WEST INDIAN IS NOT AFRICAN
Dr. Lester CN Simon
It started that fateful day in third form when the late school master, Tim Hector opened my head with a top-spin cuff and poured in the words of the poem, Creation, by James Wendell Johnson. I did not know black people wrote poems, despite the many recitations I had performed in church and primary school. The greater lesson from Tim was that I did not know that a big, strong, strapping man like Master Hector could be associated with a poem. I started to think.
Sadly, I must confess that I was short sighted when considering what it means to be a West Indian. For all these years I made the mistake of assuming that since black people were the predominant people in the West Indies and had paid such a high price to build these island states, being West Indian must be in some sort of way related to being people of African descent or to an offshoot of thinking African, whatever that nebulous offshoot thinking meant. I was wrong.
Black West Indians have to understand that we have two battles to fight. One battle is for the sense of self and our relationship to Africa, which Joanne C Hillhouse outlined in her illuminating four-part series in this newspaper. The other battle is to find common ground with all other West Indians to define what West Indian means. The battle for West Indianism cannot be subsumed under the battle by black people for realizing our Africanism. I have to put up my hand and testify that I have made this fundamental error for over forty years. The other West Indians may be accusing us black West Indians of romantic apartheid. Perish the thought.
When I suggest that the plantation is the commonality for all West Indians (and Caribbean peoples), I understand that all of us from diverse origins look to our glorious origins as points of reference and departure. We, black West Indians have a glorious past and it is not the inglorious plantation. It lies in Africa. It is more difficult to accept that a common ground for West Indianism cannot be Africa and can be the plantation. After all these years of trying to grapple with this dilemma, I have settled on the plantation as a point of commonality not by situating West Indianism within and concentrating on the life within the plantation, but by using this inglorious plantation past as a point of departure to a less imperfect future.
This to me, is what West Indian and Caribbean mean and it embraces all who came before as well as during and after the plantation. It means we know what we do not want to be and hence we have some semblance of what we ought to be. The notion that West Indian is an offshoot of thinking African is largely responsible for some non-black West Indians smiling at black West Indians celebrating and entertaining while these same others continue to be the drivers of the black engines of growth. I jumped sky-high for joy when, in Jamaica in the seventies, it took a celebrated economist to remind the uppity merchants that they themselves used to be selling on the same pavement just like the black people operating the bend-down plazas outside their uppity stores.
Until we settle this plantation blight by examining it, undertaking the inevitable reconciliation and seeing it as a point of departure, related to but also separate and distinct from being African, we will never have a true West Indian Identity. Moreover, those who came after the plantation can buy into not a plantation genesis but a plantation exodus as we march away from hell to a better place.
Maybe the best way to make the point that being West Indian is not the same as being African is to settle for the old, oftentimes misused adage that black people always have to work at least twice as hard as other people. One work is for Africa. The other work is for a commonality amongst all West Indian and Caribbean people. The two battles are not the same.