She dismissed me mid-sentence, and demanded…
“You! What is your name? Where are you from? ”
I was totally taken aback by this little girl. How she bold so?
I spoke slowly and pointed to my chest … “My name is Kevin. I am from Trinid…”
Before I could answer, she grabbed my wrist and pulled me through the maze that was the little Ethiopian village where we were staying.
All the neighbours watched from their yards. She eventually lifted a heavy curtain, and I saw an ancient looking Ethiopian woman. My lungs were stressed…They walk fast here!
After an animated exchange, the old woman swung her head toward me.
She grabbed my chin pushed it left, then right….
In her pieced-together English she announced, “”West…West Africa!”
Later that night, and with a broad smile, our interpreter informed us that my arrival with the Habitat for Humanity team had been a topic of heavy discussion amongst the Ethiopian villagers. In a private talk, even later, he explained to me that the villagers had become accustomed to hosting white European and American volunteers.
Of our team of twelve, I was the only Black man…and I was the youngest.
Somehow, the villagers had worked out that I wasn’t American. Several of the men, according to the interpreter, had asserted, “He is one of us.”
And so, as my exchange with the little girl and the old woman on day four of my trip ended the speculation of some of the villagers, it ignited my own dormant questions.
For the first time, I considered the totality of my experience as a young black man in this world, and wondered…Is identifying as a Trinidadian enough for Trinidad’s African descendants?
In discussions with some of the Ethiopian villagers, I am learning the importance of having a real understanding of one’s ancestral heritage.
The smallest Ethiopian child seems able, with a trance-like detachment, to recount their familial lineage back five, sometimes six generations.
I know nothing of my great grandmother or grandfather on either of my parents’ sides.
I’ve become fascinated by the idea of cultural heritage, and the role it plays within the multicultural diaspora that is the Caribbean community. I am particularly curious as to whether other young African Trinidadians feel, or even think about the fact that not very many of us can trace our African roots, pre-Trinidad.
Is there a disconnect between African Trinidadians and Africa? If so, how has this disconnect hurt us? How important is it for African Trinidadians to have a real and direct connection to the motherland? Can such a connection contribute to easing race relations in our beloved country?
The recent controversy involving Opposition leader Dr. Keith Rowley’s objections to the Prime Minister’s actions during her recent state visit to India is evidence that the issue of cultural heritage, as it relates to national identity, is one that continues to be at the forefront of Trinidadian consciousness.
Compared to other cultures that make up the Trinidadian landscape, particularly the East Indian culture (which accounts for a significant portion of the Trinidadian population), I would like to suggest that African culture is like a teenage girl, who, still wearing a training bra, is unsure of her development, and is trying to find her comfort zone, or assert herself, in the midst of her already-developed peers.
While other cultures have been able to maintain direct links to their source, and thus further evolve into their uniquely Caribbean versions, the resulting tangible disconnection of slavery has rendered the African culture somewhat stunted. She is still in her training bra.
When I read articles like the one in the Daily Herald, which highlights the belief that national identity hinges on country only, and not necessarily on heritage, or I hear Afro-Trinidadians muttering similar sentiments, I see the African cultural disconnect on unvarnished display.
If you have ever wondered about the effects of slavery on African-Caribbean, African-American, and African-Latino people, I invite you to carefully reread the article for a nuanced example of its manifestation in contemporary Caribbean life.
Slavery has managed, over time, and all at once, to sever African people born and raised outside of Africa from the tangible links that bind them to the motherland, while facilitating a level of disassociation that doesn‘t allow for very much acknowledgement of a decidedly African lineage.
African influences on religion, food, fashion and music, while very much a part of day-to-day Caribbean living, inevitably disintegrate into superficiality, as the cultural origin and context dissipates.
One has only to take a casual look at Trinidadian media, Outlish Magazine included, to find countless examples of ongoing dialogue pondering the “decline” of regional staples, like Carnival and Calypso music, into their modern-day reinterpretations. When all is said and done, many people in the region feel that these staples have been reduced to their lowest common denominator, which, particularly for Carnival, translates into a good time to be had once a year.
Can the gradual disassociation of Caribbean norms from their African roots be cited, as one of the many contributing factors to this “decline“ of which we speak?
Black History month offers an excellent opportunity to examine this cultural castration from an international perspective.
For the most part, at least for me, Black History Month chronicles the civil rights struggle, and to a lesser extent, the struggle of the westernized Black (interestingly, not African) man and woman out of the era of slavery. Surely, references to the African historical dynasty that predates slavery exist. Yet westernized Backs, including Afro-Trinidadians, seem conspicuously disengaged and disassociated with the totality of the African historical spectrum. We, and a lot of other people, seem fixated on only part of the entire story – slavery and colonialism.
Unlike our East Indian brothers and sisters, who balance a dynamic interplay of identifying as Trinidadian, and being of India, most African Trinidadians I know, because of the disconnect, identify as being Trinidadian…of Trinidad.
Is some kind of interplay, then, an integral component in counteracting the cultural decline that we mentioned earlier?
My trip to Ethiopia was incredibly eye -opening in illuminating the necessity of accessing the knowledge, and actively engaging the cultural norms of my ancestors. My direct exposure to African life has, at the same time, validated my African and Caribbean sensibilities. Suddenly, seeing my grandmother sweeping her yard with a cocoyea broom, took on an entirely different meaning, once I understood that this seemingly simple act is one that has been practised for generations in Africa.
Therein lies the magic of historical and cultural perspective. It elevates the daily routines we take for granted. In the interest of elevating Trinidadian and Caribbean culture, which is an amalgamation of all cultures – African, Indian, Asian, Spanish, Middle Eastern, European, etc, it is in everyone’s interest, particularly our political representatives, to promote Trinidad, as a place where such cultural exploration is not only possible, but is a way of life.
Image credit: sfcg.org
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