The Caribbean American Story

The Caribbean American Story

The good thing about coffee table books is they don’t necessarily need to be strong on academic rigour or gratuitous precision.

Find a catchy title, a strong cover, bite-sized anecdotes or factoids and strong enough photographs to help keep the pages turning and the chatter going.

Caribbean American Heritage: A History of High Achievers almost completely matches the profile.

A product of the prolific husband and wife team, Elliot Bastien and Sandra Bernard-Bastien, Heritage provides us with a hefty sampling of the contributions of men and women—however sometimes remote in their Caribbean connections—to public life in the United States.

Newcomers to the Bastien trademark would be somewhat puzzled at the Obama/Clinton hero-worship at the start, but it does not take long before Howard University President, Trinidad-born, Wayne Frederick (also rather unsurprisingly pictured alongside former US President Obama), introduces “a platform for stimulating dialogue on the successes of Caribbean Americans.”

The introduction by the authors promises much, citing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 Broadway hit Hamilton: An American Musical (erroneously referred to as ‘Hamilton the Musical’) in an attempt to establish an early link between the Caribbean presence in America and the achievement of excellence in a wide variety of public arenas.

Alexander Hamilton, around whose life the award-winning musical was composed, was born in Nevis to European parents in the mid-1800s (there is a dispute as to the actual year) and spent his early years in St Croix before moving to New York at the age of 17.

He went on to become a leading member of the first Cabinet of the country’s first president.

His story—along with that of 18th century US vice president, George Dallas, whose father was born in Jamaica—kicks off the Bastien collection.

Skip the photos of Obama with Usain Bolt and Brian Lara and you get to a ‘Geography of the Caribbean’ which essentially provides an Association of Caribbean States (ACS) definition and some of the “annex” countries of the grouping including Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands but minus Venezuela, Mexico and the Central American countries included in the ACS Charter. This is important to establish the particular “Caribbean” being referenced throughout the book.

Nevertheless, Carriacou, which is where former New York State Governor David Paterson’s grandfather was from, is not an island that belongs to St Vincent and the Grenadines. It is one of the six Grenadine islands that belongs to Grenada.

The section on geography is probably also meant to help quell the confusion created in the same chapter when addressing the question of whether Caribbean immigrants could casually be included among the group known as ‘African Americans’.

“The term ‘African American’ does not describe all Caribbean Americans. However, sociologists may argue that because “Caribbean culture” has strong African influences, culturally-speaking, all Caribbean Americans more closely resemble the African Americans than any other Americans,” the authors argue.

Meanwhile, the Guyanese, who represent one of the largest segments of the Caribbean population in the United States, do not receive as much attention in the book as could have been expected and the Jamaicans, however extensive the references, may not appreciate the typos (at least three on pages 12 and 151), especially when misspelling the name of their country is involved.

The sections on Caribbean Migration and Early Caribbean Immigrants are important parts of the Heritage story, however much they (understandably) skirt the issues of early transportation linkages between the region and the US, and the contentious matter of ‘acculturation’.

Of course, this is not meant to be an authoritative text on these subjects and they are justifiably, however fleetingly, flagged.

However lengthy their respective stays the ‘Caribbean American’ flag also flies rather surprisingly over the names of people like Lawrence Duprey, Derek Walcott, CLR James and Earl Lovelace.

It was, as well, the parents of former US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s mother who were from Jamaica.

Something like poetess Maya Angelou whose maternal grandfather was from T&T.

The latter relations aren’t that much of a genealogical stretch, but the ‘Caribbean American’ labels are not routinely attached to these significant personalities of US public life.

‘Heritage’ was worth the effort as a publication to provoke thought on Caribbean influences on American culture, science and politics and is definitely worth a read.

Get a copy and let the arguments begin.

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| 123 views | January, 17th, 2018

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