My Nigerian first name is always a conversation starter with people, irregardless of their ethnic origin. White folks usually tell me how lovely my name is (aaw,thanks) and then ask me if I was named after the singer ( I wasn’t by the way). Or they’ll say it’s unusual and I’ll reply that actually, it’s a fairly common Yoruba name, so sorry, not exotic at all. Africans in general assume that I’m not West Indian and then look mildly disappointed, bewildered, or occasionally impressed when I reveal that despite my defiled Caribbean blood, my parents gave me a West African name. Nigerians specifically always correct my pronunciation of my name and then question my ancestry “So none of your Grandparents are Nigerian..what is your connection? No one in your family at all? So why are you called..? Are you sure no one in your family is Nigerian?”. It kind of gives me automatic cool points with them, which I’m happy for. Now. Because when I was a kid it was NOT cool to be Nigerian. In fact it was not cool to be African full stop.
Over the past 20 years, it would appear to me that there has been a sudden influx to our fair shores of young Africans. In 1998, I had one half-Nigerian, half-Jamaican friend, who was mercilessly teased by the rest of us for his half-Nigerian side (and I also got teased for having a Yoruba name – that was enough to taint me). Now, in 2014, Caribbeans, be that Jamaican, Bajan, Guyanese, Montserratian (I mentioned you cos everyone forgets you guys) Trini or anywhere else, seem to be a dying breed. The most rapidly dying breed being people who are fully Jamaican, uncontaminated by small island blood. (Calm down, I’m only joking – I love a bit of soca as much as the next person. That last sentence upset you as well didn’t it? You guys are too easily riled) Now granted, the numbers of African immigrants has increased but I’m not convinced this is the only reason for the exponential rise of people from the continent in my personal life. No – a large number of my friends were actually born in this country. Their only immigration was from Peckham to Stockwell. They just kept their Africanness on the down low for a looooonng time.
You see, us African Caribbeans have an interesting and somewhat tense relationship with our African ancestry. We are the discarded cousins, nameless and somewhat disconnected, our bloodline a concoction of African slave and Irish master and Indian indentured servant, and sometimes a random Chinese or Syrian. For many of us though, despite the reality of the proportionally small amount of non-African blood in us, we are much quicker to claim our Indian great grandparent, or Chinese 2nd cousin, than our African blood. We have respect for fair skin, and coolie hair, and secretly or often openly value those who look like (because genetics are a funny thing) they have less African blood. In fact, I remember when I was younger, one of the most hardcore insults you could give to a fellow West Indian, was to tell them that they looked African. Which is why in the 90’s and early 2000’s, it just wasn’t cool to be Nigerian. Or Ghanaian. Or Zimbabwean. Somalian was the worst. Every African joke began with the word “Babatunde”. So you would;t dare reveal your full ‘long form’ name until you had cemented your popularity firmly enough to withstand the inevitable ridicule. Don’t you dare bring your jollof rice into school while everyone was downing rice and peas. And what the dickens is moi moi?
This isn’t coincidental. Part of the conditioning that happened during slavery was a forcible eradication of any pride in our African ancestry. We were told that our primitive, uncivilised, uncultured and heathen forefathers were more closely connected to apes than humans, and that with every drop of non-African blood in us, we were improving ourself. It didn’t help that the after effects of colonialism left a continent that is largely portrayed as a mass of crumbling, barely functioning societies, unable to govern themselves without “Western” interference (although increasingly, many countries in the continent are growing, and fast.)
Thankfully, that isn’t the full story though. Despite the efforts to remove us from our Africanness, i am continually amazed at the traditions and cultural similarities that have managed to remain despite over 400 years of separation. The way we cook. The fact that both Caribbean and African parents speak in time with the belt when they beat you. (It sounds worse than it is). How we worship God. Even the way we move to music. Not only that, but there are enough of us who are accepting, and sometimes proud of our ancestry. Despite the fact that some Africans do not see us a part of them at all, or as inferior (no doubt not helped by some Caribbeans disdain for Africans). Despite the fact that big lips and noses are seen as features to be corrected, not enjoyed. Despite the overwhelming tide of “I am mixed with…” stories.
I am grateful that my parents gave me my name. It reminds me that although there is nothing wrong with the other races that form my ancestry, in some small or large way I am undeniably connected to Africa, whether I like it or not. I may not know what part, how closely, or exactly how, but I am.
What do you guys think? If you’re Caribbean, do you see yourself as connected to Africa in any way? If you’re African, do you feel a connection with African-Caribbeans, or not?