Can We Talk:
West Indian Americans and Black History Month
By Aubrey W. Bonnett, PhD
We are in the midst of a period devoted to the commemoration and
celebration of Black History month, a time recognized since 1976 as one in
which to reflect and ponder the accomplishments of African Americans,
despite historically overwhelming odds. Carter G. Woodson, a noted African
American historian, who is often hailed as the father of black history,
initiated this period.
But Black History month is more than a recitation of contributions; it is
also a description of the odyssey of struggle, protest and resistance by a
dispossessed group of Americans in an effort to force states - this nation -
to live up to its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -
ideals so prominent in the American creed. African Americans and West Indian
Americans have a common bond in the quest to attain the promise of this
Many West Indian immigrants and their descendants have historically
played important roles in this fight for emancipation and liberation. Early
immigrants such as Pan - Africanists Edward Blyden, George Padmore and
Marcus Garvey, and poet activist Claude McKay, were among the first West
Indians to become well known and well respected in the African American's
struggle for racial equality.
Other famous West Indian Americans include former U.S. representative
Shirley Chisholm; Franklin Thomas, former head of the Ford Foundation;
federal Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman appointed to the
federal Judiciary; activists Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), Roy Innis,
Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan; world renowned actor Sidney Poitier; civil
rights activist and singer Harry Belafonte; Earl Greaves, philanthropist,
businessman and publisher of Black Enterprise; and now Colin Powell the
first black U.S. Secretary of State, have all made impressive contributions
on behalf of African Americans.
It should also be noted that the struggle for civil rights for African
Americans, culminating in what is known as the civil rights movement, also
overlapped with the struggle in the West Indian colonies to bring about
decolonization, independence and nationhood for West Indians of all races.
Many of the populist leaders in the movement for nationhood - Norman Manley,
Eric Williams, Cheddi Jagan, Linden Forbes Burnham, Eric Gairy, Alexander
Bustamante, and Errol Barrow for example, were influenced by the audacious
attempts of charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther King and others who
were not afraid to challenge the American monolith, even at the point of
threats to their own personal safety. These actions inspired our own leaders
in the Caribbean who were often in mutual interaction with their African
American counterparts in universities, churches or through the labor
But interaction among these groups has not been without conflict. At the
beginning of the twentieth century, West Indian Americans and African
Americans held negative stereotypes of each other and rarely interacted
socially. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s the children of some West Indian
immigrants downplayed their ethnicity and attempted to integrate into the
African American community, but both groups' images of each other changed
slowly. Secretary Powell, in his autobiography, My American Journey (1995),
recalls his African American father-in-law's reaction when he proposed
marriage to his daughter Alma: "All my life I've tried to stay from those
damn West Indians and now my daughter is going to marry one!"
The late 1960s, with its emphasis on racial solidarity and group
identity, eroded much of the conflict between African Americans and West
Indian Americans and supplanted it with black nationalist sentiments and
identity. Since the 1990s many West Indian Americans, who actually come from
many racial/ethnic lineages - African, Chinese, East Indian, Portuguese,
Amerindian for example - present multiple identity formations such as: West
Indian, with a strong ethnic orientation; African American, with a focus on
their racial identity; and West Indian American, with a more hybrid cultural
identity as hyphenated Americans.
Surely, this community is not monolithic, and class divisions and
pressures influence roles in its identity resolution, as well as influence
responses to racism and other societal challenges. Disproportionately, lower
and working class West Indian Americans have strong affiliations with their
ethnicity and its cultural symbols. They use the ethnic community as a
"structural shield" in their coping repertoire in contemporary America.
In today's America, what is undisputed, however, is the coming together
of the African American and West Indian groups at important junctures. They
coalesce to oppose racial and ethnic discrimination by the dominant white
majority, and agencies of the state at federal, local or county levels, and
to protest for the poor and disenfranchised among their midst.
It is in this contextual framework that Black History month should be
viewed. Not simply to recall the successes of yesteryear but to plan and
strategize for the challenges that still have to be overcome by both groups
in their quest for full and complete inclusion in the American nation, and
to minimize and neutralize divisive attempts to fragment their unity in this
© 2003 Aubrey W. Bonnett, PhD.
eCaroh Communications, Inc.