Fri | Jan 19, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | Claiming black American family

Published:Sunday | October 2, 2016 | 12:00 AM

There was a time when many black people from the Caribbean living in the US thought they were superior to black Americans. Some still do. Conveniently forgetting our shared history of enslavement, Caribbean migrants could not identify with the struggles of black Americans to gain full citizenship in the country of their birth.

The prejudice went something like this: Dem don't even ha fi beg fa visa fi come here. Dem don't have no ambition. Why dem don't mek better use of dem opportunity? But in a fundamentally racist society, ambition is not always enough. In fact, you could be lynched for being too ambitious. And opportunity can be 'a scarce, scare commodity', as Buju Banton so perceptively reminds us.

The misunderstanding went both ways. Our own Claude McKay wrote a brilliant novel, 'Home to Harlem', which examines how blacks from the US and the Caribbean viewed each other. Ray, a Haitian intellectual, considers himself "superior to ten millions of suppressed Yankee 'coons'. Now he was just one of them and he hated them for being one of them".

Jake, one of the despised black Yankees, has his own prejudices. He "was very American in spirit and shared a little of that comfortable Yankee contempt for poor foreigners. Africa was jungle, and Africans bush niggers, cannibals. And West Indians were monkey-chasers".




McKay's novel was published in 1928. Eighty-eight years later, I was at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture for the dedication ceremony. Unlike Ray, I did not feel superior. Just proud of what black people in the US have accomplished!

The lead designer for the magnificent building is David Adjaye, who was born in Tanzania. He's certainly not Jake's mythical 'bush nigger'. The son of a Ghanaian diplomat, Adjaye was educated to be a citizen of the world. He studied architecture in England and in 1993 won the Royal Institute of British Architects' bronze medal.

This global architecture competition is not the Olympics. A bronze medal does not mean third place. Architecture degree programmes are structured in at least two parts: undergraduate (Part 1) and postgraduate (Part 2). The bronze medal is awarded for the best design project at Part 1 and the silver for Part 2.

In an inspiring interview published in The New York Times on September 21, 2016, Adjaye observes that the slave trade was not just about picking cotton. To "really talk about architecture and African-American history, let's go back and look at Georgia and Charleston, you know, all these places, through a different lens. There, the history is right in front of you this incredible tradition of metalsmithing by freed slaves. There were no moulds. They learned all this by hand. It is part of the history of American architecture." Adjaye honours this expertise, using bronze-coloured metal lattice to wrap the building.




If you read last Sunday's Outlook magazine, you know that my sister, Donnette, was the museum's first individual donor. So she was invited and I was her guest. She's listed in the programme as one of the patrons who has contributed between US$5,000 and US$24,999.

In December 2003, President George W. Bush signed the bill authorising the establishment of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. That same month, Donnette sent her first cheque for the museum to the Smithsonian. There was no site, no architect, no director, no museum. But there was legislation. It was time for change.

Last month, the BBC World Service interviewed Donnette for a documentary on the museum that was aired the day it opened. The title chosen for the programme was 'A Home for Black History'. Home is not just the literal place. It's also the sense of security the word evokes.

Donnette is a transactional attorney working in affordable housing financing with the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. She understands the challenges that many black Americans face as they try to hold on their homes. Gentrification is pushing many of them out. One family's opportunity is another's catastrophe.




When we finally got into the museum, I knew we were home. The exhibits tell a grand narrative of survival that Africans across the Diaspora know intimately. African American history and culture is not just about the U.S. It's a shared story. Marcus Garvey is in the Museum. And so is Bob Marley.

Garvey went to New York in 1916 and his Universal Negro Improvement Association attracted thousands of supporters. His visionary newspaper, The Negro World, gave Africans on the continent and in Diaspora a new understanding of their common identity and destiny.

Garvey's Black Star Line was designed to support trade between Africa and the Americas. His vision was much too revolutionary. He had to be stopped. So he was arrested for mail fraud. I can't believe that the recent petition to clear Garvey's name had to be aborted because it did not attract the required 100,000 signatures. In Jamaica alone we should have been able to get that many.

One of the most powerful exhibits in the Museum is Emmett Till's casket.

In 1955, Till, a fourteen year old boy, was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Black lives must matter. And the National Museum of African American History and Culture will long tell our collective story of tragedy and triumph.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and