Monday, July 14, 2008

Of colour, culture, nationality, identity

Don't care where you come from
As long as you're a black man
You're an African
No mind your nationality
You have got the identity of an African
Lyrics to African
Sung by Peter Tosh

A couple of weeks ago, a participant in the workshop that I co-facilitated was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was Jamaican. He actually didn't believe until I showed him my passport. He wanted to know what Jamaica was like and that led into a whole discussion about home. We talked a bit about similarities and differences between the island and the country in which I now lived - culture, people, food, beliefs etc. Somewhere during the conversation he then made the comment ' yeah, but you Jamaicans are Africans'.

I started to correct him, ready to defend my nationality and proudly state that I am Jamaican and not African (or Ghanaian) and then I remembered a recent article I had read. The writer was using the Jamaican and the African population in the UK (I think it was in London in particular) to make the point that despite all the similarities in culture and colour and of course the history of slavery, Jamaicans were if any thing anti-Africans and in fact looked down on African (as a continent). While I think her examples were a bit extreme - but yes, recognizable - I had to agree that most Jamaicans really don't and can't identify with Africa as a continent or with the individual countries. Perhaps only the Rastafarian are the exception and even their expectations seem oftentimes misguided - at least based on what I saw in Shashemane).

It's really sad when you think of it. Got this article today from a friend of mine and thought I should share. It is written by Dianne Abbot who writes for one of the Jamaican daily papers, the Jamaican Observer (link to article). Gives food for thought both ways I guess. Afterall, should it really matter where someone is from at the end of the day?

The Lure Brand Jamaica

Jamaica is truly a remarkable country. Despite all of its problems, there are still people anxious to pretend that they are from Jamaica when they are not. One such is American wrestler Kofi Kingston.

His family are academics, they moved to America in 1982. His real name is Kofi Sarkodie-Mensah and he actually comes from Ghana in West Africa. But ordinary Americans are notoriously poorly read and poorly travelled (at least 80% of Americans do not have a passport).

Wrestling promoters were worried that the average wrestling fan would have no idea where Ghana was and eventually they decided to change the young man's name. And, even more important, they changed his country of birth to one that they were confident that everyone would have heard of.Jamaica.

Complete with new name, Kofi Kingston debuted as a professional wrestler in 2005. His promoter dubbed him the "Jamaican Sensation". He claimed to have adopted his new surname in honour of his hometown. And he made a point of emphasising his Caribbean persona: the front of the jacket that he wore into the ring was emblazoned with the Jamaican flag; he gave his favourite wrestling moves Jamaican names like "Cool Runnings"; he posed with the Jamaican flag; he adopted a Damian Marley song as his entrance music; he was photographed on tropical beaches and was described by his promoters as a "tropical superstar hailing from the tropical climate of the Caribbean Sea".

His bogus Jamaican identity was not merely a matter of saying that he was from a country that Americans had actually heard of. It boosted his popularity, particularly in Florida with its huge Jamaican population. Accordingly, he continued to throw himself into his colourful new Jamaican persona. As recently as last month, while on a tour of New Zealand and Australia, he published an online journal entitled From Jamaica to the Land Down Under.

In it he described New Zealand as follows: "I noticed that the roads are quite hilly and there are many houses and neighbourhoods, not at all like Jamaica". He went on, "Everything is irie, though, because the cars drive on the left hand side of the road just like back home in Jamaica."

Everything seemed to be going well, but Kofi reckoned without his proud Ghanaian mother. She complained, "Kofi, your cousins watch you on TV in Ghana and want to know why you don't say you're from Ghana." When Kofi discovered she had revealed his secret identity to the press, he banned her and the rest of his family from speaking to the media.

Kofi is not the first black person to pretend he is from Jamaica and he will not be the last. When I was a child, it was very common for people from other Caribbean islands to say that they were Jamaican. This was partly because Jamaicans were the largest single group of early migrants to the UK. But it was also because most British people had never heard of any other Caribbean island. British people are a little more well-travelled and sophisticated now. But it is still common for young men from Africa and the rest of the Caribbean to pretend to be Jamaicans. They even adopt the patois. This is because (sadly) in their eyes Jamaicans have an unsurpassed reputation for violence and criminality. So pretending to be a Jamaican "Yardie" gives them status.

Kofi Kingston's change of name and nationality may have helped him to become a wrestling star but some of his friends back in Ghana are disappointed. One said, "I cannot bring myself to understand, why would a person who is very capable of going to graduate school decide to jettison all that for concussion in the face?"


Sijui said...

that is such a bummer, but I think different people have different experiences. Classic example, my husband left Ghana for his undergrad at West Indies College in Jamaica, I think now called something else? Anyway he loved it...granted there was a very large African student population.....mostly because he was feted like a king because he was African :) I think perhaps in academic circles there is still that aura and mystique...peope romanticizing about Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Mandela etc.....

Anyway personally I think people should resist being lumped in to a stereotypical 'African' identity. Blacks in America, the Caribbean, Latin America, even Europe have their distinct social and cultural experiences that do create a unique and singular personality.....and I believe it is patronizing and condescending to either downgrade or discount that.

I am proudly African precisely because I acknowledge those very real differences i.e. continental Africans in contrast to those in the Diaspora of African descent.

Maya said...

I am so glad you've brought up this issue, as it is so real and yet often not mentioned. Differences between black and white get so much attention that we forget to discuss clashes between Africa and the Caribbean.

I am going to look for a link to a documentary I once saw in England, 'Black on Black' about crime between Africans and Caribbeans. It was so interesting to watch then, and I'm sure it will be even more interesting watching it in Ghana and after reading your post.

Nana Yaw Asiedu said...

There are great differences even among West, East and Southern Africans. When all is said and done, it should be (and really is) all about you and not where you're from.

Denise said...

Hi Sijui, it both those differences and similarities that make us what we are - either as Jamaicans, Kenyans, Ghanaians or whomever.
Though proudly Jamaican, I hope I won't be too ready as most Jamaicans are prone to be to discount their 'roots'. I am reminded of it every day while here in Ghana - whether is through food, or language, or just even how I look. It's a connection I shouldn't actively or otherwise try to disconnect.

Denise said...

Hi Maya, would love to see that documentary. The article itself also triggered similar discussions in the Jamaican media, including calls for reflection of what this 'brand' Jamaica means, which unfortunately is not always positive.

Denise said...

Hi Nana Yaw - fully agreed. Alas, alas we seem to still have a long way to go to achieve that