The Impact of Caribbean Culture on North America

Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe delivered this lecture on June 27, 2014 in New York for National Caribbean-American Heritage Month.

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 28, 2014

When Brother Aggery Dechinea, associate director of grievances and legal services, asked me to address you on the impact of Caribbean Culture on North America, I really had to scratch my head for the simple reason that North America includes Canada and the United States and as much as we would like to cross boundaries I thought it best that we narrow our focus to “The Impact of Caribbean Culture on the United States.” This is certainly much more doable.

But even this is not as precise or narrow as I wanted it to be for the simple reason that one can interpret the question of culture in many ways. Culture also means different things to different people. Faced with such a conundrum, I thought it better to examine the realm of intellectual and popular culture, politics, and the arts to demonstrate how Caribbean Americans influenced the making of the United States in big ways and small ways and in ways of which we are not always conscious.

Thus it seemed to me, particularly in a month entitled National Caribbean-American Heritage Month, that I could take the thirty or forty minutes allotted to me to speak about the varied ways in which the activities of the Caribbean and its people-even though our number is small-impacted on the making of the United States especially when the president of the United States has proclaimed that Caribbean-Americans are part of a great national tradition. President Obama continued: “Caribbean Americans have contributed to every aspect of our society-from science and medicine to business and the arts. During National Caribbean-American Heritage Month we honor their history, culture, and essential role in the American narrative.” It is to the role that Caribbean Americans have played in the American narrative that I wish to address my remarks. I will look at three aspects of this relationship as it developed over the course of the last two hundred and fifty years or so. It’s a long sweep of time but I think it gives us a sense of how we fit into the picture.

As tiny as it is, the Caribbean has had a tremendous impact on the making of the United States and the modern world. I can demonstrate this point by asking you to go into your pockets or your wallets, take out a ten dollar note, and tell me what you see on it. On one side you will see a picture of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States; the U.S. Treasury Building is featured on the back.

Then, you might want to ask, why are these two pictures there? They are there because Alexander Hamilton was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a major author of the Federalist Papers, and, most relevant to our discussion, he was the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Not satisfied with this answer, you may still want to ask why these facts should be important to Caribbean people. These facts are important to Caribbean people because Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis, in the British West Indies in 1755. At the age of eleven he moved to St. Croix to work in an accounting firm before he moved to the U.S. to attend Columbia University (at that time it was called King’s College) after which he became embroiled on the Patriot side against the pro-British Loyalist forces. The path that Hamilton took is a path with which most of us here today are familiar. It is a path that most of us have taken.

For our purposes, the foregoing is the most relevant fact about Hamilton’s life and career. He fought for a strong federal or central government as opposed to Thomas Jefferson, another titan of American politics, who fought for states’ rights in the belief that the fewer powers one gave to the central government the better it was to preserve the union. Interestingly enough, this is a position that is still held in general by the Republican Party-that is, a belief that a respect of states’ rights as opposed to the power of a strong central government in an important ingredient in keeping the union strong. However, had Jefferson’s view prevailed we might still be living in a racially divided society and perhaps Barack Obama may not have been the president of these United States. We can argue that it is as a direct result of the position taken by Hamilton in those early days when the republic was being formed that we can now claim Obama as the first black president of the union. At any rate, this is what Ron Chernow, in his illuminating biography of Hamilton, had to say about Hamilton’s contribution to the making of America:

He had laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of the president from passive administrator to active policy maker, creating the institutional scaffolding for America’s future emergence as a great power. He had demonstrated the creative uses of government and helped to weld the states irreversibly into one nation. He had also defended Washington’s administration more brilliantly than anyone else, articulating its constitutional underpinnings and enunciating key tenets of foreign policy. “We look in vain for a man who, in equal space of time, has produced such direct and lasting effects upon our institutions and history,” Henry Cabot Lodge was to contend.

Chernow concludes: “If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.” If this is not the finest praise that one can thrust upon a West Indian and his impact upon the making of the United States, then surely none better can be given.

In those nascent days of the American republic, the Caribbean also contributed enormously to the making of the United States through the tremendous victory of the Haitian people over the French, the British, and the Spanish armies at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Sometimes we tend to pass over this world-shattering event without recognizing the important role it played in the making of the contemporary world in which we live. For one thing, the glorious victories of the Haitian people over these European powers proved that “white power was not invincible.” However it was Frederick Douglass, the great African American freedom fighter, who captured the essence of the Haitian Revolution and what it meant to the modern world when he said:

[Haiti] had grandly served the cause of universal human liberty. We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti ninety years ago. When they struck for freedom, they built better than they knew. Their swords were not drawn and could not be drawn simply for themselves alone. They were linked and interlinked with their race, and striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.

I regard her as the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century. It was her one brave example that first of all started (sic) the Christian world into a sense of the Negro’s manhood. It was she who first awoke the Christian world to a sense of “the danger of goading too far the energy that slumbers in a black man’s arm.”Until Haiti struck for freedom, the conscience of the Christian world slept profoundly over slavery. It was scarcely troubled even by a dream of this crime against justice and liberty.

But the Haitian Revolution was important to the United States of America for one other reason. When the revolution began in France and the Paris masses stormed the Bastille, it opened up a space for the enslaved masses in the Caribbean to fight for their freedom, a process that C. L. R. James chronicled so well in his book, Black Jacobins. Napoleon would have none of it. Haiti had made France one of the richest countries in the world. It had to keep the Haitian people in chains to maintain its economic advantage. Therefore to secure French interests in the Caribbean, Napoleon sent the might of the French army, under the command of General Charles Leclerc, his brother-in-law, to recapture Haiti and re-impose slavery in that island, a position that Thomas Jefferson, the president of the United States at the time, supported.

In his arrogance and in his ambition, Napoleon believed that after his successful campaign in Haiti he would send his troops to Louisiana which belonged to France “to restore French power in the transatlantic region and thereby raise new money for his even wider imperial design.” There was no such luck there. The might of the Haitian army put an end to that ambition. As a direct consequence of his defeat in Haiti, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States for a pittance to extricate himself from that disaster. In other words, it was because of the heroic struggle of Caribbean people that the United States was able to purchase Louisiana in 1803.

The purchase of Louisiana,1,171,931 square miles of territory, the most extensive piece of land the United States had ever acquired up until that point, allowed the country to expand from thirteen tiny states in the northeast (and about four others) to a massive empire in North America. The states the U.S. acquired from this purchase included Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Kansas. From that point the United States went on to become a continental power and later a world power. So anytime you think about the expansiveness and the power of the United States always remember it achieved that status because of Caribbean people and the magnificent courage the Haitian people displayed when they defeated Napoleon’s army. Christopher Hitchens put it best when he said, “Americans have good reason to be grateful for the exertions of Toussaint and his heroic rebels. Without them, the United States might never have gained control of the Mississippi and the Midwest.” Thanks to the gallant work of Caribbean people in Haiti, France’s loss became the United States’ gain.

Today as we look at the plight of our Haitian brothers and sisters, we must never fail to remember their contribution to the making of the United States and in setting the ball a ‘rolling for the liberation of enslaved peoples in North and South America-that is, from the U.S. in the north to Brazil in the south. Like David Rudder, our poet laureate, we ought to join with him and sing:

Haiti, I’m sorry
We misunderstood you.
One day we’ll turn our heads
And look inside you.
Haiti, I’m sorry, Haiti, I am sorry
One day, we’ll turn our heads
[And] restore your glory.

But the contribution of Caribbean Americans to the making of the United States didn’t stop with the heroics of Toussaint and the Haitian people. The massive migration of Caribbean people to the United States of America during the early twentieth century gave us another opportunity to make our impact upon the liberation process that was taking place in this country in the area of politics and the arts. Since we are in New York, I refer to three Caribbean American persons who had a massive impact upon the making of the U.S.A.: that is, Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, and Arthur Schomburg, each distinguishing himself in his field and leaving a legacy of which we can all be proud. And while we are at it, let us talk about the cross fertilization of ideas between the two societies that was taking place continuously as we developed side by side.

Marcus Garvey, one of the most important political figures of twentieth- century America, had heard and read much about the work of Booker T. Washington, one of the most famous Americans of his time and intellectual/political heir of Frederick Douglass. He was impressed with the self-reliance project of Washington and the work that he was doing at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Garvey hoped to join Washington at Tuskegee, to raise funds to support Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association that was trying to replicate Washington’s effort in Jamaica. When Washington died in 1915, Garvey changed his plans and decided to go to New York. He turned out to be one of the most influential leaders of the country preaching a doctrine he called “race first” that the late Tony Martin, documented in his seminal work, Race First. Garvey promoted three major ideas: a pride in one’s race, the need to liberate our minds (before our bodies could be liberated), and a respect for our people’s past. He was unflinching in his belief that Africans gave civilization to the world.

These were powerfully liberating ideas that created the “New Negro” and gave black people in the United States and the world over the strength to face their oppressors with dignity and demand their freedom. New York was his Mecca and he had his greatest impact in the United States. One can argue that Marcus Garvey had as much impact on shaping the ideology of the modern liberation struggle in the black world influencing the ideas of black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Malcom X, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. It’s no exaggeration to say that Garvey’s Pan-African philosophy influenced the ideology of the Nation of Islam and the Rastafari movements.

Caribbean thinkers also played their part in the making of the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of black culture in this city that we love so much. When we think of the Harlem Renaissance we naturally think of people such as Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, Eric Walrond, J. A. Rogers, W. A. Domingo, and Arthur Schomburg. Here, in New York, was the coming together of writers, thinkers, and artists from the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa each seeking to articulate a new vision of the society but insistent that we see the world in new eyes and that we not be ashamed of our blackness.

Of all these writers, Claude McKay seems to have captured best the sense of dignity and defiance of his people. After the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, he declaimed:

If we must die-let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned up in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die-oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

Some years later, McKay argued that this was not a racial but a universal poem of which he was very proud. Written in the heat of an onslaught against black people and amidst the rising race pride, one could not but have felt that it was meant to undergird the desire of black people to stand up for their freedom.

“White Houses,” another sonnet by McKay, also caught the defiance and pride that black people were feeling at the time. He also declared that his poem was not meant to be taken as a poem of protest against the symbol of repression that many black people saw as being embodied in the White House and the occupant of the White House. He wrote:

Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
A chafing savage, down the decent street,
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shattered door of glass.

Although McKay may have just been uttering feelings bereft of any political or racial connotation, to his readers McKay captured in verse how they felt about the major symbol of power in the United States. While he may not have wanted to admit this truth, Garvey got it correct when he wrote to Washington as follows: “Prejudice in these countries [the Caribbean] is far different from that of America. Here we have to face the prejudice of the hypocritical White Men who nevertheless are our friends as also to fight down the prejudice of our race in shade colour” (Garvey to Washington, September 8, 1914.)

Arthur Schomburg, after whom the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on 135th Street in New York is named, was a black Puerto Rican who attacked the problem of race prejudice from another angle. He was an ardent bibliophile. He believed that if we, as a people, could show a credible sense of achievement among the races worldwide then we would gain the respect of the world. He believed that if we did not know and understand our past achievements, we could not know and understand ourselves as he made clear in his seminal article, “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” in Alain Locke’s path-breaking The New Negro. He was convinced the “American negro must remake his past in order to make his future.” While it was natural for Americans to think that one’s past was a luxury, he posited that for the Negro the opposite was true, hence his conviction: “History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generation must repair and offset.” Some may argue that the same applies today: that there is, indeed, a compelling need to understand who we are and where we came from as a people.

Here, then, was this Caribbean American, pioneering a world that Caesar never knew, traveling miles and miles around the world to uncover these gems of wisdom that black folks had given to the world just to give us a sense of pride in ourselves. He wanted to make it known that the Negro has often been a collaborator in the struggle for his freedom and that it was wrong to describe any Negro of achievement as “exceptional” since it unfairly disassociated that person from the race. He also wanted it to be known that black people possess a record of remarkable group and individual achievement.

The next major moment in our story has to do with the evolution of hip-hop or rap music, a political and philosophical statement of inner-city youths, and the tremendous contribution it made to the evolution of music or the music industry in the United States. Arising out of the poverty and want of the South Bronx, a deprived part of New York at the time, this music grew into a global multi-billion dollar industry. Although this art is only about thirty years old, according to my colleague Michael Jeffries, “it has gone from nowhere of forgotten city streets to literally every community on earth with access to a television or radio.” This music has become so important that in May 2014, Dr. Dre and Apple announced a deal to buy Beats Electronics, a rising music brand, for 3 billion dollars. According to Dr. Dre, this makes him “rap’s first billionaire.”

But where did this journey begin and what was the Caribbean connection to such a gigantic international phenomenon?

Looking at the origins of hip-hop we can see that it drew primarily on reggae’s practice of dubbing and toasting which led to hip-hop’s emceeing (later known as rapping) and scratching. In this context, the adaptation of Jamaica’s sound system to that of the inner city environs of the South Bronx conduced to a new musical fusion. Jamie Ann Board has noted, “Most of all Africans of the inner cities and Jamaicans could relate with the hardships of the political, social, and economic conditions that faced them: this became the root of hip-hop lyrics.”

It is important to note that three of hip-hop’s prime movers during its early phase (Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash) were of Caribbean roots and background. Given the long history of West Indians living in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, it is remarkable that there weren’t many musical crossovers before. But as David Toop notes: “With sound systems at their heart, reggae and rap share a partial reliance on previously recorded rhythms. In all the stories of the pre-disc hip hop the only musicians are the ones on DJ’s records. The rock or soul impulse to form a band, rehearse and play gigs was supplanted by the magic attraction of the twin turntables.” It is from this point that the wonders of rap music and hip-hop began.

What is so important to me, as we celebrate National Caribbean American Heritage Month, is how these music trends have merged and become a part of our inheritance, no matter what part of the black world one comes from. Years ago, I would go to a party and some blacks, depending where you are from, could dance the soca, the reggae, or Ghanaian high life. Today, I go to a party and all these young people dance with the same skill and agility to any of this music which brings up the interesting phenomenon: this thing has gone transnational-the music of the black world has become the property of all black people so that dancing to hip-hop, or claiming Bob Marley or Michael Jackson seem a natural phenomenon.

A few weeks ago I was driving in my car with my nephew who is twenty-five. Needless to say, the car radio was on Hot 97. Beyoncé came on the air. He informed me that she was the most powerful woman in the world. I did not contest his evaluation.

My daughter, the mother of three wonderful boys, is forty-four years of age. In December of last year she wrote a penetrating article on Beyoncé’s album “Drunk in Love.” She criticized the album severely asking, “How does an icon go from extraordinary to common?” She then concluded: “To go from independent woman-in control of her destiny, demanding respect and embodying girl power-to describe herself as a drunk, profane woman willing to let her man kick a misogynistic, abusive verse is so disturbing.”

Here are two modern-day Caribbean Americans responding quite differently to the music and sentiments of the day. They both had different responses to the lyrics of Beyoncé even though I am sure they enjoyed the beat. However, this raised another question: Not how much our culture is impacting on America but how much a part of that culture we have become. On the other hand, another niece of mine can’t miss carnival. She goes there each year to participate in the carnival celebration and proclaim Machel Montano to be her hero. She still wants to know from where she got that sense of possession?

Caribbean Americans have contributed much to America and our varied cultures and the arts have impacted upon the making of America. Today, conscious of our past contributions, we must try to make a better America where as Booker T. Washington might have said, we have come to lay our buckets down.



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