who you callin “African American”?
Yesterday (Monday 9/28/09), 2 lawyers in my office started asking me questions about my neighborhood. I was born and raised in Manhattan (spent childhood in Africa & Caribbean while Mother was in school) specifically in Harlem and Washington Heights. I am very proud of my Uptown upbringing. One woman born in Jamaica, but a Naturalized American ultimately mentioned something off color about my neighborhood and before I could respond, another attorney (UK expatriate of Jamaican heritage) then mentioned “you should revere Harlem – not living there is one thing, but you should recognize the fact that this neighborhood is the epicenter of Black African American culture.” To which the Jamaican-born attorney responded: “I am not African American & their experience has nothing to do with me”.
As such, her statement spawned a discussion on West Indian cultural identity in Black African American culture. By the way, everyone in the room was of West Indian heritage. Both myself and the UK-born Jamaican-American woman were of the position that the African American experience has EVERYTHING to do with her, and makes up a part of our identity.
Without question, I self identify as African American. I also identify as Haitian American, West Indian, and if you really want to get technical, I’m multi-racial and multi-ethnic – a bona fide “Mixed Chick”. The fact of the matter is, in my view, what I call myself is of minimal relevance because my identity is shaped by my experiences. My experiences have led racism my way. I’ve had my share of prejudices of various sorts, misogyny, sexism, classism, ageism, and other ‘isms because of whatever box people want to throw me in. And having suffered at the hands of these ‘isms, I have connected with oppressed peoples who have been victimized by being thrown in a proverbial box. I have found that even after being THROWN in the box/category/arbitrary race group by the oppressor, the oppressed often perpetuate the oppression by distancing themselves from the other people they were victimized with. We see this among South Asians and North Asians, Caribbean Blacks and American Blacks, etc…
What do we stand to gain by pointing out our distinctions? Isnt it elitist and snobbish to point out the distinction between West Indians and African Americans? We all need to embrace our cultural similarities while noting how cultural differences add spice to the “African American experience” of the West Indian in America. I love being Haitian because of Haiti’s rebellious history, powerful language, and cuisine among other things. I know that the history of my Haitian people influenced countless slave revolts in America as well as the Louisiana purchase (including the decision not to have slavery in these newly acquired states). Nevertheless, my love for Haitian culture does not interfere with my African American pride. In fact, it enhances my African American identity. We were all slaves, we were all oppressed, we all rebelled, we were all displaced – this ties us together. I can identify with protests, rebellion, oppression, being on the receiving end of prejudice and racism. This oppression ties all people together – whatever you call yourself, whatever your ethnic identity. As far as I can tell, just about every ethnic group has had an oppressor.
I choose “black” as my race because as Biko said during his trial, it is the most “accommodating”. I take pride in my Black features inherited from my African roots. When we talk culture and ethnic identity, I choose African American because the history of Blacks here in America has affected the histories of every other Black nation I am familiar with, other Asian nations, White nations, Latino nations. Our histories are intertwined because WE ARE ONE PEOPLE in spite of our cultural differences! Our cultural differences give us something to contribute to the fluid, malleable cultural identity of the African American.
Marcus Garvey wasn’t turning American-born Blacks away from his Pan-Africanism, asking only for Jamaicans. After traveling from Jamaica, through Costa Rica, Panama and other nations, Garvey recognized the need for unifying all peoples of African descent. His contribution to uniting people of African descent undeniably laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement as we know it. By no means is Garvey blameless – however his success at unifying people of African descent laid a foundation for W.E.B. Dubois’ Pan-Africanism efforts despite their squabbles on ideology. Mr. Garvey’s efforts here in the United States influenced Dr. Kwame Nkrumah so much so that the black star in the Ghanaian flag is in homage to Garvey’s Black Star Line. Our histories are intertwined.
I believe in unity. I believe in overcoming our differences to achieve equality for all. I think that African American culture is important to everyone whether of African descent or not, but that is not my point. My point is that as a person of African descent, it does not matter if I live in the US or not – African American culture is MY culture and MY identity because what has been going on here in this country has affected the lives of Blacks all over the world. African American history appears to be the most recorded Black history, the black pride phenomenon was born here, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities have educated people of African descent from all over the world, the music created here has shaken bodies from South Africa to Java, and the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s has likely served as the catalyst for uprisings all over Africa and the Caribbean. So when you say AFRICAN AMERICAN, you speak of ME!
I couldnt agree more with you ! Great post !
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Yes, aisha, what u just said! I try to tell my ”blacktino” peers the same thing, but they don’t don’t hear me, though. One day, not today.
Great post Ish!
Hey have you seen Maafa21? It is a new film I think you would be interested in. Clips here: http://www.maafa21.com
I understand why people of color that move here from other countries may be not want to apart of the sterotypes that plague American born black culture(thanks in part to the media). How ever their are alot of thing about the “Black”American born culture to be proud of. If it were not for the strides taken by American born blacks in the history of this country, people of color of all races would not have the rights and freedoms they take advanage of when they come here. How dare any person of color come to america and look down on American Blacks. We been in the trenches for years.
This is so true! People are so quick to try to separate us, when we’re all “Black”….people of African descent. I actually had a manicurist ask me if I was West Indian because I don’t act like the other Black girls she normally meets. When I asked her to explain, she pretty much told me that because of the way I carry myself and because I’m respectful of others, she couldn’t believe that I was “Black” (as opposed to West Indian). While I was offended, it really made me think, because as a Black woman whose family came from “Down South,” I’ve heard negative comments made by West Indians about people like me, and vice versa. The sooner we realize that we’re all the same, the sooner we’re able to work together to uplift our communities. We may have different cultural customs, but the similarities far outweigh the differences. Good job, Aisha!
Aisha so very well said. I am proud of you.
Clearly even though she is lawyer, she is ignorant . I would have reminded her the telephone and ironing board that she uses everyday was invented by Black Americans. I so agree with you its elitist and snobbish attitude, it also shows how insecure she is. I read this book called Race,Class, and Gender in the United states. There was a chapter where this Black Latina spoke on her experiences of being Black Latina.She talked about how Black Latinos are eager to point out their indian blood,thus elevating thmeselves above Black.
She said that” Black Latinos, who don’t identify themselves as such,try to be the exceptions to the rules and stereotypes that govern Black Americans”. West Indians and other black from people from other countries do the same. These are only stereo types its all about how you are raised or how you as individual choose to live your life . I know West Indian culture particularly Jamaican. I know black culture in the United States. I also know they both stem from the same place. You are right Aisha you can embrace both because they are mutally complementary.
Racist do not care if you are if you are bilingual and international. The very nature of prejudice does not allow for exceptions;it looks at group traits, not individuals. Racism is prejudice combined with power.
I could go on and on, I enjoyed reading your blog Aisha and you did so eloquently express your feelings. You know sociology is one of my favorite discussions and topics !!!
hi, i am so glad i found ur blog. i’m new to wordpress.
i agree with you. what i think it all comes down to is the “Stigma” on African Americans in America. You are correct about those who try to distinguish themselves are being “elitist” She, and others want to be separated from that stigma. sad thing is, no matter where we have originated from…when we get to America and we have caramel, mocha, or any shade of brown skin…we are all considered “black” by society.
later for us trying to break up into this group and that…maybe if we unified we could eliminate a lot of what fuels hate and racism against blacks in America. AND maybe we could be models to our children as to how to co-exist so that brawls like the most recent one in Chicago wouldn’t happen.
This was a really good read; glad I stumbled on it. I concur with almost everything you have here. You captured it beautifully.
I mostly agree with you that one’s identity is shaped by their experiences. However, that doesn’t account for societal pressures and prejudices that also contribute to your outward identity. While that Jamaican woman may not want to identify with being an African-American, if she were to walk into a general store in rural South Carolina, she’d be treated the same as the Georgia-born black woman. As such, it is in her best interest to understand the identity of those she will be identified with. And that’s all in addition to the intellectual curiosity that you’ve outlined in this post.
I don’t think it elitist or snobbish to make the distinction between West Indian or African-American. But the manner in which the distinction is made can certainly be elitist and snobbish. I think that was this woman’s issue, not her declaration, but how she decalred it.
Again, this was a really good entry.
Your blog is so informative … ..I just bookmarked you….keep up the good work!!!! 🙂
Dope insights. Caribbean folks separate from Americans because of history. We slaved for sugar cane instead of cotton, and use that as an excuse to be less “Black” because it was a dirty word. Haitians and Hispanics did the same. Those tragic ideas became part of culture in the same way that soul food and pouring out liquor became ingrained in minds. Heads like to define themselves by the situation of their ancestors, rather than their present. I’m a Caribbean bred Black Jew, but I’m American before I’m African. I define myself as Black because that is the combination of all colors, and inherently mixed. I hardly consider myself African because I’ve never even been to Africa, and my understanding of African culture is on par with Americans of any race.
By the by, Garvey didn’t turn away American born Blacks, but he sure wasn’t down with lightskinned “race mixers” like you and me.
you are right – Garvey probably would have turned us away. Nevertheless, we should still take his unifying efforts and revive them today. I want to unite!
I have to be the one to disagree, not completely, but partially because, I just realized recently (this year) how not “African American” I am. Let me say this first, while I most definitely agree that we’ve all been oppressed by the same oppressor, there are differences between different members of the groups of Black people. Example: I, myself am a product of two African parents (my mother born and raised in Senegal, West Africa, father from Guinea, WA) and I prefer to refer to myself as African. Although, I was born in the United States (Harlem born and raised), I believe the definition of an “African-American” is someone who is a direct descendant of slaves, mainly from the South. I just came to this conclusion this year after I met a friend from Houston, TX. Her & I would debate time and again about labels and she would always try to remind me that neither me nor my family can understand the idea of slavery and being taken away from your homeland and completely stripped of your culture. Now I know that pretty much every member of the Black race i.e. Black West Indians (Dominicans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, Trinidadians, Panamanians, etc), Brazilians, African-Americans…. has been taken away from “home” (Africa) and bought and sold and transferred, etc, but the African-American experience is a lot deeper to many people who can truly call themselves “African-Americans”. For example, this same friend showed me information on her family’s history, documents from generations, and birth certificates of family members who have been here since the early 1900s (she couldn’t retrieve information from the 1800s, too far back), but she knows for a fact that her family has been in Texas for a long, long time. They were here in America, during slavery, post-slavery (Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow South, so forth) and they’ve built this country from top to bottom. To her and many of her friends who are descendants of slaves and whose families have been here, they believe America is theirs, their country and the only home they’ve known. They can’t go back to Africa or Jamaica, or Haiti, or DR (you get my drift), to visit family.
I simply say all this to say, that unfortunately some people do separate themselves bc Black people’s experiences were complicated and diverse all over. People do tend to separate and disassociate themselves from different groups, but one thing people should keep in mind is that we’re all still BLACK and Black people (doesn’t matter where they were/are) suffer the same injustices everywhere and that ALONE should UNIFY US! Another problem I think I have w the term “African-American” is that it was imposed upon us by white people, but it’s incorrect and I think it brings about a lot of confusion (for myself, at least). I believe the correct terminology for Black people, whose descendants were slaves should be, “Black American”; reason being, the same way your co-worker felt that she can’t relate to African-American people’s problems bc she’s not technically “African-American”, African-Americans have never been to Africa! None of their immediate family is from Africa, was born there, some have never even been and many don’t even have a desire to go! In the UK they don’t call the Black people, “African-British” or “African English”, they’re called Black British or simply Black. The term African-American should be used by people like me, first generation African offspring (this is why I refer to myself as African, so people understand the difference), or someone like our POTUS Barack Obama. He is the PERFECT example of what an African-American (African father, American mother= African-American) should be. Am I mistaken? I mean, it makes perfect sense to me. If someone disagrees please let me know….
Dang!!! It seems as if I wrote my OWN blog lol! I hadn’t realized I’d written soooo much.
Great post! I do have to say sometimes it is less about elitism versus having a sense of pride for your own country. As you probably know yourself, Haitians will rep Haiti hard and loud and there is nothing wrong with that….As well as any West Indian, Latino etc. I am proud to be Black Latino. I am proud to be Panamanian. My African-descent is easily seen and I am proud of that too. I agree with your points most definitely, as all of our history is the same but I don’t see the problem is “repping” where you’re from. Other times it could be an issue of “separating” but not always.