Horizon at Sandy Point

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Being black

I found out I was black, in America. September 1970 - Trinidad was still under curfew after the 1970 "black power" disturbances -  I started university at Hollins College. If you're not white, you black, I was told. I who had never thought seriously about the colour I was, or even my relationships with other colours, was asked to accept that the rainbow is black.

I accepted, and turned my back for a while on the beautiful diversity that was part of my inheritance in Trinidad and Tobago. The truth was that never mind what colour you were - dark blue, red, high yaller, cinnamon or sapodilla - you had the same right to aspire to be heard and respected. In Trinidad, we grew up with words that were more descriptive rather than derogatory: black boy, chinee, coolie, cashew head, mango head, red man, blue-black...  But later, after a few of us had gone out in the world, we would understand how the use of descriptors delivered with negative undertones could hurt and diminish.

September 1970, the same month Jamaican Jeannie, a hybrid Afro-Chinese girl with voluptuous lips and hips had to go to New York to bury her boyfriend shot in inner city violence. I imagined her dressing the wounded and broken body; I must have been told the lurid details but don't remember now how I came to the information.

The same year, the Indian from India via Trinidad arrived at Hollins. With her large curly mane and a wildness not the norm in either Trinidad or India, she attracted the Afro-American boys causing consternation among the sistahs who had only been admitted to this school in the heart of the white south a couple years before I got there. I must have been still vacillating about my blackness, while she wholeheartedly embraced theirs.

I have felt fear in America: walking through certain streets in downtown Washington DC; in small towns in the Carolinas; But I have mainly been welcomed, perhaps as a curiosity. Trinidad, where is that? In the south Pacific? I was encouraged to seek jobs in places where I would fit the "quota" - female, non-white.

These incidents shaped my understanding of America the great; not great enough to find equal places for all her children. Even after, or perhaps especially after, the presidency of Barack Obama, the contestation continues: dispossessed first peoples (native Americans); disenfranchised peoples seeking refuge in the "land of the free, home of the brave" willing it to be their land of opportunity, hope and glory.

The return to Trinidad brought awareness of much more than our multicultural, multiracial harmony. I began to look for what each ethnic group has brought to the mix; to search out the traits - unscientifically sure, using observation and instinct as guides - that each "colour" presented in the rainbow.

I understand the aspirations of hopeful immigrants, those who came with thoughtful purpose, commerce, norms of civilization, enduring relationships with families in the lands left behind.  But I also appreciate the contributions of people shaken viciously from their roots and transplanted here; how their culture came not in jahaaji bundles but in their very being, their genes, their souls. Watch how we move, how our hips sway, how we rejoice, how we sing and dance, how we mourn, how we eat; how we embrace differences and each other; and you'll see Africa in Trinidad whatever colour we may be.

Ancestry and DNA apart - the original ancestor of man we are told came out of Africa - we in Trinidad and Tobago have a lot to be thankful for, in our blackness, in our wholeness.

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