Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities

Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities

Henry, Paget

Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities.

By Mary C. Waters. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. 413

Black Identities by Mary Waters is easily the most comprehensive and current examination of West Indian migrants to America in existence at present. In the migration and sociological literatures, the West Indian experience has been the source of great controversy, particularly around measures of social success that compare them to AfroAmericans. For example, the works of Thomas Sowell (Race and Economics, 1975) are well known for the ways in which the perceived greater success of West Indians are linked to values that African Americans supposedly lack. Other well known explanations can be found in the works of Ira de Reid (The Negro Immigrant, 1939), Stephen Steinberg (The Ethnic Myth, 1989), and Phillip Kasinitz (Caribbean New York, 1992). In its comprehensive scope, Black Identities moves beyond the achievements of these authors around the issue of West Indian success. Waters examines all of the major facets of the immigrant experience in the lives of a sample of West Indian Americans, and carries out this examination thoroughly, professionally and successfully. Set against the changing assimilative context of America as host society, Waters with poignancy and pinpoint accuracy, captures the difficult ambiguities and the sharp contradiction that mark this particular immigrant experience.

Leading the many factors that have made the West Indian experience distinctly different from that of European immigrants is race. This factor is downplayed by Sowell in the interest of culture. It is recognized by Kasinitz, who sees it as being moderated by the cultivating of public ethnic identities. In Water’s view, this racing of the immigrant experience has created a unique generational cycle, that severely restricts West Indian opportunities for social success and becoming full-fledged Americans. The peculiar detour in the West Indian ethnic rite of passage is their forced racial identification with African Americans, particularly by the second generation as accents and other cultural markers of difference have faded. The result is a very definite tendency toward socioeconomic decline in the second generation, rather than continued upward mobility.

Closely related to this tendency is another important finding that West Indians who resist this detour by clinging to their ethnic identity, tend to do better. But unlike Kasinitz, Waters sees these ethnic dreams as being on a collision course with American racial realities. This ambivalence, of course, creates tensions with African Americans and complicates the formation of West Indian American identities. It is the author’s thorough grasp of the dynamic of this generational cycle, and her thorough documentation of its workings that makes Black Identities the important work that it is. By keeping together the contradictory patterns produced by the immigrant attitudes of West Indians and their racialization over a generational cycle, Waters has succeeded in giving us the most credible, balanced and multifaceted assessment of the West Indian immigrant experience.

The study of this cycle and its distinct racial detour was based upon interviews with West Indian immigrants, their employers, co-workers, and their teachers. These interviews were supplemented by months of intensive participant observation both at a particular workplace and at two public high schools. Together, Waters and her assistants interviewed 202 individuals, of whom 59 were West Indian immigrants and 83 were children of immigrants. There were 27 interviews with Black Americans and 25 with white Americans. From this data, and the findings of other researchers, Waters succeeds in explaining many of the ambiguities surrounding the West Indian experience, its peculiar tendencies toward downward mobility, and thus explodes many of the myths around inflated reports of West Indian success.

My major critical concern is with Water’s treatment of the emergence of a diasporic as distinct from an immigrant consciousness among West Indians, particularly in academic and other elite circles. On this point, Kasinitz’s emphasis on the political cultivating of an ethnicity as important. However, the way he relates it to racialization is problematic. Waters needs to recognize more fully the importance of these diasporic and ethnic tendencies while maintaining her position on the impact of racialization.

Black Identities is not only very well researched, it is also very clearly written. The book’s prose is lucid and its arguments are convincing. It has the highest recommendation of this West Indian author.

Copyright Center for Migration Studies Summer 2001

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