(I figure that the web address “iamthediaspora” might need some explaining…)
One of the reasons I looked forward to starting my postsecondary education at Pomona College was the opportunity to take a class I had seen in the course catalog: Professor Sidney Lemelle’s “Slavery and Freedom in the New World”. I remember shyly approaching Dr. Lemelle when I came to visit the campus as a hopeful and clueless high school senior. He explained that the course had something to do with this thing called the African diaspora. I wasn’t quite sure what this “diaspora” business was, but I walked away with the understanding that this class covered the experiences of blacks both in and outside of the United States. And for me, this was HUGE.
As an American of African descent, I shared the same mix of emotions other black students experienced when we reached those paragraphs (and only paragraphs) about slavery and sitting in the backs of buses. I knew all of this had something to do with me. But as the daughter of black Panamanians, I felt there were some twists and turns to my story that made everything the same and different at the same time.
You see, growing up I always knew my parents were black and Panamanian. Both. At the same time. However, throughout my life I’ve met Americans of all races who saw this as more of an either-or situation. For example, somehow it got back to us that our African-American neighbors said that we weren’t “really black.” Latinos, on the other hand, would speak Spanish in our presence assuming we wouldn’t understand. As a young child I remember walking by a pair of teenage girls who said, “Ay, que linda!” I didn’t know a lot of Spanish, but I always knew what that meant – they thought I was pretty! I can handle that Of course, there was another time my cousins and I were at a store in the Los Angeles area. When my prima inquired about the price of an unmarked item she was told it was not for sale by the cashier who explained to her co-worker, “Yo me llevo eso.” She wanted to keep it for herself. When my cousin complained, in Spanish, to the manager, he didn’t apologize and ask how he could remedy the situation. He asked several times, eyes wide open, “De donde son ustedes?!”
Well, you see, sir, there’s this little thing called diaspora.
Put simply, the term “diaspora” refers to the scattering or dispersion of a people who are considered to share a common ethnic origin. These migrations occur under conditions of social, political, and economic turmoil and conflict and often take people far from their homelands. There are many diasporas throughout the world. For example, there is the Chinese Diaspora, the Jewish Diaspora, and – of course – the African diaspora.
Everything happens for a reason, and the transporting of Africans to the “New World” came about for complex socioeconomic, historical, and cultural reasons that have bred even more complicated results. We all know the general story so I need not go into the details here.
Professor Lemelle’s class focused on black history in the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. For me, it was thrilling to be in a space that acknowledged the diversity of the black family and the complicated truth about who “we” are – about who I am and who I come from.
So who am I, exactly? I am the descendent of Africans who were slaves in the Caribbean. Not long after the abolition of slavery in the islands my great-grandparents left Barbados, and St. Lucia, and Martinique, and settled in Panama. My grandparents and parents were born and raised in Panama City, both on the Canal Zone and in the republic itself. A great number of West Indian Panamanians of both generations, especially my parents’ cohort, left Panama for the United States. Though the latter of these two migrations was voluntary, at least in comparison to that of our enslaved forefathers, I believe these movements were driven by the socioeconomic reality and challenges of being the sons and daughters of slaves in the Antilles and chombos in Panama. That’s why it makes me laugh and makes me mad when people assume we are not “really” black, or “really” Latino, or really whatever. Africa to the West Indies, then the West Indies to Panama, and then Panama to here? Excuse me? We are the black experience. I am the diaspora.