Claim­ing black Amer­i­can fam­ily

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY -

THERE WAS a time when many black peo­ple from the Caribbean liv­ing in the US thought they were su­pe­rior to black Amer­i­cans. Some still do. Con­ve­niently for­get­ting our shared his­tory of en­slave­ment, Caribbean mi­grants could not iden­tify with the strug­gles of black Amer­i­cans to gain full ci­ti­zen­ship in the coun­try of their birth.

The prej­u­dice went some­thing like this: Dem don’t even ha fi beg fa visa fi come here. Dem don’t have no am­bi­tion. Why dem don’t mek bet­ter use of dem op­por­tu­nity? But in a fun­da­men­tally racist so­ci­ety, am­bi­tion is not al­ways enough. In fact, you could be lynched for be­ing too am­bi­tious. And op­por­tu­nity can be ‘a scarce, scare com­mod­ity’, as Buju Ban­ton so per­cep­tively re­minds us.

The mis­un­der­stand­ing went both ways. Our own Claude McKay wrote a bril­liant novel, Home to Har­lem, which ex­am­ines how blacks from the US and the Caribbean viewed each other. Ray, a Haitian in­tel­lec­tual, con­sid­ers him­self “su­pe­rior to ten mil­lions of sup­pressed Yankee ‘coons’. Now he was just one of them and he hated them for be­ing one of them”.

Jake, one of the de­spised black Yan­kees, has his own prej­u­dices. He “was very Amer­i­can in spirit and shared a lit­tle of that com­fort­able Yankee con­tempt for poor for­eign­ers. Africa was jun­gle, and Africans bush nig­gers, can­ni­bals. And West In­di­ans were mon­key-chasers”.


McKay’s novel was pub­lished in 1928. Eighty-eight years later, I was at the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture for the ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mony. Un­like Ray, I did not feel su­pe­rior. Just proud of what black peo­ple in the US have ac­com­plished!

The lead de­signer for the mag­nif­i­cent build­ing is David Ad­jaye, who was born in Tan­za­nia. He’s cer­tainly not Jake’s myth­i­cal ‘bush nig­ger’. The son of a Ghana­ian diplo­mat, Ad­jaye was ed­u­cated to be a cit­i­zen of the world. He stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture in Eng­land and in 1993 won the Royal In­sti­tute of Bri­tish Ar­chi­tects’ bronze medal.

This global ar­chi­tec­ture com­pe­ti­tion is not the Olympics. A bronze medal does not mean third place. Ar­chi­tec­ture de­gree pro­grammes are struc­tured in at least two parts: un­der­grad­u­ate (Part 1) and post­grad­u­ate (Part 2). The bronze medal is awarded for the best de­sign project at Part 1 and the sil­ver for Part 2.

In an in­spir­ing in­ter­view pub­lished in The New York Times on Sep­tem­ber 21, 2016, Ad­jaye ob­serves that the slave trade was not just about pick­ing cot­ton. To “re­ally talk about ar­chi­tec­ture and AfricanAmer­i­can his­tory, let’s go back and look at Ge­or­gia and Charleston, you know, all th­ese places, through a dif­fer­ent lens. There, the his­tory is right in front of you — this in­cred­i­ble tra­di­tion of met­al­smithing by freed slaves. There were no moulds. They learned all this by hand. It is part of the his­tory of Amer­i­can ar­chi­tec­ture.” Ad­jaye hon­ours this ex­per­tise, us­ing bronze-coloured metal lat­tice to wrap the build­ing.

If you read last Sun­day’s Out­look mag­a­zine, you know that my sis­ter, Don­nette, was the mu­seum’s first in­di­vid­ual donor. So she was in­vited and I was her guest. She’s listed in the pro­gramme as one of the pa­trons who have con­trib­uted be­tween US$5,000 and US$24,999.

In De­cem­ber 2003, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush signed the bill au­tho­ris­ing the es­tab­lish­ment of the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture. That same month, Don­nette sent her first cheque for the mu­seum to the Smith­so­nian. There was no site, no ar­chi­tect, no direc­tor, no mu­seum. But there was leg­is­la­tion. It was time for change.

Last month, the BBC World Ser­vice in­ter­viewed Don­nette for a doc­u­men­tary on the mu­seum that was aired the day it opened. The ti­tle cho­sen for the pro­gramme was ‘A Home for Black His­tory’. Home is not just the lit­eral place. It’s also the sense of se­cu­rity the word evokes.

Don­nette is a trans­ac­tional at­tor­ney work­ing in af­ford­able hous­ing fi­nanc­ing with the DC De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment. She un­der­stands the chal­lenges that many black Amer­i­cans face as they try to hold on to their homes. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is push­ing many of them out. One fam­ily’s op­por­tu­nity is an­other’s catas­tro­phe.


When we fi­nally got into the mu­seum, I knew we were home. The ex­hibits tell a grand nar­ra­tive of sur­vival that Africans across the Di­as­pora know in­ti­mately. African Amer­i­can his­tory and cul­ture is not just about the U.S. It’s a shared story. Mar­cus Gar­vey is in the Mu­seum. And so is Bob Mar­ley.

Gar­vey went to New York in 1916 and his Universal Ne­gro Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion at­tracted thou­sands of sup­port­ers. His vi­sion­ary news­pa­per, The Ne­gro World, gave Africans on the con­ti­nent and in the di­as­pora a new un­der­stand­ing of our com­mon iden­tity and destiny.

Gar­vey’s Black Star Line was de­signed to sup­port trade be­tween Africa and the Amer­i­cas. His vi­sion was much too rev­o­lu­tion­ary. He had to be stopped. So he was ar­rested for mail fraud. I can’t be­lieve that the re­cent pe­ti­tion to clear Gar­vey’s name had to be aborted be­cause it did not at­tract the re­quired 100,000 sig­na­tures. In Ja­maica alone we should have been able to get that many.

One of the most pow­er­ful ex­hibits in the Mu­seum is Em­mett Till’s cas­ket.

In 1955, Till, a four­teen-yearold boy, was lynched in Mis­sis­sippi for al­legedly flirt­ing with a white wo­man. Black lives must mat­ter. And the Na­tional Mu­seum of African-Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture will long tell our col­lec­tive story of tragedy and tri­umph.


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