26 Oct Downplay my Africanness for Harmony? No Thanks.
This is a guest blog by a brilliant, outspoken, passionate friend of mine, Elysse Marcellin. This is her take on an interview published in the Trinidad Guardian by Dr. Kim Johnson, an accomplished Trinidadian journalist, author, researcher who is recognised as the foremost steelpan historian in Trinidad & Tobago.[
A couple weeks ago , I sat with my partner in a bar, where an intoxicated man decided to engage her in barrage of questions. “What’s your name?” started off the interrogation. “Stephanie,” she replied.
Looking at her brown skin, long locked hair coupled with her tattoos, and piercings, he retorted “I didn’t expect that. That’s good!” He complimented her mother’s intelligence for having named her something other than “Shaniqua, or Kemanka, or something like that”. He then asked me my name. “Elysse,” I replied. And again, he commented on how intelligent my parents were for having named me something “sensible”, and not something “ridiculous like Shanaka or La Toya”.
Slightly irritated but keeping my cool, I asked if he didn’t think his assumptions were indicative of some stereotypical racial associations, which he denied. I told him I disagreed with his insinuation that a person’s name – the first and last thing with which a person will identify – could be ‘ridiculous’, and that it was not something to which I subscribed. This is because of the low standards that colonialism has set for names that are not European, and the fundamentally flawed philosophy that a name should be used to denote some type of prestige or privilege. So, while reading an interview with Dr. Kim Johnson (click here to read) the night after this interaction, I was perhaps primed to recognise the underlying racial implications of his outlooks and iterations.
I understand Dr. Johnson’s point in the larger context: We should be able to recognise and appreciate the “cultural DNA” that binds us as a people rather than focus solely on how our “biological DNA” connects us.
And I think this is a valid point, but I also think his responses are reflective of his privilege as a light skinned mixed man. In saying that we should appreciate even our Europeanness, he articulates a very limited understanding of the experiences of the majority of the population. It is a privilege of many non-Afro people to be able to claim several, and even no, identities. Ascending the hierarchical Whiteness Ladder and moving further away from Africanness poses a person for a greater range of flexibility and maneuverability within a variety of social spheres. For Stephanie and I, two Afro identifying but obviously European mixed race women, the intoxicated man from the bar felt compelled to cast aspersions around our Blackness. Our reality, to him, was not compliant with the stereotypes he used to identify us. We were not allowed to inhabit multiple identities as white/European people are able to do but were pigeon-holed into a stereotype of ‘just another black girl’ whose parents were probably dumb enough to give us Black names.
In fact, in the context of Dr. Johnson’s words, I would argue that the lighter one’s skin, the easier it is to appreciate and even identify with Europeanness, because it isn’t outrightly stricken from their existence. Dark skinned Afro people are not afforded that ‘luxury’ of identifying with ‘Europeanness’.
Regardless of the extent to which we have attained the types of successes that are highest regarded in European culture, our Africanness (read: blackness) is always what is perceived by society. We can never escape our skin. Though Europeans are able to comfortably appropriate Africanness at their whim, Africans are only ever allowed to perform certain aspects of Europeanness, as we were forcibly taught to do, without ever claiming it as our own.
Worse yet, I feel that identifying with this Europeanness, or ‘whiteness’ – as Johnson’s African friend’s father called it – that Caribbean people perform, reinforces some highly toxic colonial standards.
To identify with this ‘whiteness’, especially in light of the movement by certain sects of Caribbean peoples to actively reject it, is to consider it a valid part of our existence. It suggests that this ‘whiteness’ is performed in a voluntary and conscious fashion, and ignores the fact it is the descended and visible evidence of our ancestors’ torture.
For instance, Dr. Johnson’s articulation that the pan is “tuned to the European scale” reflects a colonial narrative, and is arguably a myth. We have been taught to compare our Trinidadian culture to the Europeans’, and to even believe ours to be largely descended from theirs. But, with respect to the pan, there is evidence that almost every single ‘European’ instrument (for example the guitar and violin) and style of music originated in Africa. Many varieties of musical scales and instruments existed in ancient Africa, and were in fact stolen by European peoples during their conquests, or wiped out of African history. Indeed, to this very day white people are STILL stealing our culture and inventions (re: current pop culture).
So, it is quite difficult to credit Europeans with much of what they are currently credited for, since much of their privilege was not only stolen, but also built upon pre-existing structures and inventions. (The system of education is another profound example, with the first university founded in Africa over 100 centuries ago, before Europe learned how to crawl). Another notion that I found became manifest in Johnson’s contributions is that identifying with our roots is somehow the reason for our divisiveness, which is highly problematic and untrue. Indian and African people on the continent were highly integrated long before Europeans’ tyranny. It is their reign that introduced and sustained much of the classism, colourism and racism that is perpetuated today. African peoples even had trade routes with American Indian people long before slavery.
In essence: We existed largely harmoniously until the European slave trade came into existence. Of course there were slavers and forms of human trade previously on each of the continents, but the European slave trade has had the worst and most significant impact historically, and in a modern context.
So, while I can appreciate the sentiment of shedding our ancestral cloaks in the name of togetherness, it is propagated by the very torment that brought us here. We never previously needed to deny our identities or adopt ones that were not indigenous to us to coexist. We have, however, been sufficiently trained to believe that our differences equate to some fundamental prestige or lack thereof. This is something we must deny vehemently.
We must be free to adopt whichever identity feels most comfortable to us.
To identify with one’s Europeanness should come from a place of internal appreciation, and not from a faulty cultural narrative that it is somehow important to us.
What we must do is dismantle the systems that have allowed us to continue valuing people on their Europeanness.
We must instead move past viewing difference as a curse. We must be able to appreciate the diversity of the human condition as it manifests through cultural retentions, and even participate in the acknowledgment and celebration of these traditions, though they may not be our own. This, I believe, is more important than claiming to own something you are not/do not own (which is an ironically the European thing to do).