June 11, 2006

Imagine Miami

In the next few months, I will be participating in a series of lectures/panel discussions, Imagine Miami, which will be exploring the question of identity in South Florida. The lectures revolve around gender, ethnic, and cultural issues: “Being Gay and Bicultural,” “Arts as Activism in the Gay Community,” and “Art Bridging Ethnicities and Cultures.”

One of the ways that I intend to address the issue of identity in Miami is a reflection on Miami’s geographical location as a port/frontier city and as a Latin/Hispanic/Caribbean city in North America (Kingston 21, Havana North). Because of this fluidity, many people (myself included) have had the freedom to create identities and alliances that would normally have been frowned upon in our homelands.

In my case, it has been an expansion of my political views which were forged in Jamaica during the seventies. Specifically, this has meant a rejection of “brown” status—Edgar Mittelholzer called it “the spite of shade.”“Brown” does not refer to the color of skin per se, but a set of values/attitudes/ afforded to and adopted by a minority in the Caribbean as a means of excluding the majority of people in the Caribbean who are labeled “black.”

But even the term “brown” is amorphous enough for anyone to see through its absurdity, and realize like all other constructs around race that these exist in political and social contexts.If you are “brown” in Miami, it means that you are “black” in the United States. The definition of “black” in America is similar to Roy Cohn’s speech in Angels in America, and if you substitute “black” for homosexuals (his words not mine), it means the same thing: “Blacks are people, who in 15 years of trying cannot pass a pissant anti-discrimination bill through city council. Blacks know nobody. And who nobody knows. Who have zero clout!” According to Cohn’s definition, who would want to be “black” in America?

This is why I suspect many national groups from the Caribbean (although it takes on a slightly different meaning in the Caribbean having to do with Africa, “bad hair,” misery, AIDS, and dirt) prefer to identify themselves as Jamaican, Haitian, Trinidadian, and Barbadian. Many demagogues like to play this up that Caribbean/West Indians (read Jamaicans) think that they are better than everyone else. For the record, Jamaicans think that they are better than everyone else. But that’s another issue. For given the choice of being labeled powerless, this is the stereotype of African-Americans/blacks in America, many people from the Caribbean hang on to their national identities. What’s a brother or sister got to do?

But in the Caribbean, if you have “brown” skin color or ascribe to certain ideas that marginalize the majority of “blacks” (starting with sometimes with skin color, but can include class, color, and connections) in your own country, this means access to a series of entitlements and privileges normally reserved for European “whites.”

In Miami, if you are Cuban, you are “white,” but if you move to Georgia, you are Hispanic. If you’re Cuban and move to Texas, you’re Mexican.

"Brown," "white," "black," are all political constructs, and my choice from the time I was in Jamaica was Black. I was Black before I came to Miami. Some of my “brown” brothers and sisters learned some hard lessons when they moved here.

My definition of Black is not something that was imposed on me because I could easily move back to Jamaica and assume all the rights and privileges of a “brown” man in Jamaica (or the Caribbean for that matter), but I reject that too. Besides, I don’t think I look good in a Scottish kilt.

Black is a political statement that goes beyond melanin and assumes solidarity with the majority of brothers and sisters who have emerged from Plantation America. Black is the refusal to accept the status of property (or any attempt to return to that status) and the affirmation of the right to breathe, to live, and to speak. Black is an acceptance of other ways of being in the world that is not limited to a Manichean dialectic, but recognizes diversity in all its manifestations.

Black is not a curse, but a blessing. And from the vantage point of Miami, and seeing the fullness of expression from Barbados through Haiti up to Louisiana and the Carolinas, Black is a vibrant creativity to be embraced and enjoyed in the music, food, dance—all the cultural forms that make up Plantation America. If we fully embraced being Black, imagine the dignity that our brothers, sisters, and cousins would assume. Pull out any family album and think about the hell that our biological brothers, sisters, and cousins catch because they are a shade darker than a brown paper bag. And we do nothing.

But what if I’m from India or China, can I be Black? And why should I be Black when my father or my great grandfather came from China or India? All I can say is the realpolitik almost determines this response. America wants to be white. And as James Baldwin once said, “If you say you are white, then that forces me to be Black.” If these are the rules, then the rest of us—just as a matter of survival—better be Black.

Yeah, I know this is a big concern in Trinidad and especially Guyana, so I can only speak for myself and as a Jamaican. But I think that we, as Caribbean people, should wake up to how we are viewed in a global perspective, and realize that the infighting and civil war doesn’t help us. As Rex Nettleford explained in an essay published a million years ago, Caribbean Perspectives: The Creative Potential and the Quality of Life, “By the time the East Indians, Chinese and Syrians had arrived, the society had consolidated and formed it self. The dialectic of change and the underpinnings of the value system had been determined.” Not much has changed.

Remember when Tiger Woods tried to be called something else, Cablasian, and he was uniformly ridiculed? Most of our families in the Caribbean are Cablasian. Think about it. We could call it the Cablasian Sea? Yeah, that’s the ticket. The Cablasian Sea.

It would be nice to live in the Cablasian Sea if the kids didn’t come into my office battered and bruised, and part of the reason for the brutalization that they’ve suffered is because they’ve been called "black" for all their lives and nothing more is expected of them except to be “black.” And as the second generation comes along and they know they are not Jamaican and Haitian and…that they’re just plain “black,” then some of them because we’re working so hard at two and three jobs and our children turn into Malvos and Tates or become what America expects of “blacks”—nothing. This is not hateration, just plain talk.

I wish that the world wasn’t this way because as Nettleford argued in the essay, the Chinese, East Indian, Syrian cultures in the Caribbean enrich our lives. I will never forget the Trinidadian students who stayed with us in Mona, the Singhs, and their celebration of Divali in our backyard. What a beautiful sight! Or eating authentic Chinese food with the Chin Loys on Geranium Path in Mona. My life was made richer by these experiences, but they felt threatened when "Black Power" and socialism came to Jamaica. There weren't many heroes then. And if I had been older, I can only hope I would have been brave enough to speak up. But I doubt it. There was uneasiness on all sides. As Mervyn Morris illustrated in the poem, "To and Expatriate Friend,": "It hurt to see you go; but more, /it hurt to see you slowly going white." All of us were changing to either one side or the other because of the reality of American hegemony that split us into two camps: white and Black.

But if Black means all that I’ve just mentioned and it comes with reggae, Soca, reggaeton, and Carnival, then being Black is just irie.


Stephen A. Bess said...

This was great! I've been dealing with these issues since I moved to a mostly Caribbean and African neighborhood. There are some people in that neighborhood who really dislike black Americans. I had a conversation with a lady from Jamaica who spoke so badly of black people in America that I almost lost my manners. She was just ranting and saying, "They have no respect!" "They have no culture!" She spoke of black America as if I wasn't part of it. She felt that children from the Caribbean and Africa are somehow possessed when they come into contact with black American kids. I tried to give her another perspective and she said that I was delusional. Anyway, I offered her a brief history lesson of black America and during it I mentioned the Black National Anthem. Her response was, "You have your own anthem?" She was shocked! :)
Anyway, I don't think that I changed her mind about black America, but at least she learned something from that conversation. There are many who completely separate themselves from black Americans and they forget our connection during the slave trade. They forget that we are all of African descent and that our ancestors were all snatched from their families. I hope that I didn't say too much. :) Thanks for this!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Stephen,
No, this is great!
Toomany of us have no idea of the wider implications of the diaspora, so when I get feedback from you and others, I realize it's not just me.