Black Caribbeans’ Unrequited Love of Black America

When Joe Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate for the 2020 election, there was almost an immediate response of questioning her Blackness. To me, this is just so incredibly sad and backwards. Didn’t we go through this same song and dance with former president Barack Obama? The discussion also smacks of ignorance; ignorance of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, ignorance of the United States’ history of trying to legally define Blackness (based on the most evil motives mind you).

As a woman with a Jamaican father, and an African-American mother, this sense of being a hybrid with only a partial invitation to the BBQ is not a new one. And while the argument of Jamaicans not qualifying as Black people is a new concept to me, I can understand where it comes from.

Environment Matters

There is something to be said about growing up in a place where the majority of the people are Black. Just like most countries on the planet, Jamaica (and the entire Caribbean in fact) have issues with colorism. The members upper echelons of the social ladder tend to be lighter skinned more often than not. But it is not a hard and fast rule. Jamaica has had dark-skinned, prominently African descended leaders in every industry; from politics to business to education. You don’t have the psychological limit put on you that you will be the first or the only Black person in the room when you get a new job or enroll in an institution of higher learning. Your professional aspirations are not guided by your race.

My great-uncle, in the front holding the trophy, with his cricket team in Jamaica in the early 1970s. He (and the woman behind him, who I admit I don’t know) was of East Indian descent.

This different environment does give Black Caribbeans a different aire about them. I would not say that it makes them ‘superior’ or anything like that. But like many immigrants to the US, from all backgrounds, they come to this country on a higher playing field than born African-Americans. Because even if they come with nothing, they come without the baggage of generations of inferiority and the negative net worth that comes from entire families working and investing in a place for their entire lives, and getting minimal return from it.

Black Americans Have Perfected the Cold Shoulder

When I was younger, I encountered very few Black-Americans that had good things to say about Jamaicans (or ‘West Indians’ as my Grandparents and their generation would call them). Maybe their was some quiet admiration going on; but it was much more common to hear the negative. “Jamaican men beat their women.” “Does your Grandma practice voodoo?” “Jamaicans can tolerate more pain than we can.” Oh, and then there was the language barrier, which was borderline silly, because Jamaicans still speak English. But it was just intolerance. I’ll say that I’ve encountered some Southern accents that have been just as hard as some Jamaican accents to decipher. But the default responses of “Huh? What did you say?” or “I dunno what yall sayin'” – seem to be for Jamaicans and not Southerners (even though the Southern accent is definitely more familiar to Americans, there also seems to be more forgiveness for speech that is truly unintelligible to non-Southern).

Given I did grow up in the Pittsburgh area, and not New York or Miami or something. But I feel that the attitudes in Pittsburgh (unfortunately) are closer to that of 85% of the country anyway. In the 80s, I remember when my Dad and his friends, who were in a series of local reggae bands, would beg WAMO, the local Black music station in Pittsburgh, to play reggae on the radio. There was major pushback and excuses given as to why they couldn’t. Nevermind the fact that Bob Marley’s last concert was in Pittsburgh and the venue was completely sold out. And speaking of Bob Marley, his dream was to break into the American R&B market. He attempted to do so when signing a deal with Texas-based JAD records in 1967 while relocating to Delaware with his mother. The venture was a failure though, and Bob Marley’s fame did not take off until the 1970s when he aligned himself with the UK based Island Records, who marketed him to the White rock music crowd (who unabashedly embraced him).

Bob Marley became an incredible success due to the massive support of White rock music fans — not Black American music fans.

Kinship Comes Easy to Black Caribbeans

From what I’ve seen, the stand-offish approach seems to be mostly a one way street though. Black Jamaicans have an easier time feeling true kinship between themselves and anyone in Africa or among the African diaspora. Jamaicans have always held a deep admiration for Black Americans — in regards to their music, their fashion and their social struggle. Although in the last generation, Jamaicans really have started to be more unabashed in the pride that they have in their country. Today many more Jamaicans are unashamed about their uniquely Jamaican ways (like their patios dialect).

Jamaican Usain Bolt congratulates American Justin Gatlin after his win in 2017’s World Championships. The crowd was booing Justin and chanting Usain’s name, even though Usain lost the race.

A classic example of this clear feeling of kinship is the work that Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier contributed to the American Civil Rights movement from the 1960s until the present day. Belafonte was born in NYC to Jamaican parents and Poitier was born in Miami to Bahamian parents. But both men spend the formative years of their childhoods in the islands of their parents’ birth. In spite of being pop culture pioneers in regards to their representation of Black men in entertainment, neither of them shirked their sense of responsibility in regards joining in the fight for civil rights for America’s Black citizens.

Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963

Hope For The Future

Going forward I hope that Black Americans can really embrace the Black African diaspora (and Africans as well) as their true brothers and allies. There is no ‘them’ vs. ‘us’; when it comes to the viewpoint of White supremacist  we are all the same bottom-feeding, mud people 🙁