For the first six years of my life, I grew up on the island of Trinidad.
I spoke with an accent, pronouncing three as “tree.” I ate Carribean food like roti, aloo pies, and pelau. I was accustomed to drinking water straight out of a coconut, eating mangoes from my grandfather’s mango tree, encounters with snakes and lizards, and seeing houses in every color of the rainbow.
Then I emigrated to the United States with my mother, and we haven’t been able to visit Trinidad since. I enrolled in elementary school where my “trees” were made fun of and corrected by teachers and students alike.
School lunches here tasted bland and felt more like they were made to feed as many mouths as possible rather than to be enjoyed. They mostly consisted of fast food with a side of canned fruit poured into a plastic cup, and milk as our only option for hydration.
Here, people dried their clothes in a dryer, not outside on a line. There were no vines with berries to pick, no roaming animals. Just cars, crowds, busyness. It was hard to feel at home among the drab concrete buildings.
I soon made friends with the kids from Caribbean countries like Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. We reminisced about the taste of authentic Caribbean food, laughed at each other’s impressions of typical Caribbean dialects, and listened to calypso. Doing these things made me feel closer to home.
Eventually, I got used to the way children and adults around me spoke and mimicked that with the aid of American TV shows like Good Luck Charlie and musicians like Mariah Carey. I learned to pronounce my H’s and soon spoke with what I felt was an American accent.
However, there were other cultural aspects that were harder to adjust to.
There was one girl who compared my skin tone to the color of mud. Another girl, who despite being Black herself, often told me “how much lighter” her skin was than mine, which “made her more beautiful.” I also had White friends who told me how pretty I would look with straight hair.
The beauty standard in America made me self-conscious about how I looked for the first time. In Trinidad, most of the people living there are either Black or South Asian, and I did not experience racism around skin color.
I found myself wanting to be lighter.
At the same time, I noticed that I didn’t feel any connection to African American classmates and some African Caribbean classmates who had adapted to African American culture. Because we are all Black, I felt it was important to have a connection and wanted to be friends with them and relate to them, but I didn’t know how.
A big reason for this was I could not find much in common with them. I wasn’t interested in the same sports, music, or clothing brands. I didn’t speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE). I ate different foods at home and didn’t celebrate the same holidays, like Juneteenth.
I began to feel othered by having completely different experiences than African Americans, and this made me sad.
My Shared History With African Americans
While examining my disconnect from African American culture, I began to think a lot about my African ancestors, whose own history was also disrupted by colonization and the slave trade in the Americas. I became more aware of this shared history.
I am continuing to explore more about the connections among African, Caribbean, and Black American cultures, and I plan to teach parts of those cultures to my children. For example, I watched videos about cooking soul food and its cultural importance, and saw traces of it in Caribbean dishes like macaroni pie. I watched Black family sitcoms like Black-ish, and read books centered around Black families such as Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson. Similar to Carribeans, African Americans are religious and churchgoing, which I relate to, having grown up going to church. All around me I now see people who share my dark skin and extremely curly hair, which, in spite of my White friends’ comments, I’ve grown to love.
I’ve started to draw connections with more classmates and made friends with them by teaching them Trinidadian versions of American words, like bacchanal instead of chaos or drama. I show them fruits we eat there that aren’t popular in the U.S., like chennet. In return, I learn slang and about popular meals and family traditions around holidays like Juneteenth.
Not being able to know which African region or tribe I am from because my family likely came to Trinidad as slaves is a deep wound for me. I can’t help but wonder what customs and traditions I would have been raised with if my family knew our African ancestral roots. What language would I speak? What traditional clothing would I wear? What holidays and dances would I partake in?
That’s why I plan to take a DNA test and find out where my African ancestors are from. It is my heritage to claim.