I’ve been in the Motha Land for a little over three weeks now and I’ve yet to deliver on my promise to my many anxious followers that I would blog while I was here. I’ve had a lot of poignant moments which deserve sharing but it’s a little hard to know where to start. So, I’m going to take a step back to the Western Hemisphere and weigh in on a topic that I’d been planning on writing about for a while but has been on my mind heavily since I left Barbados a couple months ago and has made a resurgence since I’ve been here in Ghana.
As a racially ambiguous mulatto named Anand Jahi (Goodridge), I’ve gotten the question: “What are you?” (read: what is your racial/ethnic composition/identity) a lot throughout my life. Some people think I look Puerto Rican or Dominican, others think I’m just light-skinned black (especially when I let my hair grow out or during the summer months), and others correctly identify me as half white and half black. But I’ve gotten pretty much anything you could imagine (including white, more on that in a later post though) besides East Asian. The Hindi first name, Swahili middle/last name, and British slave name doesn’t help with the confusion.
But when I first started at UPenn in 2004, I was confronted with a different question that I hadn’t had to deal with before: “Where are you from?” This was a question that was posed exclusively by other black students and it wasn’t an inquiry into my place of birth or where I grew up. “Where are you from?” I came to learn, means “Where are your people from?” or, more specifically, “To what specific nationality do/can you trace your family lineage?” What kind of black person are you? Jamaican? Haitian? Nigerian? Ghanaian?
As I detailed in my last post, my father’s family is from Barbados. But I’ve never really identified as Bajan. My father’s father’s parents were born in Barbados but immigrated to the states in the late 1800s so my grandfather was born and raised in the Boston area. My father’s mother was born in Barbados but moved to the States when she was a child (she turned 7 on the boat) and has no memory of the island. My father and his siblings where born into a pre-Civil Rights Era Somerville (read: Boston, for the uncultured) where a racist power structure didn’t care if they were Bajan, Senegalese, or Martian for that matter; they were black. My generation was born and raised in the States, the following generation was born and raised in the States, and the first member of the next generation was born and has spent his time in the States as well. So there is a pretty significant gap between my family and Barbados. Not so say that we haven’t retained some cultural ties to the island, but I, and I think most of my family members, identify much more as black American than Bajan.
So when other black students would ask me where I was from I didn’t really know how to answer. I could say that I was Bajan but that wouldn’t really get at what they were asking. More and more of the black students at elite universities like Penn are first or second generation Caribbeans or Africans. They have a connection to where they’re from in a way that I’ll never have with Barbados. They know the food, they know the dialects, they know the geography, they know the culture. I couldn’t even identify the Bajan flag until a few months ago. So most of the time I would respond that I was black American. Which I quickly learned meant I was “Just Black” or “Regular Black.
During my freshman year, a black American student started a Facebook group called “I’m Just a Regular ass Black Motherfucker.” I’ve copied and pasted the group description below. If you’re offended by vulgarity and improper grammar you should probably skip to the next paragraph.
If your at the University and your a regular ass black person and ur feeling as though everyone esle is carribean or african or some shit and u gettin tired of it, this is the group for u. This group was designed for the regular ass black people. The REAL black people if you will. The BLACK Black people. The black people that can’t trace they ancestry back past 2 or 3 generations. The black people that if you ask them where they fam is from will say either Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida or Louisisana. This group excludes all Cross the Waters people, Spuddarucans, Carribeans, Africans all of em. We speak broke ass country ass english in this group. No batti boi n raz clot n all that shit. NO que paso n shit. We speak BLACK in this mother fucker. N none o that mother fuckin french shit either. Straight blackness.
As you may be able to ascertain by the Facebook group description, there was a certain level of animosity between the black students who could trace their lineage past American borders and those who couldn’t. People were usually at least somewhat disappointed to learn that I was just black. Sometimes that disappointed spilled over into a subtle disdain. The regular blacks, with whom I identified, developed a not so subtle chip on our shoulder/inferiority complex. There were campus groups for African and Caribbean students; in some cases for specific nationalities that were particularly well represented. But more importantly, those students had ties to a homeland that black Americans find much harder to identify. They hung flags, rocked colors, enjoyed distinct cultures, and, perhaps most importantly, often had a level of pride that comes with national independence and a distinct homeland. One friend of mine who could trace his lineage all the way back to the Motha Land would jokingly taunt me saying, “You ain’t got no culture.”
At times there was a level of ignorance or denial pertaining to how different regular blacks’ history, experience, and culture is than that of Africans or Caribbeans. I would often point out to my friend who told me that I had no culture that he’d be hard pressed to find a group that could lay claim to the hip-hop music to which he almost exclusively listened than black Americans. On another occasion, upon learning that I was just black, a friend responded, “Oh so you just got that straight up slave ancestry huh?” I quickly reminded him that black Caribbeans, of which he was one, were imported from Africa as human chattel as well and that they often suffered from much more brutal forms of slavery than existed on the American mainland.
National identity is a powerful thing. As they should, African and Caribbeans take a lot of pride in specific histories of national liberation and successful bouts for independence. I find a great deal of pride in the black American struggles for freedom, equality, liberation, and power. As an Ethiopian student may find solace in a plate of doro wat or a Teddy Afro song, few things make me feel more at home than some candied yams or listening to some Biggie. Individual cultures should be celebrated and respected. But in a country where a racist power structure cracks down on us not because we are Bajan, or Jamaican, or Nigerian (although they might catch some extra heat) but because we are black, we should find ways to celebrate our unique identities in ways that do not isolate, alienate, and divide.