Caribbean-Americans – A Case of Identity

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With June officially proclaimed as National Caribbean-American Heritage Month in the USA, you’d think the Caribbean community would be full of excitement.

However, upon asking people on Twitter and Facebook whether ‘the month’ held any significance for them, imagine my surprise to hear so many people say they didn’t even know about it until I’d asked.

Now, my survey was by no means scientific. However, for the variety of people I asked, from the 20-somethings and the 50-somethings, to those who migrated to the States at a young age and those who went when they were older, their response has to mean something. What it means exactly, I don’t know, but I’ll take this opportunity to ponder on it, and share their views.

Had it been the first year of the National Caribbean-American celebrations, I would not have been surprised to hear so many people say that they hadn’t heard about it. However, the Bill, which officially enacted the month-long celebrations, was passed in June 2005, and National Caribbean-American Heritage Month has been celebrated for some time.

It is said Caribbean American Heritage Month was established out of the need to create and disseminate knowledge about the contributions of Caribbean immigrants to America, and to be, in short, the platform for a dialogue between Caribbean peoples and the American public. However, how can this take place when the average Joe or Jane in the Caribbean community in the US doesn’t even know about a month dedicated to them? Do they need popular people of Caribbean descent to do an ad (think Nicki Minaj, Bust Rhymes, Colin Powell, Zoe Saldena, Nia Long)?

 

“I’m sure Carib-American Heritage Month has good intentions and historical significance, but Caribbean Americans aren’t homogenous”

 

Here’s some of my Trini Twitter peeps’ take on it. @Izatrini, who was also hearing of it for the first time, says it’s “kind of nice to be acknowledged because we (Caribbeans) are constantly overlooked”. @Anthonycbis hits the nail on the head saying, “I’m sure Carib-American Heritage Month has good intentions and historical significance, but Caribbean Americans aren’t homogenous”, adding “it’s a federally designated heritage month, but I’m not quite sure what it accomplishes in the overall scheme of things”. For @Macafouchette, it “means a lot for, legislation, awareness and building beyond Carnival”.

Only one person @PadyCakes – who was born and bred in New York City, but grew up in a Guyanese household and strongly identifies with Caribbean culture – had heard of it (admittedly through non-West-Indian channels).

The low visibility that National Caribbean-American Heritage Month seems to have indicates that the very people it’s meant to acknowledge are not feeling the love. More importantly, it forces you to consider the real implications of the celebration, as a milestone towards true incorporation of Caribbean identity in American culture.

 

“We’ve been highlighted with a token form of appreciation, and I respond with conflicting feelings”

 

“I guess (though it’s only in its early stages) I see this month-long dedication to Caribbean-American people as an all too recognizable bit of tokenism – we’ve been highlighted with a token form of appreciation, and I respond with conflicting feelings,” says Signifyin Guyana, a Guyanese blogger, living in the States, and whose children were born there. “Pride is among them; as is frustration, and hope that eventually I’ll get my American sons to feel proud about being sent to school draped in Guyanese flags.”

Adding that the month may only really mean something to immigrants – like herself – she considers the long-term gains that may come, such as having Caribbean culture and history included in the curriculum. At the same time, she’s disappointed about having to fill out “a census form with no place for me to indicate my Caribbean identity”. To her, inclusion of Caribbean as a category on the census for “would mean true recognition of our numbers and needs”.

According to Patrice Grell-Yursik of the popular blog Afrobella.com:

“#1 – I am SO happy to learn this exists. #2 I am MAD the only way I know about this is through someone actually in the Caribbean. To me that means that the community here is scattered and isn’t getting the word out…

I love the idea of a National Caribbean American Heritage Month – our contributions to American culture and society are rich and significant and often go unnoticed by anyone who doesn’t have a Caribbean background here. But this is nowhere on the level of African American History month, which is by far the most well known and nationally celebrated month of individual cultural celebration. So I applaud the creators of CAHM, but we have a LONG way to go here, if we truly want to have national awareness.”

Being Caribbean means so many different things depending on where you come from. Yes, we’re one region, with similar cultures and history. However, a Bajan worldview would differ from a Jamaican’s, St. Vincentian’s, Trinibagonian’s or Lucian’s. So this begs the question, what does it mean to be a Caribbean immigrant or descendant living in the US? Do people realise that there is no homogenous identity among the Caribbean community in America or the Caribbean for that matter? Do persons of Caribbean birth or heritage even identify with the term Caribbean-American? More importantly, are people still grappling with the same old issues about their allegiance to their “Caribbeanness” and embracing of their “Americanness”? I think so, and based on accounts from the Caribbean online community, this opinion isn’t baseless.

 

“Do persons of Caribbean birth or heritage even identify with the term Caribbean-American?”

 

According to @TriniLikeSalt on Twitter, “I’m Caribbean born in Trinidad, and an American citizen. I identify most with Trinidad, but all are me; I’m not one or the other”. @Ciqua says, “I think those born in US see themselves as Americans. I being an immigrant see myself as an island gal in America”.

Grell-Yursik gives an example of how these sorts of issues play out in daily life.

“From my experiences, I’d say that American born people of Caribbean heritage often do have a different or confused sense of identity, and often that may be because of the reaction of Caribbean-born people to them. I distinctly remember there being a separation between so-called “Jamericans” and the Jamaican people I went to college with, and I even recall a Trini girl at college once telling a girl ‘well you’re not REALLY a Trini’. Even though she may have known that seeing as she was born here and had an American accent, it was a line in the sand and now with hindsight I wonder if her feelings were hurt. I hear from many here with Trinidadian heritage who are proud to read my blog and see me write about our culture. But I wonder if in their day-to-day lives, they identify as Caribbean, or American.”

Adanna Harper says:

“Honestly, I consider myself a Trinidadian living in America. Since I only migrated six years ago, compared to other Caribbean people who have lived here longer, I find it hard to view myself as anything but Trinidadian. With that being said, I still applaud the efforts of the organizers of Caribbean American Heritage Month and what they seek to accomplish. The unfortunate thing is that, like Patrice, I too have never heard about Caribbean American Heritage Month. I am a believer of acknowledging one’s culture and therefore embrace my culture and what it stands for in my day-to-day life (including cooking meh lil callaloo, listening to meh C and TV6 news etc).”

 

“Honestly, I consider myself a Trinidadian living in America”

 

Ernest Hernandez, a Trini who moved to the States in his more mature years, had this to add:

“It (sense of identity) depends on a number of factors. How long one has been in America? Are you a first generation American or children of Caribbean natives born here. Each succeeding generation by nature tends to identify less with the “home” country. That is the same for Italian-Americans, Irish Americans etc. How old were you when you immigrated here is another factor. The older you are as an immigrant, the stronger the links to the native country. Your socialization here via the social institutions like schools, military, religious institutions etc. One of the great needs of individuals is to belong to a group. There are very strong forces at work to get you to conform and feel accepted by ‘the group’…

As for me, I moved here about four years ago as a mature adult. As such I see myself as a Trini living in America. Maybe with time and naturalization I may see myself evolve into a Trini-American but I don’t know if I will ever drop my Trini appendage. I am in touch with my Trini roots nearly every day. I celebrate my Trini heritage and I’m proud of it. I appreciate what America has afforded me but unlike my grandkids who were born here, I will never be anything but a transplanted Trini and for now I am comfortable with that.”

 

“I don’t hesitate to let folks know it’s where I’m from, nor do I hesitate to wear my gold earrings flaunting the map of Trinidad”


Onika Pascal, who unlike Hernandez, moved to the States at an early age, firmly identifies with the tag ‘Caribbean’, and sums it up best.

“I like to consider myself…100% Trini. And since I left at such a young age, there are some things about my culture that I am learning. I have lived in Brooklyn for the last 19 years…  I’m a proud Trinidadian. I don’t hesitate to let folks know it’s where I’m from, nor do I hesitate to wear my gold earrings flaunting the map of Trinidad. I have had the pleasure of witnessing the Labour Day Parade in Brooklyn… which I believe has become the official unofficial Caribbean celebration. The West-Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA) is the most prominent organization I know of that helps shed light on our heritage.  But to say that I’ve heard of National Caribbean-American Heritage Month would be an untruth. I would admit to checking “other” on many applications and writing, Caribbean-American… I am from the Caribbean, living in America. It’s only right. But I have not had the opportunity to celebrate my heritage for an entire month. Could be that it’s not promoted enough in our community, or that it’s mistaken to be the Labour Day celebration?

I’ve asked my friends, 85% who are of Caribbean descent, and live in Brooklyn NY, and they too are unaware of the dedication. It’s a dedication that has been celebrated since 2006. How could this be? It’s something we’re all anxious to find out. I won’t let this snafu make me any less Caribbean than I am … 100% Trini, remember? Rather, I look forward to it becoming a lot more prominent in the Caribbean community. Though we celebrate it every day, every year, all year long via our traditions, a nationally known celebration, wouldn’t be so bad.”

 

Karel Mc Intosh

Karel Mc Intosh is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Outlish Magazine. She's also the Lead Communications Trainer at Livewired Group, where she conducts workshops in business writing, social media, and other communications areas. A real online junkie, when she isn't surfing the Internet, she's thinking about surfing the Internet. Find out more about her here or tweet her @outlishmagazine.

8 Comments

  1. Natalie

    June 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Well, I remember when this month was established in 2005. I will admit that every year in June I also remember that this month is set aside as a month to Celebrate people from the Caribbean.
    Do I do anything to celebrate it? No. I think that maybe if I were in college still and a part of a Caribbean Student Association I would definitely try to do something to promote it. Maybe not though, it’s in June, school is out at that time. Primary school and high school(depending on where you live) and definitely college.
    As a teacher I ensure that I do things to make my students aware of Black History Month and teach the reasons for its existence, etc. But I can’t do that for Caribbean American Heritage Month.
    Another issue might be the fact that it is called “Caribbean-American” Heritage Month. I do not identify with the term Caribbean-American,so therefore I am not jumping up to celebrate this month. Maybe other people feel this way.
    I think it is a good thing though. Unfortunately, the only month that gets a significant amount of recognition is Black History Month. Several months in the year is designated to recognising a cultural/ethnic/gender etc. in the U.S. and many people are not aware of these months or do not engage in significant activities for these months except for in colleges on a bigger scale. So maybe it is not such a big deal that West Indian people are not aware of this month because in the grand scheme of things the month has no impact on our everyday life.

  2. sjohnson

    June 19, 2010 at 6:28 am

    If Caribbean-Americans are unaware of the day, it is understandable that it would not be celebrated. For such celebrations to take off, it takes years of publicizing the day and bringing awareness to schools and other institutions. This is practically a new event if it was only established in 2005 compared to Black History Month and Emancipation.

    So it will take a couple years to kick off until it gets to be a famaliar household name in the eyes of Caribbean-Americans. Because there are so many months dedicated to different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, Caribbean people celebrate their heritage at different periods. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that they do celebrate and appreciate their cultural and ethnic background.

  3. Kuwassi

    September 7, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    The Outlash Magazine is very creative and fresh Ms. McIntosh. To have put your achievement to the task of productivity; I commend you for such tremendous effort to show the talent in you and the talents of others; this is what makes you a leader for young people in the Caribbean community, and a force to be recon with out side your people.
    You have done a fantastic service, keeping the people and communities informed; This struck a cord with me on Caribbean identity, looking at a young person put their skills and career to work for one self and involve others; thank you. You are a wise, intelligent and brilliant Caribbean woman for taking the lead. Thank you again and again.

  4. andre

    January 25, 2011 at 5:08 am

    I agree with what Natalie says about the month being during the summer which would contribute significantly to why this may not have spread in popularity quickly. but as an outsider to american black history month, i always think it is a ‘slavery’ remembrance thing. not something very relevant for caribbean people who can actually call on a specific place for the last 2, 3, or 4 generations as their place of origin. unlike people who have no caribbean ties and see themselves as african american because, yeah they may have that identity but the majority don’t know where in africa they originate or the culture of that part of africa.

    yeah slavery was a big deal in the caribbean too, but since abolition, the caribbean did not have as much racial tension for as long as america did. so i think caribbean people have been able to build their own identity that they can relate to after the slavery years.

  5. Melissa T. Williams

    June 10, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Dear Mr. McIntosh:
    Thanks for creating more awareness of the commemoration of June as National Caribbean American Heritage Month through yoour blog and micro-survey. It has been very interesting reading the various responses and I hope you would consider referring your readers to the site of the founders http://www.caribbeanamericanmonth.org; as well as interviewing Dr. Claire A. Nelson the Campaign Chair and Architect of the Process that led to the Proclamation of the Caribbean American Heritage Month in 2006.
    I am sure an interview with her would help you address some of the questions and concerns raised by your readers.
    Thanks again for creating a mini-storm and may it rise up to the level of Hurricane winds and bring more people into a greater awareness of June as National Caribbean American Heritage Month; and to an even more important knowledge of the contributions of Caribbean immigrants to America.

  6. Minty

    July 14, 2011 at 4:42 am

    Thank you so much for this article. I’m enjoying your site. I am what you would call a Caribbean-American, or better yet a Trinamerican. Both my parents are from Trinidad, and that is what I have claimed all my life. Yes, I was not raised there but Trinidadian culture has been all I have known, my whole life. A majority of my family lives in the area and I attended a West Indian church. We ate callaloo not collard greens. We ate macaroni pie not macaroni and cheese. We didn’t sing carols at Christmas, that was time for parang! LOL

    I have encountered many “born and raised” Trinis who are quick to tell me I am not a Trini. Then who am I? I’m not African-American. While I respect the culture, it is not my own. So despite meh yankee accent, I will continue to be Trini to de bone! lol

    Thank you so much for informing me about this event. I will definitely be looking for ways to celebrate it and will plan on doing something special on my blog and YT channel.

    Enjoying your site. Keep up the good work!

  7. Lyndsay A

    June 12, 2017 at 7:26 pm

    This article was very interesting and certainly sparked great dialogue on what it is to be Caribbean-American and our celebration of Caribbean American Heritage Month. I am the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, born here in the United States. My Jamaican upbringing is something that is core to who I am as a person, how I carry myself, etc. I actually learned about Caribbean American heritage month by accident a few years ago. I believe that I had typed in “Caribbean” into google and found out that we had a month dedicated to our unique and rich cultures. Since then, I have celebrated the month and worked to educate my peers on Caribbean culture. This year, to celebrate Caribbean American Heritage Month, I have created a series of videos on youtube, throughout the month of June, where I will be sharing information and cultural exposure into our cultures.

    Thank you for writing this article, and I hope that you will also check out my series on youtube, linked above!

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