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!