I made a Facebook status earlier today that said the attitudes of *some* Africans, and especially Nigerians towards Caribbeans had me questioning the idea of a global African identity. I also said (and I was called out for it, maybe rightly so), that the rise of Afrobeats and general popularity of (West) African culture in the mainstream has, in my opinion led to a rise in my African peers being openly negative towards Caribbeans and our culture.
If I’m honest, I was a bit in my feelings about various things I’d seen on the interwebs from my African (mostly Nigerian) brothers and sisters about Caribbean people and African Americans. There word ‘akata’ was flying around a lot. There were a few ugly stereotypes about Caribs being uneducated, lazy, drug dealers and having no respect for their elders.
But forget a one off internet session gone wrong. The tension between African and Caribbeans in the UK, and apparently between African Americans and Caribbeans and Africans (I know, it’s exhausting), in the U.S, has a long-ish history.
Truth be told, when Africans first came to the UK in the 70’s and 80’s, Caribbeans weren’t the most friendly. at worst, we were downright ignorant and abusive. That’s me being honest. Not all of us, but enough of us to make a generalisation. I wouldn’t and can’t deny it, because as someone with a Nigerian first name, I used to be on the receiving end of some of what was seemingly light hearted banter during my teenage years. People would sometimes assume I was Nigerian and then the name calling and bad West African accents would ensue. Obviously, I took it in my stride and had the privilege of brushing it off because I wasn’t actually African and so it only hurt on a very superficial level. Around that time, many African kids my age seemed to hide their African identity, no doubt in part due to the ridicule received.
Caribbean, and specifically Jamaican culture was mainstream. In the same way that African American culture was seen as ‘cool’ to white Americans, white Brits thought that Caribbean culture was ‘cool’. So being a Jamaican in the most multi-cultural, diverse parts of the country wasn’t something that garnered ridicule (outside of London is a different story). On the other hand, African culture was still relegated to historical ideas of being primitive and unappealing – both amongst white and Caribbean people. During those times, you would hear whisperings from African friends about what their parents thought about Caribbean people. But because Africans felt more or less outnumbered (I’m not sure if they actually were or if Caribbeans had been here longer and were just louder and more dominating), people rarely came out of the closet.
Fast forward to 2016, and headlines of mainstream newspapers have titles scream “Africa is on the rise”‘. There has been a resurgence, even amongst African Americans and Caribbeans of connection to African culture. West African and especially Nigerian culture is more mainstream. High fashion magazines are doing spreads with what they presume to be ‘African’ fashion, Afrobeats artists are rotating on MTV, and politically and economically people are paying more attention to the continent – deservedly.
What I’ve noticed, is that this also correlated with more African people of my generation being open about their disdain for Caribbeans and African Americans and their culture. Now thankfully, I know very few people personally who have strong feelings about this. But there are little comments from people I consider to be friends that sometimes make my ears perk up.
In a similar way that white people sometimes view me as an exception to their general beliefs about black people, I’ve found some Africans view me the same way. I can be an honorary Nigerian with a Yoruba first name because I am a doctor and I come from a ‘good’ family. Unfortunately, the same warmth of feeling is not extended to Caribbeans as a whole. As a whole, in the eyes of some (I want to stress the word some) Caribbeans are the black sheep of the family. We don’t go to university, we have multiple children with multiple men and we sell drugs.
All my friends who are Caribbean have gone to university, most of them don’t have children, and I personally know only one person who has smoked weed as a regular hobby. I know my friends aren’t reflections of the whole community but the problem with these stereotypes is that it militates against any solidarity that we could have.
Let’s not be too serious – every group has banter and infighting. I can take a good bit of banter from my African friends and vice versa. It doesn’t pay to be too easily offended. I have a lot of friends who are Nigerian and none of them have ever said anything to me about Caribbeans that is intentionally offensive. It’s not so much in the blatant rudeness that might be seen in a trolling tweet but about underlying attitudes that reveal themselves in assumptions made about people. In the same way that white people may be extremely pleasant to me, when one of my white friends who at the time I was close too, asked me after 5 years of friendship ,after meeting my parents (who are both well educated) and being together at university “How comes you’re so well spoken?” (and then blushed and quickly followed…”because you’re from London”). It stung. Because it revealed that even though she was my friend, she thought a certain way about ‘my’ people.
The truth is that the African community in the UK no longer needs the Caribbean community for solidarity. They are larger in number and have more economic resources than we do. If they decide that we are not part of them as a whole, we are the ones who lose. I’ve tend to found that for a variety of reasons Africans from the continent tend to see themselves less as black and more as their particular ethnic group. This can be seen as a good thing because they are constructing their identity outside of the framework of white supremacy and I applaud that. The boundaries of black and white are in place because of the system and they can sometimes be fairly random in how they are applied. Prior to European influence on the continent, country borders such as Nigeria, Ghana etc, did not exist. The borders were based on ethnic group and not a random line decided by a coloniser.
Unfortunately, in the system of white supremacy it doesn’t matter whether the ship took you to an island or you were misled into selling your mate to someone for pittance. You’re both still black. And you can both get screwed over. It makes sense for us to foster a sense of unity and work together to achieve the economic and social power that we need.
As a child who grew up being told by my parents that I should be proud of being African, it hurts when the same people that you thought were your ‘people’ make remarks that suggest that actually, you’re not African and the perceived similarity or solidarity that you feel is mostly in your head – not only that, but your people are in general embroiled in negativity.
I’m not trying to deny the significant cultural differences between Caribbeans and Africans (and obviously the differences amongst African cultures which are likely even more pronounced). But there’s a difference between recognising cultural differences but still seeing us as one people, and feeling like Caribbeans are a completely separate people.
I’m just saying I don’t think any unity can rely on a few people in each group who believe that solidarity is necessary for our progression as a group of people. And that’s why I’m questioning whether I can with all honesty call myself “African”.