Africans, African Americans and West Indians
Updated: May 16, 2020
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
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
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
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
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.