on race, mixing and other ruminations.
I have to thank my auntie for telling me the other day about the “jahaji-bhai” within our family tree. I feel as though she referenced it to me before once, way back when but this was the first time that we went in-depth into it along with many other ruminations. Speaking of brotherhood of the boat, if you were in Trinidad then, you might remember how in the aftermath of Brother Marvin’s song in the late nineties, certain sectors in society pointed out the historical inaccuracies alluded to in the song? While other people were heaping praises on the calypso’s thesis and looking to hold hands and sing kumbaya with everyone? Even the Maha Sabha weighed in. Jahaji-bhai had at long last bridged the great divide!
While I do appreciate that song and you-tubed it, while singing along recently; I think the loftiness with which the racial miscegenation of an African blood-line was sung about was problematic for some elders and others vocal in the Afro-Trinidadian community. They’re sensitive to it and I guess I could understand why. There were enough people around, who didn’t understand why however, to spark much criticism and discussion. I mean, there is a verse in the song that goes, “for those who playing ignorant/ talking bout you African descendant/ if yuh want to know de truth/ take ah trip back to yuh roots/ and somewhere on ah journey/ yuh go see ah man in a dhoti/ saying he prayers in front of a jhandi.”
The palpable existence of an Afro-Trini identity seems to be prevalent at first glance (especially in the areas of culture) but it’s also not as highly valued in other areas. We usually see this expressed most noticeably in “racial mixtures” and the ways in which people choose to recognize and classify their own mixes, celebrate it (or not), what parts they prize more than others, what parts are de-valued and in what ways. Plus it doesn’t help that without Brother Marvin singing that song, I (and I suspect many other people, unless you actually knew him) would have never guessed he was mixed with Indian in the first place (in Trinidad, as elsewhere looks matter especially when we talking race).
Back to my auntie, (who is my mother’s sister) so she and I have frank discussions about race and identity a lot. Since my fantabulous mother is Guyanese and my father is a Trinidadian—one might expect some ethnic mixing to be going on somewhere along the lines there somewhere, right? Wrong. *Wags a finger in the air* Not necessarily so. Many people stereotype the Caribbean region as this utopic mixing pot where delicious blends are whipped up and churned out, in the right part African heritage, right part Indian heritage or Chinese and so on. Most significantly, the right part African heritage. Just enough for the right size bam-bam, hair texture, wining skills and hue.
Let me also state, as an aside, lest people start to get their cosmopolitan selves all in a tizzy—that: people are sometimes mixed and nothing is wrong with being mixed. (Racially/ethnically/culturally etc.) Mixed people are awesome people in their own right. And I have nothing against them or the fact itself. What I do find fascinating however is the way in which some mixed people who are either self-identified or societally identified as black—tend to pride the “mixing” that is to say, whatever they are mixed with, instead of, or at least more than the black in them. That’s fascinating. Because the discourse of race and racial identity is so prevalent in many societies. Because it’s just interesting to me. Because, well, I just like to think about stuff like that.
Some days, based on many of the things that I hear, read, see and observe—I just sigh and think that it feels sometimes like no one wants to be black except a small core of people. And it’s maddening to think this. Some days in America, I feel trapped in this definition of “black” and what that must mean for the world viewing me. I think people grow to love who they are, inside and out and there is no singular blueprint telling you the sucessful way to navigate through it all. You just do, because the self is all that you’ve really got. You can do the same for others too which is a bigger challenge but necessary because we live in a community of different kinds of people from diverse backgrounds. I came across this term while reading an article in my favorite tea spot the other day, “metacognition” which is defined as ‘the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking’ and I said, “by golly! If that isn’t what I like to do.” I’m going to use that term from now on.
Back to the matter at hand, that “blackness” is often de-valued is nothing new but it’s also prized—strategically so. I’m not even talking eugenics. Just the general cultural landscape with regard to race and mixing and the ways in which the perceived racial/ethnic hierarchy in mixes reveal themselves, through the things people say. Or do not say for that matter. Take for example, I know some black and chinese mixed individuals who despite the deep brown glow of their skin and in some cases, the kinks in their hair–rave about their “chinese-ness” like a badge of honor, so much that it boggles me. Which is why I think some black people have issues with Tiger Woods (speaking of hypodescent) . Being just black must be hella boring because nobody seems to hype it much (ever).
Of course, people are free to embrace the various facets of who they are racially—however they so desire and I am not implying that people shouldn’t do so but celebrate all aspects of yourself equally. People also don’t have a say in how they happened to be created. Still, I would love to see some people stop throwing black by the wayside, like some remnant of self that you drove out to a remote part of the desert and decided to discard. People need to understand that it’s not just what you say about yourself—but you speak to others too in the process. I am in favor of people grappling with all sides of who they are, honestly. Not for me but for themselves.
Think about it, what if you’re Chinese mixed with black. Who is to say what’s the qualifying factor? Are you Chinese identified, despite your black parentage or in spite of? Obviously slavery, racism and edicts like the one-drop rule in the states, sections of the code-noir in parts of the West Indies and others like it, continue to affect us today. Obviously it’s also complex as hell for the people involved sometimes. It’s still true that many racial mixtures today are defined primarily in relation to the dilution of blackness than whatever else is there in the mix. White and Asian mixes like Jon and Kate Gosselin’s kids for example, are considered “less” of a mix than say, Kimora Lee and Russell’s kids. And I use less, relatively speaking up there. One could counter that Jon is mixed too—but so is Kimora Lee.
According to Guyana’s Bureau of Statistics, in a population of 751, 223 (2002), East-Indians are reflected as 43.5 percent of the population, 30.2 percent of African descent and 16.7 mixed. (For full details, see reference links below) So, if you didn’t know any better, one would think the odds were high for some kind of mixing to take place in one’s formerly thought of as primarily Afro-Guyanese family. But then again…Which also reminds me of one of the prevailing cultural stereotypes about Tobago, our lovely sister-isle (despite all the other prevailing stereotypes which I am not going to touch here) that because the island is traditionally more homogeneous and is not as mixed as Trinidad—somehow we’re better off in that regard. Total rubbish. Once again, mixing is hailed.
So my aunt makes this announcement to me and while I am not surprised nor, bothered by the fact, I’m thinking it makes sense that there are Indians in my Guyanese family. I have also never met any of them, ever. Maybe because I grew up in Trinidad—to start with—but even when I have visited Guyana, the only close relatives I’ve ever met were black. My aunt didn’t shed any light on why this is so either but I also didn’t ask. Maybe I will, next time I chat with her. So the prevailing ethnic vibe in my family is not a mixed one. I used to think that my big sister and and her white boyfriend would be the first set of variation coming directly into our racial gene pool.
I have an African first and middle name, in the right place and the right time, you might catch my dad rocking an agbada other than on August 1st (Emancipation Day in Trinidad and Tobago)—you can catch where I am going with that. A smidge afrocentric? Maybe. Still, why is any of this significant? Well there’s my aunt’s announcement, like a “Gotcha! Guess what?” moment, richocheting around in the context of what was being discussed at the time. It was clearly meant to stir up dialogue between us and in myself, so I’ve been pondering on it. So suffice it to say, our family is slightly mixed-up too? Am I now supposed to be excited about that? Screaming it from every roof top? How does this add to my definition of self via the new revelations inside my family tree? Is this process even relevant? Really, I just love when people understand that celebrating blackness is great and should be just as prevalent as other traits that we prize. In actuality, that does not happen a whole lot—outside of say, a Bobo Shanti camp (among a few other places) or Emancipation Day for some folks.
The thing too is that there are lots of people who mistakenly believe that a transformative society will be one that encourages and celebrates mixing of races—and because of this, people presume that the racial lines that are supposedly blurred by mixing, will eventually disappear. Not going to happen that easily, I think. Sometimes Trinis are in danger of doing this as well, touting our mixing in lieu of rampant racial segregation that does exits (yes it does!) in many places and instances. Honestly, if you take your blinders off and look, you will find it. Furthermore, as to my point, even in mixing—hierarchies exist. Paradigms aren’t going to be radically shifted just because segments of our society are inter-mingling and reproducing together more frequently. Nor should they. Real change is real and lasting and shifts mind-sets and outlooks. According to an article (again read in my tea-spot this weekend) about the new face of white supremacy in the states, “by 2042 white people will be a minority” in America (from a random perusal of a current Details magazine article). Only time will tell, what shifts and impact, if any, that new racial make-up will arrive into.
I’ve been accosted by clearly less-informed individuals in the states that have said I don’t “look” like a Trini. And I am like, are you kidding me? Have you seen Wendy Fitzwilliam, a real life authentic Trini on tv—granted that she’s stunningly gorgeous and tall and fabulous—she looks like me (albeit without some any of those factors). How is that not a ‘Trini’ look? But on that note, having had that happen once, I can totally sympathize with black Latinos who sometimes feel the same way and historically, their society is more mixed than ours is!
I don’t have our current census stats posted but if we juxtapose the East-Indian Guyanese numbers with ours, I will bet that inside there, upon further inspection, there is less miscegenation where “douglas” are actually identified as mixed—maybe even Afro-Trini depending, or Afro-Guyanese. Indian and white mixed are probably identified as mixed, so too are Indian and Chinese. I think African descent identified Trinis may even run the gamut in terms of some mixing and certainly shade but I am pretty sure that the East-Indian statistical figures hold up strongly in terms of little or no mixing. Interesting stuff to consider with all these people who like to run around going on and on about how mixed we all are.
Ultimately though, whatever you are is fine. Whatever you are not, is fine too. I don’t think we should be in any hurry to unduly praise and promote the erasure of certain kinds of racial lineage and identity either—with African being the first on board to go usually—there is beauty to be celebrated, remembered and held-on to in all kinds of people, no matter their racial make-up. There is also much to be learnt and loved.
Related references, good reads and random goodies:
Guyana Bureau of Statistics:
To understand more where I’m coming from (if so inclined) in terms of skin shade and racial identity and why that is important. Check out my post “on being a darkie” below–
Why utopic racial-mixing and merging isn’t fool proof. (See links below) Some societies have a history of doing so, way more and longer than Trinidad has. So much so, that the stereotypical look of who they culturally “are” as a people often leaves out a lot of people. (Guess who?) Someone is always going to be not mixed enough and end up at the bottom of the totem pole. Plus black people will still be marginalized. The root cause of that doesn’t automatically change because there’s more mixing.
Check out what Tego Calderon has to say about being black and Latino,
Miami Herald did an interesting feature on Afro-Latin identity, the people, the issues and concerns.
“When dark-skinned people identify themselves as “black,” there is an unmistakable little thrill of victory, a notch for “our” side, as in someone who was brave enough and tough enough to accept the designation this society despises.” Read all of Leonard Pitt’s piece below:
“U, Black Maybe” by Jose Vilson,
On the symbolism of “Jahaji-Bhai,”
Brother Marvin’s “Jahaji-Bhai” performance from Dimanche Gras.
A Girl Like Me, “Color is more than skin deep for young African-American women struggling to define themselves.”
Tags: trinidad, identity, culture, race, trinidad and tobago, trinidad and tobago culture, black people, island life, caribbean music, caribbean culture, viva la black girl, jahaji-bhai, a girl like me documentary, mixed race identity