Why do some Jamaicans not consider themselves African? Why is it that, for them, “Africa” and “African” are pejorative terms, terms of abuse?
By my calculations, they are probably one of the oldest immigrant groups in Europe: the Jamaicans of England. Probably the oldest mass group of black people who have settled in Europe. It is 60 years this month since the lauded (by some) Empire Windrush brought over the first sizeable wave. Sixty years is quite a long time, isn’t it? Long enough, in my opinion, for trends and traits to have developed and, also in my opinion, for trends and traits to be predicted. Sixty years, after all, is roughly three generations. Father to son; father to son; father to son.
Who are they now, these Jamaicans of England? What are they? Who have they become? What has been passed on in those three generations, and what is being passed on to the fourth? Whether you like it or not, I am going to be using the term “they” throughout this column. I like it. It is succinct. It is correct. My “they” is a collection of my nearly two generations of observations, thoughts, and collections of knowledge. Authoritative knowledge at that. I grew up with them, I lived among them, and I have recently returned to still live among them. I know them.
And, by the way, no “anthropological” or “sociological” “field” study or sample could contain the number of people I have seen, observed, studied, known who are Jamaicans. I know about what I am going to be talking about. My statistics can match any “professor’s” anytime. This is part one of a two-part column. Part two follows next month depending on what is happening in Zimbabwe.
First of all, I want to set the scene by asking a very simple question: What is the place of “the African” in the modern Jamaican diasporan psyche as exhibited in England? This is fundamental to everything I am going to say in this two-part column, so I am going to spend a lot of time on it.
Number one: The Jamaicans of England are not Africans. Number two: And they are not Jamaicans. But “Jamaica”, the island, is for them, young or old, the reference point, their base camp, whether they’ve been there or been back. Number three: And they are not English. Who are they then? Where do they belong? I am not going to go into whether, after 60 years, they are “black British” or how “British” they may or may not be, or whether they have “integrated” – that is for others.
Right, let us start. Do not chide me for saying, for stating point blank that they are not Africans. They are not. They say it themselves. Go and ask them. It is you who will be chided. You will be lucky to even get a grasp of an acknowledgment that they may be descended from Africans. It was not until I moved to live deep within a community of Jamaicans in north London two years ago, that I saw and heard and realised that for them “Africa”, and “an African”, was and is a pejorative term. To be called “African” was and is a term of abuse. It can be thrown at someone casually with the accompanying tone of dismissal. It is used angrily to denote that they are speaking of somebody they consider to be inferior. An “African” is a figure to mock.
My shock at this entrenched attitude, prevalent irrespective of whether the person talking was old, middle-aged or young has taken a couple of years to subside. But subside it has, after much thinking about the depths of stupidity that clearly exist in “the Diaspora”. It became just one more thing to add to my working list headed “How Stupid Are Black People?”
The illogicality of the thought processes which lead people who have black skin and who herald originally, via parents or grandparents, from a West Indian island, to use “African” as a dirty moniker, an abusive, mocking, derogatory term designed to inflict harm on another person with black skin who comes from a country in Africa, continues to fascinate me. What is working or not working in those people’s brains and in their conscious and unconscious? What has been switched on and what has been switched off by hearing or seeing “an African”? Or by reading a last name, a surname, a father’s name, that is “African”?
And note this, it is always continental: “the African man”, “that African woman”, “that African shop”; and not national, as in: “he’s from Ghana”, “she’s from Uganda”, “they are Nigerians”. They know nothing about what is in Africa; they only know what “Africa” is. Everywhere to them in Africa is merely “African”; but you would need an underground bunker to shelter from the voluble storm of protest that would arise were you to mistake a Jamaican for, say, somebody from Barbados or vice versa.
Their groups of islands in the Caribbean sea are always nicely delineated, boundaries forever intact, but an entire continent of 53 countries is just “Africa”. I have even heard a man being addressed as “Africano”. Geneologists at the British Museum will have to help me with that one. They made me think this: What are they, then, the products of? I, now, totally accept their premise that they are not “African” or of “Africa”, for I do not believe any longer that anyone has the right to call themselves African just because they are in possession of black skin.
We have an African morality, African ethics, African standards of behaviour and duty: an inner health to your being, a mode of existence in a sordid world that an African holds, retains, depends on for moral survival despite the odds. Being an African is something inner not outer. Let me give you a quick, easy example: it is, for instance, about your conduct and not your hairstyle. Inner not outer. When what’s inside comes out and reveals itself as not African, then they are right as Jamaicans to say that they are not Africans. But when did it become a term of abuse to be hurled at shopkeepers, strangers, landlords, public health workers, office workers, pub drinkers, etc? I once overheard what I will politely call a slum girl from Jamaica, who considered herself to be fluent in disgusting swear words, become so overheated at having, for once in her life, been bettered in the abusive language battle by an African woman, that all she could resort to was to repeat over and over to herself as she swept the floor: “African, African, African”.
The peculiar thing is that I grew up among Jamaicans. I have considered this fact a lot in the last two years, and it has occurred to me that the undercurrent of “the African”, whilst rippling away, was never pronounced, because we were growing up together. We were youth and adults who wore the same clothes, went to the same clubs, danced to the same music, spoke in the same tones, used the same slang language, lived on the same streets. Our foods were different – but recognisably different because we could see the same in them: well seasoned chicken and rice, for instance, so what if mine was Jollof and theirs rice and peas. We were friends. We were lovers. But were we always apart? Can you go back and re-evaluate old “friends” in a new light that pierces skin colour? In recent months, I have found myself saying “people with black skin”, and not saying “black people” quite so often. Checking myself, checking the difference. I have found that I am asking: what do we have in common apart from the fact that we have been given the same skin colour? I have found that I might be ascribing some commonality of shared values, standards, duty, behaviour, between myself and a group of Jamaicans that would not necessarily be there. I am no longer prepared to take that risk.
Somebody with black skin here in England is likely to be very different from me in a multiplicity of ways. Why should I link myself to them? Why are we connected? Just because of our skin colour? Does the German consider himself white first or German first? Is the Swede the same as an Englishman because they are both white? Do Europeans call themselves “whites” when they are talking to each other simply because that is how we might refer to them? Being of black skin has given many people a chance to have what is not theirs. What they have not deserved, what they have not worked for, what they don’t know what to do with: an African identity. Inside they are not who they appear to be outside. Their skin colour is treacherous. It betrays, misleads the unknowing. How can they feel anything “African” when they are not “African” inside?
Cruel? I don’t think so. Consider instead the type of mind that has rubbed out their own forefathers and foremothers, who on those very same islands insisted on calling themselves “Africans”, even as the centuries passed. Think instead of their Jamaican national heroine: Nanny, “the African”. Of the Jamaican figurehead, Marcus Garvey and back to “Africa”. You think it. I no longer do.
“I’m Jamaican; you’re African,” snapped a man I had helped, as if he wanted to put me in my place. It came out of nowhere, somewhere deep inside him. It was as if, somehow, Jamaica was bigger, of greater importance, of more being, than all of Africa ever was or could be. That being Jamaican made him better than me. That being African made me inferior to him.
His tone was the same as that Jamaican woman who had abused the African woman, as if she was an inferior being because she was from Africa. The irony is that if that Jamaican woman was living in Africa, she would never be allowed to, or allow herself to, speak to a woman like the African woman in any tone other than respectful.
If I am to be put in my place, and we are to be put in our place, then Africa is my place, and our place, to be put in. They have their islands; I, we, have the continent. It is better that way. I prefer it that way. No man is an island.