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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 creed.

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 movement.

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 regard.

2003 Aubrey W. Bonnett, PhD.
eCaroh Communications, Inc.

 

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