The Caribbean Cultural Identities

June 17, 2021

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Diverse cultured people who have been brought together through shared common attributes as well as similar problems characterize the Caribbean region. As has been documented in many studies, the Caribbean can be viewed from different perspectives since it offers a rich ground for a myriad of topics. This is perhaps made possible due to the region’s various diversities ranging from cultural, racial, political, social, and economic aspects. Hillman (2009) affirms that Caribbean people are linked together, not by an ethnic similarity, but by history. Moreover, he observes that throughout history, Caribbean people have engaged in struggles aimed at liberating themselves from “exploitation of colonialism, slavery, imperialism, neocolonialism, and dependency” (p. 2). Although the people are characterized by a diverse cultural background, a common factor is that they have maintained a certain level of resilience in the face of intense interaction with other cultures. Significantly, the Caribbean people have maintained their unique cultural identities despite coming in contact with other cultures notably from Europe and the US.

Historical Background

The Caribbean region is comprised of different countries and other forms of political facets. Thus, having emerged from the popular populations’ settlements, the people of the Caribbean are said to have descended from slaving ancestors (Premdas, 1996). Since the labor force for the plantations was drawn from different regions, the Caribbean societies are hugely heterogeneous, which implies that it is characterized by people who live side to side with people who are largely distinct from them.

In light of this, people are mainly of African, European, Indonesian Javanese, Asian Indian, Aboriginal Indian, Chinese origin, or a blend between the races. Additionally, they profess to different religions among them Islam, Christianity, Santer?a, Hinduism, Winti, Judaism, Rastafarians, Vudun, among others (Premdas, 1996). Premdas also observes that people can also be differentiated based on their languages, which include major international languages and “Creoles such as papiamentu, sranan tongo, ndjuka, saramaccan, kromanti, kreyol, as well as Hindustani, Bhojpuri, Urdu” (p. 2). Based on this observation, it is evident that the Caribbean region is a unique in the world endowed with such attributes like no other. In addition, of importance is that there is no way any group can claim to be superior since the majority of them arrived in the region simultaneously.

Regardless of the diverse attributes, marked by the difference in cultures, languages, racial background, and religions, the Caribbean people have coexisted and coped with the issues that are common in many third world economies associated with social, political, and economic problems. They reside in the Caribbean islands that are not in any way equally endowed with natural resources.

Authentic Cultural Traits

One of the issues that set the Caribbean region aside is its unique and diverse culture. Each of the different distinct group of people has a region in the world that their ancestors came from (Hillman, 2009). This, as Brodber (1985) posits, has deeply defined each of the distinct cultures that constitute the richness of culture in the Caribbean. Consequently, authentic cultures in the region bear great semblance to the cultures of such places like Africa, Europe, Asia, and America. It is the similarities or the differences that exist in these two forms of cultures that define how much the Caribbean people have changed in terms of their cultural characteristics and identity.

According to Seejattan (1994), there exist many similarities in the two forms of cultures. Specifically, she finds out that there are undeniable similarities between the cultures exhibited in Trinidad and Tobago with those common in West African countries. In particular, she establishes that a striking similarity exists between such aspects of culture like food, music, labor division, dance, language, and religion. The people of Trinidad and Tobago are found to be fond of same kinds of foods, “… yam, dasheen, eddoes, bananas, plantain and ochro”, just like they are common in West Africa (p.1). Premdas (1960) also observes that the food in the Caribbean is unique, and it is plausible that one can now make Caribbean foods employing methods of preparing food and tastes that are characterized by unique culinary sharing among various groups.

Division of labor across the genders is also prevalent in the region as Premdas (1960) observes the presence of a ‘Sunday market’ where women make up the majority of the traders. This was retained from the open markets in Africa where people, mostly women, traded foodstuffs and other household commodities. Additionally, some religious traits that are common in these societies can be traced back to the African cultures. Traits such as a strong emphasis on the meaning of dreams and the ability of some individuals to conduct exorcism are some of the evidences that Brodber (1985) cites as evident that African culture has been retained in the Caribbean.

Hillman (2009) affirms that Caribbean culture has been retained as unique and uninfluenced by external cultures. He concludes this after analyzing the aspects in Caribbean music and dance, which according to him bears an immense semblance to how music is organized in Africa. This is seen in the music instruments used as well as the rhythms that characterize most of their songs. Although there are differences in the type of music that each group in the Caribbean identifies with, each of the groups’ music is seen as being unique and uninfluenced. In light of this, Premdas (1960) identifies how the Caribbean is linked to different genres of music. Notably, he develops an association depicting the following sequence salsa in Puerto Rico, son in Cuba, reggae in Jamaica, calypso in Trinidad and merengue in Dominican Republic (Brodber, 1985). Furthermore, he notes that all are marked by the Afro-Caribbean rhythm characterized by the use of drums and dance making music in the region to be conceived as being uniform.

The unique Caribbean attributes are marked by a distinct set of languages that also bear some similarities with the original languages of the Caribbean ancestors. Despite the adoption of various language mixtures, popular as creoles, the heritage is outstanding in the formation of words, and how the language develops. Brodber affirms that the creoles in Trinidad and Tobago are largely influenced by the African languages with words like ‘bubu’, ‘esusu’, ‘mumu’, jumbie’ and ‘lahay’ being words that are used in most West African countries.

Occurrences that had Potential to Change the Cultures

The Caribbean region has undergone various phases of revolutions that were capable of changing the way of life for its natives. Burton (2008) affirms that the very formation of the region was a form of threat to any kind of cultural attribute that the people previously had. Moreover, he further argues that since the region was meant to provide labor to aid in wealth creation in Europe, the result was expected to be a subjugated culture. By placing the people together and imposing on them the European cultures, there emanated a risk that the cultures deemed inferior were to be phased out or be subjugated in the ways of the superior culture.

Burton further notes that the Caribbean region may depict a culture that has been subjugated due to the classification of its culture because of historical development in the region. “The region developed purely as a tool for the production of wealth for Europe, through the labor of enslaved and subjugated peoples: Tainos and Caribs, Africans, Indians and Chinese” (p. 9). He further notes that the process through which the Caribbean region was formed was in itself a form of globalization, an idea he argues is supported by its economic and political characteristics.

In the case of Jamaica, Burton (2009) notes that its Creole culture stemmed from a structure that is more dominant, “which may now be labeled the subjugated culture of the majority population” (p. 11). The subjugation was due to the presence of the European culture, which he views as being the target culture. Therefore, the dominant culture was at risk of being phased out by the presumably new European culture.

Significance of the Cultural Identities

Despite the issues that had potential to change the Caribbean people’s identities, they somehow retained a majority of their original cultures. As observed, Caribbean region still maintains a great deal of cultural habits inherited from ancestors. It has various significances for the region, especially in the contemporary world. The major implication of their culture is that people have managed to rise above oppression by identifying themselves with particular regions elsewhere in the world. As Premdas (1996) observes, they are all tied together by a culture that continuously revitalizes their struggle against oppression.

As Premdas (1996) further notes, the people of the Caribbean region are bred well so that they can no longer be differentiated through race. Their social settings are not restricted by the distinct racial orientations, but by the unique Caribbean culture. Thus, this implies that the cultural aspects that define the trans-Caribbean people make it difficult to ascribe such attributes as purely African or Asian to them. Rather than adhering strictly to the indigenous cultural settings where they evidently borrow much of their cultural aspects, they instead use such aspects together with the experiences they had in the Caribbean plantations to conjure up the ‘Creole culture’ within which they derive meaning and self-definition (Premdas, 1996, p. 41). Their culture has been identified as making the Caribbean region move together in step. It has helped them endure the oppression storm of slavery and colonization.

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Future of the Caribbean Cultural Identities: Potential Influences

It is inevitable that their culture will continue facing many risks of being phased out as time goes. Burton (2008) argues that a culture is viewed as being superior based on how many people ascribe to it. This means that there is a higher probability that Caribbean culture may fall apart in comparison to the presumably superior cultures of the Euro Zone and America. He deduces that if the premise holds, the ease at which people will be assimilated into other cultures will be higher in the future than it is today or it was in the past.

To explain the likely failure of the Caribbean culture, Burton (2008) presents two approaches that describe social identities. The essentialist and the postmodernist models view social identity from different angles thereby proposing different fates for the Caribbean culture. In addition, Burton (2008) relays that under the essentialist model, the Caribbean cultural identity may survive since the model perceive identity as being stable with a strong base of experiences that have been shared by all. On the other hand, when viewed in the lens of the postmodernists, cultural identities are not stable since the experiences on which they are founded portray a shared impartially, which implies that the Caribbean people can be naturalized in other cultures with ease.

Other than the models that describe a possible assimilation of the Caribbean culture into the superior cultures, there are other emerging aspects of the contemporary society that also pose risks to the Caribbean cultural identities. One of these aspects is globalization, which is described loosely as a process resulting in global connectedness on all spheres of life (Burton, 2008). The implication of the connectedness is that life is influenced from across the world, which inevitably leads to some form of restructuring. It then will have considerable impact on culture as witnessed in the adoption of different types of cultural aspects, like food, dress, and music. For instance, as Burton (2008) observes, fast foods have been adopted in Jamaica with KFC and Burger King Outlets dotting major towns (p. 12).

A positive note is that Caribbean people can adopt the global trends and use them in order to popularize their cultural identities. Moreover, Burton (2008) observes that Jamaicans are already doing it by erecting such facilities that serve indigenous Jamaican dishes and drinks alongside the fast food outlets. The use of the contemporary style while incorporating local lifestyles may serve to preserve the culture.

With continued efforts toward empowerment, many people from the Caribbean region have migrated to other parts of the world, specifically the US and Europe. With migration, Burton (2008) observes that those who settle in the Diaspora have developed a different trend in that they are grouping themselves based on their distinct cultural backgrounds. He further notes that most critics project that it may spawn into greater differences that will be detrimental for the stability of the region. Specifically, he alludes to some Indo-Caribbean historians who argued that this is caused by the relatively disproportional emphasis that is put on Africans and Europeans making others feel left out.

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The Caribbean region may not describe any political jurisdiction, but it sure describes people bonded together by experiences and cultural identities. Maintaining their cultural identity over time has showed that the region may not only withstand cultural erosion, but also has the potential of influencing other cultures. To achieve this, the people of the Caribbean will need to sustain their identity in an even more versatile era.