“We Are Not African”: How My Guyanese Family Erased Their African Identity

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“Because immigrants have always been particularly prone to repetition – it’s something to do with that experience of moving from West to East or East to West or from island to island. Even when you arrive, you’re still going back and forth; your children are going round and round. There’s no proper term for it – original sin seems too harsh; maybe original trauma would be better.” ― Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Growing up, I always struggled with my identity. My family looked black but I knew at a young age we were not like the neighboring families in our South Bronx neighborhood. For one, my mother spoke Creolese (Guyanese slang). And, most notably, while my schoolmates were able to indulge in Kool-Aid, I wasn’t allowed to drink it. Why? My parents thought the juice was poisonous because cult leader Jim Jones laced it with cyanide for the suicidal massacre that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. They’re immigrants from the South American country.

My father came to America in 1966 and my mother made her way to the U.S. in 1978; hence our history has always been rooted in a balancing act between our American and Caribbean identities. As my parents became more “Americanized,” others around me had to teach me about my background. In fact, I learned about my paternal ancestry through my Barbadian friends and their families, and my cousins taught me Creolese since my parents left that way of speaking behind. As a child, these experiences left me quite confused because I’m not completely American and I’m not completely Barbadian or Guyanese either. But as I learned more about my family’s lineage I found few of us have ever been completely one culture.

My parents came from the countryside of Guyana. My mother’s family is from West Coast Berbice and my father’s family is from West Coast Demerara. The majority of African slaves who emigrated from Barbados to Guyana lived in the county of Demerara where they worked on sugar crops. My paternal grandmother’s family is from Ireland and Barbados. My paternal grandfather is Scottish and Arawak. My maternal grandmother’s family is African, Portuguese and German, whereas her husband, my grandfather, is of Arawak descent. Because of these mixtures, throughout the years, there has been a source of repetition in both of my parents’ narratives of their ancestry. Like most Caribbeans, they are very informed on their European and Aborginal Indian ancestry. Yet, no one knows their African lineage.

My parents, of course, could’ve inquired about that part of their background from their African relatives, but being linked to blackness when my parents were growing up was a no-no. When in conversation with my relatives, I’ve gathered black identity was only used to distinguish themselves from East Indians, Arawak, Chinese or European people. Otherwise, it was not used as a source of pride until the American Black National Movement became popular in Guyana during the 1970s.

Relatives of mine who have established residency in North America and Great Britain agree, blackness has been a learned identity for them. The Guyanese people of my parents’ generation know they are not white but they also believe they are not African. This tiresome contradiction is the main reason why I’m tracing my African roots, because it would help me understand Guyanese traditions better. Through observance, I have noted Guyanese and other Caribbeans participate in traditions without knowing the history behind the causes.  With the information I receive from Ancestry.com’s DNA test, I would be able to identify the African countries my family descended from and, with that information, better appreciate what my ancestors have incorporated into my family and Caribbean culture.

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