African Identity and the Man in the Mirror
Skin. It’s a billion-dollar industry, but apart from studying which acne cream is better, or which brand will make our skin smoother, we hardly stop to think about just how much the colour of our skin determines our identity.
At the recently concluded Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival 2010, Mandisa Pantin, a film student at The University of the West Indies, debuted her documentary, “Caribbean Skin: African Identity”, which speaks to how Afro-Trinbagonians view themselves. Outlish recently chatted with Pantin about how Trinis view their Africanness and identity as Trinbagonians.
O: What inspired you to create this film “Caribbean Identity: African Identity”?
MP: One of the things I had been trying to do since entering the Television Industry was to figure out how to properly record and present Emancipation Day, which I think, is a beautiful rendition of African cultural heritage in Trinidad and Tobago. However, in the second year of university when one is required to make a documentary over a year-long course, I found that it was not enough to merely present a viewing of Emancipation Day, but to engage the audience with a story.
When grappling with different ideas, I came up with the idea of targeting a social conversation about how people feel about the word Africa or the idea of African heritage. Here I have to thank Frances Anne Solomon, who guided the very reluctant me to use my perception about myself and racial identity, as the main character in the conversation, as that would make it more real.
O: When you were younger, your mother told you you were an African. How did this impact your sense of identity growing up?
MP: Well, really that is all in the documentary; basically most of the time I accepted it, but only as a teenager did I begin to grapple with maybe that was not all that I was and that it would be alright to accept all of me as I am – a conclusion I only came to when making this documentary.
O: How do you view yourself culturally? You said this film touches on your struggle growth of a personal identity out of a racial one.
MP: After having to make the documentary I had to face some hard truths about who I thought I was. After some hours of recording stream of consciousness statements about myself in the mirror, I realized I felt most strongly about being Trinibagonian above everything else. I wake up in the morning and breathe in Trinbago. I’ve been to almost every type of cultural event in the country, eaten most of the foods, been to all corners of both Trinidad and Tobago, and love it with a passion that I don’t think I will ever feel about anywhere else.
This documentary was created as a vehicle to encourage discussion not only among Afro-Trinbagonians, but everyone in the country of Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean as to how we view ourselves and our Caribbean identity.
O: What are some of the insights you’ve gained?
MP: I don’t think most people think about having a Caribbean identity. I know a lot of artists who grapple with it in different ways. In fact, in meeting fellow Caribbean filmmakers, I know that in visual media, when creating and watching yourself you appreciate or criticize all the more who you are, or who we are as a people.
O: Remember the dashiki incident in this year’s elections? Do you think that people have a sort of outlook where people who almost wholly infuse themselves in an African world, are seen as being out of touch with Trinbagonianism?
MP: Some do. I don’t believe that wearing a dashiki means anything wrong. I wear dashikis sometimes, khurtas and all kinds of apparel. That is a manifestation of old prejudices raising their heads. I don’t think anyone should be dissuaded from paths that they have chosen unless they negatively affect others. I believe, however, that growth is a constant.
O: You interviewed a cross-section of people of African ancestry. What’s their take on their identity?
MP: You’ll have to watch the documentary to find out. Lol.
Trailer for “Caribbean Skin: African Identity”
O: Do you think that identifying with being African is something that has been forced upon people of African descent?
MP: I believe that it is not a matter of forced, but that people had to fight so hard to be appreciated for being of African descent, appreciated for their various skin tones and features and to be proud of African history. It is after all, centuries of colonial and then neo-colonial negative perceptions of Africa worldwide. The negative impact of this, is that in two or three generations or even right now, what do we tell all the people who have a little of this or a little of that or a bunch of everything? Or even how does that impact on a small country’s patriotism and loyalty if everyone is a micro-nation of somewhere else.
O: Why do you think some people are still stuck in the “I’m Afro-Trinidadian or Indo-Trinidadian” mode?
MP: People have identified with communities since the beginning of time. It is how traditions and values are passed on, how human beings have managed to survive and conquer over the years. Humans are basically tribes.
O: In a recent piece on Outlish, “Douglas: Where do they fit in”, we spoke about how for mixed people, they fit in more with the family they look like. In a way, people are still forced to choose a side. Do you think the current generation is breaking out of this?
MP: I hope that is what is happening, when I hear the poetry, the literature, the music, and the general conversation among people that is what I cross my fingers for. It is a long road though. The most important thing is to engage in conversation about it, while not denigrating anyone’s cultural heritages; be proud of all of you.
O: How has African identity evolved over generations in Trinidad and Tobago?
MP: Well, there were descendants of African slaves, then there was the importation of African indentured workers, who impacted on the culture here. However, the concept of pride in being African or African unity was actively discouraged by our ex-colonial masters, probably out of fear at being out numbered. The Marcus Garvey ‘Back to Africa’ movement would have been one source of discourse of pride in Africa, but of course the big push towards accepting and praising African heritage would have come in the 1970s with the Black Power Movement locally and the civil rights movements elsewhere. This is a very broad brush of course and some people have been veritable treasures in the guardianship of African culture, which we must truly admire.
O: African identity. How does this relate to our Trinbagonian and Caribbean identity in 2010?
MP: That is what the documentary is trying to discover.
O: Race and identity is a sensitive topic. We see it predominantly in politics. Why do you think that as a people Trinis still struggle with this topic?
MP: We must struggle with it; it is part of our growth as a nation.
O: Some people say, well I’m Caribbean, that’s what I identify with, but do Caribbean people really understand what it is to be Caribbean or show Caribbeanism?
MP: That is up to us as Caribbean people. We will always be painted with racial labels when we travel internationally, though I giggle sometimes at how friends and family sometimes get wrongly tagged outside of the Caribbean, or even depending on the country that they are in. It just shows it is all in the eye of the beholder. Evolution and respect of our being in the Caribbean, and how we have grown and continue to grow will be our guide in defining what is the Caribbean.
O: What have responses to the film been like?
MP: So far positive, I’ve gotten comments like “unusual portrayal of topic”, “honest”, “balanced”, “glad to see someone taking on this discussion”, and “pleasantly surprised”.
Pantin plans to continue working on the film “Caribbean Skin: African Identity”, and show the completed version of the film in about a year. In the meantime, you can follow her work on her Facebook group “Caribbean Skin African Identity”, or follow her YouTube channel.