Growing up as a child in Southwestern Pennsylvania, I only had a vague notion of my family’s background in Jamaica; even though I was born only 2 short years after they arrived in the U.S. Perhaps that is the exact reason why I was told so little; my family was too focused on settling in here that they didn’t want to dwell on and tell stories of the family history in Jamaica.
It was only after my Grandmother died in 1994 that I began to fully understand that side of my family’s history. In my hometown, you had Black people and you had White people (never knew of any Latinos and the only Asians were the ones that owned the local Chinese restaurant). In spite of my Grandmother looking like this woman’s sister (unfortunately I don’t have any scanned pictures of my own Grandmother), to me…and everyone else, she was just “that Jamaican lady”. To me, her brown skin made her a part of the Black community, no questions asked. Things did get a little tricky though when a visiting missionary from Thailand came for a year (or was it two) and people began to remark how much she and my Grandmother looked alike. For a moment, I thought my Grandmother also might be Thai. It didn’t make sense to me how; but it was an easy explanation for my Grandmother’s unique appearance.
When I was 8 or 9, my Father took me to an Indian restaurant in Pittsburgh. He plainly explained to me while they had foods like curry chicken, dhal and roti on the menu, they were very different than how my Grandmother made them. That’s how I got a crash course on the relationship between India and Jamaica…and that my Grandmother’s ethnicity wasn’t some sort of enigma; she was Indian.
But it would still be several more years before I began to see the big picture.
My Grandmother was born Iris Tewari in 1927 in the parish of Clarendon. Her mother died when she was a teenager, and her relationship with her father was strained; most likely because she was the oldest daughter and he had the expectation that she would serve as the fill-in for her deceased mother. She never had a formal education and before age 20, she set out on her own to go live in Mandeville. She later moved on to Kingston where she met my biological Grandfather — a Black Jamaican police officer who was killed when my father was still pretty young.
My Grandmother had an independent nature and being a young Jamaican urbanite in the 1950s & 60s, she became estranged from her rural family. Therefore by the time she came to America in the 1970s, they were remnants of a distant past, and I myself knew little of them.
My father however was very interested in maintaining relationships and talking to the older members of our family. From what he was told, our family came to Jamaica in the mid-19th century by way of Kolkatta (Calcutta). I always thought this meant that they were actually from Kolkatta, but research shows that they were more likely from either Utter Pradesh or Bihar. At least two generations passed before my family had enough resources to utilize the land that they received as payment for their indentured servitude. My Grandmother’s father’s family land was in Sandy Bay (Clarendon) while her mother’s was in an area we call “Chateau” (I’m not 100% sure where it’s located).
Almost 1/2 a million Indians came over to the Caribbean, but only 36,000 of the 1.5 million came to Jamaica. Indentured servitude was a strange situation; one that I still struggle to understand. Basically plantation owners in the Caribbean did not want to pay the newly freed Africans the wages that they demanded to work on plantation. So to spite them, the planters opted to get cheap labor from elsewhere. With the Indians, they contracted them into 5 years worth of labor; after which, the planter would pay for their passage back to India (a 90-day to 5 month trip by ship mind you). This rarely ever happened. Instead the Indians would be contracted into more years of servitude. Eventually the ships stopped making return trips to India. Today, only about 1% of the Jamaican population is classified as being of “East Indian” decent.
This is why I personally find little relevance in regards to racial classifications. Ethically…or genetically, I am 1/4 East Indian. However from a physical perspective, no one looking at me would know that. And from a cultural perspective, the influence on my life has been simply 1/2 American and 1/2 Jamaican. Because my Grandmother had no strong connection or ties to India, there was really little to pass on to my generation.
Is it a tragedy that so little knowledge and connection remains between Indo-Caribbeans and India? Well, it is no more or less of a tragedy than people of African decent in the West knowing so little (or nothing) about their respective native heritages. I am proud of my ancestors, of where they came from and what they have been through. But my plan is to look and move forward. To transcend any pre-set notions that may beset me because of my perceived race.