“This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years...” Barrack Obama, ‘A More Perfect Union’, March 2008 This past year, I have been glued to US cable news, following the presidential campaign and Barack Obama’s election. During the primaries, I was struck by the debates surrounding Barrack Obama and his relationship to his pastor Jeremiah Wright which Obama handled so deftly and conclusively severing his relationship because of his pastor’s controversial sermons. Even so, while the debate was still raging, I came to see that its unfolding narrative had parallels in the Caribbean. You see the people of the Caribbean share with African Americans a similar history related to slavery, violence and racial discrimination because we are all part of the same black Diaspora. Our racial identities and sense of 'blackness' follow a similar path traced from the western coastlines of Africa, through to the auction blocks and plantations of the New World.
In the same way that a Pentecostal Christian theology of redemption and hope has helped to sustain black America's deep spiritual and political convictions; in the Caribbean, our artists have shaped their ideas about blackness within a spiritual, artistic and cultural life outside of the mainstream that often runs counter to institutionalized narratives about race. This is a racialized discourse about blackness that is of necessity separatist and more strident in its rhetoric and which runs counter to the region’s multicultural ethos. In this sense, we can contrast Jamaica’s national ‘out of many – one people’ discourse about racial identity with this other less vocalised and marginalised tradition that stems from spiritual beliefs such as Obeah, Vodou, Santeria, Rastafari and a history of resistance. By articulating the power and significance of this ‘lesser’ tradition, we begin to see the points of commonality between the diasporic communities of the US and the Caribbean and recognize that the important conversations about race and identity have not yet taken place in the US because of its fear of blackness. Despite President Obama’s ‘More Perfect Union ‘ being one of the most powerful speeches about race ever delivered in the history of the US, it seems unlikely now that he will ever voluntarily call attention to these isues or use a ‘race card’ as a means of governing the US. Like the cultural theorist Paul Gilroy and recent events surrounding Pastor Jeremiah Wright suggest, there is danger in the fetishising of Afrocentric identities. It can lead to a fixity that celebrates and romanticises the past, and produces a kind of separatism akin to fascism. The paradox then is how to acknowledge race and racism without appearing racist. For this, the Caribbean’s New World experience has been a blessing. It provides an accommodation of other cultures even within the advocacy of pan-Africanism. For instance, in contemporary Jamaica, multi-culturalism fashions our identities; we have been twice (and sometime thrice) diasporised’. Our history of forced and voluntary migration brings an acute sense of being part of a Diaspora, in our relationship to Africa, Asia and Europe, or more recently in our relationship to England, Canada and the United states. We are constantly refining and defining our relationship to the world. Our identities are liminal, fluid and negotiable. Perhaps there is a lesson in our Caribbean experience, where our anger has been tempered by our proximity to one another and where life in these very small islands will not allow for isolation and racial exclusivity. In this way, our sense of ‘blackness’ has been sharpened by our resistance and the need to push back, creating space for ourselves in a discourse that might have rendered us invisible. I suspect that these lessons are useful not only for us in the Caribbean but for all of us in the Americas where historically blackness has been defined in relation to whiteness and where we need to see others as a reflection of ourselves. March 2009