November 30, 2007

Writing about the Immigrant Experience in America

The Big ReadAmerica competes for the imagination of its citizens and recent immigrants with two compelling stories: "The American Love Story" told mainly by told mainly by Americans of European descent and "honorary whites," and "The Road to Freedom" told by African Americans. Typically, "The American Love Story" follows the pattern of persecution at home, voluntary migration, journey across the sea, initial prejudice in America and eventual triumph. "The Road to Freedom" begins with slavery in Africa, involuntary migration, the Atlantic Holocaust, slavery in America, the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow/Segregation and the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These two stories have become the de facto narratives for entry into American life and culture.
And yet as tempting as these models appear to be, they are not quite true. Almost daily our Haitian brothers and sisters, whose story closely resembles that of Americans of European descent, are routinely denied entry into the United States because of the twin shibboleths of American culture: race and xenophobia.
It is within this context that I have been telling the story of the Jamaican diaspora, a story that does not fit into the neat categories of "The American Love Story," nor does it fit "The Road to Freedom"--two stories that literally see the world in black and white. But Jamaica and the Caribbean have always defied neat categorizations. Perhaps, this is why the poet, Mervyn Morris, in the poem, "Valley Prince" declared, "But straight is not the way; my world/ don' go so; that is lie."
It is this straightness, this narrowness of perception that Caribbean writers such as Derek Walcott in "A Far Cry from Africa," Dennis Scott in "Epitaph," and Edgar Mittleholzer in A Morning in the Office have always bristled against, and through their poems and novels, they have presented an alternative vision that does not see human experience solely through the lens of race and ethnicity and displays a readiness to embrace the Other in whatever form it manifested itself. The Caribbean archipelago is a complex region and as such it demands an equally complex aesthetic informed by a sense of history. As an inheritor of that tradition, I have tried to be true to the elders while maintaining the truth of my own voice.
In telling my story, it would be impossible for me to embrace either "The American Love Story" or "The Road to Freedom," and this has nothing to do with the infamous Jamaican arrogance, which I suspect is a reaction to our intense nationalism. I am descended on my father's side from Scottish slave/ land holders and on my mother's side by Scottish missionaries who came to Jamaica to oppose the landed plantocracy. My African blood completes the circle. My story is similar to many of my Jamaican brothers and sisters. We carry memories of those who wielded the whip and those who were whipped; those who stood on the bow and those groveled in belly of the slave ships. But we also carry memories of resistance, the stories of the Maroons and other cultural heroes who fought against slavery, the time when Jamaica ruled the world in the parliament of William Pitt, Apprenticeship/Emancipation, the Asian influx, two World Wars, Windrush, trade unions and growing nationalism, Federation/ Independence, post-Independence trauma, the Cold War and Black Power, the emergence of Reggae/ Rastafari, the untold civil war, and exodus in the late seventies, which is where my story as a Jamaican-American writer and a member of the "Reggae Generation" begins.
That hyphen, that bridge, that momentary pause in time, as brief as one generation (for my children have already entered a different version of all three stories) is my story--my life in South Florida, the unofficial capital of the Caribbean.
In some ways, I have tried to preserve the story of how we, Jamaican-Americans, came to America in the novel, Benjamin, my son and two poetry collections, Exodus and Other Poems and Florida Bound. In hurricane center, I depicted the lives of those in the Caribbean and South Florida who live in the eye of hurricanes that are both physical and metaphorical.xango music was different. Thematically, it relied heavily on the work of Kamau Brathwaite and his insistence that our collective denial of the Middle Passage and our African heritage cripples our understanding of ourselves and only an embrace of this part of our African-ness will lead to psychic healing and wholeness. xango music also recognizes African wisdom and honors the cultural heroes who fought against colonialism/slavery of our hearts, bodies, and minds. And finally, my most recent children's book, Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories, of which I'm especially proud, recognizes the value of one the most influential yet denigrated cultural heroes in the Caribbean pantheon: Anancy. Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories is my contribution, my hope that we can get the word out to young people, especially the young males before they hit those troublesome years between eighteen and twenty-five and who are ruled by Xango, that there are other ways of confronting the dragon, that there are other ways of being in the world. That the answer to a challenge doesn't always have to be Xango and war, but Eshu and intelligence.
Of course, I also tackle other themes in Uncle Obadiah and the Alien and in Twelve Poems and A Story for Christmas. But my main goal has always been to demonstrate that the story of the "Reggae Generation" is just as important as "The American Love Story" and "The Road to Freedom." We have to be the main characters in our own story. Our story is also important because if America will listen, we can teach something about the complexity of the Black experience; the value of intelligence over brute force,; the courage needed to live in a space threatened by yearly hurricanes; the fortitude to resist systems that dehumanize; the necessity of forgiveness, and finally, that despite all the troubles that this world can bring, we must as the poet laureate of our generation, Bob Marley has exhorted, celebrate life:
Forget your troubles and dance.
Forget your sorrows and dance.
Forget your sickness and dance.
Forget your weakness and dance
You're gonna dance to Jah music, dance.
We're gonna dance to Jah music, dance.


Richard said...

Great post. Thanks!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Thanks, Richard!