A foreign student from the Caribbean island of Trinidad shares his opinion on what it means to be Caribbean.
- Are you African?
- Are you American?
- I’m Trinidadian.
- Which part of Africa is that located in? Is it near Togo?
- No, it’s actually in the Caribbean; it’s an island just nine miles off the coast of Venezuela…!
- Really!? … Wow! So what are you really?
Sometimes you may come across conversations like these depending on where you travel. But it’s understandable. Identity is such a vague term. Is it something imposed upon you by your environment? Or is it self-determined? Such questions have plagued man-kind for centuries. Wars have been fought and lost, families destroyed, entire races obliterated for reasons surrounding identity. I’ve found myself in innumerable debates and discussions with people from all over the world questioning the authenticity of the notion that there exists a ‘Caribbean identity’.
I’ve discussed with some friends from Africa who have claimed on the one side that Caribbean people are African, and that’s final. Any attempt on the part of Caribbean people to detach themselves from this notion shows their acceptance of the white imperialist notion which claims that anything black is bad and that Africa is culturally, economically and politically backward (a notion with which I strongly disagree). On the other hand some have claimed that Caribbean people cannot be considered African. We are too ignorant of the customs of the ‘mother-land’, too long departed from the traditions of ‘the elders’.
The fact of the matter is that identity is mainly dependent upon two factors: Firstly – the independent assertion by the individual or group that wishes to be recognized and secondly, – through recognition, at least partially or fully by external sources. Furthermore, a collective identity is developed over a long period of time. The Caribbean has all of these characteristics. The Caribbean stands on its own as a distinct socio-cultural group.
However, the reality is that this is not recognised everywhere. In the Balkans it is assumed that we’re either African (from the continent of Africa), Afro-American or just coloured. In Western Europe it’s a similar situation, with the exception of the UK where we are met with a bit more success due to historical circumstances. And as we move more west across the Atlantic it becomes more normal to be recognised as Caribbean.
Nevertheless, little blame could be cast on those who fail to recognise a particular distinction that separates Caribbean people from other peoples, mainly because: 1) Skin colour plays a major role in identity recognition and 2) Caribbean people themselves fail to assert their own identity; meaning, that there are doubters in both camps. Some Caribbean people fail to see enough distinction to assert their uniqueness while outsiders simply agree with the fallacious notion that there is no distinction.
The fact is that many have forgotten the fundamental building bloc upon which the movement toward ending colonialism in the Caribbean was built. It was one of the great statesmen and intellectuals of the Caribbean, Dr. Eric E. Williams who noted that “the historical record on race relations in the Caribbean teaches us that, as Marti recognized, man in the West Indies is more than white, more than mulatto, more than Negro, more than Indian, more than Chinese. He is West Indian, West Indian by birth, West Indian in customs West Indian in dialect or language, West Indian, finally, in aspirations.” Furthermore, in the much quoted passage Dr. Williams added, that “There can be no mother India for those whose ancestors come from India…there can be no Mother Africa for those of African origin…there can be no mother England or dual loyalties;…there can be no Mother China even if one could agree as to which China is the mother; and there can be no Mother Syria and no Mother Lebanon. A nation, like an individual, can have only one mother…”
‘Caribbean-ness’ is to be respected just as distinctly as the Tutsi is from the Hutu, as the Serb from the Croat, as the Frenchman from the German. It is only until such a firm distinction is made that any notion of full Caribbean integration could be advanced, and the region respected for its uniqueness. It is important to note however, that no notion of Caribbean people being a separate race or ethnic group is being advanced here, rather, the fact is that the Caribbean is a distinct social and cultural collective and should be respected as such.
Mikhail E.D. Byng