This year we set out for the 48th Annual Labor Day West Indian – Caribbean American Carnival and Parade hosted in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. The West Indian Day Carnival is the largest parade in New York City attracting millions to Eastern Parkway for five days of festivities and a cultural extravaganza. For the third time, we hit the streets to capture the beautiful brown bodies reveling in paint, powder and costumes. And, this year we interviewed a few people on the road exploring conversations of African identity in the Caribbean among the crowd.
Our aim was to discover where people were from, where they were representing, and more specifically, how they identify. As you can imagine, the answers were as varied as we as black people are diverse. Check out our photos from the last couple of years and this year’s interviews down below.
What does it mean to be AfroCaribbean?
AfroCaribbeans, also known as African Caribbean, are descendants of Africans who were mostly brutally enslaved by European forces, terrorized and shipped as chattel across the Caribbean through the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, also known as the African Holocaust or the Maafa. These are the people, the progeny, of the men, women, and children who were able to survive.
“The only difference between African Americans and Haitians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Jamaicans is a boat stop.” – unknown
However, not all black people across the West Indies and the Caribbean identify as African or AfroCaribbean. Many of who are of mixed race, like those with roots from India, IndoCaribbeans, and those who trace their heritage to the Native Caribs or other indigenous people. There are also those who may be multicultural, identifying with two or more cultures, for example, AfroLatinos. Moreover, there are people who may prefer not to identify with the term West Indian at all, particularly for the direct correlation to colonization—hence, the British, Dutch, French, Spanish West Indies, which were named for the conquerors who ravaged the earliest inhabitants to occupy these lands.
The devastating impact of colonization has lead many people to believe (or want to believe) that black history began with slavery. Though genealogy proves AfroCaribbean lineage is primarily linked to Sub-Saharan Africa, rich with its own culture, traditions, science, philosophy and history. Still, considerable amounts of people choose only to align themselves with their immediate familial ancestry rather than one of a distant historical reference. Likewise, some may only identify with cultures they, themselves, perceive to have a direct connection to while others may identify with a cross-cultural approach.
How we choose to identify is rooted in historical context, social influence and self-perception. And so, it is understandable that there be ambivalence and confusion when discussing identity. Especially, taking into account how the terms race, ethnicity and nationality are often used interchangeably although they have different denotations.
Understanding Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality
Race is markedly designated by physical appearance: skin complexion, bone structure, facial features, hair texture, and the like – which interestingly enough may or may not allude to one’s personal identity. Race is a matter of Black or White. People of color (POC) are essentially, nonwhite or “other”, such as, those who are biracial or multiracial.
Nationality is another relationship altogether referring to a person’s legal status in relation to a nation, whether by birth or naturalization. Where one lives may not
be where they posses citizenship; one may even be bestowed with dual citizenship; or, a nation’s own status may change (as in the case of Eritrea splitting from Ethiopia).
Examples of nationality: French, British, Australian, Canadian, American (someone from the United States—a term that speaks to the United States as a dominant culture in view of how we classify people of Central and South America)
Regional identity is even more specific. For example, within the Caribbean there are Barbadians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Dominicans (people from Dominica), etc.; Latinos: Dominicans (people from the Dominican Republic), Hondurans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, etc.; and Americans: Southerners, Northerners, etc.
Then, there are Lingual identities, which are attributed to but independent of ethnic identities, such as, Hispanic (Spanish-speaking) and Creole (pidgin-speaking).
If you are raised by parents from a culture different than your own, let’s say, biracial or multiracial parents, that is, your ancestry includes two or more races; or, your parents are foreign born; or, you grew up across two countries and cultures yourself; or, you are married to someone from another culture, then chances are you identify as multicultural. Looking at the vast possibility of ethnic, national, regional, and lingual combinations we have our magnificent cultural mosaic of identities, reminding us that we are not a monolith.
As individuals, our personal identities may reflect all of the above or none of it at all. We have many identities and they can conflict, consider the dynamics of religion, sexual orientation, and how other identities play a major factor in what cultures and ethnic groups we choose to identify with and how we see ourselves. All of the aforementioned impact who we think we are and who others think we are.
Furthermore, stereotypes and prejudice taint our views on what it is to be black and African—the name itself becoming as controversial as the term “Nigga”, as if the word “African” is a derogatory remark. Five hundred years later, we are still beset by “whiteness”; the erasure of African and native history and culture, compelling us as far away from “blackness”. We are challenged by perpetual racism, bigotry, colorism, and hair texture discrimination, all while black culture persists to be an incredible global fascination.
Yet, as the Ghanaian concept of sankofa teaches us, “it is not wrong to go back to that which you have forgotten,” for a tree without roots cannot live and we are ultimately grounded in our historical African ancestry. In light of this, conflicts on cultural appropriation within the diaspora can be shifted, as the significance of the conversation is not so much about coopting Africana but of the strengthening of cultural awareness and the importance of intercultural communication and cultural sensitivity. After all, our celebrations are not acts of appropriation but a performance of our liberation as Pan-Africans.