The Ecumenical, the Ersatz, and the Euphemistic: Three Ways to Misunderstand Identity 

by on Jun 20, 2017 in Nonfiction | 2 comments

I am a citizen of Barbados, I am a resident of the West Indies, I live in the Commonwealth. My roots are mainly West African under the British colonial mask, with a touch of influence from the region’s Indian and Chinese immigrants and some surviving Carib and Taino language, custom and DNA. 

All of these things are folded into my writing and unfold from my writing. That is why it is such a terrible misunderstanding to call me an African American.

I understand; it can happen to anyone. Canadians aren’t particularly pleased when it’s assumed that they hail from the USA. Scots really don’t like it if you call them English. In the southern Caribbean, we have our own stories about being (mis)taken for Jamaican. (Jamaica, by the way, is an island three hours distant by plane which I have visited precisely once in my life.) Mistakes and assumptions happen. However, there is something particularly off-putting about being classified as an African American not out of true error, but through carelessness or misguided intent. Let me explain why.

The ecumenical approach is an attempt at benign inclusion. The reasoning goes as follows: Barbados is in the Americas, this author is of African descent, ergo she is an African American. That’s nice, but we all know that’s not what the term means and that’s not what we call ourselves. African American is a specific identity created in and belonging to the USA, not a general identity of the Americas, however much people may wish to generously extend it. (Canadians of African descent see a lot of this as well.)

And is that extension really that benign, really that generous? Ecumenism tries too hard to remove the richness of difference, and creates large, arbitrary boxes that are useful for nothing but the justification of a label. What happens when a library or bookseller classifies my literature as African American instead of Caribbean? Do readers really think Americas and not USA? Do they understand, really understand, that I’m a foreigner? That I have no clue how the American high school system functions and that temperatures in Fahrenheit are incomprehensible to me? That in my world only five dollar bills are green, that I flip a coin and call for windmill or coat-of-arms? And that’s just the small stuff. What of the rich West Indian oral and literary traditions that come out of our history and culture? How can a critic really understand my work if they don’t engage with our canon, or even acknowledge that it exists?

From the ecumenical there is just one step to the ersatz, the ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ categorisation. Black, but not actually a citizen or resident of the USA? Close enough! Black British, South African, West Indian – whether from West, East or South of the African continent or part of the African Diaspora, all run the risk of being labelled African American. But we’re not interchangeable. Much is shared, but different history, politics and geography create different peoples, languages and literatures.

Champions of the ersatz way don’t have the depth and detail of knowledge to appreciate which is the original and which the derivation in their ‘butter-like’ labelling. Their system of nomenclature is less about identifying similarly-flavoured margarines and more about ignoring the peculiar charms of ghee, olive oil or schmaltz.

I’m giving people the benefit of the doubt with those first two approaches. The most common ‘misunderstanding’ isn’t a misunderstanding at all. For too many people, ‘African American’ is simply a euphemism for ‘black’. I won’t try to sift though the reasons that ‘black’ is seen as such a dangerous word in some circles (that’s a completely different essay), but I will say that if you think it is more politically correct to say, against all evidence and logic, that a non-American person with African ancestry is African American, you’re wrong. It only demonstrates to me that in spite of your verbal tiptoeing, colour is your default filter, more meaningful to you than the categories of location, upbringing and experience that constitute a national and cultural identity.

One of my favourite lines from The Princess Bride (and there are many) is ‘We are men of action. Lies do not become us.’ Librarians, booksellers, writers, editors – we are people of words. It is especially unbecoming when such people do not take time to find and use the right words. The effects of error, carelessness, or thoughtlessness from a single person may be as small and inoffensive as a raindrop, but unrelenting collective nonsense is like many drops of water, piling up and wearing away the patience of a stone.

I am a Barbadian. I am a West Indian. I am a Caribbean writer. I want people to know where I’m from. I want readers to think of the Nobel prizes of Walcott and Naipaul, the Booker of James and the Giller of Clarke. They should seek echoes of Rhys before proceeding to Brontë; they should compare my work to Brodber rather than Le Guin. Readers don’t even have a chance to do all that when some reviewer, librarian or bookseller has me shelved under African-American on a listicle of Black History Month recommended reads.

I am also a reader. I want the accuracy of knowing an author’s provenance. I want the precision of knowing their layered identities, their cultures and languages, their studies and skills and obsessions – whatever information they consider important enough to submit to publishers and interviewers. I don’t want to be given dangerously dishonest defaults, and I don’t want them imposed on me and on my work. Like any connoisseur, I relish the full terroir of each author vintage.

If you do not understand this, I imagine you are probably the kind of person who organises their books by the colour of the spines. That produces a pretty bookshelf, pleasing to the eye perhaps, but void of the beauty of making sense. If I cannot persuade you, I only ask that you keep the wrongness of your haphazard classification to the privacy of your own home. There you can enjoy it responsibly and without disadvantage to anyone but yourself.

 

Barbadian author, editor and research consultant Karen Lord is known for her debut novel Redemption in Indigo, which won the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2010 Carl Brandon Parallax Award, the 2011 William L. Crawford Award, the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, and the 2012 Kitschies Golden Tentacle (Best Debut), and was longlisted for the 2011 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Her second novel The Best of All Possible Worlds won the 2009 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2013 RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel, and was a finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards. Its sequel, The Galaxy Game, was published in January 2015. She is the editor of the 2016 anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean. 

2 Comments

  1. It’s like a casting call for an African American with a natural British accent. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”

  2. Thank you. It is definitely important consider people’s culture, and their upbringing, and how this will affect their work, and their ideas/thought process. It’s essential to take these things into account when dealing with the abstract, and the liberal arts. However, I would never take these into consideration with stem-fields and concrete laws and standards.

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