I watched some YouTube videos on DNA test results lately. I’m always interested in seeing what Ancestry.com and 23andme users have to say about their ancestry results when they come in. I never get tired of seeing the responses of shock and affirmation that many receive when they open that email for the first time. I’ve even seen a 101-year-old grandma predict her test results — and she was right, too!
So, interestingly enough, I managed to watch a YouTube video where a biracial couple ordered their DNA kits and decided to see what information their DNA held about their ancestors. The mother is African, the father European. These racial designations are continental, mind you (based on continents rather than actual nations). Yet and still, when the mother discovered that the majority of her ancestry is African, which wasn’t a surprise, she still wanted to separate herself from blacks who live in America. “I’m not African-American because I was born in Jamaica.” And when she said that, she brought a debate to the surface that has remained between islanders and African-Americans over the years.
Racial designations: continental, not territorial
Part of the problem with Jamaicans and their disdain for the American label is that they don’t understand that racial identities are based on continents, not countries. For example, no American calls themselves a “US American,” but rather, a “North American” or “South American.” Most shorten it to simply “American,” because “United States of America” gives away the continent: the United States are “of America.” But residents of the 50 states in the US define themselves more as “Americans” than they do state citizens. “Georgians” live in Georgia but define themselves as “Americans.” Virginians live in Virginia but call themselves “Americans.” “Floridians” live in Florida but still call themselves “Americans.” These citizens have more pride about the continent they live on rather than what state they live in. The reason? The US of America is no longer 50 separate colonies, as had been the case in the Articles of Confederation, but are now “United” states.
So, with that said, just saying, “I’m Jamaican” but denying African-American racial designation is problematic. It signals that Jamaicans are so ultra-independent that they’d rather disregard their location in “the Americas.” That’s problematic when talking about racial identity.
African but not African-American: the Jamaican identity problem
What’s up with Jamaicans and their refusal to say they’re African-American? Well, on the surface, it appears to be an issue with the “American” label. They’re not born in America so they don’t want to claim a birth land that isn’t theirs. That’s understandable. And yet, as Jamaicans, they find themselves pretty much without a country. Jamaica is considered to be a country, but many people see island territories as part of a larger country and not a country to and by themselves.
There is a such thing as the “island country,” though the human perception of that kind of island is difficult. It seems rather small to be a country, though Jamaica gained its independence from England in 1962. While Jamaica is a separate country, it is on a smaller strip of land than most countries. And, while Jamaicans call themselves “Jamaicans,” the territory seems to be without a larger territory to belong to. This leads Jamaicans to label themselves by the name of their “island” country, though Americans deem it problematic.
The same thing can be said for Puerto Ricans. I’ve been told that a number of folks living in Puerto Rico are often asked what their racial designation is. They respond, “I’m Puerto Rican.” To be sure, Puerto Rico is a separate territory from other US states, but it is still an American territory. So when it comes to Puerto Ricans defining themselves by the territory they live in, it isn’t enough. It’s like a person saying, “I’m Hawaiian,” instead of saying, “I’m African-American.” If someone lives in America, he or she is an American. It’s a matter of what race they identify as, but “Puerto Rican” is not a race. Puerto Ricans have mixed ancestry, and they’d do well to discover what theirs is, but “Puerto Rican” isn’t a racial designation, but rather, a geographical one. Most likely, Puerto Ricans have a mixture of African-American and Spanish or Hispanic ancestry. Some have a more rich, complex ancestry, which isn’t a bad thing.
So when Jamaicans accept their African ancestry but deny that they’re African-American, what’s the problem, exactly, with their claim? Actually, there are a few problems with the claim and denial.
Problem #1: Jamaica isn’t a continent, but a country
I find it problematic to see Jamaica as a country, considering its size. But, for the sake of political correctness, let’s assume that Jamaica is a country. That being said, racial designation is not about the country but about the continent. So, what continent is Jamaica a part of? To be technically accurate, Jamaica is situated in the Americas, between the US (part of the North American continent) and South America (continent). So, with that said, if race involves continental designations (Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, Antarctica, North America, and South America), then Jamaicans must choose which continent they belong to. Since, geographically, they’re in the Americas, it only makes sense to call Jamaicans “Americans” in some sense.
Since Jamaicans live 1,721 miles from the southeastern portion of the US and 2,379 miles from northern South America, it appears that Jamaicans are closer geographically to North America than South America. So with that said, Jamaicans are Americans because of where they’re geographically located.
A person may be Korean, for example, and come from South Korea (country), but they’re racial designation is “Asian” because Asia is a continent while South Korea is a country. Similarly, Jamaicans are Americans because of the island’s geographic location — regardless of how Jamaicans feel about it.
Problem #2: Jamaicans are Black with African ancestry
This comes as no surprise to Jamaicans, but most Jamaicans are black and thus, have African ancestry. In fact, as of today, June 29, 2020, there are 2,961,104 Jamaicans in the country. The majority of the population in Jamaica (about 92%) are black with African descent. That doesn’t include Asian and European populations in the country, but the majority are black.
I cover this because it goes hand in hand with the racial designation. If Jamaicans are black, then clearly, they’ve come from Africa and are of African descent. I’ve already said that Jamaica is located in “the Americas.” Even on the Caribbean Sea, Jamaica is still, in many ways, an American territory.
So, when you put together the land of their descent and the continent of their current location, Jamaicans are African-American.
Problem #3: Jamaicans have African-American ancestors
Having done work on my own ancestry, and having submitted my DNA to a DNA company, I can affirm without hesitation (though I could before) that blacks come from Africa. If you have a fair-skinned, olive-skinned, or dark-skinned parent or grandparent, you have roots in Africa. I’ve learned in recent months that I come from the West African country of Nigeria and the South African country of Cameroon/Congo, from the Southern Bantu people. The majority of my African ancestry is Nigerian, nearly twice as much ancestry as Cameroon (16%). I’m nearly one-third Nigerian (29%) from my mother’s father. I’m slightly over one-third England, Wales, and Northwestern European (34%).
I’ve learned that, as someone who hails from West Africa, some of my ancestors were part of the slave trade. Some of my ancestors were packed like sardines on slave ships and brought to the US. I’m also aware that, along the way from Africa, some slaves were dropped off in Jamaica for fear that they wouldn’t make it to the US.
In examining the dropping off of slaves in Jamaica and then, the US, it becomes obvious that slaves and their families were separated. Not every slave stayed on the boat with their families. Not every slave stayed with their families when they were dropped off. Slaves were stripped of their names and hence, their identity. They were separated from family members and dropped off where slaveowners wanted them to go. So black Jamaicans born in Jamaica have African ancestry in the US.
Chances are, some of their African ancestors were taken to the US while some were dropped off in the land of their birth. Even without being born in America, Jamaicans have ancestors who were, and cousins and family that were. And a good DNA test will show some African-Americans living in America that are cousins to these same Jamaicans. These Jamaicans have a history in the Americas, whether they’ve ever lived there a day or not. You don’t need to live in a territory to have history from there. Americans have Italian ancestry, for example, whether they’ve ever lived in Italy or Europe or not.
And racial designations are not just about where you were born but where your ancestry hails from. You might be born in Europe, but you’re defined by the land of your parents and grandparents, not you. If you’re born in Europe but your father is African-American and your mother is Asian, then you’re African-American and Asian because of your parents. You can’t define yourself apart from your parents and grandparents.
Even being born in Jamaica, with African ancestors taken to America, and with those African ancestors having children that are their ancestors, these proud Jamaicans are still African-American.
From these reasons above, the “African-American” racial designation is a proper one for blacks in Jamaica who have African and African-American ancestors. The reality is that all blacks come from Africa, regardless of country. In the slave trade, Africans were separated from their families and lost their names. After they arrived safely in Jamaica and US, Africans couldn’t read and write and thus, couldn’t find their families. They didn’t have Ancestry.com, 23andme, Family Tree DNA, Living DNA, or even AfricanAncestry.com to help locate their family members back then. They couldn’t spit in a tube and locate the land of their ancestry. We’re very blessed to live in this time we live in.
And yet, we know these things to be true by what our DNA reveals, as well as what history reveals. And DNA matches reveal African-American ancestors for these blacks whose ancestors were brought to this country over 400 years ago. Think about it: if a Jamaican discovers they have African-American cousins, and the Jamaican has never left Jamaica, and the American has never stepped foot outside of America, then only the slave trade can explain why the native Jamaican and North American-born black person are cousins.
It is my wish that Jamaicans embrace their African and African-American ancestry because, without it, they wouldn’t have African-American cousins and family today. To embrace only the “Jamaican” part while denying the African-American ancestry label is to deny all that their African ancestors struggled through in America to have a better life. History is mixed with both good and bad, but not even Jamaicans can “cherrypick” which parts they accept and which parts they don’t.
I understand that some see racial designations as a subjective matter left entirely up to the individual, but for the reasons listed above, calling oneself “Jamaican” to avoid the African-American label is not only historically inaccurate but also, racist against their own people. It’s a sad world we live in these days where anti-black sentiment is still high, but it’s even sadder when it comes from black people themselves.