Proud of Our Caribbean Athletes: Deal Wid It
I am unapologetically patriotic to the Caribbean – the region where my grandparents, parents, most of my relatives, closest friends, and I were born. But I love this country in which I live and the opportunities it has afforded me, both to develop in every sphere of my life and to contribute to this nation. I am beyond grateful for the blessings that have flowed along my arduous journey since moving to New York almost a decade ago. It’s a place where I have no relatives, a destination I emigrated to from Barbados with nothing more than a dream to further my education and advance my career as a journalist. I began life anew in this big city with my last penny in my pocket and my haven, the only life I knew – thousands of miles away on a tiny island in the heart of the Caribbean Sea.
Having to stand on my own in a foreign country has made me stronger and more appreciative of the hurdles I have had to overcome to reap my current successes. This experience has also done something else. It has instilled in me a deep passion for this City and by extension country. Interestingly enough, more than ever it has also made me cherish my heritage – the background that honed the spirit, the character and warrior to stay grounded here. The more I embrace US culture, the harder I fight to cling to my Caribbean roots. So as the Games of the XXX Olympiad got underway, like most West Indians on and beyond Caribbean shores, my loyalty was to our athletes.
This past week, as our regional athletes created history in track and field at London 2012, a few of my American friends questioned why I favored the Caribbean over the US. They wanted to know why I was showing support for Caribbean athletes when I live in the United States. It was an issue that surfaced on Facebook after several of my fellow West Indians and I repeatedly congratulated the feats of powerhouse Jamaica, led by the greatest sprinter in history – Usain Bolt. Our cheers also extended to Grenada’s Kirani James on winning that country’s first-ever Olympic medal, taking gold in the 400m. And by the time the curtain closed Saturday night on the last track event with Jamaica smashing the world record in the men’s 400x100m relay, we were also celebrating the Dominican Republic’s win by Felix Sanchez in the 400m hurdles, The Bahamas’ men’s 400x400m relay team victory, Trinidad and Tobago’s men’s 400x400m and 400×100 relay teams’ bronze medals, as well as Keshorn Walcott’s gold – their first in the javelin. Former World Champion Ryan Brathwaite of Barbados was also commended for his fifth place in the 110m hurdles, as was American Christian Taylor’s triple jump victory; his parents and grand-parents are Barbadians.
In response to criticism about “rooting for the Caribbean over the US,” I wrote a status update lauding the exploits of our athletes, (albeit giving credit to a couple of my favorite US athletes) and further encouraged Caribbean unity, citing Jamaica’s motto, “Out of Many, One People.” I specified that while my fellow West Indians and I are thankful for the lives we have here, we couldn’t deny our ancestry – the place where our navel-strings are buried.
One of my Facebook friends responded. In part, she said, “It is because of black Americans’ sacrifice and struggle that black Caribbeans started being more accepted in this country. Instead of thanking their black brothers and sisters here in the U.S., what I hear from many Caribbean people’s mouths is ridicule of us—and for what? I have always seen black Americans and black Caribbeans as essentially the SAME people—Africans who come here from the continent too. But all the immigrant blacks’ disrespect toward African Americans, and by that I mean black people who were born here and whose ancestry is here, needs to stop!” End quote.
I didn’t call her out on “Caribbeans” which is the equivalent to calling citizens of the US, “Americas.” But anyone who knows me, knows I could not leave her “sweeping generalization” to describe it mildly, untouched. The problem is, I didn’t know where to start with unpacking her statement and as we say in Barbados, “if tuh tell she bout she granmuurrrh.”
Without a second thought, this was my response to her:
“I’m sorry that has been your experience. Unfortunately, I can’t relate to it, be it either that my ‘life’ in the US only began about decade ago or perhaps it’s the circles within which I interact. My network of blacks here comprises those from the US, all regions of Africa and obviously the Caribbean.
The West Indians who make up that group, like me tend to focus more on the achievements and contributions of our people here. While, yes we thrive on a foundation built by black Americans and for that we are grateful, all that we have and continue do is not all credit to the black American. The main migration or rather emigration of Caribbean people here began about 60 years ago, at a key time in the progress of blacks in the US – the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. American blacks alone did not fight this. Many West Indians played an integral role in helping to pave this path, as did many non-blacks.
Sure, I’m fully cognizant and eternally thankful for the struggles of the American blacks that helped to ensure certain opportunities here for me. As I’m sure so are many of my fellow West Indians. But still, nothing was handed to us. Many of us, like the ‘traditional immigrant’ come here and work our azzes off.
A vast majority of us come here for educational opportunities – like other international students across the globe. And while, perhaps these academic journeys might have been made easier through the historical stance of the James Merediths of this country, again this education is not handed to us. When one looks at the statistics, among the highest percentages of blacks in Ivy League schools are from the Caribbean, notably Jamaica. We are helping to raise the profiles of these academic institutions and by extension contributing to this nation – with international students being the fifth/sixth highest income generator in the United States.
All that said, what I have noticed is that no one ridicules the black American more than the black American. I have too often seen a lack of pride in their history and people among black Americans. Here, I’ll use current examples and include the Olympics. While the world was watching and admiring Gabby Douglas’ feats in gymnastics, black Americans were talking about her hair. On my Facebook and Twitter are people from at least 50 different countries. The non-blacks and non-Americans, like Gabby, were clueless about any issue with her hair. All of the conversations I saw about her hair was from black Americans, albeit that many of them also praised her talents. Serena’s crip-walking after winning her singles’ gold – again the criticism was led by black Americans.
On the contrary, Asafa Powell once again disappointed on a big day, and all I saw across my feeds by not just Jamaicans, but by the wider Caribbean (outside of the hilarious cartoons) was nothing but love for him. At least as a region, we undoubtedly show pride in our heritage.
In addition to the Ivy League education I had here, I also did undergrad in the US and I was fascinated by how other international students and I were acing all of our American History classes and on issues such as slavery/ paternalism, the civil rights (and even in black theater classes) where we were knowledgeable, many of my black American classmates were clueless and often asked us how we knew these things. Too many of them took little pride in knowing their own stories.
So that brings me full-circle to your point. There can be no justification for the experience about which you spoke. I too see the Caribbean Diaspora as part and parcel of the black American experience. I see us as ‘one people’ and consider my black American friends as part of my ‘US family.’ But pride, uplifting and embracing the black American (and their achievements) must first start with and be demonstrated by the black American. If as a people black Americans don’t project that, how do they expect others to respect and ‘big them up?’” End quote.
Perhaps, that was an emotional rant, but I was stating facts, although I must make it clear that many of my black American friends are keenly aware of and proud of their history. And so too are my Caribbean friends and I. Apart from Haiti (and the DR), our oldest nations are Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago both celebrating 50 years of independence this month. And apart from Barbados which was classified “Developed” in 2010 according to the United Nations Human Development Index, the rest of our islands are considered “Developing Nations.” Many of our athletes come from the most humble beginnings, train on home soil (sometimes lacking key resources) and overcome financial struggles to compete against the most powerful countries. Their efforts inspire, unite and elevate a region, and fill our hearts with pride. So no matter whom it offends, I will not be silenced in singing their praises – that does not negate my for love for the US. Our athletes have shown the world, “wi likkle but wi tallawah!”
~ I Keep it Irie ~