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A page of Jamaican migration history

FRANKLIN W KNIGHT

Monday, June 04, 2012    

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As we begin to accept the importance of the Jamaican diaspora communities around the world, it seems worthwhile to think about the interesting history of the construction of those communities. Before the first US immigration laws in 1924, entry was relatively easy. West Indians like Richard B Moore of Barbados and Claude McKay and Marcus Garvey of Jamaica simply boarded a ship and then joined other "tired, weary, and poor", seeking entry through Ellis Island and other ports.

Racism was prevalent in the United States, and discrimination of all sorts existed, making it difficult to get adequate remunerative employment, or to join labour unions, or to live in desired neighbourhoods. Still, thousands of West Indians migrated to the USA, as they did to other neighbouring Caribbean and circum-Caribbean countries such as Cuba, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia. When they had doubts about their local situation they simply moved on. Migration, after all, is a fundamental part of the Caribbean experience.

Despite the odds, early Jamaican migrants made their mark in the USA. McKay became one of the important literary figures in the Harlem Renaissance. McKay's nostalgic poetry and introspective prose represented some of the best writing of the age. Marcus Garvey founded the largest mass organisation of its time in the history of the United States. His Universal Negro Improvement Association was headquartered in Harlem, but had branches throughout the eastern United States, the Caribbean and Africa. Its organisational methods and centripetal religious-cum-economic-cum-social advocacy are still used today by many religious and secular organisations, especially the Black Muslims. Garvey's movement did much to engender both pride of self and pride of homeland, and contributed to the awareness of nationalism, albeit a Black Nationalism.

Jamaican WA Domingo along with others such as the Barbadian Richard Moore formed another type of political organisation - the Blood Brothers - that eventually merged with the socialists and communists for a time. Jervis Anderson has persuasively shown in his brilliant book on Harlem in the first decades of the 20th century that the Caribbean and West Indian presence permeated American black society, especially in music and religion and obviously made a significant impact on the wider American society. But even as Caribbean folks make those associations, they strengthened within themselves and their group a feeling of regional and insular solidarity.

The reason for this is not hard to find. Caribbean immigrants were relatively well educated - certainly better educated at the primary level than their American peers. They were hard-working, accustomed to privations, and accustomed to relocation. Changing places came easy to them. But there was another aspect of the Caribbean personality that, then as now, made a difference for West Indians in the ugly, xenophobic, racist and competitive marketplace in which the newly arrived immigrants to the United States of America found themselves.

Their elementary education gave West Indians some wider view of the world of their day. But they were also products of societies in which they constituted the demographic majority, hence they did not enter the United States as self-conscious minorities with a constraining psychology of inferiority. They did not feel intellectually and socially marginalised. They were not afraid to rock the boat. And they had a certain arrogance that sometimes did not win them friends.

But exile allowed them to cultivate a sense of nationalism although it tended to be unfocused, in the sense that many of them thought of themselves as both from a territory as well as from a region. The initial migrant group of the early 20th century began the West Indian diaspora scattered across the United States that numbers in the millions today.

Between 1835 and 1846 approximately 19,000 people moved from the Eastern Caribbean to Trinidad and British Guiana. Barbados alone contributed some 50,000 migrants to British Guiana and Trinidad between 1850 and 1921; some 1,495 to Suriname between 1863 and 1870; and a further 3,500 to St Croix in 1863. More than 7,000 people from Dominica were working in the Venezuela gold fields in 1894. Altogether, the British West Indies suffered a net population loss of 130,000 individuals between 1885 and 1920. People were moving out and moving on, sometimes permanently.

The 1924 immigration law and the Great Depression of 1929-33 virtually closed the United States to immigrants, certainly to non-white immigrants. This would change again with the new circumstances produced by the beginning of World War II. The Americans needed labour - lots of cheap labour for industry and agriculture and so a new wave of Caribbean entrants arrived to make sure that industrial production kept pace with war needs and to reap the agricultural harvests. Some West Indians such as CLR James did not enter as contract labourers. Claude McKay went to the USA to attend college. Many workers simply stayed on after their seasonal contract ended. Yet, many prominent West Indians entered the United States and made their mark.

After the Second World War opportunities reopened for Caribbean migration to the United States and Canada. Most migrants to the United States were admitted under a special visa issued to workers that required a return to their homeland at the expiry of their work contract. By the 1950s Canada also eased restrictions on entry and West Indians entered in a steadily increasing volume, reaching some 200,000 entrants between 1946 and 1980 - almost two per cent of the Canadian population at that time. English-speaking Caribbean immigrants would play an important role in the development of Canadian society.

The post-1960 stream represented a different sort of migrant to the United States, more students and more professionals than before as the various immigration laws increasingly allowed the entry of family members and skilled individuals.

This led to a rather diverse cultural impact on American society, although more pronounced within and around the local concentration of Caribbean diaspora communities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Texas and California. According to figures provided by the Embassy of Jamaica in Washington, the Jamaican community in the United States currently approaches one million individuals - equivalent to a little more than one-third of the present island Jamaican population.

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