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Caribbean Component Is Often Overlooked

Americans of Caribbean ancestry endured oppression and the humiliation of black life just like their African-American brethren.


February 6, 2005
Copyright © 2005 MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

Is one race

From the same place

That make the same trip

On the same ship

-- From Caribbean Man by calypso singer Black Stalin of Trinidad

Racism, the primary idiocy of the civilized world, may have bonded people of color in the African diaspora, but sometimes fissures are exposed whenever the history of black America is studied. The Caribbean contribution to the struggle for black pride and dignity is often sold short in the retelling.

For the record, activists like Marcus Garvey, Grace Campbell, John Brown Russwurm and James Weldon Johnson are coin of the realm.

In the words of Georges Clemenceau, a French statesman, their input was ``as necessary as blood.''

''There's a long-standing wariness with which West Indians and African Americans have regarded each other that in a sense flies in the face of historical reality,'' says Les Slater, chairman of the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y.

And according to Dr. Carole Boyce-Davies, professor and director of African New World Studies at Florida International University, African-American history avoids the Caribbean component because African Americans have a linear sense of history.

''They trace their lines back to certain people who are [American-born],'' she says, ``then bring it forward to the present and anybody who doesn't fit that model gets erased automatically.''

Boyce-Davies views such exclusion as a dangerous approach to teaching the history because the dominant identification of black Americans boxes out Caribbean stalwarts as ``immigrants who were making waves when people like Garvey was probably the most advanced organizer of working-class African Americans and Caribbean peoples in history.''

To expand on Boyce-Davies' equality theory, long before Jim Crow was exiled in the mid-1960s by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, Caribbean Americans and Americans of Caribbean ancestry had endured oppression and the humiliation of black life just like their African-American brethren. So their connections to the legacy of change for minorities in America come alive like a lamp switched on in a darkened room.

Ric Powell, a retired educator who lives in Miramar, sheds light on the missing link.

''During slavery, vessels such as the Henrietta Marie dropped off captive Africans at ports in America and the Caribbean,'' Powell says, ''so we are more than likely cousins.'' In May 1993, Powell, of Jamaican and South Carolinian ancestry, led black divers in the placement of a memorial plaque honoring slaves who survived the perilous journey at the site of the wrecked ship, which eventually sank off Key West in 1701.

Powell and Boyce-Davies view the history of Black America through the prism of Pan Africanism.

For example, Boyce-Davies, who is completing a book, Caribbean Middle Passages, believes Garvey was a leader and major political figure. Garvey was recognized for espousing a global vision of self-reliance for black people. In 1914, he organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association and mapped out a plan to develop an African nation state, which garnered popular support after his arrival in New York in 1916. He established UNIA branches in 38 states, Washington, D.C., and several countries, including Cuba, Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Venezuela, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Namibia and South Africa.

At the height of his movement he had millions of registered members, says Grenadian-born Philip Dickenson Peters, CEO of Zagada Market, an advisory strategy firm in Coral Gables. ``To this date, it is recognized as the largest registered civil rights group ever.''

And Garvey practiced what he preached. His rapidly expanding empire comprised a weekly publication, Negro World, the Negro Factories Corporation, a steamship company called the Black Star Line and a conglomeration of small businesses that included a hat factory, groceries, restaurants, a printing shop, schools and a trucking business.

That he was from Jamaica was of little consequence, according to Dr. Tony Martin, professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. But Boyce-Davies disagrees. ''It was a central feature in the way people from the African-American middle class interacted with him in terms of their definition of black community,'' she says. ``African Americans tend to define black community in narrow terms. They don't talk about black communities, plural.''

Garvey faced opposition on another front, too. ''His movement was vigorously suppressed by governments, especially in the United States and Britain,'' Martin says. ``In Trinidad, for example, you went to jail if you were caught reading his newspaper.''

Eventually, waning popularity, a listing steamship company, a passel of legal problems and a mail fraud charge would fog Garvey's dreams. A five-year sentence (commuted to half) and subsequent deportation to Jamaica in 1927 failed to dampen his legacy around the world. The following is a list of activists of Caribbean bearing and ancestry who left their mark on the pages of Black American history.

CYRIL BRIGGS: In 1919 Briggs, born in Nevis, formed the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), an underground organization of black nationalists fighting for African-American rights. He was a leading figure in the Communist Party.

GRACE CAMPBELL: Jamaican Grace Campbell, a socialist, served in Briggs's ABB. In 1919 she was the first woman to run for the New York State Assembly.

HUBERT HARRISON: Harrison, born in St. Croix, Virgin islands, was the first person to give Garvey a public platform. His paper, The Voice: A Newspaper for the New Negro, helped set the stage for other radical publications. Harrison, nicknamed Black Socrates by his peers, was a brilliant writer, orator, educator, critic and political activist in New York City from 1910 to 1930.

ROBERT BROWN ELLIOTT: Robert Brown Elliott was born in Boston of Jamaican parents in 1842. He earned a law degree in England and became a politician during Reconstruction. He was a member of the South Carolina State constitutional convention in 1868 and served in South Carolina's house of representatives from 1868-1870. He was elected as a Republican to the 42nd and 43rd U.S. Congresses 1871-1874. After his two congressional terms, he practiced law in New Orleans until his death on Aug. 9, 1884.

JOHN BROWN RUSSWURM: John Brown Russwurm, a Jamaican, was born to a slave mother and a white American merchant father. He was educated in Quebec and graduated in 1826 from Bowdoin College in Maine. He was one of the first black American college graduates. In 1827 he helped establish Freedom's Journal in New York, the first black newspaper in the United States. Two years later, Russwurm closed the paper and moved to Liberia because he believed blacks had no future in the United States.

JAMES WELDON JOHNSON: James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 to a Bahamian mother and a father from Virginia. He wrote key books, like The Autobiography of an ex-Coloured Man (1912), that centralized the black issue and got the white intelligentsia and the political establishment looking at the black man as somebody with a mind. He was also a poet and songwriter, and made his name writing the lyrics for Lift Every Voice and Sing, which became popular as the Negro National Anthem.

ARTURO SCHOMBURG: Arturo Schomburg was born in 1874 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. A historian and bibliographer, he was dedicated to the struggle for black equality and for Puerto Rican independence. His library in Harlem became the internationally renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and houses the largest collection of African and African-American materials in the United States.

FRANZ FANON: Franz Fanon was born in 1925 in the French colony of Martinique. His book, The Wretched of the Earth (1961), published shortly before his death, established him as a prophetic figure and the author of a social gospel that urged colonized peoples to purge themselves of their degradation in a ''collective catharsis'' through violence against their European oppressors. Fanon warned of the dangers of a nation achieving national liberation before achieving maturity in the development of its own culture, offering the United States as an example.

''Fanon's book had a major impact and [projected] ideas in terms of black power thinking in the United States,'' says Boyce-Davies, the FIU/ professor. ``It was a bible for many African Americans throughout the 1960s and 1970s.''

SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: In 1968, Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., became the first black woman elected to Congress and to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. She was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., of Barbadian parentage. Chisholm was an outspoken champion of women, minorities and the poor during seven terms in the House. She was 80 when she died on New Year's Day.

STOKELY CARMICHAEL: ''Stokely Carmichael is going to have to be reassessed by African Americans who talk about the distinction between Caribbeans and African Americans,'' Boyce-Davies says, ``because he did not feel any separation [when] he went down to Mississippi to help with voter rights, trying to register black people to vote [under] conditions in which life was threatened if you voted.''

After graduating from Howard University in 1964, Trinidadian-born Carmichael joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and served as its director of voter registration. He later helped organize the independent political organization, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (1966). The chosen emblem for the party was a black panther, which was later adopted by the Black Panther Party.

As chairman of SNCC in 1966, he coined the slogan and movement, ''Black Power.'' It promoted racial pride, black unity, self-defense and political and economic power. SNCC and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) members may have embraced the movement, but it created division within the civil rights movement per se.

Still, according to Slater of the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., ``There are many who insist that no one in the turbulent '60s better articulated the frustration and injustices heaped upon the black underclass than Carmichael.''

Carmichael left SNCC in 1967, and joined the Black Panther Party where he served as prime minister. That year he co-authored the book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. In 1969, he left the United States to live in Guinea, West Africa, and resigned from his position in the party. He changed his name to Kwame Ture and spent much time advocating Pan-Africanism. Carmichael died of prostate cancer in 1998.

MALCOLM X: The fiery, controversial orator Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Neb. His mother was Grenadian and his father a Baptist minister who supported Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. At age 20, Malcolm was sentenced to 10 years for burglary. While in prison he became a Black Muslim, then joined the Nation of Islam upon his release. He started a newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and began to spread the gospel of black nationalism. Malcolm left the Nation of Islam in 1964 and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated in 1965 while delivering an address in Harlem.

''Malcolm X became the analog of Martin Luther King in a different way,'' says Boyce-Davies. 'Whereas King was talking nonviolence, X was saying `Don't even put your hand on me or I'll have to take you to the cemetery.' ''

DENMARK VESEY: During slavery one of the major slave revolts in African-American history was led by Denmark Vesey, who was born in St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, circa 1767. In 1800 Vesey was allowed to purchase his freedom with $600 he had won in a street lottery. He was familiar with the Haitian slave revolt of the 1790s, and read anti-slavery literature. He planned and organized an uprising of city and plantation blacks in Charleston, S.C. The plan reportedly called for the rebels to attack guardhouses and arsenals, seize their arms, kill all whites, burn and destroy the city, and free the slaves. Several thousand blacks may have been involved. On the eve of the scheduled outbreak, white authorities were alerted by a house servant and prepared for the insurrection. About 130 blacks were arrested. In the trials that followed, 67 were convicted of trying to raise an insurrection; of those, 35, including Vesey, were hanged, and 32 were exiled.

LOUIS FARRAKHAN: Minister Louis Farrakhan, born Louis Eugene Walcott on May 11, 1933, in Roxbury, Mass., was reared by his mother, a native of St. Kitts. She exposed him and his brother Alvin to progressive material such as The Crisis Magazine, published by the NAACP.

Walcott graduated high school at age 16 and attended Winston-Salem Teachers' College in North Carolina.

He became Louis X after converting to the Nation of Islam in 1955 and later assumed the name Louis Farrakhan. In May 1965, three months after the death of Malcolm X, he was assigned to Temple No. 7 in New York City, which was still tense because of allegations of Muslim involvement in the assassination of Malcolm X.

CLAUDE McKAY: Jamaican-born writer Claude McKay wrote a sonnet urging comrades to resist white assaults on black neighborhoods during a wave of race riots in 1919. It sums up the struggle for the black cause by African Americans and their Caribbean brothers and sisters. Here is an excerpt:

O kinsmen we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

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