The unstoppable march for legal equality is again front and center in the national consciousness as a result of Black Lives Matter. This 21st century movement is an extension of the 20th century Civil Rights struggle. Reflecting on the issue of legal equality, where we are in that struggle, and from where we came, brings to mind the relationship of West Indians to that effort as well as our relationship to the Black American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Throughout, West Indians have been partners alongside Black Americans in the fight for legal justice and human respect.
The perception in the mid 20th Century by many that West Indians were “exotic others” different from American Blacks, a term used by Zora Neal Hurston in her book “Tell My Horse”, has been re-informed to the recognition that all Blacks, regardless of origin are joined in a common effort.
The late Hope Lewis, internationally recognized legal scholar and commentator on human rights and a member of the School of Law’s faculty at Northeastern University, noted that US civil rights discourse in the 1960’s “…viewed Afro Caribbean transmigrants as foreigners disengaged from the legal, political, economic and cultural aspects of race relations in the United States”. Viewed as middle class strivers, Caribbean migrants were often characterized as willing to leave native-born African Americans behind as they chased assimilation dreams.
As far back as remembrance allows, West Indians migrated to North America, Canada and Europe in search of economic opportunity. Why they migrated and continue to do so is because of the economic limitations of Island communities as well as aspirational ambition.
West Indians leave communities which were freed from slavery in the early nineteenth century as a result of their ancestor’s efforts.
Slave rebellions are well documented throughout the Caribbean leading to the abolition of slavery in 1811 in the Spanish colonies, 1833 in the British Caribbean, in 1846 and 1848 in the Danish and French islands respectively, 1861 in the Dutch Caribbean, and 1886 in Cuba. The elimination of slavery throughout much of the Caribbean occurred decades before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.
In the intervening period, colonial status limited the self-aspiration of Afro Caribbeans by promoting difference within community based on class and skin color in an effort to divide and control the population. In the years since shrugging off the most pernicious aspects of that strategy, West Indians have built communities where black role models exist in government, academia and business.
The reverse of the majority/ minority balance that exists on the US mainland, ensures that throughout much of the English-speaking Caribbean in-your-face racism is now rare and when it surfaces is aggressively addressed. West Indians in their home countries are better able to exercise a check on racist behavior because political leadership and community security are in the hands of persons of color.
As migrants West Indians adapt to their new environment, establish connections where connections previously have not existed, compete for a slice of the economic pie and do so knowing that in the communities to which they migrate many are viewed as less than full citizens. We too, along with Black Americans, confront in-your-face racism, racial profiling and senseless police violence and inequality in all aspects of the criminal justice system.
Throughout the African American Black struggle for emancipation and racial equality, West Indians have made significant contributions to that effort.
A freed slave population in the Caribbean was sand in the clockwork of southern slave society and grist for the national abolitionist movement that eventually led to end of US slavery in the 1862. West Indians played supporting roles in the American Black struggle against the racial injustice of the Jim Crow era that culminated in the landmark federal achievement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Some notable examples of that involvement include Malcom X whose mother Louise Helen Norton Little, was from Granada. His father Earl Little was a Baptist minister and organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in the USA. Marcus Garvey was from Saint Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ father, Alfred, was Haitian. Hubert Harrison, described by A. Phillip Randolph as “the father of Harlem radicalism” was from St. Croix. Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) was an immigrant from Trinidad, West Indies. He helped organize the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers. Harry Belafonte is Jamaican and Martinique origin and Sidney Poitier, Bahamian.
The Caribbean reality has shaped the thinking of African Americans as they image a society different from what existed on the US mainland. Again as an example, Jamaicans of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Canadian, English and African ancestry were in-part the inspiration behind Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”. In 1967, King again returned to Jamaica and completed the manuscript of his book “Where Do We Go From Here”.
West Indians can take pride in knowing the region and its people are not newcomers to the African American racial struggle. We are credentialed in the struggle that binds Blacks together in the struggle for racial equality and rights. We are neither behind the ball in embracing the reality that Black Lives Matter nor did we half-step in the fight for racial equality both in the Caribbean and the United States.
The John L. Loeb Professor of Sociology at Harvard, Mary C Waters, describes the transition of West Indian migrants to Black Americans in her work “Black Identities: West Indian Dreams and American Realities. Racial profiling made abundantly clear there is and never has been a distinction on the part of white America of one black face from the other.
Black Lives Matter resonates because West Indian and American Blacks have fought together for social and legal justice and experienced the same identity negation.
Black Lives Matter because both communities know how pervasive, limiting and demeaning is racially based injustice given the already real challenges of attempting to succeed in societies where so much is already stacked against that success.
Black Lives Matter until skin color ceases to be the determinant of how justice is dispensed and aspirational ambitions achieved.