Caught between their parents’ traditions and the pressure to assimilate to a new culture, second-generation immigrants face specific challenges. These challenges are made more complex for the children of Caribbean immigrants in the United States, according to a group of scholars who discussed the topic last week at Northeastern.
Such people find themselves up against “a narrative of America wherein black voices and black personhood have no place within the context of and the participation in the American Dream,” said Yndia S. Lorick-Wilmot, who is the author of a new book about how identity shapes the lives of middle-class black Caribbean Americans. It’s called Stories of Identity Among Black, Middle Class Second Generation Caribbeans: We, Too, Sing America, and it was the catalyst for the talk.
“This book is about stories,” said Lorick-Wilmot, who is also the scholar-in-residence at Northeastern’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute. “It’s ethnography that celebrates the nuances among middle-class Caribbean immigrants and the ways their experiences contribute to their own identity.”
Most of the people Lorick-Wilmot interviewed for her book were born in the 1970s or early 1980s. They grew up in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and were in the distinct position to be able to claim an identity more complex than “black.”
“If you were a black person in America before that time, the fact that you were black was othering,” Lorick-Wilmot said. “There was no room for nuance because you were already different; you were already black.”
She shared the stage with three other scholars.
Kenvi Phillips grew up in the Midwest, she said, “with a strong understanding that there were many different types of black people.”
Communities that immigrated from African countries have different cultural references and traditions than those from Caribbean countries—an important distinction that’s often left out of the broader understanding of blackness in America, Phillips said.
“Peoples’ different experiences fundamentally shape one’s understanding of the world,” said Phillips, who is the curator for race and ethnicity at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. “I’m fascinated by how this book will complicate the narrative of what black is, what black isn’t, what white is, and so on.”
Nicole Aljoe, director of the African and African-American Studies Program at Northeastern and a Caribbean immigrant herself, said the experiences of several people interviewed in Lorick-Wilmot’s book resonated for her, both personally and professionally.
“I grew up in a family of storytellers, and one of the most interesting things about this book to me is the way it picks up on the importance of storytelling in Caribbean culture,” she said.
Todne Thomas, an assistant professor of African American religions at Harvard, said Lorick-Wilmot’s focus on immigrants from vastly different parts of the Caribbean was “unique.”
“It opens up the door for people to locate themselves in a place,” she said. “And it shows us that humans can hold complexity in a way that’s very refreshing.”