“Somewhere beneath the load of the emotion-freezing ice which my life had conditioned my brain to produce, a spot of black anger glowed and threw off a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements.” — Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Recently, I joined several Clubhouse discussions unraveling the differences between Africans and descendants of the African diaspora — specifically, African-Americans. It was intriguingly emotional, with all perspectives from the African continent and diaspora justifying generational quarrels between groups with little emphasis on how and why these disagreements existed in the first place. For whom and what reasons were these quarrels beneficial, and would they ever cease to exist?
Whenever first-generation Black-Americans within the group shared their perspectives, what was revealed was a sense of feeling torn between our parents’ culture and the culture of the land where we were born. As a result, we not only managed a double-consciousness, but we also maintained a duality of Blackness.
My mother from Barbados and father from Trinidad & Tobago found it critical that my siblings and I hold onto our family’s culture to guide us through this world with a reminder from which we came. It was also essential for them that we adopt the American identity to unlock opportunities they never had.
Shared within the Clubhouse discussions were examples of how generations of African-Americans lived without an identity and a history belonging to them. Black immigrants have this. As such, their first-generation children navigate their African-American identity differently than African-Americans whose families have endured generations of American slavery, in addition to systemic racism.
So, are we then entitled to the pain felt during the cruel summer of 2020 — a series of riots resulting from blatant injustices? Should we be concerned with African-American history, and does it in any way affect us? As one audience member who shared on stage and so eloquently put, and I paraphrase, “Yes. Yes, the diaspora should care — especially first-generation Black-Americans. When it comes to Afro-Caribbeans in particular, we have always been here. White Americans forced us between the Caribbean colonies and the United States. We have given birth to leaders such as Malcolm X, Stokely Standiford Churchill Carmichael, and more. We, too, have been taken against our will. African American history is our history. It is the history belonging to that of the diaspora.”
While the group accepted this statement and moved on, I was somewhat interested in selfishly augmenting the conversation with another question: In what way(s) do our Black identities harmonize, and do they ever? Of course, I — your callow writer — wondered whether there existed some catechism for the African diaspora and how to navigate our many identities in a world deluged with racial injustice.
How am I expected to carry on my family’s heritage while navigating my African-American identity in a country where neither is accepted, and one conflicts with the other?
It’s been a hell of a few years watching my own parents’ transformation from being traditionally Caribbean to your “proper African-Americans.” Before, some of my siblings had speech therapy as my parents jokingly recount their unwillingness to relinquish their use of patois in class, which my parents only briefly spoke at home and mostly when surrounded by family and friends. Before, I worked hard to shed the spelling and pronunciations drilled into me by my parents, which my school teachers and classmates rejected. Before, my parents described us as being “other than” African-Americans and must behave differently from African-Americans if we wanted to go far in life.
My parents believed the plight African-Americans faced was due to their “misbehavior.” It took my parents long enough to realize that so long as you are Black, you and your children would someday face the same discrimination African-Americans do. Now, this realization has settled so profoundly.
We are no longer “drinking someone else’s bush medicine” or “taking Panadol for someone else’s pain” because the pain African-Americans experience is a pain the entire African diaspora shares.
Until that realization, my parents purposely worked to ensure that whatever version of American their children would replicate, it surely would not be an African-American. The squabbles Black immigrants had with African-Americans aided those desires. African-Americans often joked about Afro-Caribbeans and Africans, whether it be their speech, attire, food, or poverty.
As my father would tell me, his co-workers would refer to him as a “coconut” and his African colleagues as “African booty-scratchers.” Similarly, whenever classmates who lived on my neighborhood block heard my family’s music blasting, they’d refer to it as “bush music” when joking about it the next day in class. While the grade-school mockery didn’t deter me from accepting my African-American identity, it certainly made it more complicated to do so. I resented the fact that I would forever live in-between, never fully meeting my family’s requirements back home of being Caribbean nor the requirements of the American family I was sure to have here.
The reasons for such mockery remained unknown and only added to the narrative that African-Americans were simply the “misbehaved children.” Many perspectives unraveled this belief during the Clubhouse discussions when African-Americans shared more about those insults rising from feeling threatened by their brethren when it came to economic opportunities as “outside Black groups” were preferred by White Americans.
Yet, with every justification for anger and bitterness shared within the group, and whichever way I saw it, white supremacy was at the center of it all. Our parents’ mindset of “being on your best behavior” and the suppression and outsourcing of African-Americans’ economic opportunities is white supremacy at work.
While there has recently been more acceptance of Afro-Caribbean and African nations’ cultures among African-Americans, there is still an unspoken demand to balance our identities. In having this conversation recently with an African-American colleague, we discussed how first-generation Black-Americans still struggle with dodging stereotypes in White spaces and spaces with African-Americans.
Adding the complexities of intersectionality, an African-American must perform according to the White spaces they occupy while being mindful of their intersectionality; that amplifies for first-generation Black-Americans when trying to balance our versions of Blackness. We concluded, with the duality of Blackness, there existed a desire to maintain cultural pride and dominance in a country where neither matters.
It wasn’t until I reached college when I was able to delve into the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, Ralph Ellison, and more to shape my understanding of the material. And it wasn’t until I started working in corporate America that I realized how deeply I was psychologically and linguistically affected by the duality of my Blackness and my double-consciousness and how poorly I managed those versions of me.
When joining corporate America, my insecurity grew. After my experiences of many microaggressions, I asked myself what happened to the treatment my parents promised me if I were to put on my best behavior? I challenged myself ever since to revisit my college readings to understand how all of this correlates to the lack of wide-spread Black wealth and success to shape my expectations of this world. After all, as another fellow Black colleague put it,
“We’re all part of a game. Few make it big and perpetuate the corporate diversity myth, but most never do and its used to validate claims that Black intellect and talent don’t exist. We need to push and keep playing a game we don’t like with all odds against us and know when we’re up against some bullshit to manage our expectations. A lot of what we deal with is bullshit, and that’s some bullshit.”