Stuart Hall, in his essay on “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, gives the term “cultural identity” a two pronged definition saying first, that it can be defined “in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’ … which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common” and second, that it “recognizes that, as well as the many points of similarity, there are also critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute ‘what we really are’.” This, I found to be, an appropriate dismantling of a complex terminology that often times goes undefined by the common man but rather, is manifested in his physical, psychological, and spiritual self.
As a performing artiste trained in the “derivatives” of African oral, dance and music traditions present in the Caribbean, Hall’s binary definition resonates and gives depth to the work I do in representing the cultural identity of my people. He points readers to the work of photographer Armet Francis to get a visual illustration of his definition of cultural identity among Black folks. Francis’ photographs attempt to re-unify Blacks in the Diasporic communities with each other and with those in Africa under one cultural identity. A search for a collection of Francis’ photographs prove futile; the search resulted in only a few very disconnected photographs. A blog post discussing Hall’s essay and Francis’ photographs also did little to give readers a proper illustration. Desperate for a visual illustration of Hall’s two pronged definition of cultural identity, I reflected on an experience I had most recently. Come along with me.
At a birthday celebration last month where the celebrant brought all her friends from various backgrounds together, I was put on the spot to dance to the Shango drumming that was taking place. After 15 minutes of improvised dance that felt like it was taking place in an Orisha palais in some village in Trinidad, a Nigerian young lady approached me. She said that in watching my performance, she was transported, for a moment, back to her village of origin in Nigeria and that it was only then, in that moment, she realized a connection in the cultural identity of her people and my people. She was also quick to point out the differences; the same “deep and significant” differences Hall speaks to in part two of his definition. I say all this to give a descriptive example of Hall’s theory and to underscore how much Africa lies at the center of Black people’s cultural identity, giving it a meaning it once lacked. Africa is indeed “alive and well in the diaspora”.
I recently watched the documentary “Roots of Rhythm” with Harry Belafonte and cannot help but to connect it directly with your blog post. Recognition of African roots is certainly at the heart of Caribbean identity. It is in our story telling, dancing and music and it comes with us wherever we go. The documentary especially talked about how many artists of the diaspora used their african roots (the drumming especially) to create a new sound in America that would attract the audiences and allow them to celebrate their culture in the mainstream. I recommend it to anyone!
I always love that — seeing these “reminders” of our own specific cultures/identities in someone else’s display of their own. Especially when you can take the time to appreciate what makes you both distinct as well. There’s usually so much excitement about it, eagerness to share.