Summer 2001

Wadabagei: City University Window On the Caribbean and Its Diaspora



t may be one of CUNY's well-kept secrets, but Caribbean students are a significant minority among its diverse student body. More than 50% of the students at Medgar Evers College, for example, have a Caribbean background.

Appropriately, several University programs and many of its scholars focus on aspects of Caribbean Studies, and one important recent addition to this field is Wadabagei: A Journal of the Caribbean and its Diaspora. Published since 1998 by CUNY's Caribbean Research Center at Medgar Evers College, Wadabagei is striving to make a multi- and interdisciplinary contribution to our understanding of the diverse experiences made by migrants of African ancestry.

As a relatively young immigrant population-Caribbean people began entering the United States in larger numbers only after 1965-it is still in the process of making its presence in this country known to American mainstream society. Composed mostly by people of color of African and Indian (but also Chinese and Middle Eastern) origins, Caribbean-Americans also struggle against racial and ethnic discrimination and social marginalization. One of Wadabagei's aims is to explore their diverse diaspora experiences. A sampling from its recent issues will give a sense of the journal's wide range of interests.

Commenting on early waves of Caribbean immigration to the Panama Canal zone, one senior scholar in the field, Roy Bryce-Laporte, professor emeritus at Colgate University and Wadabagei editorial board member, poignantly wrote in the very first issue of the journal: "[it shows] how much some of us Caribbean immigrants have been subjected to an officially U.S. administered racial system. . .that was not totally unlike the old American South or the former South Africa. It indicates. . .why we can identify with African-Americans in their plights and struggles as peers."

At the same time, however, the Caribbean diaspora in the U.S. has been broken and inflected in ways that are unique and not yet widely understood. In his reflections on the scholarly literature, Bryce-Laporte comes to this conclusion: "Naturalization of West Indians was welcomed by the African-American political leadership insofar as it increased the overall number and power of the black vote in New York. But it gave form to the emergence of internal rivalries among blacks as West Indian leaders began to rise to leadership posts in the local political clubs and became pioneer holders of high office in municipal and state governments in New York."

Caribbean migration to the metropolitan areas of the North also raises important issues of transnationalism and global economic processes. How, for example, does immigration from the Caribbean compare with other flows from Latin America? How are their occupational opportunities affected by changes in the global and U.S. economies? Such challenging questions were researched by Dennis Conway and Susan Walcott, who concluded in an article published in 1999 that "The laboring opportunities which were more open to earlier waves are no longer available, and access to technical and sales employment is not occurring. Both Caribbean and Latin American new immigrant men rather than women have suffered from New York City's restructured labor markets." Such diminishing opportunities also have direct implications for home societies, which in recent years have felt stiffer winds blowing in their faces. A critical issue for many Caribbean countries is the forced repatriation of Caribbeans who run afoul of the American justice system. As Pedro Noguera pointed out in his Wadabagei article about deportation, there are considerable adjustment problems for Caribbean countries struggling with the massive inflow of mostly young criminals who, in many cases, do not even have a viable personal connection to their home country: "Support networks such as Chans Alternativ in Haiti are not present in all of these countries, and, more often than not, the families of these individuals are unable to cope with the challenges they encounter as part of the resettlement process."

Wadabagei was conceived during the preparatory phase of a major international conference in 1995 celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Caribbean Research Center. The founding and managing editor of the journal is the Montserrat native J. A. George Irish, a distinguished scholar in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Medgar Evers College. At the time of the conference, Dr. Irish began mulling with Charles Green and Calvin Holder (two other senior CUNY colleagues with Caribbean roots) how to revive scholarly activity on Anglophone Caribbean immigration. "In the academy in the U.S. meaningful emphasis has not been placed on the study of the Caribbean and its Diaspora," says Irish, who is also the executive director of the Caribbean Research Center. "There are few departments and programs and just a sprinkling of courses devoted to it. Cognizant of this reality, the Center undertook the challenge to redress scholarly neglect of the Caribbean and its diaspora." The result was Wadabagei. Quite appropriately, its title-pronounced wa-da-bah-gay-is indigenous, derived from the Garifuna language and referring to the conch shell often used in Caribbean villages to sound a wake-up call or announce community gatherings. The Garifuna are a distinct Caribbean people created from intermarriage between native Caribs and escaped African slaves in St. Vincent; in an early example of ethnic cleansing, they were subsequently deported by the British to locations in Central America.

As a refereed journal, Wadabagei can boast the editorial collaboration of widely acclaimed Caribbean and international artists and scholars such as Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming, Rex Nettleford, C.Y. Thomas, Hilbourne Watson, Ivelaw Griffith, Merle Hodge, and Paget Henry, to name only a few. The roster of editorial contributors really reflects the various axes of diversity in Caribbean societies and Caribbean Studies.

For example, in the summer of 1993, Irish became engaged in a fierce public debate over the academic achievements and language status of Caribbean children in the New York public school system. He claimed that, because of the syntactic and other distinct linguistic idiosyncrasies of their widely-spoken Creole languages, Anglo-Caribbean immigrant children ought to be regarded as bilingual-a position rejected by several New York educators and some scholars in other parts of the U.S. Eight years later, the New York Board of Education and New York State Regents have now finally recognized that, as one widely published Caribbean linguist recently pointed out, English-based Caribbean dialects can be as far removed from the English language as Spanish from Portuguese.

Here, too, Wadabagei has added its voice. Charles Green, chair of Hunter College's Department of Sociology, noted in an article on identity and adaptation of Caribbean youth in New York that "the public schools in these Brooklyn districts are overcrowded, lack some of the most basic teaching supplies, and suffer from severe staff shortages." These adverse conditions, Green added, serve "to exacerbate the problems facing immigrant children, such as adjusting to estranged parents, and in some cases a new step-parent, the deteriorating neighborhood infrastructure, peers, and the new school system, to mention a few."

For institutions of higher learning such findings are of vital importance, and in recognition of its work, Wadabagei was able to secure several supporting grants, among them a particularly generous one from the office of CUNY's Executive Vice Chancellor Louise Mirrer.

The staff of Wadabagei, still a young journal, looks forward to a growing subscription base. Its broad appeal is reflected in its latest issue, which addresses such issues as the Caribbean diaspora in Canada and Caribbeans of Indian descent. Forthcoming issues will explore the international impact of Caribbean cultural contributions, notably its celebrated carnival. As in the past, the journal remains multi-disciplinary and open for submissions from the social sciences, as well as from arts and humanities. More details and updates about Wadabagei can be found at its website at http://www.dynateck.com/wadabagei