Dear Caribbean: Thank you for My Big Head
:: by A. Naomi Jackson ::
Artwork: Night Beach by Folasade
The past year has found me in love and considering the implications of being in an intercultural relationship with another black person. Here I was explaining why my parents so scorned the moment my sister and I dared leave their good-good house to pay somebody else’ mortgage, bringing home pieces of black cake for her to taste, wondering why ten years after coming out to my folks, introducing them to my girlfriends was still so difficult. This summer, I gave my honey a copy of Jamaica Kincaid’s short story, “Girl,” to try to explain the kind of girl I was raised up to be. Recently, she called me after watching a rerun of the In Living Color comedy sketch, “Hey Mon,” the 90s black comedic routine that engrained the image of West Indian thrift and neurotic work ethic (“You only have one job?”) on the American imagination. Finally, she said, she understood why I had such a hard time quitting the part-time job I had no business taking on in the first place.
The humor of “Hey Mon” belies the insidious ways that black Americans have been pitted against West Indians since they began arriving in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, settling in Harlem and Brooklyn and earning a reputation for being industrious, insular, and proud. Literature and history have recorded both this battle, and the truth underlying the ways Caribbean folks approach work. I still remember the fight that erupted in Rosa Guy’s novel The Friends when one of the Caribbean characters is called a “coconut,” a derogatory term that I’ve since reclaimed. And a writer friend reminded me that the husband in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones is derided for being lazy because he only has one terrible job. The tension between these two groups is a precursor, I believe, to more contemporary struggles pitting recently arrived workers from Latin America against African-American workers.
I grew up in Flatbush and Crown Heights in the 1980s and 1990s, neighborhoods that were then home to two distinct groups of outsiders. If you blinked you’d suddenly find yourself transported from the sights and sounds of West Indian America to the beating heart of Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community. I joked then that the only African-Americans I knew were on television, and black folks were as familiar with the public rituals of Friday prayers and Shabbat as the annual West Indian Day parade. We didn’t always coexist peacefully, as the Crown Heights riots, and other events will attest to. But at the same time that we envied the way Hasidim built their own yeshivas and synagogues, West Indian families like mine packed up several adults and children in small apartments in order to build a financial bulwark against an America we believed we could ascend in as long as we worked hard enough. I’d argue that there were more similarities in terms of prizing self-reliance and clannishness than either of these two communities might admit.
As a young person, I bristled against my parents’ admonishments not to become like African-Americans, who they degraded as slack, lazy, and completely out of order, pregnant as teenagers, drug users and dealers, etc. Never mind the hypocrisy that some of those same social ills showed up in our own family. I thought their statements were problematic at best, and I still do. Through it all, I heeded their lessons of self-sacrifice, discipline, and perseverance. And I eventually adopted their mantra of West Indian exceptionality alongside a commitment to solidarity with black Americans and other black people from the African diaspora. I believe that my West Indian superiority complex (along with healthy doses of luck and privilege) has allowed me to succeed in predominantly white school and work environments where psychic warfare is waged in both subtle and overt ways to convince me and other black students, workers, writers, that we are somehow less than our white peers.
Then came along the New York Times, that bastion of American cultural and political imperialism I read every weekend, telling me that the beliefs my parents inculcated in me were actually essential to my success, a kind of triple threat recipe for resilience according to the authors whose research was funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, a social science think tank where I once worked. So what’s the magic recipe, according to them? A superiority complex, an inferiority complex (or more accurately, a compulsion to prove oneself), and impulse control.
My most intimate relationships have been a mirror to interrogate my most deeply held beliefs and a gentle prod towards making smarter choices. The current one has forced me to question why, for example, I would start a part-time job in the middle of finishing the last, most stressful round of edits to my novel. I’m learning too, about how to congratulate myself on a job well done before barreling on to the next project, and enjoying small indulgences, like taking a taxi to the airport for an early morning flight rather than slogging it out on public transportation to save a few dollars.
I’d like to believe that I can hang onto the myths of superiority (with folks like Usain Bolt, Shelly Ann Fraser, and Ri Ri on the team, it’s hard to imagine letting this go anytime soon), the drive to prove myself, and the discipline to work hard even when no one’s watching. And yet I also recognize that one person’s hard work and self-sufficiency is not nearly enough in the face of systematic discrimination that has haunted black people and stymies our progress still.
Is there a way then, to take the successful bits, live in solidarity with our black sisters and brothers, loving them, and leaving the more problematic bits of our cultural superiority complexity behind? I’m not sure. For now, I’ll enjoy the early morning taxis, and the tail end of the part-time job I “quit” two months ago.
This piece is published on Groundation Grenada as part of Code Red’s Blog Carnival, an invite for bloggers to write on the theme “To the Caribbean, With Love” this month!
A. Naomi Jackson is the 2013-2014 ArtsEdge resident at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House. She studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded the Maytag Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction to complete her first novel. Jackson traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, where she received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. A graduate of Williams College, her work has appeared in brilliant corners, The Encyclopedia Project, The Caribbean Writer, and Sable. Her short story, “Ladies” was the winner of the 2012 BLOOM chapbook contest. She has been a resident at Hedgebrook and Vermont Studio Center and received the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker scholarship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She co-founded the Tongues Afire creative writing workshop at the Audre Lorde Project in Brooklyn in 2006. (Photo credit: Lola Flash)