Much of our time in the Caribbean is spent asking and responding to the question, “who am I” ? Some may feel that this is just a generalization but I am open to being wrong. I make this assertion because i feel one of the consequences of our kidnap from Africa and transportation to the Caribbean is brutal destruction of “identity”- who we are, and what we connect ourselves to. Africans in the Caribbean are never divorced from memories of the systematic de-selfing that we have lived through. We have needed to create a narrative around “identity” or to find “identity” in our new homes the Caribbean.
The problem with identity search
A Political identity consistent with a memory of Africa has emerged from Rastafari, Other identities may be more hybrid and less political. Our identity search has however largely been presented through what i am arguing to be a historical, geographic, cultural frame. By this i mean if we identify as Africans for example, we locate our origin in Africa and we try to construct an identity that is aligned with traditional African life, practices and customs. Some identity narratives focus on our lives in the Caribbean, it is further from Africa as a reference point but it relies heavily on an attempt to reconcile the consequences of African slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean. For example in Jamaica, there is an ever present view or conversation about ourselves within the racial and social class divide, black brown living uptown or downtown. These are distinctions created through Slavery and reinforced over years. The Jamaican identity becomes a post-slavery, post-colonial identity which is a hybrid. Some of it references Africa but mostly looks toward a more apolitical future where we are seen as equal to or as good as everybody else in the World. The problem with the search for identity for me in the Caribbean comes from two observation. One a book recently published book; See Me Here: A Survey of Contemporary Self-Portraits from the Caribbean and my own thinking about my reluctance to use the word queer to describe myself.
Although i haven’t yet read this book from its description i wondered what alternative identities could have been captured in this exploration by Caribbean artist? How were artists seeing themselves really? I was curious to know if any of the representations where anything outside of narratives we have known? The publishers explain the following about the book;
In Jamaican patois, the expression, “See Me Here” (See Mi ‘Ere!) is an instruction used to call attention to the speaker – whether for his or her physical appearance, or to note the occurrence of a significant moment in that person’s life – an arrival, so to speak. In a similar way, the book, See Me Here: A Survey of Contemporary Self-Portraits from the Caribbean, calls attention to recent directions in self-portraiture throughout the region, by focusing on artists who frequently or significantly use their physical selves, or those to whom they are linked by blood or significant experience, as an avenue for exploration and expression. In so doing, the book asks: How do we really see ourselves? How accurate is the image we present? What formative roles do our cultures and upbringings play? And, what role does the Caribbean as a physical and mental space have in the creation and perception of our own personal, visual identities?One of the most common understandings of the self-portrait is that it reveals something of an artist’s inner feelings or personality. While this is one focus of See Me Here, the book also examines how, by using their own likenesses, certain artists are speaking to potentially complex, multilayered matters – identity, history, race, gender, sexuality, politics – thus defining themselves within their given contexts and through vastly varied experiences.
Although See Me Here presents individually distinct projects, the works are inevitably interconnected through similar themes. By dealing with self as a starting and/or ending point, the book covers a broad range of media and representations that the artists here explore in order to question and articulate what defines them within a contemporary Caribbean existence. (http://robertandchristopher.com)
Having been familiar with the work of a few of the artist in the book i doubt that any new narratives were present.
Should i use the word queer?
The second concern about the search for identity has to do with my reluctance to identify as queer. Queer for me means a constant questioning and redefinition of the self that is grounded in an understanding of the intersection between several experiences related to my physical being ( embodiment), but also to a spiritual understanding of my relationship to being embodied. Queer is different. Queer doesn’t start in Jamaica or in Africa it is a political understanding of being self and the relationship of the self to community or others. Queer is different because it is exploring while questioning and rejecting predefined notions of our human existence. Queer is to self-determination as Rastafari is to Africa. Queer constructs the future as a reference point for being.
Is there a Queer Caribbean out there?
The problem is that Queer is also associated with being gay. The problem is not being gay but how nuance and the ability to create new narratives of self becomes simplified or lost in a quarrel about sexual orientation. I feel that the backlash against homosexuality silences this understanding of the Queer narrative.
The origins of Queer
I did a quick search for the definition of Queer;
Queer is an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities that are not heterosexual, or gender-binary. Originally meaning strange or peculiar, queer developed a usage as a pejorative term for homosexual in the late 19th century. Beginning in the late 1980s, some political and social LGBT groups began to reappropriate the word to establish community and assert a political identity, with it becoming the preferred term to describe some academic disciplines and gaining use as a descriptor of non-heterosexual identities. Queer may be used by those who reject traditional gender identities as a broader, less conformist, and deliberately ambiguous alternative to LGBT.
The term is now used in the name of some academic disciplines, such as queer theory, to denote a general opposition to binary thinking. Queer arts, queer cultural groups, and queer political groups are examples of expressions of queer identities.
Criticisms of queer include those who associate the term with its pejorative usage and those who associate it with political radicalism. (wikipedia.com)
I came to a definition as queer because of a search for an “authentic” understanding. I am not proposing that queer be the new narrative for self in the Caribbean, but perhaps that we should question “identity” and the “search for identity” . Why do some identity narratives get repeated so often, why are we satisfied to cycle in specific understandings of ourselves? or are we? what is the future of who we are and who we are to become? Is the Caribbean space only suited for the search of the enslaved African who is haunted by her past and traumatized by the presence of it in the present?