In the Middle: A View of African and Caribbean American Life
I feel as though I’ve been living in the middle for my entire life: the perpetual hyphen, a bridge of sorts. This was most evident at home. My mother is from the beautiful Caribbean island, Trinidad. My dad is from Harlem and his parents are from the south. I lived at the intersection of Caribbean and African American life. My dad was in and out of my life, mostly out, which meant I spent most of my time with my Trini family.
We lived in a Brooklyn neighborhood that was heavily Caribbean and went to a church that represented nearly every island. In school, every kid who looked like me also had parents that came from somewhere else. For much of my childhood, I didn’t think there were black people in Brooklyn who weren’t of Caribbean descent.
Whenever you met someone new, one of the first questions you asked was “where are you from?” This question was understood as what island did your family come from, not where you currently lived.
My world wasn’t completely cut off from African Americans. There was an entire half of my family. I also went to high school in Harlem where there are many African Americans. My background gave me the perfect front row seat for these two cultures.
People have more in common than we realize. Aspects like country, region, and the era in which you were born shape us but there is a shared human experience that cannot be denied. And if you are a Christian, we are all united by the Christ who reconciled us not just to himself, but to each other as well.
With that said, there are some cultural differences. For instance, as a child of a Trini mother, my friends were my family. Luckily, I come from a fairly large family so there was no shortage of cousins to play with.
Making friends with strangers was widely discouraged. My African American friends could go to sleepovers but that was definitely not happening with me or any of my other Caribbean friends. There was just a general distrust of outsiders and therefore, we stuck with each other.
Many people immigrated from their home islands with the hopes of attaining a better life. The belief is if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to then you can achieve success. Education was thus a big deal. We were pushed to not just get good grades, but great grades. There was also no other option than to go to college after high school.
Us Versus Them
While Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans share a common ancestry, they have not always seen themselves as one people.
When Caribbean people first started immigrating to the United States, many African Americans viewed them with contempt, feeling their jobs were being stolen. Additionally, many of the Caribbeans who moved to New York lived in their own neighborhoods which often kept them separated from their African American brethren and only helped to exacerbate the divide between the two groups.
When the tensions were high between the Jewish and Caribbean residents of Crown Heights in the ’90s, many African Americans viewed it as an issue that had nothing to do with them because it was a “Caribbean problem.” When we don’t view ourselves as one people, it is easy to isolate the problems of “others” as just theirs and nothing we should concern ourselves with. And when we don’t hear the cries of our brothers and sisters, we build bridges of resentment and disunity.
Perceptions and Lies
Ultimately, whether you are African-American or Caribbean, we’re all mostly perceived the same in America. My first interview out of college was for a financial analyst position. My name got me in the door but my face barred me from going further. The interviewer spent the entire time trying to convince me I wouldn’t like the analyst position but would be great fit for their call center. He didn’t care that I came from a hard-working, Trini family or that I worked three jobs in college as a full-time student. I was truly passionate about finance but all he saw was black skin and deemed it inadequate.
I’ve never been treated by cops differently just because I’m Caribbean. The truth is they can’t tell. All they see is black skin and harbor whatever preconceived notions they have. Being Caribbean has never stopped anyone from telling me I fit the description. Being Caribbean didn’t stop someone from trying to get me to admit that I stole my own my car. Being Caribbean, as far as I know, has never led to lenient penalties and sentences.
Caribbeans and African Americans believe lies about each other and if there is no one in your life to challenge those lies, you will accept them as fact.
Many in the Caribbean view African Americans as lazy and think they just want to live off the government. This is a lie propelled by those who desire to paint African Americans in such a way to further political agendas. People in the Caribbean see these lies transmitted on TV screens and printed in their newspapers. I got my work ethic from my African American father and I know plenty of African Americans who can attest that inherent laziness is a false narrative.
Many African Americans think that those of Caribbean descent believe they are better but I also know this not to be true. I and many of my friends didn’t grow up hearing African Americans being viewed as less than. As much as I know education is pushed in Caribbean homes, I know many Caribbean parents who didn’t push their children to do or be anything. I also know plenty of African Americans whose parents made sure they got a college education.
Together at the Cross
Considering my upbringing, I am fully aware of the historical divide between African Americans and those of Caribbean descent. We must all remember we’re created in the image of God and that trumps all of our national borders and cultural differences. Let us remember who Jesus is and what he has done for us on the cross.
My identity is first found in him who saved me, anything after that is secondary. When Paul said there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free in Galatians 3, he was talking about reconciliation. He was talking about all people, being made into one new man in Christ.
Jesus doesn’t demand that we lay down our cultural and ethnic identities but he calls us to subordinate them to him. So when I see my Caribbean brothers and sisters or my African American brothers and sisters, my first response has to be one of love because we have been made new together at the cross.
The unity we find there is what compels to live a life of love for one another. The greatest act of love ever shown was Jesus on the cross. We fight for justice on behalf of each other because Jesus sought our justice at Calvary. All of us who are products of the African diaspora share a common story. All of us who are products of the diaspora of the cross share an even greater common story. When the two converge, may the result be unity, love, and relationships that display our ultimate hope, Jesus.