In this NBC article, Victoria Brown writes about Caribbean immigrants in New York and how, through shared histories and struggles, “the space between ‘us’ as West Indians and ‘them’ as African Americans” collapses. Here are excerpts; read the full article in the link below:
I listened with fascination as my Jamaican immigrant student enumerated the ways West Indians were superior to African Americans. Children from the Caribbean went to better primary schools, didn’t skip classes, had parents who taught them manners, and had more respect for authority and their elders. West Indians, she said, were willing to work hard and African Americans were lazy; more than anything, she couldn’t stand being mistaken for a black American.
I let her have her litany, a part of me horrified to realize that at an earlier point in my immigrant journey I had shared some of her frustrations of belonging to an invisible minority. This was over a decade ago not long after I’d begun teaching at LaGuardia Community College, a CUNY campus nicknamed “The World’s Community College” for its hyper-diverse student population.
Curious, I asked what else about dark skin might suggest someone was African American? Responses ranged from wearing low-slung jeans and baseball caps, to dropping out of high school, and hanging out on the corner.
While the majority of my immigrant students could weigh in on why they considered African Americans less successful, Caribbean immigrants in particular were at pains to define themselves as separate from native born African Americans. Most discouraging was their de facto confidence that American blacks made poor decisions, and their lack of criticism of undeserved racist stereotyping.
I taught writing but felt my students needed an historical context to understand how black struggle and resistance had made so many of their immigrant aspirations, including a post-secondary education, possible. Indeed, how they came to have a black, immigrant woman as their professor.
By the second generation many black immigrants find they have become black Americans. The clipped cadences and other linguistic markers that once identified their parents as foreign have faded.
Our text, Elizabeth Nunez’s “Beyond the Limbo Silence,” was set during the height of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. In the book, a Trinidadian student is one of only three black women at an all-girls college and she gradually awakens to the reality of American race relations and her place in the struggle.
We also watched several episodes of the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize” with its unflinching images of Southern terror and racism against African Americans. While almost all the students knew of Dr. Martin Luther King and most of Rosa Parks, not many knew the West Indian backgrounds of civil-rights era activists like Stokely Carmichael and Malcom X.
I hoped to show an unbroken history of cooperation between Caribbean immigrants and African Americans reaching back to Marcus Garvey, examples of leaders who used their pre-immigrant background in black dominated societies as a strength to demand racial equality rather than as social advantage over African Americans. Especially because any immigrant advantage quickly fades. [. . .]