One Caribbean; Many Identities…

Calypsonian Lord Nelson once sang, “all ah we is one family”. Optimists in the Caribbean may well agree with these words, but the reality is that if you were to describe Caribbean states as a family, you would have to call it a complex unit – and one in which there is much sibling rivalry. Caribbean bloggers Geoffrey Philp (Jamaican writer), Guyana Media Critic aka Living Guyana and Francis Wade (Jamaican management consultant) recently shared their personal views about this complex region with me.

What it means to be Caribbean
“Caribbean means being a part of one of the most interesting, though unintended, social experiments in the world”, says Geoffrey Philp who lives in Miami. “Within this archipelago, we have people from all over the planet meeting and trying to live together without resorting to genocide…

“In Miami, we all tend to try to get along because we are in a minority, so we have to get along. That said, whenever the fight bruk out, they usually tend to be along the lines of stereotypes, which are really ways for not thinking for yourself. And some people don’t want to think for themselves.”

Living Guyana describes the Caribbean as “a unique collection of people strung together by a common history and increasingly and perhaps irreversibly influenced by Americana.

“It’s a usually change-resistant conglomeration in desperate need of real political and economic unification. One troubling feature of Caribbean life is that despite the obvious need for real political and economic fusion, there is a significant degree of resistance to this in some quarters.” While he admits that there is a common fun-loving thread which binds Caribbean cultural and social life, he says there are also subtle differences that define each particular island such as lingo, food and self-image. “But at the very core,” he says, “we are a singular people bound by a common and undeniable history.”

Yet not all people automatically buy in to the concept of “one Caribbean”. For Francis Wade to emotionally connect to this notion of “one Caribbean”, it took the persuasion of a Trini friend that “we were all one Caribbean people”, and a vacation to Trinidad, which felt familiar to him: “It looked like Jamaica; it felt like Jamaica.”

There are many answers to this question of Caribbean identity, as Caribbean Free Radio, and the BBC have discovered.

For some, national identity brings its own challenges. To Living Guyana, being Guyanese means “regrettably, inherent discrimination both internally and externally. It means being perceived as being disadvantaged but it simultaneously means having to be diligent and committed to perseverance in order to succeed. It means being resilient and more open to Caribbean integration. It means being naturally hospitable and warm. It means being proud.”

West Indian versus Caribbean
Many people use the terms “West Indian” and “Caribbean” interchangeably. Yet the question still remains, is there a distinction between the terms “West Indian” and “Caribbean”? Living Guyana thinks it’s “mere semantics”, while Wade uses the terms interchangeably: “Logically I know that Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, and Martinique are Caribbean,” he says. “Caribbean primarily means English-speaking, Caribbean Basin country, but I include Bahamas and Belize in there although they are not really a part of the Caribbean Basin.”

Philp, on the other hand, has a clear distinction about the terms:

“West Indies refers to the former colonies of England – mostly English speaking. ‘Caribbean’ refers to the whole gumbo: English, French, Spanish, patwa, what-have-you speaking archipelago of islands, and the coastal regions of South and Central Americas. You could even extend the definition to places in North America such as the recently colonized Miami and the older cities in Louisiana and the Carolinas or Plantation America.”

Caribbean Unity
In her Global Voices post Bombastic?, Janine Mendes-Franco writes, “The Caribbean, as a region, manages to operate quite well when it comes to endeavours like The University of the West Indies and West Indies Cricket (recent events concerning the latter notwithstanding).” Francis Wade attempted to provide an explanation about Jamaican attitudes:

“We don’t even think about fighting in Jamaica. We just want to do our own thing. We like to be together when it works, and we like to be apart when we’re apart. The Federation fell apart primarily because the DLP saw that opposing it was a way to win the elections. If they had been more enlightened they would not have pushed so hard for a referendum then, and history would have gone differently.

“Now, because of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) more Jamaicans are identifying with being Caribbean. Luckily, many Caribbean businesses operate across borders. It’s about when will it become easier to do business, when will barriers be moved? It’s a question of when, not if.”

Although Philp thinks that Caribbean people “don’t want them (Federation and CSME) to work”, he is quick to give an optimistic outlook on Caribbean people’s ability to work together.

“When we are united, we are unstoppable,” he explains enthusiastically. “Look at the work of that generation that fought for independence on a united front across the national borders. They fell apart once they gained independence, but the unity was tremendous and unparalleled.

It is a sad fact that humans rarely get together unless it is to fight a real enemy. We have no ‘enemies’ so we’ve decided to kill ourselves.”

There are those like Don Mitchell from the Corruption Free Anguilla blog who look forward to becoming part of “an integral part of the independent and sovereign nation known as the West Indies”. He describes the West Indies as “a country that is coming into existence. It does not yet have a flag or a national anthem”.

Economic Rivalry

While Francis Wade recently blogged about “some significant announcements related to acquisitions across the Caribbean region”,Living Guyana thinks that Caribbean people’s gripe with one another stem from “the varying responses to political and economic unification, and the stereotyping of each other without any initiative on the part of CARICOM or individual governments to redress this”.

Coming Together Despite Differences
Apart from some similarities stemming from their shared histories, a Trini is different to a Barbadian, who in turn is different from a Jamaican,” writes Francis Wade. Defined by its complex characteristics, the Caribbean brand is one that is often used by its states. Yet some see the need to distance themselves from it when it is attacked. According to Barbados Free Press, “When you have declared yourself to be a family member, your brother’s reputation is yours.”

Although Caribbean people’s differences can sometimes create division among them, they also know how to rally around each other and to feel proud of each others’ achievements. Philp, Wade and Living Guyana all agree that the Caribbean will benefit fro harnessing the strengths of its members. In fact, Living Guyana prophesies that:

”The governments of the Caribbean will find themselves in a situation where they are forced to formalize and institutionalize Caribbean people, through travel, work, business, trade, sex, and relationships, are already charting the course.”


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