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The Jerk In My Chicken

The first time I defended my West Indian culture was in middle school. I was dealing with a new school environment that included a class bully, and couldn’t be bothered with any more stress in my pubescent life. One day, in the impatient haze between class and lunch, one of my male classmates asked, “Where’s the jerk chicken?”

I could have brushed off the ignorant remark, but it lit something in me on a subconscious level. At the time, I wasn’t used to anyone asking me about my ethnicity, especially not in school. The most that any of my peers knew about me, by way of a school project, was that my mom was raised in Trinidad (born in St.Vincent). The presentation in front of a classroom of judgmental twelve- and thirteen-year-olds had given me short fits of anxiety. No one in my grade asked me about my parents, so to have one of my fellow African-American pupils get my ethnic background unreservedly wrong irked me to the core.

My mom and me as a little tot in Philly

To break it down for you: jerk chicken is not a delicacy derived from Trinidad. Jerk is a spice that comes from Jamaican cooking. Dry rubbed or marinated, meats, seafood, and even tofu are prepared with the spice to fiery perfection often in and among loved ones telling stories of the way things used to be. You can serve these proteins with rice or eat them by themselves with a cold glass of beer. Either way, to savor jerk chicken is to savor a piece of Jamaican culture. To substitute its place of origin with another is to be disrespectful.

Before I was born, there already existed a tension between Trinidadians and Jamaicans. It’s a petty conflict, really, but one that emerges in the most inconsequential situations, like block parties or corner stores, for example. It only takes one comment, such as — “You’re from the islands? Jamaica . . . right?” or “I’m from Jamaica and we have the prettiest girls in the world. Even though you are from Trinidad, you are right up there with them” — to spark discontent.

Photo of a lovely girl taken by my mom during Trinidad’s infamous Carnival event

I was never taught to hate Jamaicans or any of my other fellow Carib people. We are all one. But, just as there are some similarities that we share, there are also substantial differences. My Jamaican girlfriends and I know how to wine, but their parents and grandparents may reminisce about the Rastafarian movement, which made the same weighty impression on Trinidad and Tobago. Roman Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, and Hindu faiths are the predominant ones in Trinidad, whereas the largest religion in Jamaica is Christianity. Jamaicans are proud of their influence in music courtesy of the dancehall, ska, reggae, and rocksteady, whereas soca, calypso, steelpan, chutney, and parang rule during annual Carnival, J’ouvert, and Panorama celebrations.

So, imagine my annoyance at being denied my heritage in middle school. It was one simple remark, yet a powerful one, especially since it came from one of my kin. At that moment, I found myself defending my birthright, because I was suddenly alienated as “other.” I wasn’t Black, but a foreigner who looked Black, even though I was born in America.

“I don’t eat jerk chicken,” I retorted. Yet, from that moment on, the stories that my mother used to tell me about the division she witnessed between Caribbean expats and African-Americans made more sense. I was just viewing it from a different perspective — not as a young adult expat from an island closest to Venezuela, told to go back to her own country on a daily basis, but as an adolescent born of a union between a woman from a largely populated island and a man from one of the most powerful countries in the world. I was born different, like everyone else, and for the first time in my life, by someone who looked like me, I was made aware of it.

A recipe for Kedgeree, a traditional Trinidad & Tobago dish

I am an Afro-Trinidadian and African-American. I feel the spirits of Sojourner Truth and V.S. Naipaul in my bones. Through my observations and experiences in America, I am Black, and I have grown up to respect both my Caribbean and Black American roots. As for the boy in middle school who asked me where the jerk chicken was, I can’t say das meh bredrin or even know where he lives, but if he ever wanted to bus’ a lime one day over some curry and channa, I’m down.

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