Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Back With A New Perspective

Epiphanies are funny.

During the past ten months, I've written more than 250 blogs on a variety of personal and political topics. Most of those blogs have discussed the world from a distinctly pro-black point of view. Some of y'all may even remember me saying that I considered myself a black man before I identified as an American.

My vacation allowed me to re-consider that point of view.

I'm still pro-black, that will never change. But, the idea that I'm a black man before I'm an American, well I might have to rethink that.

See, I spent the past few days on an island teeming with black people. At every level of society and government there were black faces making decisions. On every street, black people went about their daily lives, and white faces were an anomaly. It was like an HBCU campus multiplied by 1000.

And I have rarely felt so uncomfortable.

It wasn't an obvious thing at first. Initially, I was enthralled. Walking through the airport surrounded by black faces had my head on a constant swivel. It was like I was in an alternate universe; a universe where black people were in control and no longer dependent on anyone else to survive. I imagine it's what many black people feel when they first arrive in Africa.

Then the poverty set in.

See, this island paradise has a serious problem with poverty. An American dollar is worth dozens of this country's dollars. Tourism is the second most important industry in the country after the remittance paid by natives who have left home for better jobs.

As I began to understand the full scope of the country's poverty, I also got a clearer picture of my role. I was not some long lost compatriot with whom the island's natives shared a connection because of our similar skin tones and historical backgrounds. Nope, I was just another wealthy American from whom they needed to scam a dollar.

That was a strange feeling.

I was surrounded by black people; they served me drinks, helped me do activities, drove me places and cleaned up after me. But, there was no kinship between us, no bond. In many ways, I felt like my presence was resented, that I was a necessary evil not a cherished and beloved distant cousin. Maybe this is a sign of my naivete, but the natives' attitudes shocked me. I was totally unprepared to be seen as an interloper and outsider by all these black people. I was unprepared to be simply seen as an American.

It's not that I've never been seen as an outsider by black people. Often when I travel to certain poorer neighborhoods for my job, my clothing and diction identify me as different. I don't truly belong in these neighborhoods, not matter how much I bop in my walk, or use ebonics. Yet, those situations did not prepare me for being viewed as just another American.

I've never really thought about being an American. On a certain level I've understood that Americans are blessed to have an amazing quality of life compared to much of the world, but because of this country's racial past and present it's always been difficult for me to generate the intense patriotism that so many other people possess.

Being a black American is a lot like dating the finest girl in high school who also has herpes. Sure, the advantages of being with a beautiful woman are immense, but having to constantly be on the lookout for an outbreak is a drag.

Traveling to this country reminded me of how completely American I really am. I think like an American and evaluate the rest of the world using American standards. I expect things to be done the American way. And, most importantly, I'm not pleased when other people don't want Americans around.

I was dismayed by how often people in this country tried to finagle extra money out of me because they assumed that as an American I could afford it. Or the way they became irate if I didn't pay them for any small task they did for me. It wasn't that I was adverse to tipping people, in fact I probably was one of the better tippers at the resort where I stayed, it's just that I've never been a fan of people aggressively seeking my money. I'm also not a fan of folks trying to con me out of my money.

Maybe this would have been a problem whereever I traveled, particularly if poverty was a problem in that country. In fact, I'm certain this is this case. Yet, for some reason, I expected a different feeling, a different experience when I was surrounded by black people. I guess I thought it would be like one big international family reunion.

This post may make it seem like I had a horrible vacation, but I really didn't. It was a nice place, and I had a decent time. I just came to realize that despite all my complaining about America, I don't think I would really be interested in living anywhere else.

I really am an American.



Deacon Blue said...

Welcome back, sir. Very interesting perspective from that vacation. Gives me something to ponder, as the wife and I are seriously considering moving to another country in the next several years, perhaps Belize.

Have fun trying to catch up with your favorite bloggers now that you're home. ;-)

(BTW, I think I've posted two more novel installments since you left town...and another one's on the way in a day or two...)

Darth Whitey said...

Ah Big Man, I wish I could give you a hug right now, so we may commiserate as American brothers. How about a pint instead?

I had precisely the same experience you did when on a trip Saudi Arabia for business a few years ago, the only difference being that I _expected_ it to be that way whereas it surprised you. One of my colleagues there was a British black man and he was treated as just another rich expat fuck like me. The help counted on us to provide them with extra income they needed to send back to bangladesh or whichever else God foresaken country these indentured servants were from.

Run to me... feel each other's pain... for we ARE AMERICANS baby!
How to conscientiously enhoy our earned vacations

guttaperk said...

As a Caribbean man myself, I suspect that their sense of kinship with you *was* there; it was just much less important than paying the rent.

There's no way they saw you as just another American. The world ain't that colourblind yet.

WNG said...

I gotta go with guttaperk on this one, as my nephew's been living in the islands for years now and he's said the same thing. The world AIN'T that colorblind yet, BUT the financial situation is more dire at times. There may have even been people thinking you'd give more out of a kinship feeling with THEM.

I've felt this too when I traveled to a couple different countries in Africa. It's like meeting a long lost realtive and you each are expecting some version of the other person...and ytou're each disappointed when you meet reality.

I'm glad you're back! I've missed you!

the uppity negro said...

Well, I had one REALLY bad experience with this heffa from undergrad who was Trini and ever since then, I've run in the opposite direction of Trinis. When I transferred it was a lot of Bahamians, I still couldn't understand one of them, but they were much more friendly and not at all stuck up towards black Americans.

Now, aside from Canada, I've been outside the country only once. Personally, going where we went didn't feel like "home" but I most certainly didn't feel like "the ugly American." In fact I think it was a highly emotional and spiritual trip, even though we stayed in perhaps about four/five star hotel equivalents, I, nor my parents never felt that way.

I've always wondered what the Caribbean pathology behind the arrogance and disdain toward black Americans stems from. Is it really from slavery? I just know the Caribbean black folk a different kinda folk.

Although I will say this. Perhaps what you bring to the table is what you get back.

Big Man said...


You could be right. My mom and dad went to the same island and my pops said he didn't notice any of the stuff I did. My pops is naturally gregarious though, while I'm more reserved.

Gutta perk

I think you're right about paying the rent and times being tough. I can understand that, which is why I was not stingy at all when it came to tipping, even though I was staying at one of those resorts where they tell you that tipping is not necessary.

Plus, I'll admit that it was pretty stupid of me to expect some sort of family reunion vibe when these folks don't know me from Adam and aren't really that concerned with getting to know somebody who is only going to be in town for a few days. I wasn't blaming the folks, just surprised at what happened. I'm not sure if they saw me as any different from the white patrons who also visited the resort, maybe they did. I just didn't really feel like they did though. It was weird to be lumped in with white people, I never really have that experience. Either I'm viewed as just a regular black person hanging with other regular black people, or I'm viewed as some sort of Oreo hanging with black people. Never an I viewed as just one of the crowd. Or, I don't feel like I am.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

folk dont trip , its natural when u care, man wish you could have seen all i haveen living in all of the african countries

Rob said...

If you have not already done so, I recommend Jamaica Kincaid's "A Small Place" and "Mr. Potter." Although when I went to St. Thomas and Nassau I don't recall feeling what you've described (at least not as deeply, but that was a few years ago), reading those two books really helped me gain some perspective on the post-Colonial Caribbean nations.

And it's good to have you back.

Big Man said...

I'll look for those books.

Air-Cooled Head said...

I think guttaperk is correct: When the rent is due, or the kids need food, it's hard to look @ much else. And in these economic times, even harder.
On a trip to Jamaica a few years ago, I experienced what you describe. But one day, we asked the cabbie to take us to see the "real" Jamaica; not just the tourist areas. He may have seen it as just another "assignment" when we started, but as he drove, we talked. We found out about his wife and kid, and we (wife & I) shared our lives w/ him. Over the next couple of days, this driver treated us like long lost cousins. He took us into the hills, as well as Kingston. He walked the streets w/ us & took us into his home. We visited his friends w/ him. He treated us famously, to say the least. Maybe it was because we were American tourists and picked up most tabs; But he was able to make it not feel like that.

notthatoften said...

Why be any of those labels? Do they do anything other than pigeon hole you? Fuck that. Be Big Man.

Don't get me wrong. I'm of irish descent and i find the history and the culture of my ancestors fascinating, but i feel like the place my parents fucked, or the place that their parents fucked isn't the only thing different from anybody else.

double don't get me wrong. i know the past influences present day, and those who don't know history are doomed to reapeat it, etc. But i'm not irish or american, I'm a dude named rob who was born of irish parents in america. i love my family and culture, and love this country but i don't need them to define who i am. i'm me first and foremost. fuck the labels.


Big Man said...

I really enjoyed all of the comments on this piece. Thank you all very much for taking the time to read it and respond.

awb said...

Had the opposite experience when I went to Jamaica. At least twice I was told that it did their heart good to see black Americans up in the place. I got deferential treatment all the time and I wasn't even tossing money all over the place. However, this was back in 1994 and that leads me to agree with guttapark-that shit is getting rough all over.

Imhotep said...

Big Man, Good to have you back. I cannot resist but to play psychologist. My sense is that you had a latent love for america that you hesitate to show becuse of her malevolent relationship with you.

Seems like you're using the mistreatment (percieved or otherwise) from some islanders to drive you into the bosom of america, a place where you probably always wanted to be.

The america that you've been writing about for the past two years, did not become more tolerant over the past 5 days. Don't think any of them brothas on the island saw you as anything less than human.

Don't dismiss these brothers and sisters on the island, from what I hear and read, Black folks around the world are pulling mightly for Barack "who's sane" Obama. I think that speaks to the sense of community you were seeking.

Your candor is always respected!

Raving Black Lunatic