I was born in the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. I moved to New York, United States of America – now my permanent home – some 33 years ago. And when it comes to my race, well, I consider myself Black.
But especially in these racially charged times there is a renewed examination of if, as a race, we’re African-American, Caribbean-American or simply Black people. Indeed, the Black Lives Matter protests now rocking America and the world have opened up renewed and uncomfortable conversations about the history of privilege, racism, and the experiences and identities of Black people in America.
Now, the distinction between “Black” and “African American” and to a lesser extent, “Caribbean-Americans” (and to an even lesser extent “West Indians”) and exactly what they mean in a social context has become more important talking points on social media and beyond.
So, let me start by acknowledging that when it comes to Black people many in America often default to “African-American” to be politically correct, non-offensive, and motivated by a desire to be racially polite and sensitive.
And it’s the same thing when you realize that when immigrants from the Caribbean first arrived in America, say 40 years ago, most Americans – including African-Americans – sought to be racially sensitive by deliberately lumping ALL immigrants from the Caribbean into one box as “Jamaicans.” But as this community grew in numbers and more and more Caribbean immigrants called the United States home, two things happened.
First, growing populations of immigrants from particular Caribbean nations started to identify themselves as “Trini,” “Bajan,” or “Vinci” using the shortened popular versions of their Caribbean island-nation homes to embrace their contributions and work-in-progress assimilation in the United States social, economic and political system.
Second, American social scientists eventually sought to identify this mixed Caribbean immigrant community and population of English, Spanish and French/Creole speakers under one catch-all name – “Caribbean-American.” This modern construct that encompassed and embraced ALL of the immigrants from the Caribbean region also ended the old, colonial moniker of “West Indian,” and now that name has been placed on the garbage heap of history – where it belongs.
Still, going back to the issue of “Black and African-American” as apt descriptions for Black people born in America (African-American) and those foreign born, while the two terms are often used interchangeably, they are not always accurate. Let’s start from the fact that there are Black people on every continent of the world. But African American is specific to the United States alone.
The designation “African-American” is about Black people – descendants of enslaved Africans – who are born in the United States. The term therefore drips with deliberate significance about the acknowledgement of their African heritage and origins as well as the importance of being born “Black” here in America.
As that relates to the term “Caribbean-American” this designation has its origins in increased migration from the Caribbean to the United States starting in the 1960s and the 1970s from the African continent. These growing immigrant communities readily identified as Black – not African-American. However, this soon changed as their numbers increased and many first and second-generation Caribbean immigrant children with indirect ties to the Caribbean or Africa for that matter, also without an American slave history past, identified themselves as Black.
Today, you hear the argument and the social conundrum: “I was born in America but my parents are from Haiti. So, you could say that I’m a Black man (woman) with Haitian roots. Because I was born here, I am also African-American.” Articulated this way, Blackness is the overarching social umbrella that shelters all Black immigrants no matter where they were born but “African-American” is only specific to the United States. That, of course, begs the question: are you African-American because of where you live? Or are you, who was not born in America, say, a Trinidadian-born Black man or woman?
The thing is that these complex layers of racial identity are extremely personal, on the one hand, and generationally nuanced on the other. For example, there are some Americans (and first and second-generation immigrants from the Caribbean) who identify as both, and some who prefer “Black” over African American because they can’t actually trace their lineage to American slavery.
To that extent “Black” is often a far better default term because it recognizes and celebrates the race, culture, and lived experiences of Black people all over the world. Enter the “Black Lives Matter Movement.” This movement is not only about African-American lives but ALL Black lives – no matter where people live or come from. Thus, the movement now marching towards “Blackness” is really about recognizing the global nature of blackness.
I started by saying that I’m first and foremost a Black man from the Caribbean now living in America because it’s a recognition of a much larger family – community if you will – of Black people and all of the heritage, nuances and similarities that come with that characterization even with differences of experiences.
To be sure there are many, many similarities as there are differences between Black people born in America and those from the Caribbean. For one thing, their slave experiences and history are different. Black Americans are still fighting the leftover vestiges of that chattel slavery (the worst form of slavery), segregration, and Jim Crowism today – things that Black slaves in the Caribbean never experienced no matter the brutality of both forms.
Let me also say that I do not like hyphenated social designations even though, in the case of African-Americans, I understand it. As a people robbed of their culture and identity they are making a poignant statement that their ancestors were brought to America as African slaves, and that they were born in this country as a result.
I get that. For me the term Caribbean-American also explains our love and identification with the various island-nations of the Caribbean while living in America, embracing Black culture, and demonstrates our loyalty to his land. That’s far better than the old term “West Indians” that was used to describe Black people