I’m A Jamaican in New York

These few weeks have felt like Prelude to An Historic Speech or America Week. The Election bonanza so fittingly dovetailed the Olympics. The Democrats and Republicans put on a show that showed how disparate and simultaneously ethnocentric America can be. It’s difficult to place myself in the middle of the American spectrum. First, I’m black so I have dealt with pressing “otherness” since I learned that blacks in this country were treated differently through a system of historical treatise. Then, uncoerced, Aime Cesaire showed me that the same system effectively suppressed blacks in the West Indies (of America/Britain) and in Africa.

 

Obama

Obama

Since I was born in Kingston, Jamaica but raised stateside, I always had an allegiance to a place where most of my memories had long dissolved. I was stumped trying to figure out my Blackness, my Jamaican-ness, and my American-ness in the face of this larger diaspora idea, which in itself implies dissonance. Then, this week, as if to tap me on the shoulder, Lamika Young, educator and friend spoke to me over chat about Barack Obama. She asserted that the idea of him being named “Barack Obama,” and in turn his separateness from Black Americans, made him less threatening to the general population. I was willing to acknowledge that his exotic nature and name sets him apart from any generalized description of Black American. In the same huffy breath, I was dismayed that we were getting into a discussion of what makes someone Black American. Was she telling me that Black America had institutionalized Blacker Than Thou tests? 

Culturally, I’m both Jamaican and Black American. Although I was apt to scoff at the term “Jamerican” when I was a teenager, now I realize its pertinence. My mother played Beres Hammond, Freddie MacGregor and Dennis Brown on weekends as she scrubbed the floors. I was no stranger to Marley either. In the eighties and nineties, however, we were just as likely to listen to Anita Baker, Toni Braxton and any other black soul singer. When time came to pick out my own music, to track my life by the conditions around me, I chose hip-hop. I’m from Brooklyn if anyone asks, where so much music legend cradled me. Beyond being from the borough where Christopher Wallace pounded pavement or where Shawn Carter turned project dreams into gentry high-rises, I thought hip-hop was the natural extension of the musical traditions I had learned up to that point. Not to mention how KRS-1, Kwame, Mad Lion, Bootcamp Clik and Bush Babees had created a strain of reggae hip-hop that made me feel like a proud part of a lineage. 

When I looked closely at the posters for concerts in the area, I saw reggae artists who made frequent trips to the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area to reach their audience of West Indians. That said, I was still hesitant to claim American. I was shy around check-boxes, and the term multi-cultural never stuck with me because it seemed vacuous and undefined. 

The Labor Day Parade made me absolutely proud to be Jamaican every year. As a boy I’d go excited, and leave confused and overwhelmed. Colors from flags enveloped children. Women shaking asses and parade floats are gigantic for the knee-high. The decorous carnival costumes signified both the immense aesthetic attraction to festivity, and the pertinence of preserving history through music, dance and celebration. Carnival is also a nod to the purgation process that happens before a long work year, something most West Indian immigrants are no stranger to enduring. It was never a romantic experience for my family in the sense that no one needed a parade to recall what was rich about growing up on an island and then coming to strive, work and live in a large city. (My mother never let me eat the jerk chicken and roti dishes because I could get that at home for half the cost.) But I was in need of some cultural jolts once and again to show me where I had come from, that swath of islands, was no minor place despite its topography on a map. 

And granted, we were not on the island anymore. We were on Eastern Parkway, where traffic and police would take over in the hours after the parade. We were in Crown Heights, where racial tension stewed between Blacks and Jews for a better part of the nineties. In essence, West Indians would assimilate into an already hostile culture, getting position as nannies, nurses and transit workers…and then explode their repressed identities on to the street for one day. That kind of purposeful repression began in me as a youth, lasting for long stretches as I saw the advantages of being culturally mute to fit an idea of “mainstream.” 

I kicked the idea of begrudging repression to the curb when I embraced hip-hop fully. Here was a whole genre devoted to splashing through the arts world with nothing but emotion flailing for everyone to see. It had pain, nuance, extremism, terror, sex, violence and adulthood written all over it. And it was part of an American tenet I felt I needed to adopt: flaunt your individuality at all costs. Although reggae music has itself enfolded the notion of inflammable individuality, this did not come until Dancehall reggae’s contemporary movement. Individual resolve in a competitive atmosphere seemed necessary as an American citizen, with the scales tipped so badly against me and those like me. 

But this is both mythical and monochromatic. There is no one American identity. Barack Obama was raised at times in Indonesia and Hawaii. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an alum of my high school, moved from the Dominican Republic, excelled as a classicist at Princeton, and then had his illegal status challenged after his hard work earned him a Rhodes scholarship. Lamika Young was raised in Harlem and went on to get her undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia. The American story or “dream” takes many people to many unplanned destinations. I am usually loath to name names here but, it was important that I underscore the point that being Black American is as diverse as being American. There are Black Americans who root themselves in the slave tradition, South-to-North migrant history and class struggle. Still, there are Black Americans who were not born here but who are proud of their rise, of their work, and eventually, of their inclusion in this “dream.”

 

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm

So what if the election cycle politics strives to parcel us by race, car brand, profession, education level, age, sex and every other category? I know that my friend who’s a banker is just as American as my friend who’s a teacher. My choices for leadership do not and will not boil down to someone I supposedly “relate to” by way of vicarious similitude. That’s the trick of identity, finding where the individual intersects with the whole. Or living where the one meets the many. Jamaica’s motto is “out of many one people” while United States of America’s motto is “in God we trust.” The two ideas implore us to believe that we can derive individual power from the mass or the origin. The more I grow into my Black-American-Jamaican skin, the more I see the advantage of an amorphous cross-culture. This is not “identity politics” (one of the undesirable terms used to deride knowing differences); this is identity expansion.

Please add your thoughts on identity in the Election year.

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5 Responses to “I’m A Jamaican in New York”


  1. 1 lil debbie September 11, 2008 at 3:27 am

    The U.S. motto on the seal is also “one from many” (e pluribus unum). Nevertheless, great piece. Very thought provoking. Thoughts on identity:

    As humans, we have not always had this idea of “identity”, at least not in the way we do now. That seems like an obvious point, but I always find it interesting to think about how the very idea of identity has evolved. That has happened in the western world, differently then in other places, and obviously influences the peoples who were under colonial rule. Our “identity” is now this rigid fact, or observable characteristic. It’s like some sort of reality or truth that is constant about us and thats a crazy idea already. I do think some markers of “identity” (group identity and individual identity) come from innate human tendencies and develop as a result of our history and our collective consciousness (an attraction to certain rhythms and musical traditions, ways of using language, body movements, etc etc). However I think that identity is naturally manipulated by other factors as well, media and advertising being 2 of the big ones. Media in a lot of ways is a reflection of our “selves” shown back to us daily. Identity is multi-faceted, as you are implying here, and it is a beautiful thing to celebrate. On the other hand, is also a useful tool. Playing up a short list of the identities that we get to choose from, makes us easier to advertise to. There is something about certain commercials or tv programs that make you know “Oh, this is for me, I should listen up!” whether that be the skin color of the people on screen, the music, the colors, the voices, the locale, etc etc. In order for messages to be sent out to us daily (whether that be for purposes of politics, advertising, religion, schooling, blah blah) people must know how to “reach us”, they must know who we are, they must know our “identity”. And because there are so many of us out there, this becomes a short list that is easy to process and check off quickly…in fact we do it automatically upon encountering new people everyday and communicating with them (race – check, gender – check, age- check, class – check….ok, i’m going to use THIS voice when I talk to this person). I think mass media and people who are speaking through it (politicians included) just do on a large scale what humans naturally do when they encounter new stimuli, classify it using the list of things they have encountered before and then react to it accordingly.
    The only problem I think results from the fact that, because we have these rigid ideas of “this skin color means this” and “this accent means that”, we lose our openness to interpret nuances or mixtures or to be surprised or to even be wrong about an identity. We just decide, no this characteristic means you are this, even though there are many other characteristics to a person that may be just as important. I think we do that because our larger culture, which is primarily reflected to us through media and advertising, force us to do that. We have to have an identity because otherwise we can’t be advertised to. We have to identify with one of a short list of groups, or we can not receive the thousands of messages sent out to us every single day. I think proof of this is the phenomenon you often see on happen when a new group begins to be recognized on tv (im sure this was the case with other forms of media before tv too). It usually follows a cycle like this: 1. Certain “type” of people who were traditionally ignored” start to “identify” with one another, mobilize, and gain more power. 2. TV is forced to represent that “type” of person. 3. TV shows awkwardly place these people in already existing programs or place this”type” of people in programs of their own which are grossly stereotyped and monolithic. 4. (this last step doesnt always happen) TV, under pressure from the group in question, shows a couple different versions of how that “type” of person could be…usually 3 types: Type who completely confirms all stereotypes, type who contradicts all stereotypes, type who is somewhere smackdab in the middle. 5. People who rarely encounter this “type” of person take these images from tv to be fact and even interpret these people using those images when they encounter them. This has happened with black folks and I think its actually happening with homosexuals now.

    Anywayz, I digress. My larger point is that many of us look for reflections of ourselves (and of others) in order to know who we are and what our identity is. But obviously those reflections can not truly capture us, for they are solely meant to categorize us and to transmit mass messages to our particular group. If we want to have a truly holistic identity, we must be open to being surprised every once in a while, we must be willing to be wrong about what identity we thought others were, we must be willing to be content not knowing what identity we are at certain moments or what identity others are, at least not by the short list of markers we have come to use as definitions (this last one is the hardest one for us i think).

    I had a teacher once who looked quite ambiguous racially, and who was ambiguous in the other ways we would usually pinpoint as identity markers too. he listened to all types of music, he spoke differently at different times, and so on. We asked him once what his race was. He responded “I dont tell people who I am when I first meet them, because I don’t want to let them define me.” His point stuck with me. Most of us know about code-switching. We speak in certain accents in certain settings and adjust other things as well – in a sense we manipulate our identity for the situation at hand. We can use this natural tendency to understand the heart of who we are as human beings. Our identities are a collection of countless things, and the mixture is different at different times. Essentially, we can not hold so rigidly to one identity (or hold another so rigidly to what we think their identity is), that we are unable to realize that we have alot of different identities at once. This prevents us from just connecting and interacting with each other on a human level (an identity we can all claim). There are times when certain parts of our identity will feel more important to us than others, and that will change several times throughout our lives. I have been many Amy’s in my life already and I’m sure I will invent new Amy’s as time goes on. I think thats ok. Obviously there are parts of us that remain but we should not be afraid to be fluid beings.

  2. 2 don rico September 11, 2008 at 10:56 am

    It’s always inspiring to read your words, and enlightening to contemplate them.
    Love.
    DR

  3. 3 camillecares September 14, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    Oh Andrew… you did it again. We must must set up a tea time and get some ideas tossed around for a writer’s group. At times I struggle with my topics and my blocks come teeter with digression, however, in the end somehow I am usually left with a pretty alright submission. I feel the need to read my own writing with a sort of blind eye, so I let it just chill and sit for a bit. Then at times, I have my “gun shot” submissions, which can be great but not as involved and canopying of different, linking ideas. I struggle with balancing informative with entertaining. Sound familiar? I say all of this to say, I really enjoy reading your work. Keep it coming! I am weary of political events and with my connection to the current election, I have approached the entire venue side-saddled in regards to posts, not really sure but something isn’t sitting well with me these days. The United States Of America needs to literally see many changes, some good and some challenging and my only concern is that we all suffer from ADD and can’t figure out our damn “goods” and “challenges”.

    Oh btw., I loved the identity expansion concept. As a fellow West Indian-Caribbean immigrant to the states, I too find myself learning the +’s and -‘s of my expanding identity or as I like to think a spanning identity. We must believe and understand where we are rooted. We must teach and expand our perspectives and those who come after us in order to respectfully understand the truths and purposes. Ancestral history wages too big of an importance not to. The funny thing is, waiting until we are in our later years in life does no justice to the cause. We must expand our minds and speak and believe in our rooted paths in order to push forth. I am thrilled to learn about my past and thrilled to share it with others, because it inspires common bonds and links to other cultures. American culture is a melting concoction and we owe it to ourselves and our fellow neighbor to share the flavors that we bring the pot luck.

    CamilleCares


  1. 1 The Culture Wars: How Race and Class Will Lose Obama’s Election « Heard On My Stoop Trackback on September 18, 2008 at 6:32 pm
  2. 2 Op-Ed: How Race and Class Will Lose Obama's Election | NewsOne Trackback on September 30, 2008 at 9:03 pm

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