The Birth of the new West Indian Nationalism
August 6, 2007
I’m not quite sure why I felt it necessary to hang one of those rear view mirror flags in my car broadcasting that I was from Trinidad and Tobago. But I did, as soon as I could get my hands on one. Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to be mistaken for someone else. No one wants to admit this out loud but as open-minded and well read as I like to think I am, subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I stopped short though, of hanging those painted TnT cd’s (you know the glare from the sun is killer), or getting the steering wheel covers or the car seat covers in the red, white and black. As tempting as they might all appear.
Now all this island representation is a far cry from those tales you heard of people’s experiences with painful 80s and early 90s migration stories where anyone with an accent was automatically a Jamaican (which was fine if you were actually one but you know island people, ever defensive about being cast as the wrong islander). Or people who tried in vain to hide being Haitian or Barbadian or whomever they were. It was not uncommon to hear tales of Haitian kids being singled out and beat up in New York public schools back then. Or like a good friend of mine who migrated with her family to Miami in the early nineties often tells me that you couldn’t find a person who knew where Trinidad was then in her high school. Or cared to know.
Assimilation for some people, seemed to be a forced necessity, especially if you ended up in a place with no community to connect to, as another friend of mine did leaving Trinidad for the mid-west of America with her family. Her little sister (who is a born Trini) consequently hates all things Trinidadian and blossomed into a proper American cheer-leader type who dates preppy boys with popped collars. Things were different then. There was rampant ethnic and cultural discord everywhere and just sounding different made you a target and you stuck out like a sore thumb. Even for my friend in South Miami; yes, it might have been Miami in the 90s but it’s not like they were Cuban.
Culture can be all relative though, because one of the best friends I met in college is a half-Trini, half-Mexican girl, fluent in Spanish, Trini dialect and wining, raised in America all her life. Our undergrad days found us trading old Lord Kitchener records (hers not even mine) and huddled over discussions about the legacy of colonialism, C.L.R James, Michael Anthony and the rampant West Indian connections in Black American history. (For the record, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan among others, all have West Indian connections). She is one of the most Trini people I know of and it goes way past book smarts or the taste of a chubby (which might just be our most world famous culinary export according to some public opinion). She understands our culture, really understands it and embodies it in the way that any “true” Trini (if you will) does.
I have come to the conclusion though that now is a pretty good time to be from another culture in the United States. I have decided that there is a link between this and the emergence of all this flag waving West Indian national pride that you see everywhere in recent times. Even from people who have not even set foot on any island. Maybe though, their mom or their grandma is from somewhere and they really like to eat roti. But it’s not just West Indians. I live in Florida and you don’t have to listen for the hard pong of a reggaeton base rhythm to know that a boricua is passing by. Why? Cause there’s the decal of the Puerto-Rican boy pissing at the back of the tinted glass.
Furthermore, those people I run into who enthusiastically tell me that they have been to Trinidad for Carnival every year but have never gone at any other time of year. Doesn’t impress me much and yes, there’s more to TnT than Carnival. No shit. I realize that I am at the risk of sounding like one of those culture nazis and I might end up accosting random people at North American Caribbean carnivals in a surly voice going, “excuse me, but I need to check if you are properly qualified to rep the red, white and black. What kind of passport do you hold? Can you recite the National Pledge?” How exactly does one qualify Trinbagonian-ness, you think? Does any of this matter?
So my Dad was visiting me and noticed a girl who has a Trinidad and Tobago flag draped on her banister in my building and proceeded to ask me if I didn’t lime with her. I had to let him know that she wasn’t really from Trinidad and we had this exchange one day in the parking lot along the lines of, “oh so you’re from Trinidad?” (Me, excitedly) “No, but my mother is, I really want to go there one day though,” (her, somewhat subdued). Insert awkward pause here. The thing is I was so excited initially when I saw her in her car with her flag next to mine on her rear view mirror and I felt bothered because I was passing judgements of authenticity on people silently in my head and I try not to ever do that but–it happens.
Plus with the emergence of a slew of articles, polls and studies done on the rising concern of “intra-cultural” conflict within the changing face of American society (do some looking around and I am sure you will easily find stuff), I’ve been thinking about it a lot more. The fact that there is underlying tension slowly building in intensity between the different groups of the people of the African Diaspora in the US and less unity. I’ve said it already to some friends of mine and I predict that it will be the next big “race issue.” It’s funny too because this visible West Indian national pride comes hot on the heels of accusations that West Indians are soaking up opportunities meant for African-Americans while subconsciously (or quite obviously) being condescending toward them. And since you can’t tell by looking at us what kind of non-white person we might be, isn’t all the flag waving and culture propagation just another way of setting ourselves apart from them?
And I’m here to admit, that people do think like that and it sucks. But lots of things suck in life sometimes. Like when I run into Trinis of a certain ilk shall we say, happily attending HBCUs here in the States, I think it’s funny and sad cause these are people who do not even consider themselves “black” in Trinidad but what the hell, it’s a full ride scholarship right? You know, the kinds of Trinis who groan and fret about how all the Black Americans in their school are so preoccupied with race. Well I would be too if I was them (hell, I am most days). Institutionalized racism is very much alive and kicking in America. I have a problem with that. Ultimately though, we’re all a lot more alike than different. It would be nice to bridge the growing gulf between the many kinds of black people and we should all be concerned with the plight of others within this global village in which we live.
But back to my flag, yeah I liked the idea of showing off my cultural otherness. People on the road know that I’m not just another American negro, I’m a Trini one so they better recognize. Yes I realize that negro is no longer pc. But really, I realize that on some level, that is what happens with us, because me hanging a flag in my car has about as much to do with Trinidad and Tobago as eating spaghetti does with being Italian. It’s so much more complicated and multi-faceted than that. I also hear a lot of the things that West Indians of color say about African-Americans and vice verse and there are a lot of issues and rifts that need to be addressed on both sides. Sometimes I cringe at the way my people think (on both sides) and as for myself, I am constantly trying to shift my thinking and rearrange my thoughts on the issues of culture and identity within the United States and what this all means. In the meantime, I think I will hold off on the “I love Trinidad and Tobago” bumper sticker that I actually pondered about putting at the back of my car. I don’t really need it cause trust me, my car is Trinified enough as it is already.