Diaspora was one of those words from my mother’s “word of the month” or “word of the week” subscriptions. What made it stick out was that I heard it repeated around the table. The word meant the scattering of a people across different lands and countries and languages. To me, this meaning seemed immediate, oppressively intimate. It wasn’t just about the Middle Passage and slavery in the New World. It wasn’t even about our more specific migration from Africa to Jamaica to America. It was accents and curses, uncles and aunties, cousins and endless trips to Western Union, and obligations of all kinds. Diaspora was mapped across the plates of ackee and saltfish, fried dumplings, escoveitch fish, and curry goat.
Everyone was there, or I should say everywhere was there. Though still in Inglewood, the dining table was a few blocks, a hill, and an entire tax bracket away from where my mother and I lived. It was Jamaicans mostly, but there were also folks from other islands, like Aunt Viola who came from Nevis. She was somehow related to Aunt Carmen in Washington, DC, and her island of birth inspired the same jokes I’d heard in Washington—Nevis being so small that you slept in your swimming clothes because if you turned over at night you might drown or the ones about sand always being in your food or having to leave the island to avoid incest. Like Aunt Carmen, Aunt Viola laughed louder than anyone at these jokes no matter how often they were repeated.
Little island/big island humor was a part of the Caribbean sensibility, and because she had married an African American, she treasured anything that confirmed her status within that sensibility. Maybe her husband didn’t care for foreign blacks. He never came to the table, and when we visited Aunt Viola’s house, he descended into the basement. Because of this, we never had to call him uncle. But because his children were always at the table—for a time anyway, before the older ones lost their accents and the younger ones grew confident enough to mock ours—they were still cousins.
Due to my mother’s efforts, there were always Nigerians at our gatherings, particularly people she’d known from Biafra or had gotten to know after arriving in America. Our last name and my father’s reputation drew many to her. Even a few Hausa people, the ethnic group responsible for the attempted genocide that brought us here in the first place, broke bread with us. In these cases, the war was never really discussed. If ever it was, it wasn’t described as a national or personal or ethnic tragedy but an African or a colonial one. That way blame could be evaded and the experience shared.
Much of what our elders discussed at these gatherings was about what had triggered their migration in the first place—colonialism and revolution and independence. I paid more attention to these conversations than most of my cousins because it was likely that my godfather would be mentioned, or my father, and then the adults would all look in my direction with solemn expectation. I was still the first son of the first son, though that seemed a far less portentous state of being than when I first arrived in Jamaica.
At times, it seemed to me that these people at the dining table, as mundane as they may have appeared to most Americans, were heroes too. They had played a part in some great world-building drama that seemed epic by virtue of the fact that so much of it had failed. These elders at the table had experienced things I was beginning to read about. Revolutions, coups, exile, refugees, betrayal, starvation, genocide. Loss—what should have been and almost was—was always the tone of the conversation.
What they had failed at was freedom. That failure brought them to the shores of the Pacific Ocean and turned them into semi-inebriated uncles and embittered aunts struggling to keep control of their children. I can guarantee they’d all expected to end up in London. My mother used to say that we’d turned left over the Atlantic Ocean when we should have turned right.
Eventually, South Africans began to appear at the table. It was the anti-apartheid moment, Africa’s last chance, Uncle Owen often said. We accepted these people, extending the borders of community farther and farther. This wasn’t due to any romantic notion regarding common Africanness but because of what those people were not—American—and, of course, their ease with that ratio of spice to food. Not only South Africans, but Ghanaians too and a few Liberians would stop by. It was a diaspora mapped by the sound of accents—West African and Caribbean but also British, Canadian, American, and the cadences of us younger ones ranging all over the map.
There would always be someone with an even more authentic tongue than those who corrected and attacked us for sounding too Yankee (to the Caribbeans) or oyinbo (to the Nigerians). If the outside world was where my Jamaican accent was still enough to merit comment and require masquerade, these events were where I was encouraged to keep it alive. That was how we were sure not to disappear into the vortex of American racial meanings and cultural expectations. This was, of course, counter to what Cousin Brian and some of my other cousins thought we should do, but we held our tongues until we were old enough.
What gave our diaspora shape wasn’t so much racism, slavery, or the contrastive presence of white Americans. It was the more pressing reality of Black Americans. American blacks inevitably became the topic and the source of most arguments. If Black Americans often seemed fixated on white America, black immigrants seemed fixated on Black America, as if it were the wall between them and the promises of this country. Sometimes the conversation began by someone fresh to the country discussing problems they were having with a coworker, or a schoolmate, or an unruly neighbor. Before questions were asked, the seasoned veterans would share a smirk of recognition, knowing that the person being complained about was not white. It was time to school the newcomer on what really went on in this America and that there were two Americas, two distinct regimes of pain and promise.
Things would usually begin with the newcomer asking a familiar but always loaded question, What is wrong with Black Americans? Occasionally, one of us young cousins would attempt to defend or explain those Black Americans to our elders since we were the ones who knew them best and spent most of our time in the crucible of assimilation. These attempts were inappropriate for interrelated reasons. First, we were not to speak back to our elders, a sure sign that we were assimilating in the wrong direction. Second, in speaking on behalf of African Americans, we inevitably slipped into their dialect, which was enough to invalidate our opinions and earn a cuff to the head.
One cousin, Lloydie, had migrated to England as a child and come to stay in Los Angeles in his twenties. Folks in our neighborhood had a very hard time believing his accent wasn’t affected. Where our Caribbean or West African accents could elicit laughter, his brought threats of violence. At a local restaurant once, the Black American waitress wouldn’t serve us until he started talking in his “real” voice. She had a point to make, stronger than our hunger. We ended up eating somewhere else. A few times we were even threatened by gangbangers on the street who were convinced Cousin Lloydie was talking down to them. Had we not dropped the name of Cousin Brian, we would have been bruised.
There were consolations. Local girls found Lloydie’s accent irresistible. Sadly for me, I could never pull off the full English, only the occasional hint of it. That hint didn’t come from England, though. It came from my mother, who, no matter how far she’d traveled from Jamaica to England to Nigeria to America, always maintained that type of British accent produced in its colonies. This drew Indians to her when they worked together in hospitals because they recognized it too—more English than the English, as the old cliché went. Her accent rendered her less foreign when she arrived in Nigeria in 1963 just after independence. She was no longer a Jamaican woman, something few of them had any knowledge of. She was the much more familiar English woman, easier to position and ultimately to accept.
As a colonial product, she manifested a prejudice typical of her generation: there was to be no Jamaican dialect—patwah—in the house. This put her at odds with aunts and uncles who only needed to hear Byron Lee or Bob Marley or burn their tongue on Jamaican peppers to start trembling the room with what’s now called Jamaican English or just Jamaican. They were from the same class as my mother, but she had grown up on the outskirts of Montego Bay and left before the shift that began in the 1960s to claim the language of the poor as the sound of the nation. She left Jamaica before “the ghetto won,” as Great-Uncle Irving would say, meaning before reggae.
My mother was the least likely to accept the blind generalizing about Black Americans common at the dining table. Because of her time with my father, my godfather, and the inner circle of the Biafran secession, a form of racial consciousness had seeped into her colonial British self. Biafrans, at least their leaders, thought of themselves as ultimately fighting an anticolonial war, a war of African liberation. She may have been skeptical of the generalized romantic ideas of African identity spun in Jamaica after she left the island, but she was also less interested in the what-is-wrong-with-Black-Americans debates here in America.
As a result, she usually chose to employ the abstraction “Black people”—initially as a corrective but eventually as a compromise. What is wrong with Black Americans? became What are the struggles facing Black people? Don’t trust African Americans became Some Black people can’t be trusted. It was a way of using an imagined global community of blacks to mediate the unpleasant details of personal experience. By the time I began to employ phrases like my mother’s in college as I became radicalized in my race consciousness, I did so fully acknowledging that they were products of desperation. Neither of us could tolerate the alternative.
In contrast to the use of racial abstractions was Great-Uncle Irving. He was an expert on Black Americans, he boasted. Evidence of this was the fact that he exclusively dated light-skinned Black American women, many of whom he would take on cruise ships, which is where he spent much of his retirement. Black Americans were just like Jamaicans, he claimed; they needed white people more than any other people because without them they wouldn’t exist. But when it came to racism, he argued, there was a special intimacy between Black Americans and whites. We should stay clear of it because there was little room for others in that relationship. They couldn’t see or feel anything beyond the wound that had brought them together.
Great-Uncle Irving’s accent was the strangest of any of ours. He claimed it was because Angelenos had spoken differently when he first arrived in the 1940s. He sounded like a Jamaican countryman straining to talk like a World War II newsreel or like the men in boxy suits and women with hairstyles so angled that they seemed made of plaster who appeared in black-and-white films. Apparently, he was one of my relatives who’d been dead set against my mother marrying an African and moving to Nigeria back in the late 1950s, so all talk of Africa sent him into a rage. He also made no secret of his hatred for his home country: that’s why he’d come to Los Angeles before anyone else had even heard of the place. Everybody else was going to London, some to New York, then to Miami and Toronto. Los Angeles had no snow and was as far away as he could go in America from Jamaicans and damned islands. For a while, it was paradise.
My Aunt Joy brought other ideas about accent, identity, and community to the dining table. She was a Yoruba who lived the furtive life of a second wife in a country where polygamy was illegal and shameful. Her husband never came to these events, living as he did with his senior wife and primary children on one of the best streets in upper-middle-class Baldwin Hills. Aunt Joy found all talk of “blackness” or “Black people” alternately touching and comical. Sad also, because of how obsessed Caribbean people and Black Americans were with skin color and how far they would go to claim and defend something she thought meaningless and exaggerated. White people, well, it was obvious that they were a certain way, but Black people? What did skin have to do with anything? African Americans were Americans. The “African” part was just denial. And if there was anything that linked Jamaicans to Black Americans, it was that their assertions of pride were so relentless that they could only be masks for shame.
Her English was no different than it would have been had she been in a market in Lagos. She was one of the few people I knew who went back to Nigeria every year and had been doing so since the war ended. Sometimes she spoke pidgin, which embarrassed her son. His accent was the most African Americanized of all of ours, which deeply embarrassed his mother.
And there were others, too many to recount, uncles and aunts and cousins and friends—Uncle Tommy from Scotland with his string of white British wives, Jean-Bernard from Haiti with his Senegalese wife who apparently spoke a Parisian sort of French, an uncle from Gabon whose family had sheltered us after we’d left the refugee camps during the war—all coming in waves, going in gusts, some strong enough to have directly shaped my personality and others whose impact was brief but still important. Sometimes it was a fist to the stomach, a crude joke during prayers, a lie I had to bear. Other times it was a story I would claim as my own or fumbled attempts at sex during sleepovers. So many of them in this world of the dining table that was in but not of Inglewood and Los Angeles.