Recently I had a conversation with someone who was born and raised in her formative years in West Africa, who said to me that she was curious about why people from the Caribbean, like myself, feel such a strong connection to Africa. My first instinct was to think that it is obvious why this is the case since Africa is clearly the largest contributor to the DNA of most Caribbean people. However, afterwards as I reflected on my reflexive response I realized that it is perhaps not so straightforward as it may seem on the surface. Often times Caribbean people feel an extremely strong spiritual, emotionally charged, connection to the African continent and its people, which may come across to some people as being delusionally romantic at best or flagrantly disingenuous at worst.
From an African perspective, it is easy to conclude that Caribbean people have little in common with people from Africa beyond a few strands of DNA and shades of skin tone. We are for all intents and purposes muzungu (a pejorative Kiswahili term for a white person, meaning ‘wandering ghost or spirit’), because of the westernized way in which we dress, talk and orient ourselves in the world. In fact, I have been reminded of this countless times in my travels in East Africa, where young children upon seeing me point excitedly to their mothers, while exclaiming the word “muzungu” to their mothers.
So it is important to acknowledge the fact that we in the African diaspora are different yet related to our African progenitors. Our differences stem from the stark divergence in our experience which occurred several hundred years ago with the advent of the slave trade. A trade in which Africans profited from selling their fellow brothers and sisters into bondage, which is echoed in the haunting lyrics of Bob Marley’s acclaimed Redemption Song –
“Old pirates yes they rob I,
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I,
From the bottomless pit...”
Those who were sold to the merchant ships and ended up enslaved in the Caribbean (and elsewhere in the Americas), had their umbilical connection to the motherland brutally severed. This resulted in a catastrophic loss of culture, language and identity. In short, the slaves lost themelves completely, and were reduced to the nothingness of being the property of Europeans. A commodity of flesh to be exploited, traded and discarded when no longer useful.
Those who were left behind in Africa, arguably did not comtemplate the gravity of their actions. They did not realize the long-term deleterious effects of population depletion on the African continent (which is orders of magnitude greater than the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China which lasted a decade), which persist even to this day. Consumed by their avarice, they were only been thinking about making a short-term profit at someone else’s expense. In fact, at the time of the abolition of slavery in the late 19th century (keep in mind in Brazil this did not occur until 1870), it is well documented that many African kingdoms, such as the Dahomey, were still sadly perpetuating the slave trade.
In writing Children of the Ocean God, my upcoming debut historical fiction novel, I learned the importance of identity; of knowing where I come from. Through my research I learned (reassuringly) for the first time that some of my ancestors violently resisted European hegemony. The Garifuna (aka Black Caribs) fought back against British oppression in St. Vincent to preserve their birthright as free Black people. They waged an all-out war in 1795 and 1796 against Britain. Despite initial successes, tragically the war ended in their defeat and subsequent genocidal internment on Baliceaux Island, which is just 1.35 square kilometers and has no natural sources of fresh water. Equally devastating, was their later deportation in 1797 to the Roatan island, in present-day Honduras. After learning this history, for the first time in my life I feel like I have a more complete and concrete sense of who I am as a person. My ancestry is no longer a vague, amorphous and intagible concept. It is alive and coursing through my veins. Now I feel much more complete as a human being, and as a writer. I feel better equipped to tell my anecstors’ story in Children of the Ocean God. I’m immensely proud to be descended from such a noble, courageous tribe!
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