Race Consciousness across the Diasporic Continuum
Race Consciousness across the Diasporic Continuum
In Elizabeth Nunez’s novel Boundaries, three sentences appear midway through the text that encapsulate one of the major themes on which this thought provoking work of fiction has been constructed: “Until she reminds herself that she does not share Paula’s pessimism, her friend’s warning has made her uneasy. Paula has long decided that the bridge between immigrants and Americans born in America is a wobbly one. You can fall off any time America wants to shake it, she claims.” 1
This is the novel’s protagonist, Anna Sinclair, a Trinidadian-born urban professional who resides in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. As the sequel to Anna In Between, Boundaries seamlessly continues an exploration of the expectations, foibles, and disappointments of West Indian immigrants as they struggle to assimilate among a populace that looks like them but seemingly has no real sense about them.
One can assume Ms. Nunez, a native Trinidadian, was speaking from experience in her May 2012 sx salon essay, when relating Anna’s difficulties in negotiating “the gap” that “exists on either side of the hyphen” of her Caribbean-American identity.2 Curious and intrigued by the implications of this statement, I would imagine that the effort to avoid the dead space that yawns around that connector can be a challenge for Americans as well. Why the disconnect, and how does one’s cultural orientation influence how one perceives or attempts to navigate the challenges it presents? In searching for answers I was struck not only by what I found; equally significant to the discovery was the specificity of where.
Strictly Black and White: The American Perspective
In addition to Ms. Nunez’s work, I have encountered additional examples of literature rendered from a Caribbean perspective that address this question of “the gap.” But what about stories presented from the black American experience? What interpretations do they provide about race consciousness? This essay is not predicated on an exhaustive list, but some interesting conclusions can be drawn about the larger body of work these examples represent. Much of what has been written about race and social consciousness within the black American literary tradition is heavily skewed toward a critique of blackness versus whiteness, or, more specifically, of the burdens placed on those differentiated by the marker of their darker skin within a system of social stratification that persecutes the very idea of their pigmentation. Forced to view themselves through the insidious filter of racial prejudice, generations of blacks in America have been forced to meet the persistent challenge of trying to reconcile dual aspects of their identity: a daily struggle for self-affirmation in the face of repeated, negative messages to the contrary. W. E. B. Du Bois referred to this unbalanced state of mind as double consciousness, a concept introduced in his seminal piece The Souls of Black Folk.3
A closer look at the pantheon of AFAM literature reveals numerous essays, poems, short stories, and novels that effectively address this crucible of black/white social interaction. From Hughes to Ellison to Baldwin and beyond, black American authors have used the critical lens of race and politics to lay the foundation for a robust literary tradition that will influence generations of future writers for years to come. But as it relates to an exploration of relationships between West Indians and their American cousins, black Americans tend not to see the world through this particular lens and so less (if any) time is spent questioning this dynamic with an eye toward literary expression. Caribbean themes and characters certainly appear in African American stories, but to what extent have they been used as a specific device for social introspection? In Tar Baby, for example, Toni Morrison gives us Jadine, Son, and an island in the Caribbean, but the core issues affecting the fragile relationship between the two main characters center more on gender, color, and class. The novel uses (to great effect) the tropical locale as a lush and colorful accessory to establish an important aspect of its narrative physicality, but no sustained effort is made to either challenge or explore the cultural distinctions that may have existed between the island’s original residents and the Americans who settled among them.4
Walter Mosley takes things one step further in his Easy Rawlins series, while cultivating the relationship between the self-made private detective and his girlfriend, Bonnie Shay. Easy and Bonnie encounter many challenges over the course of several novels, but never in the context of specific difficulties caused by differences in their cultural backgrounds. In Mosley’s latest installment, Little Green, we are reminded of Bonnie’s formal, polished demeanor, her “thrilling” Guyanese lilt and proclivity for English Breakfast with Honey, but we learn nothing more about how Easy’s outlook on life and the world around him (as shaped by his formative years growing up in Houston’s Fifth Ward) might possibly contrast with Bonnie’s perspective as someone who was born in French Guyana. This is not to suggest that the reader should automatically assume that problems would exist, but it would be interesting to consider the possibilities.5
Eric Jerome Dickey is another American author who has experimented with Caribbean characterizations as a device to add depth and multicultural appeal to his novels. In Chasing Destiny, a nasty relationship triangle ensues between Carmen, Keith, and Billie. Carmen (Keith’s soon-to-be ex) is Jamaican American, and Dickey conducts an exploration of her character amid the backdrop of her West Indian heritage. Accents and snippets of Patois flavor the dialogue, which in turn allows us to glimpse the cultural legacy that shapes Carmen’s personality. But with respect to the factors that led to Keith’s decision to move out and subsequently file for divorce, Dickey could just as easily have decided that Carmen’s family would be from Cleveland or Detroit. The fact that they are Jamaican does not materially alter the nature of the conflict nor does it provoke us with new insights into how a cultural disconnect between the American Keith and Jamaican Carmen might theoretically have contributed to the strain on their marriage.6
An Affinity for Cultural Nuance: The Caribbean Perspective
From the preceding examples we can see a pattern beginning to emerge—one that frankly strikes me as a missed opportunity to re-frame or augment the discussion. Meanwhile, Caribbean authors—presumably because of an increased sensitivity to the issue—seem more inclined to draw out these cultural distinctions. In Colin Channer’s Waiting in Vain, the character of Lewis is introduced early on as a kind of token Yankee whose social circle situates him among a group of successful, urban Caribbean professionals. By all accounts, Lewis has done well for himself, but as one who comes across as selfish and culturally myopic, he embodies the stereotypical caricature of the “ugly American”: presumed sense of superiority, determined to win at any cost, and dismissive of anyone or anything not like him. He is generally regarded a “condescending prick,” but his West Indian girlfriend Sylvia is more charitable in explaining his shortcomings when she describes him as having tastes that are “tethered to jazz and R&B, with everything else being intolerable or at best, inoffensive.”7 Lewis lacks an appreciation for Trenchtown Bass and Lavantille Pan. He would not be able to understand Sylvia’s occasional craving for cornmeal porridge and West Indian jokes would have to be spoon-fed to him, thus losing their potency during the laborious explanation. Lewis is unsavory on many levels, so it is not surprising that he and Sylvia have relationship issues. But Channer does not rely on this fact alone to make his case. Instead, he opens up a window into the disconnectedness between them and opines via dialogue and plot on how their cultural incompatibility has exacerbated their problems.
In her fifth novel, Grace, Elizabeth Nunez plunges deeper into the well of immigrant angst by dissecting the relationship between Trinidadian-born Justin and his black American wife, Sally. Lurking just beneath the surface of this crumbling relationship is Justin’s worsening fear that the predictable, steady existence he has carved out for his wife and child may no longer be sufficient to sustain them. Sally is a free spirited poet, whereas Justin appreciates order and convention. He is a husband, father, English professor, and Park Slope property owner. What more could he ask for? And what more could Sally need than what he has provided? The manifestation of Sally’s dissatisfaction terrifies him and through his efforts to save the marriage, Nunez crafts several poignant scenes that uncover the multiple dimensions of Justin’s primary concern: that a gap is widening between him and his wife because of the distinctly different ways they view the world and, by extension, their marriage. In one scene, Justin is arguing with Anna, Sally’s best friend. Justin is threatened by Anna’s relationship with Sally and resents her intrusion into his marriage. He believes life was intended to be hard; that there are no easy solutions, and those who believe otherwise subscribe to an illusion he refers to as “American optimistic bullshit.”8 When Anna responds that optimism is in fact what has made America great, Justin’s retort is that it is the hard work of the immigrant that allows Americans to view the world through the filter of such hopeful expectations. In another scene, Justin is having tea with his mother when he asks if she believes they are really so different from Americans—or, more specifically, whether they are inherently pessimistic because of a cultural history predicated on hardship and struggle. Here again, the author has made deliberate use of the cultural differences between the characters to draw attention to the gap, an invitation for the reader to explore the psyche of the Caribbean American immigrant and their specific feelings about the unique (and sometimes difficult) American spaces they have come to inhabit.
An even more compelling example can be found in Andrea Levy’s Small Island. Set in Kingston and London during and just after World War II, it traces the lives of Britons and their new West Indian neighbors, recently settled in the UK after arriving on the Empire Windrush. In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, Gilbert—a Jamaican RAF volunteer stationed in the UK—enters the cinema and proceeds to sit down in the company of his British friend Queenie. Incensed by Gilbert’s refusal to honor the usher’s request to move to another section, a group of white American soldiers voice their displeasure by strongly suggesting that he relocate to one of the available back rows. In the face of this challenge, Gilbert ignores the soldiers and tells the usher in so many words that (a) he isn’t a black American, (b) they are not in America, and (c) he is free to sit wherever he damn well pleased. Gilbert decries the injustice of such conditions being placed on anyone, but what’s telling is his eagerness to explain why they especially do not pertain to him. Meanwhile, a group of black American GIs (who just happen to be seated in the back of the theater), shift uncomfortably in response to the commotion, solidarity evident in their embrace of Gilbert’s defense. Gilbert is frustrated by the less than hospitable treatment he receives at the hands of his fellow commonwealth citizens, but on the specific issue of American-style segregation, he was never psychologically invested in the idea, although he is certainly aware of it—so much so that he goes out of his way to establish himself as a distinct other.9
Skin Tone and Struggle versus Culture and National Pride
This need for separation suggests that Gilbert considers himself to be above it all, reacting with outrage over having been subjected to such an indignity in the first place. More than any other, this scene serves as a metaphor for highlighting the pockets of misunderstanding that sometimes manifest across segments of the (black) American and West Indian social continuum . . . and it is here that I have chosen to focus on the idea of West Indian blackness in the larger context of how it is generally regarded in America, because therein lies the root of the problem: To the white soldiers, Gilbert was a black man sitting in the white section and when he refused to move, he became an uncooperative Nigger. From Gilbert’s perspective, he was a Jamaican, not a black American, and therefore exempt from having the whims of Jim Crow cultural interpretation forced upon him. As for the black American soldiers, a brother was being disrespected by a group of white men and their first instinct was to mobilize in his defense. That he was Jamaican was of no consequence. He was a black man being threatened and marginalized by white men. In responding to the theater’s discriminatory treatment, Gilbert has no trouble advocating for his rights, yet at the same time seems reluctant to attach himself to collective of the oppressed. In fact, as the scene progresses to its conclusion, he still clings to the notion that he is fundamentally separate and apart.
Black Americans do not conspire to control or influence the attitudes of their brothers and sisters across the diaspora, but the color-saturated filter through which they have come to perceive their environment is the direct result of an ongoing battle with the intellectual and emotional contradictions imposed by double consciousness. It is less a question of refusing to acknowledge the gap than it is a failure to recognize that one exists in the first place. West Indians, in contrast, are not similarly conflicted about their cultural identities, but they can be challenged by a limited set of options for self-expression within the black American cultural milieu. Those who are unwilling or incapable of squeezing their square Caribbean selves into the standard, round American hole are relegated to the cultural margins, with the added burden that their Caribbean advocacy may be interpreted as combative or worse, contemptuous and dismissive. It’s no surprise, then, that characters and the literary worlds they inhabit would be reflective of this reality.
But while colonization and slavery have affected us in distinct ways, I would suggest that American and Caribbean blacks have much more in common than not. Like immigrants in their own country, American blacks who migrated from the rural, agricultural communities of the South to the larger population centers of the Upper Midwest and both coasts were impacted by factors not unlike those that influenced Caribbean families to travel in large numbers to these shores. The latter’s may have been longer, more complicated journeys, involving interminable waits for sponsorship and visas, but in both instances the motivations were the same: people picking up roots in one place and traveling to another in search of something they perceived as being better. Having survived the horrors of the Middle Passage, some of our ancestors may have remained in Bridgetown or Port-au-Prince, but others “sailed” farther north before dropping anchor at New Orleans and Charleston. They picked cotton and chopped sugar cane, planted callaloo and learned to wait for the first frost to sweeten up their collards. Though culturally distinct, American and West Indian blackness is cut from the same swath of ancestral, African cloth, and if we take the time to pay close enough attention, we might just discover that the gap doesn’t yawn as wide as we originally thought.
Bernard James is a mathematician and software engineer who one day finally decided to apply his technical writing skills to his first true love of literary fiction. He currently resides in Minneapolis where he’s busy working on Scotch Bonnet, the last installment in his Sangster Fi’ Manley trilogy.
1 Elizabeth Nunez, Boundaries (New York: Akashic, 2011), 90.
2 Elizabeth Nunez, “The Two Anna Novels: A Response,” sx salon 9, May 2012, para. 7, smallaxe.net/wordpress3/discussions/2012/05/28/the-two-anna-novels-a-response/.
3 W. E. B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903).
4 Toni Morrison, Tar Baby (New York: Penguin Group, 1981).
5 Walter Mosley, Little Green (New York: Random House, 2013).
6 Eric Jerome Dickey, Chasing Destiny (New York: Penguin Group, 2006).
7 Colin Channer, Waiting in Vain (New York: One World/Ballantine, 1998), 25, 68.
8 Elizabeth Nunez, Grace (New York: Random House, 2009), 125.
9 Andrea Levy, Small Island (Surrey, UK: Picador, 2010).