Part two of a three-part series, published in The Nassau Guardian, 28th July 2007
By Angelique V. Nixon
Special to the Guardian
I was raised primarily by my Black grandmother in Bain Town, Nassau, Bahamas (Over da Hill) and this experience was most fundamental in forging social and cultural perceptions of my identity (that being Afro-Caribbean and Bahamian).
My grandmother, Mabel Sistella Charles, was born and raised in Inagua, and came to New Providence when she was just 16. She did not speak much about her past, but from what I remember and have traced through family stories, she worked as a cook and domestic worker most of her life until she was hurt on one of her jobs. At that point, she had already raised four children on her own and had also helped raise two of her grandchildren, including me.
While my grandmother was a very proud Black woman, she was insistent that I never marry a Black man because with my light skin and "good" hair I could be the one to "make it" out of the ghetto, get an education, and take care of the family. As a product of a colonial (mis)education, my grandmother associated being Black with being poor and having no opportunities, whereas being white came with privilege, and the "in between" or mixed-race people could essentially "choose," depending on how "white" or "Black" they appeared or even acted.
I think my grandmother's expectations of me grew out of what she saw as my mother's failure to operate in this "in between" space of white and Black. My mother was the one child out of her four children that she conceived with a white man. My mother was the product of my grandmother's troubling affair with a British Methodist priest in the 1950s for whom she worked as a domestic; my mother never met him. Despite my grandmother's hopes, my mother never "made it out," so that responsibility became mine. Although my mother often talked about the tensions she felt growing up and never fully fitting in anywhere, she identified as Black, but attempted to gain status through conceiving me with a mixed-race Bahamian man — a combination of Chinese, white, Black, and Native American. As we like to say in the Bahamas, "all mix up." As a result, I was encouraged and expected to excel in school and succeed. I would argue that these expectations from both my mother and grandmother can be seen throughout the history of racial mixing in the Caribbean.
Growing up in the Bahamas, I very rarely had conversations about race or racial mixing. As I teenager, I felt ashamed of being poor, and I worked hard to distance myself from where I grew up. And since I associated being poor with being Black, I tried to "mask" my "blackness." In other words, I chose to be silent about my racial identity in certain situations in order to gain opportunities such as jobs, scholarships, and promotions, and I strived to meet my family's expectations. In fact, I did this so much that "masking" became easier and easier, a kind of performance, as I perfected my "proper" English, socialized primarily with white people and those who could "pass" as white, and avoided conversations about growing up poor and my racial identity. In retrospect, I do not believe that my grandmother or my mother would have ever wanted me to hide my identity, but rather they too understood strategically performing or not performing blackness. This "masking" through performance could never affect my embodied identity, no matter my silence or social circles. However, I did benefit from my performance because I was able to take advantage of opportunities that I don't think would have been available to me had I been darker-skinned or had not performed strategically.
In my mid-20s, I realized I did not have to hide who I was. But I was faced with the reality of being in a multiracial body where I felt like I had to "claim" my blackness. I began openly talking about my life growing up, sharing stories about my mother and grandmother, and asserting my identity through my experiences and personal history. And I did this through conceiving of my identity through historical, cultural, and political terms. Nevertheless, I am very aware of being a mixed-race black woman with light skin and "good" hair, and therefore conscious of the light-skinned privilege that comes with being mixed. But I am also aware that the "blackness" I embody carries with it not only my family history of 1950s colonial rule, but also a very particular kind of history. This history is one of African enslavement in which Black women were consistently raped by white men, and one where miscegenation (racial mixing) could mean denigration but also privilege.