In this essay, I utilize a personal case study to address the nuances of the race/culture nexus in Black spaces. The assumptions that many continental Africans, African Americans, and African Caribbeans have historically had of each other, while nuanced in intellectual conversations, remain something of a stereotype in the public imaginary. I use personal narrative here to explore different aspects of what "Blackness" means in both the United States and Caribbean contexts. This essay engages discourses such as post-Blackness, globalization, nationalism, and cultural identity, as well as conversations around fragmentation and continuity with regard to group consciousness and collectivity. While the subjects addressed are not new, I hope to shed clearer light on these ideas in a way that is useful for both outsiders and insiders to this conversation.
While a graduate student in the University of California system in the 1990s, I was one of three teaching assistants for the course "Women of Color in the United States." 1 One day a young African American student stated, "I don't know what ethnicity means to me. All I know is my mother is a Black woman and her mother was a Black woman and her mother was a Black woman." What does it mean to say that one is a Black woman or man, not anywhere in the world, but specifically in the United States? This seemingly simple statement on the part of my former student revealed more over the years than it did initially. For many Black people in Africa and the Caribbean, tangible claims to land, a flag, and a native language are recognized by the West as providing legitimate evidence of cultural identity.
I came to understand that for Black folks in the United States their cultural identities are a complex mix of generationally inherited traditions and practices used effectively as strategies for resisting oppression. In the absence of clear and separate claims to their own national identity, they have struggled between the impulse to integrate and the reality of always having had a distinct set of cultural traditions and political goals that were influenced by, yet different from, those of the dominant society. 2 The declaration, therefore, that one is "Black" in the United States and descended from people who were enslaved on this particular soil is never exclusively a statement about race or color or the lived experience of racist oppression. It is always at one and the same time a declaration of a cultural identity with deep roots and historicity. 3
My goal in this essay is to take the reader on a personal journey through my own Jamaican middle class migration story, one that highlights the "pitfalls of national consciousness" specific to my "caste" within the Jamaican "tribe." 4 Mine is not a universal story, but it is stereotypical in terms of its depiction of foundational assumptions about African Americans, race, and racism held by a certain class of Caribbean and African immigrants from the educated elite. I hope to demonstrate how I was disabused of these stereotypical views and show how my identity was transformed in a positive direction in the process. Additionally, over the course of several years, I had the opportunity to take several African American students on educational trips to rural Jamaica. This reverse cultural travel experience was also instructive in terms of the opportunity it allowed to further think through the varied formations of racial and cultural identity across these Black spaces.
In 1954, my father, born in 1928 in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, went to Jamaica to pursue theological studies. He was part of the first generation of Black Caribbean Methodist ministers to succeed a predominantly white British clergy. He met my mother, Fay, who was the first weather woman in Jamaica. The money that her father had saved from rearing goats, in addition to a contribution from an uncle, aided in paying for her first semester of college. She received both a BS and an MS in botany from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. At the same time, dad did a year's study at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. While there, he corresponded with my mother; they got married soon after and my father became a part of my mother's large and fairly prominent Black Methodist family. My class position in the Jamaican society of the 1970s was a product of their educational achievements and family circles.
I once asked another Caribbean scholar of similar social background what "class" meant to her growing up in Jamaica. She said it meant "feeling she was better than certain people and not as good as others." Had I asked her what "race" meant to her growing up in Jamaica, she might have said what many a Jamaican of varied social backgrounds have said to me before: that while color is an issue, racism is not as prevalent as class prejudice in Jamaica. The assumption is that race and racism are connected, and racism is separate from dominance rooted in hierarchies of color and social status in the Caribbean. Jamaican scholar Carl Stone's 1988 article "Race and Economic Power in Jamaica" reveals that what is believed to be racism in the Jamaican context is blatant and openly declared discrimination against Black people based on the color of their skin (243–264). A large and distinct white power structure is an assumed prerequisite, and in many a Caribbean mind the societal paradigms for racism are the United States and South Africa, both having had official histories of legalized discrimination based on race. With the exception of the socially progressive aspects of Jamaican society heavily influenced by Rastafarian teachings, "Black" in the everyday Jamaican context is still understood to be a literal description of skin color rather than a term signaling political solidarity. Therefore, in the absence of a substantially visible "pure white" Jamaican population, violence and discrimination experienced between Black people on varying ends of the color spectrum is frequently not seen as racist nor on the continuum of racist violence. At the same time, there is both spoken and unspoken recognition of the fact that the uptown-downtown divisions that stratify the society have a clear relationship to hierarchies of color.
In Jamaica, color equals class. Color literally functions as status, no matter how minor the gradations may appear to outsiders. On the other hand, if one does not have access to the "natural" social status that comes as a result of a "whiter or lighter" complexion, a secondary social status can be acquired, if one is lucky, through family name, education, and a professional job. If one is phenotypically Black, the more one succeeds in acquiring the accoutrements of social status, the less need there is to be conscious of the negative social and cultural manifestations of one's Blackness. Among people of similar social background, color once again becomes the marker of relative privilege, with Black women in the elite social context being made to feel "less" desirable than their "lighter skinned" counterparts. 5
In my country, the higher one is on the combined color and status spectrum, the less one identifies as Black and the more one identifies simply as Jamaican. Ironically, despite how economic power, race, and color/class privilege organize Jamaican society, it is the "low down folk" culture that gave birth to reggae music and produced the icons that are recognizably Jamaican all over the globe. 6 Hence, many Black and brown Jamaicans from the elite are forced to experience and recognize their inauthenticity once they leave home. In Jamaica, what functions as light skinned among the Black masses would hardly be noteworthy among the collectively lighter Black population in the United States, while what functions as light skinned in the context of the United States may be treated as white in rural Jamaica. 7 What Black people in the United States would describe as light skinned would deceptively be classified as brown in Jamaica. But brown in this context is a euphemism for everything that falls between the extremes of blackness and whiteness. There is also a brown elite, which Carl Stone describes as Syrian, Chinese, Lebanese, Indian, and European peoples who predominantly intermarried with a post-slavery mulatto population, but who by and large remained socially separate from the Black masses. In the United States, on the other hand, no matter how far one gets up the color status spectrum, there is still the visceral reality of being a minority in a white society. In the US, one is never allowed, even if desired, to totally forget that one is Black, unless one is light enough to "pass." And "passing" is a conscious decision to conceal one's identity as opposed to the nebulous privilege of being allowed to forget.
Yet despite an outward embrace of foreigners of all races and cultures, and a frequently expressed belief that Black folks in the United States are overly obsessed with race, a deeply rooted sense of whites as "foreign" is clearly present in Jamaican culture. As scholar George Beckford states in the introduction to Erna Brodber's Standing Tall: Affirmations of the Jamaican Male, "the black people had a fundamental conception of themselves as being distinct from the white people" (2003, xlii). I remember as a child associating white America with the world I experienced through imported television shows such as Lost in Space, Love American Style, Six Million Dollar Man, and Charlie's Angels. In these very foreign and, to us, exotic contexts, white Americans appeared interesting, exciting, glamorous, and beautiful. On the other hand, as an elderly woman from rural Jamaica said to me, in her youth the old folks used to say, "White people come like dry cow dung." Deceptively dry on the outside, she explained, but if you step on it, the wetness inside will make you fall and slip. The statement was a euphemism for a perception of whites as insincere and untrustworthy.
The British Caribbean school system was one of the arenas in which societal stratification was most enacted. Notions of superiority and inferiority were reinforced by ranking students in each class; intense shame was associated with being described as a "dunce." In the 1970s, I attended an elite preparatory school in St. James parish in Jamaica. I had the distinct feeling of being at the bottom of the color/class hierarchy. Few students in the class were exclusively Black. In a class of less than twenty, there were several visiting British and American students, as well as three or four white Jamaicans. The other students included a light-skinned Indian girl from a wealthy family and several mixed Indian Black Jamaican students, with hair texture and length, if not complexion, functioning as signs of social status. Three or four students were Chinese Jamaican; and one mixed-race Indian Chinese Jamaican girl, with a thick long braid that fell naturally to her waist, later succeeded in becoming a prominent Jamaican fashion model.
Of those of us who were visibly Black and seemingly "unmixed," one tall, dark-skinned girl "saved herself" by being among the brightest students in the class, while another was the class dunce with the dubious "privilege" of having a dark-skinned brother, a grade ahead of us, who was mentally disturbed and feared by students and teachers alike. I was teased for having a big nose and ridiculed by the Chinese Jamaican math teacher for my slowness in that subject. Our homeroom teacher was a white woman from the United States who accused me of cheating on the writing of my first short story, which I most certainly had not. She was succeeded by a white Canadian; neither of them understood much of Jamaican culture.
One of my darker-complexioned schoolmates confided in me years later that in the fourth or fifth grade he was assigned to work with a young white girl who accused him of something. The white homeroom teacher took them outside and told the white girl to slap him across the face. This incident seems to have solidified his loss of self-confidence and he subsequently failed the entrance exam to high school. Only after being sent to the country to live with his grandmother and attend a rural high school did he recover, going on to graduate summa cum laude from college and attend a prestigious US medical school. One year before the high school entrance exam, my mother transferred me to a well-established public school with a predominantly Black student population. I was aware of being at the other end of the status spectrum, as the daughter of a minister and with married parents. Although I did not escape corporeal punishment, the strap was used sparingly on me. Without the math drills and a Black Jamaican teacher who really cared if we all went on to secondary school, I doubt I would have passed the high school entrance exam.
My high school functioned as a cross between a finishing school and an academically rigorous junior college. Ninety percent of all Jamaican high schools are single sex. A school uniform and a school badge were required attire. The mandatory curriculum included mathematics, English, Spanish or French, history, geography, general science, social studies, music, drama, needlework, cooking, art and craft as two separate subjects, religious education, physical education, and guidance counseling. While the social makeup of the class was not nearly as alienating as the prep school I had attended, it was clear once again that I was among the children of Jamaica's economically and educationally privileged elite. Those of us who managed to succeed at this educational level would comprise the professional elite of the next generation. This was the environment in which we were also expected to come into womanhood and pick a mate.
Womanhood at this stage was accurately described by Merle Hodge's notion of the "fair lady in a fine castle" in her introduction to Erna Brodber's 1982 text Perceptions of Caribbean Women: Towards a Documentation of Stereotypes. Describing how social mobility affects young Caribbean women who were descended from women who were physically strong and who handled a variety of tasks that were equivalent to their male counterparts, Hodge states, "new generations of Caribbean women will readily abandon the proven potential of their sex and consent to shrink into the stereotype— 'frail', supportive/dependent, etc" (1982, xii). My mother began to allow me to straighten my hair, wear makeup, and attend night parties. The boys who got my attention were male versions of myself, from similar schools, churches, and families, and on the track to professional white-collar jobs.
In the early 1980s, my parents migrated to Medford, Massachusetts. I went from a small, predominantly Black, single-sex, upper-middle class Jamaican school to a large, white, coeducational, working class, suburban high school. The discrepancy between the world of white America that I had experienced almost exclusively through television and the real world of cigarette smoke, profanity, sex, drugs, and racism was a shock to my system. I was largely isolated, though eventually befriended by first-generation Italian girls. In all the college prep courses I was placed in, I encountered only one other Black student, despite the critical mass of Black students in the school at large. One day in my European History class, the teacher, Mr. Boudreau, lost his temper when the classroom full of white students became too raucous. Angered, he loudly exclaimed, "You're all becoming like those noisy Blacks in the back of the bus!" Stony silence followed as all white faces turned spontaneously toward me, with accompanying whispers. Realizing his faux pas, Boudreau quickly stated that he "didn't mean Catherine, she was not like them."
The institutional racism of being the only Black student in most of my classes, combined with the racist incidents that certain white teachers subjected me to, served to reinforce a feeling of invisibility. It was only by not really considering me "Black" that the system could tolerate and account for me at all. The peculiarities of my accent and my middle-class Caribbean identity also alienated me from the majority of the African American students. I was not any more Black to them than I was to whites. At that time, I was totally uncomfortable with the loud, rebellious, confrontational, calling-attention-to-oneself mode of cultural expressiveness that characterized many of the other Black students, the girls in particular. This modus operandi was totally at odds with the lady-in-the-fine-castle training out of which I had come. I was scared of this new kind of women. I had been "protected" from such women and girls in Jamaica. The socialization that scholar Signithia Fordham describes as shaping female behavior in a constrictive way in the academy was part of my socialization from prep school in the circles that I occupied. I was simultaneously attracted to and intimidated by Black men, while realizing that I had absolutely no access to the sexy, sassy, boldness of the Black women who were their peers.
Many Caribbeans are insensitive to the plight of African Americans due to a lack of knowledge about the extent and the nature of the violence they have historically suffered. As Caribbean writer Paule Marshall states in "Black Immigrant Women in Brown Girl, Brownstones":
In terms of their relations with Black American women it seems to me . . . that the West Indian woman considered herself both different and somehow superior. . . . [They] perceived themselves as . . . more ambitious than Black Americans [and] more hard working. . . . (1987, 90)
The assumption being made by the Caribbean women in Marshall's essay is that they would have been more successful and resilient if placed in similar situations as African Americans. However, Marshall's description of the plight of Barbadians seems like a description of the Black reality in the US, and suggests that the assumptions of superiority are misplaced:
The white people treating we like slaves and we taking it. The rum shop and the Church join together to keep we pacify and in ignorance. . . . That's Barbados. It's a terrible thing to know that you gon' be poor all yuh lif no matter how hard you work. . . . People does see you so and call you lazy. But it ain' laziness. It just that you does give up. You does kind of die inside. . . . (1987, 70)
After three years my parents moved to predominantly Black, urban Dorchester. My sister and I frequently speak about this as our saving grace. It re-immersed us in an environment where Caribbeans and African Americans were in the majority. The loud sounds of urban music, gunshots, and buses screeching by the parsonage were all a prominent part of this landscape. We were confronted with the poverty-stricken surroundings of an inner city that had been abandoned by the state. I matriculated at a local University and moved onto campus. The move to Dorchester, then out of my parents' home and into conflicting worlds, marked the birth of my race consciousness.
In college I experienced a new kind of rebirth. In the required Freshman English course I was introduced to the writings of Alice Walker. The white female instructor assigned the essay "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," and at the end of that academic year the film based on Walker's novel The Color Purple was released. From that point onward, Black women writers filled a void I was unaware I had and provided salvation from an invisibility that had become like a second skin. In my sophomore year of college, Spike Lee's first commercial film, She's Gotta Have It, was released. The film opened to the sounds of his father's original jazz compositions, while the opening two paragraphs of Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God rolled across the screen. Lee's black and white film, with its focus on the Black female experience, coincided with my emerging interest in things "Black." Such work showed that Black people had taken their pain and suffering and produced a culture with an enduring and surviving spirit at its core.
These new horizons influenced the courses I took, who I befriended, as well as what I thought I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Going home to Dorchester during school holidays forcibly re-familiarized me with Black everyday life. Experiences at the university and in the white corporate workforce in the summers exposed me to "the ways of white folks," explaining Black people's obsession with race in the US. I was beginning to understand that racism was more than a slur yelled from a pickup truck or even a white teacher demeaning a nonwhite student. It was systematic, even if unintentional, overt and covert ways in which the individual and collective cultural self-esteem and political self-determination of a people was eroded.
I finished my undergraduate studies and got a job in college admissions. I traveled to high schools throughout the country and saw firsthand the overall disparity between the education that students of color and white students received. I also saw the look of astonishment on both Black and white faces when they saw me, a Black woman barely five years older than they were, the admissions counselor from a prestigious white school. I read transcripts from elite preparatory schools in which students at the bottom of their classes had stronger programs of study than those graduating at the top of their classes in many urban high schools. Many inner city schools, in addition to excessive remedial courses and poor college advising, did not teach more than two years of foreign languages and offered no advanced math or science. By contrast, many students near the bottom of their class at elite prep schools and decent suburban high schools had taken three and four years of a language and advanced math and science. While many white students came from schools with less than stellar curricula, the percentage of the overall student population attending schools with weak educational programs was vastly disproportionate among Blacks and Latinos.
I began to recognize affirmative action for what it was meant to be—the system's attempt to prevent the institutionalized, yet unspeakable, discrimination against students of color at the top of their classes from underfunded high schools. It was unspeakable because to mention the relationship between histories of racial discrimination and the underfunding of schools was viewed in the mainstream as reverse discrimination. Without affirmative action, however, the students ranked first and second at the high school that was down the street from my parents house in war torn urban Dorchester would have had no chance of getting into a prestigious US college or university. I read their applications. To deny admission to students in the top 1% of their class because their school did not offer advanced courses was a travesty. Eliminating Affirmative Action was commensurate with eliminating much of the Black and Latino educated elite within the inner city high school system.8
I left admissions and went on to a doctoral program in literature. There, I was exposed to the relatively new, yet increasingly dominant language of "critical theory." The discourse of "essentialism" and "anti-essentialism" had entered the academy and had become a virulent part of the debates over cultural identity. This new mode of inquiry raised questions such as: What is culture? Who is Black? What is a woman? For students struggling to understand and establish the theoretical parameters of their own marginalized identities, these questions were profoundly debilitating. We were told that our experiences, while interesting, did not "theorize" about reality, nor did they provide empirical, objective evidence about anything, not even ourselves. Many of us subsequently distrusted and de-legitimized our own cultural perspectives and in the process became ashamed of our personal point of view or sense of "voice" in our own writing.
The debates over cultural authenticity sharply dividing students along cultural and racial lines was underplayed and dismissed by its critique as "identity politics." Yet for those of us whose identities were being questioned, the stakes were high. The critical perspectives that had emerged from European philosophy were not just dominant but were presumed to be superior to anything emanating from non-European cultural contexts. Proverbial sayings from Black folk culture, some of which could be traced back to West African oral traditions thousands of years old, were presumed simplistic, unphilosophical, and inferior to the abstract European approaches that had produced the discursive paradigms questioning authenticity. As students of color we were in a bizarre quandary. Something felt amiss and unjust about this new order of things. Yet few of us had either access to alternative sources of information or the rhetorical mastery to argue back in the critical language that would make those around us understand how things looked from our side. We were forced into conscious and subconscious states of submission and capitulation, deciding to go "a piece of the way" with this intellectual perspective since we saw no alternative.9
After the baptism by fire into "essentialist" and "anti-essentialist" debates about race, I came to understand that in popular and mainstream academic contexts a quarrel over culture had been misunderstood and presumed to be a quarrel about race. In the same way, I came to understand Black identity in the US as not just racial but cultural. "Who is Black?" is an anti-essentialist question premised on a similar set of fallacious assumptions. That Black people in the US had cultural traditions that defined who they were and shaped their identities was taken for granted in the streets, but second-guessed in the academy. Since there was no nation state for Black people in the United States to claim as a culture separate from "America," many claimed the United States as a cultural homeland, while uneasily experiencing "double consciousness" and third-class citizenship.10 Others claimed Blackness as their culture, and were considered essentialist if not racist. This was the case because the term Black was assumed by a cross section of mainstream society to be reducible to color or race. Still others claimed Africa as their cultural homeland, and were viewed by some in the academy and the dominant society as ahistorical simpletons who were romanticizing the past.
I came to understand that the seemingly "essentialist" statement, "You aren't Black enough," was not fundamentally a squabble over race and color. The real issue was the cultural whitening that social mobility required of Black people in this country. This fact always remained unspeakable since the dominant American narrative of the desirability of assimilation was law. Communal criticism of the miseducation or assimilation of members of the Black community was viewed by many whites and elite Blacks as an unreasonably hostile attack. Saying that a person "was not Black enough," however, was another way of questioning how much a person understood about the history of his or her people and to what extent this knowledge had transformed and shaped his or her cultural self-esteem.
This issue was not new to me. Having grown up in an elite Jamaican environment, my folk consciousness was substantially limited. After migration to the States, I encountered other Jamaicans who teased me about my not being "really Jamaican" when they heard me speak and when it became clear that I was not familiar with certain folk traditions. This paralleled the idea of not being "Black enough," but it could be seen as a criticism of cultural identity since national identity could be claimed. The statement that I was not "Jamaican enough" was a clear criticism of my alienation from a particular Black cultural identity, even though the Jamaicans who teased me saw their statements as having everything to do with culture and nothing to do with race.
In the summer of 2002, I took four African American college students to Woodside village in rural St. Mary, Jamaica, as part of an African diaspora course practicum. They were all students who had expressed interest in forging connections with other parts of the Black world. When I met them at the airport they immediately asked me when we were going to the store. I asked what they needed and they were not entirely sure, but they knew that they needed to go. This was the beginning of a long series of jarring complaints about how rural the village was, how many bugs there were, how unprepared they were to walk so much, how different the food was, and how bored they were. The majority of the people in the community viewed them as fat and made no secret of this, since to comment on someone's weight was not perceived of as an insult in this context. This became a point of contention with things reaching an all time low when one student retaliated by talking about the abundance of rotten teeth in the community. Three of the students, forgetting the whole purpose of the trip, asked me why I had brought them to such a place. Had I simply intended to subject them to harsh living conditions to teach them a lesson? Three of the four treated the village environment with scorn, disdaining the humble nature of the conditions, complaining about how recklessly people drove, and how rude and aggressive they were. The criticisms had an ironic parallel in the views that many Caribbeans arriving in the United States held of African Americans.
I was amazed at how alienated they were from many simple aspects of life. I discovered that half of their complaints about food were a result of an addiction to a diet of highly processed foods in the States, which were much less available to them in rural Jamaica. One student had traveled with a suitcase full of snacks and was in a state of increasing panic as her supplies ran low. They were upset to see both the fish's head and tail served. Morale reached an all-time low when the family they were staying with served them chicken foot soup. A couple of the students took it upon themselves to complain openly in the street about the food they didn't like and the gossip spread back to the host family, fueling retaliatory village comments about white students being better guests than these Black foreigners.
I told the students to open their eyes and realize that they were living in the most luxurious conditions in the community. I told them to pay attention to the people in the village, ranging from age four to adulthood, who got up at five in the morning and made several trips back and forth to get water for their families. They saw these people coming and going each morning as they sat comfortably in the open-air school complaining about how hard it was to climb the hill once to come to class.
After a week, one student left. The remaining students progressively connected with the environment, their families, and life around them. In one of the final assignments, I asked the students to write essays comparing and contrasting the differences they observed in male and female gender roles in the village with their experiences back home. A male student wrote:
The Black male [here] has a better understanding of work ethics. He starts at a very young age with farming in order to help his family make a living. In my community[,] Black males, at a young age, work for themselves to buy material things—not really seen as a means of survival. . . . The Black males at home are not as [socially] conscious as the males here. Hygiene seems to be more important to the males at home in the [S]tates. [There] they are well groomed, smell like one million dollars, have all their teeth. . . . Males here are comfortable with the "natural" smell of mustiness and some are not concerned with personal hygiene—few are. Males [here] don't change their hairstyles as often as the Black males at home. (Lester 2002)
This student's analysis reveals his respect for qualities he saw among the young men in the community that he did not see among his peers at home. What he views as an issue of hygiene, others might see as a difference in social customs between urban and agrarian environments. Cleanliness is highly valued in rural communities and the student appeared to have confused the low use of cosmetic beauty products with poor hygiene habits.
One female student wrote:
Most of the women in this region of Jamaica are extremely hardworking. The strength and endurance I see in them far surpasses that of women who have grown to adulthood in a more comfortable and convenient environment. . . . Walking six miles a day, carrying water to and fro for sometimes miles, cooking, bathing, washing, cleaning, farming, child-rearing, and building; always thanking God. I do not see women rest here. I am sure they do, but all I see are daily tasks being done, not wearily, but with pride and joy. While riding one day, we picked up an older woman wearing a long denim skirt, a floral-print shirt, sandals, with a machete in hand. I was told that the woman was knocking on eighty years of age and was coming home from her "bush!" With the ease of most twenty-year-olds, she hopped on the back of the truck along with the other men who had been in the "bush" all day. She had no signs of arthritis, back pain, or any other ailment that would have prevented her from clearing the back of the truck. She is no isolated case. (Jackson 2002)
Writing at the end of her stay, this student seemed to have developed an appreciation bordering on awe for the strength of the women she encountered in this environment. Although she did not make explicit comparisons between what she saw in the community and the multiplicity of tasks Black women in her home environment probably handle, her statement that these women are "very typical Black women" implies that there are comparable examples of strength. Despite the differences that came close to overshadowing this cross-cultural experience initially, the points of similarity between these different sets of diasporic people were extremely powerful.
The drum and its rhythms proved to be a universal language, as we experienced when a group of students from Chicago and San Francisco of various racial and cultural backgrounds involved in another program in Jamaica visited us. Their program involved writing and performing spoken word poetry in order to explore issues of race and identity. The visit began with a twenty-something white male, an acclaimed Slam poet, performing a poem, followed by performances by a Black female and a Black male poet of similar age. The African American students that I had brought to Jamaica were involved in teaching the local youth, ages 3 to 17, in a village summer school. The village students drummed and performed a traditional local dance known as dinki mini. My Black male student teachers, in conjunction with young males in the community, drummed while the youth from the summer school danced. After showcasing dinki mini, the village youth pulled two of the Black men from the visiting group out into the semicircle to teach them the dance. This led to a spontaneous exchange among the various young Black people, with dancing and drumming as the medium of communication. The white students, who may not have been as familiar with Black popular dances in the US, chose to observe.
One Black male from San Francisco did some breakdancing that ended with him spinning on his elbow. A Black male and a Black female from Chicago did a dance called animation, which utilized popping and locking and moon-sliding dance techniques in order to tell a story without words. One of our Black male student teachers did an African dance, and the young women from the community taught log-on and drive-by, two popular contemporary dances. The drumming continued, with boys as young as eleven taking over from the young adult males as they got tired. The Black students from Chicago asked the drummers for different kinds of beats each time they wanted to demonstrate a different dance. When the drummers were tired, the audience clapped or chanted to give the performers the music they needed. This interaction lasted for nearly two hours.
The energy and ecstasy of that evening carried over into the community's Emancipation Celebration less than two weeks later. The theme for that year was "Let the Drums Speak." The organizing committee for the community celebration invited a former drummer from the 1970s reggae group Third World to be their keynote speaker. I asked village youth in my summer school class to write poems about the drum. When we marched around the former coffee estate, as the newly freed people had done on Emancipation Day in 1838, I heard people from the community chanting lines from the poems that the young people had performed the day before. The day after Emancipation, the African American students returned to the States, declaring that they planned to come back again very soon.
In my experience, most people misunderstand the relationship between race and culture in African American contexts. What many outside the group view as an overemphasis on race or, even more superficially, color, is actually a distinct cultural perspective on reality. Within the group, this misunderstanding takes the form of resentment about the perception of choices that are usually informed by greater contact with European or European American culture. For example, someone may say, "Why am I considered not 'Black' enough or less 'Black' if I speak proper English or want to play the violin?" My exposure to this cultural context has taught me that while any Black person is free to make whatever cultural choice he or she wants, the perceived resentment on the part of the mass Black populace, whether real or imagined, is a product of the lack of respect and validation that African American grassroots and "street" culture has historically received in the US.
The reality is that this element of Black US culture has been the source of inspiration for blues, jazz, spirituals, comedy, food culture, and slang; and it has, not exclusively but significantly, influenced "American" cultural style. Yet in the mainstream media, Black people are often seen as athletically inclined, entertaining, degenerate, inherently predisposed to criminality, uneducated, and backwards. Both the Black bourgeoisie and the white majority desire, therefore, to dissociate themselves from an element that is so denigrated. Were the Black grassroots culture seen as having the genius associated with Einstein or the marvelous grandeur of ancient Egypt, then it would be the gold standard to embrace rather than something inferior to avoid. For the Black elite, the anxiety about a reductive association increases with a rise in social status.
For the students on that 2002 trip, the internalization of hierarchical values endemic in American society was revealed by their reactions to the daily conditions of people living in the rural Caribbean. It was hardest for the students who had never left America and who had originally come from humble backgrounds themselves. It highlighted the pressures Black people feel in the United States to maintain a façade of strength and confidence. When confronted with conditions that made them uncomfortable, these façades often crumbled. I continued to take groups of people to Woodside over the course of the next thirteen years. Generally speaking, men appeared to have an easier time of it than women, with dark-skinned women from the United States facing the greatest challenges. This suggests that the color/caste hierarchies in the Jamaican context are more pronounced than they seem to be in the United States. The fact of being Black in a white society in America, no matter one's complexion, may mask hierarchies of color due to a need for racial solidarity when facing overt racism. In Jamaica, on the other hand, the subtle and overt ways in which residents are more accommodating of people with lighter and whiter skin was described over the years in anecdotes that visitors to the island shared with me.
On the other hand, the significance of the drum was indicative of commonalities that still exist on a deep structural level between Black people from various locations. It suggests that exploring these connections may point to similarities that are more important than our differences. The experience of going to Woodside was transformative for the students who went that first summer, as well as for people who visited in subsequent years. History was something that was alive for us during that summer. As the descendants of enslaved Africans from different places in the diaspora, sharing our cultural experiences gave us a sense of connection to the historical past. Sharing in Woodside's Emancipation celebration was rewarding, as encapsulated by the activities, the living landscape, and the learning and self-knowledge that many of us experienced. It was in the dance movements carried forward, yet buried deep in the blood of our ancestral memories, awakened by the rhythm of a precise drum. It was a living thing.
1 I was a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
2 LeRoi Jones in Blues People describes the continuum between African continental traditions and cultural forms inherited from the African context and African Americans modes of expression (1963).
3 During the 1920s and 1930s, the term race man or race woman was used to refer to African Americans who had a strong sense of racial and cultural pride in their rights and identity, despite official laws designating them second-class citizens. In his 1928 essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Langston Hughes states, "So I am ashamed for the Black poet who says, 'I want to be a poet not a Negro poet,' as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world" (1997, 1271). Hughes states earlier,
And I doubted then, that with his desire to run away spiritually from his race that this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race towards whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible. (1997, 1267)Hughes' statement demonstrates that in the absence of nationhood, the language of race (whether spoken in terms of "Negroness" or "Blackness") takes on the weight of the expression of a cultural identity.
4 I specifically play with the title of Frantz Fanon's third chapter from The Wretched of the Earth, "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness." His astute analysis of the colonially educated middle class that will seize power after oppressed nations gain independence from former imperial powers is the backdrop for my own story. The middle class narrative is not innocent. The violence of its production and the role it plays in maintaining hierarchy is often romanticized and concealed in "overdeveloped" countries. The globalized digital age has exaggerated this tendency rather than reduced it. (1963)
5 There is a significant extent to which grassroots Jamaican culture, such as reggae music, the dancehall as a space, Rastafarianism as a spiritual practice, African folk religions, and their secular manifestations inverts and alters some of these hierarchies. To the extent that Black people in these cultural spaces embrace, celebrate, and feel comfortable being their Black selves, the culture subsequently produced gains power and is emulated. Yet and still, the infusion at the grassroots level of the ideology of the desirability of lighter complexions is apparent in the phenomenon of skin bleaching.
6 In his early essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Langston Hughes describes the so-called "low down folk," in the Black "ethnic" US context, as the source of the most original cultural expression (1997, 1267–1271).
7 In 2006, I traveled to rural St. Mary, Jamaica, with a very light-complexioned African American fellow academic and friend. She strongly identifies as Black, and is descended from parents who were active in the Black power movement of the 1960s. Her description of herself as Black was confusing to some local residents, who kept trying to explain to her that she was white. In 2003, while filming a documentary, my sister brought two African American cameramen with her, one of whom was light skinned or what would be referred to a "high yellow" in the US context. Rural Jamaicans referred to him as "that white man." He continuously asked my sister in confusion, "Are they talking about me?"
8 During my time in admissions, it was also astonishing to me that many of the white staff in our office, despite significant diversity training, viewed students of color who had achieved at extremely high levels in their environments as "less deserving" of admission than their white counterparts who had overcome less adversity.
9 Scholar Carole Boyce Davies uses this term to describe the bargain that minority scholars have been forced to strike with European theoretical approaches to their own cultural and literary works (1994).
10 W.E.B. Du Bois uses the expression "double consciousness" to describe the dual identity that Black people in America live with (1989).
Beckford, George. 2003. Introduction to Standing Tall: Affirmation of the Jamaican Male 24 Self Portraits, by Erna Brodber. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies.
Davies, Carole Boyce. 1994. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge Press.
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1989. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Publishers.
Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
Fordham, Signithia. 1997. "Those Loud Black Girls": (Black) Women, Silence, and Gender "Passing" in the Academy," In Beyond Black and White: New Faces and Voices in the U.S. Schools, edited by Maxine Seller and Lois Weis. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hodge, Merle. 1982. Introduction to Perceptions of Caribbean Women: Towards a Documentation of Stereotypes, by Erna Brodber. Cave Hill, Barbados: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies.
Hughes, Langston. 1997. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McCay. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Jackson, Amber. 2002. "Female/Male Relations," unpublished short essay, submitted for Africana Studies Practicum course, University of Oklahoma.
Jones, Leroi. 1963. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: William Morrow.
Lester, Christopher. 2002. "Black Males," unpublished short essay, submitted for Africana Studies Practicum course, University of Oklahoma.
Marshall, Paule. 1987. "Black Immigrant Women in Brown Girl, Brownstones," in Caribbean Life in New York City: Sociocultural Dimensions, edited by Constance R. Sutton and Elsa M. Chaney, 87–91. New York: Center for Migration Studies of New York, Inc.
Stone, Carl. 1988. "Race and Economic Power in Jamaica," in Garvey: His Work and Impact, edited by Rupert Lewis and Patrick Bryan, 243–264. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research & Department of Extra-Mural Studies.