Growing up as I did, I rarely thought about myself as British. My first few years on Earth were spent in south London but then my parents decided to move their young family to Jamaica at the start of the 1990s. It is in capital city Kingston and green and wet Portland that my earliest memories take place. I remember nothing of living in England as a child, and only visited twice before moving back 5 years ago.
For me, Being British was a matter only to be considered when travelling. A British passport gave me access to nearly every part of the world while it was (and still is) a hassle for my Jamaican-passport holding family to do the same. There are many countries that I wouldn’t have to think twice about booking a ticket to, those same places would make people from small-island states jump through fiery hoops to arrive there, even if we are both departing the same city at the same time. This is one of the internecine effects of dependency and underdevelopment that puts a ‘Global South’ in the backdrop of a ‘Global North’. History has shown us that, embedded in its very nature, a dominant (economic) state or (cultural) ideal must exist with an equally disenfranchised or underprivileged opposite. Those outside of the dominant group are likely to be defined by their relation to it; so while some countries were said to be ‘developed’, past tense, (as if nation and social building ever stops) others were still developing, the wheels spinning, turning over, perpetually in motion, trying to catch up. At one time, it was the ‘civilized’ world vs the ‘uncivilized’ world. We also had the ‘metropole’ and its ‘colonial’ outposts. The ‘periphery’ and the ‘centre’. The first, second and third world. The divides go on. Similarly, Britishness, my Britishness, does not matter unless there are those who do not have the right to claim it. In fact, it is this desire to protect it, a citizenship that others cannot have, that has contributed to a misguided patriotism and primitivism under the guise of Brexit (in my opinion).
Theresa May’s government bungling the affairs of the first generation of mass immigrants from the Caribbean to the UK is probably also from the same neglect. Identity is at the crux of it. In conversations on race in the West, it is ‘white’ that remains constant and it feels as if everyone else is described in relation to this.
In the age of identity politics, where you must analyse your own position in society (otherwise you are ignoring the reality of inequality in said society), the terms we use to identify ourselves are often filled with contention. Which one do you belong to and what will you say from your position? Someone might not want to identify with a term that they deem reductive of their position. On the other hand, others may reject a term that represents a collective and does not give way for nuance.
My work focuses on the history of certain identities in different geographies but I am still critical of identity politics because I think it leads to people co-opting different identities to serve their purposes. It would be fine if it was harmless – if didn’t disrespect, overlook and flatten individuals into a set of tropes, as if they can be picked up and put on like a new outfit. Look no further than Rachel Dolezal, Jess Krug and BethAnn McLaughlin
Bell hooks puts it well: “concurrently, marginalized groups, deemed Other, who have been ignored, rendered invisible, can be seduced by the emphasis on Otherness, by its commodification, because it offers the promise of recognition and reconciliation.”
Below I go through a few of the terms that could all be applied to me, the subjects of my research or people I am in contact with.
The islands and countries in the Caribbean sea region. For the purposes of my PhD research, I am generally referring to the English speaking Caribbean countries. No ‘Caribbeans’, we are Caribbean people, Caribbean tapanaris, thank you.
‘West Indian’ is a term that comes out of a certain era and through a specific type of contact. For many of our ancestors who migrated to the UK in the 50s and 60s, though they were from the region, it was to be the first time they had personal encounters with people from neighbouring nations. A Trinidadian meets a Bajan, a St Lucian meets a Jamaican and it is in this moment they realise, “though there are some things that are unique to me and my culture, there are a lot of aspects of it that I share with others from my region. Our societies are much more in tune than I am with people from other parts of the world”.
With this meeting of cultures, the West Indian identity flourished in Britain. Sure, West Indian Federation existed before this time, but the popular use of ‘West Indian’ as a self-accepted identity, by people themselves in solidarity with each other, did not feature in everyday life. An identity back then (and now) was much less regional, much less wide and all encompassing; in fact, it is a personal thing. A Jamaican in Jamaica is not always thinking of themselves on the basis of nationality and citizenship, and certainly not regionality, until in a space where it is required. She’s more likely to think of her parish in Jamaica, or narrow it down to her town, she still may be more inclined to consider community, street and ultimately, just her house. Identity is a very personal thing. If you have safe citizenship, safe surroundings and a safe place to live and lay your head, you can be wrapped in an inward world that does not have to consider much about things outside your door. You hardly have need to think in such broad terms until there is a social or political need to do so. This is how ‘West Indian’ entered the chat.
The Pleasures of Exile is George Lamming’s exploration of childhood, culture and colonialism growing up in Barbados, and then his 1950 migration to England. Published in 1960- before any Caribbean country is independent- it is regarded as a landmark essay collection capturing the ‘West Indian experience’ in a specific time of the region’s development. Writing about the journey to England, Lamming reflects on the irony of moving to a place that was completely foreign, yet still a sort of home – a place he had all right to be, until 1962, people who migrated from the British Caribbean to England did so as citizens:
“Moreover, our colonial status condemned us, fortunately, to the rights of full citizenship. In no circumstances could we qualify for deportation. There was no going back. All the gaiety of reprieve we had felt on our departure now turned to apprehension.”
Aboard the ship, Lamming is faced with this paradox of identity, he is a citizen because Barbados is a part of Great Britain, yet there is the utter truth that he will be a stranger in the land.
This contact needed to happen for ‘West Indian’ identity to be asserted in England. A similar thing could be said to have taken place in big city New York through the Harlem Renaissance with writers like Claudia Jones and Claude McKay.
But in Jamaica, maybe because that step of migration did not happen, I believe the term was much less quick to take on. We rarely speak about being ‘West Indian’ in Jamaica. Most Jamaicans living in Jamaica most likely have never been to anywhere else in this West Indies. If you heard the term you instantly knew a cricket match was on – the West Indies Cricket Team is our reference there. In fact, through the influence of Pan-Africanism on a whole, and Rastafari which emerged from the hills of Pinnacle, St Catherine in the 1940s more specifically, you will find a lot of people on the island object to using Christopher Columbus’s wrong geographic term to describe where they live. We learn this almost verbatim in the Caribbean primary education system: Columbus arrived in present-day Haiti in 1492 with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria ships and thought he was in India. Thus, we were ‘the Indies’, West Indies now because we know there is a real India in the East.
In countries like Guyana and Trinidad, the do have large populations of people from India in (the East) after indentured workers were brought to fill the plantation labour gap after Britain officially ended their vicious system of enslaving Africans. Jamaica also received some indentured labourers, but not as many. Jamaica officially lists 98% of its population is of Black African descent. In Jamaica, ‘East Indian’ is a mango. But say ‘coolie’ we’ll know what you mean. But do not call this person a ‘coolie’ in Guyana or Trinidad, it is a slur. With Guyana having a large ‘Indo-Guyanese’ population and Trinidad having ‘Indo-Trini’ citizens (much, much more than Jamaica), again it seems that terms of identity sometimes take on different meaning where people move from one place to the next and then must regroup and claim their rights, social and political standing. ‘Coolie’ is to be coveted in Jamaica, in Trinidad or Guyana it could be seen as drawing your sword (or sharpening your cutlass, since we’re talking about the Caribbean here J )
How do we want to identify ourselves and what are the historical and ontological implications of these terms. You might think that I am getting too high-browed here by mentioning ontology but that is because pop academia and pop culture is not looking to indigenous people and grassroots movements for any type of existential or philosophical understanding of the world. Written history, recorded culture and the events we remember as a collective (human race?) are surely not the only things that have ever existed. But for the things that we do record, and the history that we do remember together, there will always be contention in how the stories are told, who tells the story and what the different characters say about themselves and their opposers.
Rastafari theoretically have a concept of ‘word, sound, power’. Nowadays, it is easily understood in what new generations do as mirror affirmations a la Issa Rae in Insecure, that is, speaking only positive words to and about self. Rasta take it to another level – they hold firm that the spelling of words in the inherited English language, and the audible sound they make hold power. It is in the thread of biblical, “the tongue has power”, and also speaks to the literary power- the importance of words. Damian Marley sang, ‘did you know the pen is stronger than the knife’ in It was Written. It is in this tradition that Rastafari will rarely give ‘oppressors’ the privilege of being said to have pressed them ‘up’. Uppressers they are not. ‘Downpressers’ is a more apt description for the relationship as explained by Peter Tosh in ‘Downpressor man’. Staunch Rasta still will not refer to a ‘week’ with the word that sounds like ‘weak’, that 7 days will be referred to as a ‘strong’ because weakness is not something to ponder every few days. ‘Good Rising’ will be uttered in the early hours instead of speaking of someone’s morning (mourning). Rasta will carefully choose which words they use to discuss every minute details in an attempt to control their own narrative with positivity, but also because for them this is an act of manifestation, affirmation and resistance.
That is what I learned in Jamaica and this what I am rooted in culturally, and what many of my peers are rooted in culturally, even if only superficially through crossover from dancehall and reggae spaces.
Think of the South African context. You can still call people ‘coloured’ because `coloured’ people are a specific ethnic group. It is not a term that we use today but there was a time when people proudly did say they were coloured before they said they were Black. My hesitance towards ‘of colour’ is that it positions the English language as the head, ‘people of colour’ and ‘coloured people’ probably have the exact same translation in other latin or Germanic languages.
There was even a time when it was okay for other immigrants to be ‘politically black’. This was a time when Britain was so hostile to all people from anywhere else in the world that they banded together under a political banner (not to mention that they were all growing up together as well). It would be out of touch for anyone to say that they are politically black today.
It has always been out of touch and disgraceful to say that someone has a ‘funny tinge’.
Similarly, the 1970s was a time when the children of that first generation of migrants from the Caribbean to the UK were breaking out of the ‘West Indianess’ of their parents, sometimes deliberately, but also just by living and growing up where and how they did. They would create a ‘Black British’ identity that focused less on the “back home” of their parents and more on the “Inglan Is A Bitch” of the here and now.
Closer to here and now, we have seen a same rallying around the European Union flag. Many of these people would have had less cause to think about the EU every day and probably would not have had the EU flag across their social media profiles if it wasn’t for the political event of Brexit looming for a few years. Now that it is over most of the flags have disappeared because it is not a political decision to lobby anymore.
This is reflected in the Black press in the UK; the most popular newspapers always had one one foot in the Caribbean until The Voice was launched in 1981 – it was a paper about Black life in England, not West Indian life in England – it meant that the African population who had subsequently come to the UK were also heavily represented in this paper.