I’m black and I’m proud...or am I?
So often we, as black people proudly exclaim the phrase “I’m black and I’m proud!” coined by the infamous James brown. In fact, his exact words were “Say it loud-I’m black and I’m proud!” However, I would like to pose the question: are we truly black and proud in today’s society? Some may find it hard to be proud of their ethnicity if they can not conveniently find the perfect group to identify with. The unnamed, biracial narrator of Swing Time by Zadie Smith is directly reflective of this idea.
Through out the novel, the author often goes back and forth between time. Telling stories to and from from the narrators childhood friend, Tracey and their many adventures, and pop-singer Aimme, who later becomes her boss and their interactions. The motion of time in this book is a reflection of how we think about our daily lives. This brings me to talk about my experiences in St. Croix.
I traveled to St. Croix as apart of a study abroad trip for a class entitled The Black Atlantic and African diaspora in Literature and Culture. While on the beautiful island of St. Croix we visited several places (See Figure 1). However, simply standing on the beach is the one of the many experience that forced me to swing back and forward in time. While standing on the beach I could not help but to enjoy the sand between my toes, the wind in my hair, and the sounds of the waves clashing against the rocks. Then, I was quickly reminded of a specific line Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, the book we were assigned to read before we arrived to St. Croix.
“But the Caribbean Sea is very big and the Atlantic Ocean is even bigger; it would amaze even you to know the number of black slaves this ocean has swallowed up” (Kincaid 14)
Now I can not help, but to imagine the very water that I was just taking pleasure in is the same water that my ancestors viewed as a way of escape from the terrible situations they had been out in, but the same water that gave them false hope of escape. Suddenly, I heard sounds of the slave ship, saw my people racking with pain, and felt the guilt of enjoying what once caused MY PEOPLE so much turmoil. I had a very similar experience while visiting the Botanical Gardens. The idea that I was standing on the same grounds, as a free person, as my ancestors were enslaved was a hard pill to swallow. I believe my experience there was so profound because of our wonderful tour guide Mr. Andre Sweeny(the man pictured above). The tour started off as any regular tour would have. Then Mr. Sweeny, in casual conversation, asked what was our reason for being in St. Croix. Much to his satisfaction he learned that we were there for a class studying the African Diaspora. This is when things began to change. Now, instead of a regular tour guide he became a passionate black man discussing his heritage with people he felt were intrigued, and wanted to hear more.
While in St. Croix, we also visited Columbus’s landing site, Salt river bay( see figure 1). This tour was nothing like the one we received at Botanical Gardens. It was a very traditional tour made for tourists. Our tour guide, who’s name I will not mention, talked more about marine biology than the rich history that this very place hosted. He did mention Columbus’s landing site and even how orange sand from Africa will get in your house, because “That’s stuff the realtors won’t tell you.” he said. However, he failed to mention this was also a site where many captured people had to pass through. After reading Smallwood’s input on “The ugly tourist” we all felt like the tour was wasted, and we did not leave with any new valuable information. An attempt not to be an ugly tourist and keep the locals in mind turned into a group of college students becoming uninterested in the tour all together. However, it was interesting to see the other tourists that did not travel with us enjoy the tour. I also appreciated it, because that experienced helped me to enjoy the other tours much better than I believe i would have previously.
Just as Mr. Andre thought he had to be embody a tradition tour guide, the same thing happens to many other black Americans, young and old. As Saidiya Hartman writes in Lose Your Mother, we often feel like strangers among many of the crowds that we interact with. It’s sad to say, but sometimes we must be the outsider just as our enslaved ancestors were. Gilroy says “Striving to be both European and Black requires some specific forms of double consciousness” (Gilroy 1). He goes on to say that racist people people in political power attempts to make the two identities equal, when in reality they are not .
“I was the proverbial outsider…My customs belonged to another country…”(Hartman 3)
I too, identify with Hartman, Mr. Andre Sweeny, and Mr. Hodges. My Hodges is a man we met at Estate Whim, another plantation site that can be viewed in figure 1. He have us a fun yet educational lesson on how to make instruments from things one could find laying around the house. Then he played a few of them, and even let my classmates and me give it a try . I really enjoyed this, but in my reflection period, I could not help but to think about the fact that instead of doing what he loves, making instruments at home, Mr. Hodges was giving us a lesson. This was likely because he needed to make a living for himself. As stated earlier, sometimes we as black people have to do thinks the way the “white man” wants us to, in order to be successful and ultimately function in this world.
Yaw, a character of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, says “ …we will just learn the way the white man wants us to learn, We will come back and build the country the whit man wants us to build. One that continues to serve them. We will never be free” (Gyasi 223). Over time we, as black people, seem to have lost our identities. While we do not want to be the “whitest black person” in the room we also do not want to be the “blackest black person” in the room. We continuously find ourselves choosing between being like “them” and forsaking our heritage, yet remaining successful, and accepting our culture, but not being afforded the opportunities we could have had be made other choices. While discussing this in class, one of my classmates made a great point. They alluded to the analogy that as some states are landlocked, our ancestors were waterlocked. While traveling through the middle passage, many of the wanted to escape, but the only way out was the water in which would cause them to commit suicide. This was not even an option, and if my enslaved ancestors were caught trying to end their lives they would be punished brutally.
““Middle Passage” rejects the pyrrhic comfort of a black
resistance gained only via the melancholy defiles of suicide
. . . and embraces the more sustaining project of a
counter-violence aimed squarely at the oppressor.”
( Plasa 558)
This relates back to Homegoing as well. On page 284, Marcus father told him that black people did not like water, because enslaved Africans were brought over on ships, and “the ocean floor was littered with black men” (Gyasi, 284). This made me think of the multigenerational effect of the middle passage. Today you still have many black people who do not like water. Now, this may be for several reasons. They may not have had access to it, meaning they would not know how to swim. Though often overlooked, the parallel between the misfortune of African Americans today and slavery is very prominent. It’s sad to say that most of us have lost our identity, and it likely can not be traced back. We are called African American, but we are not afforded adequate opportunities in America, and we are not Africans. It’s much like a door of no return. Just as we will likely never return to Africa, and be accepted as one of them….because the truth of the matter is we are not! We can change our name, adjust our hair, and purchase African attire, but those things are not what make you African.
So, I ask you, are you black and proud, African and proud, or just you and proud?
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic. Massachusetts: Howard University Pres. 1993. PDF File
Gyasis, Yana. Homegoing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2016 Print.
Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother. New York: PDF file.
Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York, 1988. PDF file.
Plaza, Carl. Doing the Slave Trade in Different Voices: Poetics and Politics in Robert Hayden’s First “Middle Passage”. 2012: African American Review.
Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. New York: Penguin Press. 2016. Print.