hard you can achieve greatness regardless of your skin color. It’s a milestone for the American black community.”
Yet there are Caribbean Americans who embrace the African American category. For some, it’s picking from the best fit the U.S. has to offer. “I do consider myself African American,” Jamaican-born photographer and author David Muir said. “I am born Jamaican and will never lose that grouping, but have no issue with choosing to belong to a larger grouping here in the country of my residence.
“…The other choices are far less representative of who I am and I am unlikely to choose ‘other’. I only verbally describe myself as African American to people with a box to check if I believe the person I am addressing is likely to want one of the major categories used in this country, and I am aiming to make it clear that I am not Hispanic.”
Blacks of Hispanic background also grapple with the African American category, according to artist Sonia Baez-Hernandez, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Puerto Rico. “I identify myself as Puerto-Dominican,” Baez-Hernandez said. “I speak English with an accent and African Americans and caucasians identify me as the other.
“It is important to celebrate the different histories, cultures, identity formations, experiences of blackness,” she added. “However, to affirm blackness from a universal category of African American denies the vast experiences of blackness, the multiplicity of social voices, memories, language narratives, appropriation practices in the African diaspora living in the Caribbean, South and Central America, or those who immigrated to the United States.”
Celebrating cultural uniqueness is important, according to Thomas, who noted that blacks from all over the world, including the Caribbean, who moved to the U.S., benefited because of the political and cultural struggles of African Americans.
“There have been moments when Afro Caribbean and African American populations have come together in order to support political and social causes,” she said. So, what will it take to bridge the divide? “We have to be more open, less attached to these binary categories so we can be Caribbean and black American, and whatever other category,” said Queeley.