My black, island identity

Maxine Williams, writing for London’s Guardian, meditates on her black island identity. Here is her essay.

 When Michelle Obama poked fun at the authenticity of black people from islands I balked. But why does it matter?

In March 2007, I attended an Obama fundraiser in New York. Michelle Obama, in delivering her cute, I-didn’t-expect-to-fall-in-love-with-him speech said, with a purposeful sneer: “They told me his name was Barack Obama and he was from Hawaii and I thought, what kind of a black man comes from an island?” The crowd erupted in laughter, warmed to Michelle, and by extension her doesn’t-quite-fit-in-our-black-box husband. I presumed that at least some of the people in this crowd had either read, studied or at least heard of people such as Derek Walcott, George Padmore, Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire. In principle, then, they knew about the “kind of black men” who come from islands. And yet, they all seemed to share in the joke.

Michelle’s joke was a light-hearted nod to the competition for authenticity among minority groups, but it gnawed at me. I am black, and I am from an island. I’m a lot of other things, too, but faced with that minor slight, an instinctive defensiveness arose in me. My “islandness” and my “blackness” rose swiftly up the hierarchy of characteristics by which I define myself. The reaction stunned me and has made me consider that central issue of self-identification: why and how do we choose to be defined, and why does it matter?

For many African-Americans, claiming the nation of their birth as their own has been critical in establishing strength and confidence in the face of centuries of subjugation. Thanks to American movements such as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s followed by the “black is beautiful” push of the 70s, we can all stand a little taller.

As island identities go, it is interesting that in the UK it is not uncommon to ask someone where they are from and to be told “Yard”, a slang for Jamaica – and that is more than 60 years after the Empire Windrush brought the first West Indian immigrants to Britain. That is despite the fact that the person and their parents have been born in Britain, and have never seen the island they claim is so central to their sense of self.

But the issue of self-identification is, of course, not just a “black thing” nor an “island thing”. In the consultations done by the UK office for national statistics gearing up to the 2011 census, the Welsh assembly government has asked that Welsh be recorded as an ethnic group separate from “white”. Similarly, the Cornish Ethnicity Data Tracking Unit has requested that “Cornish” be a specific tick box.

Neither is this a race or ethnicity thing. Peter Minshall, the renowned “masman”, has posited that it is because of great suffering that certain groups of people have become great artists, art being a vehicle for saying to the world “I exist”. If you ask him who he is, he will say “I am an artist”. Give him a few moments and you may hear “I am a Caribbean”. Artist, worker, woman, athlete, homosexual, Catholic – we choose and we slice and we dice and do as the cavemen did so many years ago, by continually putting marks on the walls as if to say “I am” and to distinguish ourselves from others.

The 1920s and 30s founders of the Negritude movement reclaimed the word black (negre) as a term of pride, a potent act of self-identification. However, Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate, opposed the Negritude movement as self-absorptive and defensive. He famously said: “A tiger does not proclaim his tigerness, he pounces.”

It is interesting that Soyinka uses the tiger as his subject of comparison. A super-predator, a solitary hunter, the tiger is virtually unchallenged at the top of the jungle foodchain. Unfortunately, we humans experience countless and continuous threats to our existence, whether real or imagined, from our own kin. We are beings who struggle to be and who respond to suffering and to victory with a need to say “I am” if only to remind ourselves that we are.

The essay originally appeared at

4 thoughts on “My black, island identity

  1. I have a huge interest on how Black American identity/history has been shaped by Afro-Caribbeans and vice versa. The Harlem Renaissance was greatly impacted by the West Indian wave of the 1910’s Garvey and the UNIA encouraged Black pride and expression through the arts. Black West Indians further impacted Black American identity when you think about facts like Malcolm X’s father being a UNIA spokesman and his mother being from Grenada or Louis Farrakhan’s mother being from St. Kitts and him growing up as a calypso singer or that Hip Hop was created by a Jamaican immigrant living in a Bronx housing project. The list goes on of West Indians all up in Black American history and culture civil rights leaders, actors, and athletics. Yet these contributions hardly go recognized in Black America.

    But I think this is changing as President Obama forced some Black American’s to recognize that there are multiple Black identities within the US and that has been a reality a lot longer then the vast majority has ever thought.

  2. we need our own caribbean identity in America today. I really hope that day come soon…We need to be recognized as west indians of various races, colors, and nationalities today. And our contributions to this country should be known. Men like Colin Powell and Attorney General Eric Holder, should be known caribbean american men, instead of african american.

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