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  • Nicole Doyley

Africans, African Americans and West Indians

Updated: May 16


Between 1525 and 1866 approximately 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the

New World. It was the largest forced migration of people in human history. Of

these, two million died at sea, about 400,000 landed in North America and all the

rest, almost ten million people, ended up in the Caribbean and South America. The

indigenous population of these tropical locations had largely been exterminated and

the vast majority of slaves were taken there to harvest the lucrative sugar cane

crops.


Africans, West Indians and African Americans all hale from the same ethnic group,

all suffered gross injustice, and yet today, they often hold each other at arm’s length.

Years ago, I sat with friend from Ivory Coast who explained that when he left home

to attend college in the US, his parents cautioned him to make only white friends.

They said white people would open doors of opportunity while black Americans

were lazy and would only hold him back. I’ve heard this sentiment several times

since; African immigrants sometimes arrive feeling superior to African Americans. Relative to some African nations, opportunity in America abounds and they can’t understand why African Americans aren’t more prosperous.


West Indians sometimes arrive with the same bias: coming from poor countries,

they wonder why anyone would fail to thrive in such a rich atmosphere.

Having married a West Indian, I’ve had ample opportunity to talk about this and

we’ve both been struck by the advantage of possessing power and being in the

majority.


Growing up in Jamaica, my husband’s pediatrician was black. His teachers were

black. The smart kids in school were black and the average kids were black. All of

his friends were black. The shopkeepers and shop owners were black. When he

flew on a plane, the pilot was black and when his parents did banking, the bankers

were black. The Prime Minister along with all government officials were black. So

it never even entered his mind that skin color could deter success. Poverty might

hold you back, but not melanin. He never once doubted his worth or felt inferior.

Jamaicans don’t labor under lingering notions of white supremacy. Their children’s

minds aren’t sullied by it and their men aren’t punished by it. There is no “talk”

given by nervous parents to their black pre-teen sons about police or the danger of

looking suspect.


Not only this, but, like many West Indians, my husband grew up with a strong

national identity. He was and is proud of his island home and I know several from

other islands who feel the same. The Jamaican national motto is “Out of many, one.”

Everyone born on that island is Jamaican, no matter the skin tone. They are

descendants of Ashanti, Maroon, Chinese, Arabs and Indians and they are all

Jamaican.


African Americans are patriotic, too, but the term, “All American,” usually refers to a

white person. Even though we’ve been here for centuries, fought in the wars and

made contributions in every arena, black Americans have not yet been folded into

the American identity. We are still “other.” As a result, our patriotism is guarded. We love our country, but our country hasn’t always loved us. The scars of the past remain and persistent current realities mitigate our enthusiasm.


Years ago, my husband commented, “Black Americans are complicated!” But after

living here for two decades and being followed in stores, stopped by police,

patronized and disrespected countless times, he understands why.


The irony of the counsel my Ivory Coast friend received from his parents is that

African Americans boycotted, marched, rallied, lectured, went to prison, suffered

beatings and died violent deaths to gain the opportunities he enjoys. He could not

have attended the college he did or live in the house he eventually bought without

the sacrifice of the people his parents scorned. Back in the day, “No Colored

Allowed” included African immigrants. Black was black (and it still is).


The truth is, though, that ignorance exists on both sides. Black Americans have

asked my husband if they have telephones in Jamaica. (He wanted to respond that

no, they use smoke signals instead.) And I’ve heard several black Americans speak

disparagingly about Africa, totally unaware that it’s a continent, not a country, with

a rich, powerful history and a present breathtaking beauty.


I remember the first time I went to Africa and sat in a church service, waiting for

things to start. All of a sudden, the back doors opened and music poured into the

room. Everyone turned around and watched as the singers processed in, marching

in unison and singing with perfect harmony. All I could think about was, "This is

where it all came from: Gospel, Jazz and Blues. They all have this sound!" Even Latin

music derives much of its sound from here: the birthplace of some of the most

gorgeous music on the planet. And the food: African food, West Indian food, African

American food: there’s a common flavor and method of preparation. Centuries

later, it’s all still there.


How tragic if we can’t mutually appreciate and respect each other. We’re all related.

We’ve been dispersed and displaced; we’ve weathered terrific storms, and

overcome tremendous adversity, all producing world-class achievers in every

discipline. We should honor each other, learn from each other and admire each

other, rather than disparaging each other.

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