Exploring the New “Black”: Name Calling

One of my fondest memories of Los Angeles is visiting my friend Cassandra M’s  family.  Maybe it was the chickens in the backyard coexisting with the pitbull Brownie – a curious combination indeed – or the sinfully moist and supersweet rum cake and the smoky, spicy jerk chicken her Jamaican mother served that made me feel so at home.

Many years have past since that day.   I returned to New York City.  Cassandra, who I met at the university where I attended graduate school, is now an accountant, wife and mother.  She has traded the sunny California skies for the bigger than life living of Texas.

When I approached Cassandra, 36, who is the product of a Jamaican mother and an African American father, about participating in the series,  Exploring the New “Black”, she was more than happy to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions.

The following are her scholarly and thoughtful responses:

How would you define “black”?  How would you define “African American” or “Caribbean American”?  

All of these terms are categories of people. Black seems to embody a race of people based on pigmentation. However, referring to oneself as black seems to vary from location to location. One can be “black and proud” or one can go by nationality, e.g., I am Dominican, Brazilian, etc.

African American and Caribbean American may be considered ethnicities of or within the black race. (However, distinctions of race and ethnicity can be debated incessantly, but I digress.) These titles/categories seem to represent a connection of two (or more) regions.

Hyphenated representations carry that historical connection to each location. For those in the U.S., it is African American – a category that represents the continent from which one’s ancestors were taken and where the descendants survive. However, there is an African Diaspora (read: slavery) throughout the Americas and I have never heard of an African Jamaican, Indian Jamaican, or Chinese Jamaican. There will of course be an acknowledgement of ethnicity or race, but they are all Jamaican. There is a nationality connection through the self-labeling before the discussion of race and ethnicity.

Notice that with Caribbean American it connects to the most “recent” location. Before learning a person’s background or hearing the language or dialect, in the U.S., the Caribbean American will be labeled African American.

However, I do not often hear those all encompassing terms such as African American or Caribbean American when people from the Caribbean (or West Indians) describe themselves.  In general, people that I have met self-identify as Dominican, Haitian, Bahamian, etc.

Ultimately, these categories African American, Caribbean American, etc. – seem to be general methods and variations to make the word “black” sound politically correct. What is the point anyway?

When I traveled to Venezuela and visited an area that had a predominantly black population, I was often asked, “Where are you from?” My response of course was the United States. In disbelief, the next question would be, “No, where are you really from?” My response remained the same. The third question would be, “Where is your mother from?” My answer is Jamaica. The final response would be, “Oh, that explains it.”

These encounters made me question whether or not these Venezuelans remembered how all black people arrived throughout the Americas. If my mother wasn’t Jamaican, how far back in my ancestry would I have had to go to satisfy the point that a black person cannot be from the U.S.? I am quite aware that they knew that Michael Jordan was an American, but based on that conversation and the logic maybe a black person could never be a native of the U.S.  Are blacks always outsiders from the U.S. and global perspectives? 

Of the aforementioned categories, what do you call yourself?

Black.

By the way, when did your family emigrate from Jamaica and why? 

My aunt (my mother’s oldest sister) emigrated first in the 1960s (I don’t remember the exact dates). My mother moved in the late ‘60s. And gradually, they continued the process of paperwork to help each of their siblings and their mother move to Los Angeles in the 1980s. They moved to the U.S. because there were more opportunities available than in Jamaica.

What were you told about American blacks?

Nothing in particular.

Growing up in a Jamaican household did you perceive any difference in the way in which you were raised as opposed to your African American peers?

Yes, my family did not experience the same type of oppression. Of course, in a country that has economic issues and a history of slavery, Jamaica has its own history of oppression.

The home history lessons were different. My peers may have had someone in their family, who lived in segregated communities, marched on Washington, met Dr. Martin Luther King, etc. Those experiences only exist in history books for me. My family’s struggle involves immigration, education, work, and family.

I grew up in a predominantly black and Latino (Mexican and Mexican descendants) community. The white people that I encountered were the teachers. During high school, there were more discussions among my peers about going to an all black university versus a racially diverse or predominantly white university. I started to hear more anger about the history of blacks, but I could not tell if my peers where just going to complain or do something.

Of course my peers and I shared an experience by going to an inner city high school, wanting higher education, desiring to be successful, having families who cared about us (in most cases), etc. But our self-identity and our national and global self-perceptions probably had more differences than similarities.

What do you think about the question, “Are you black enough”? 

It’s limiting. If the concept and idea of blackness only fits within specific parameters, then that’s disappointing. However, we would first have to define “black”.

This question seems to only address the cultural blackness of a person. If that is the case, then what is black culture and why can’t it encompass more as people evolve in their thinking and experiences?

LINKS 

“Texas Mom Talks Black and White” – Part II of Cassandra M’s interview in which she talks about being a mother of a biracial child

The Series:  Exploring the New “Black”

Related Link

Quick Take:  Asians and Self-Identity…It’s Not Just Us


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