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Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900-1930.

By Irma Watkins-Owens (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996. x plus 238pp. $39.95/cloth $17.50/paperback).

"I know that you are far from home," J. F. Dowridge of St. Michael's Parish, Barbados wrote to his daughter Aletha in 1904. "Trust in God will help you with your hard work." (p. 11) Between 1900 and 1930, forty thousand (40,000) Aletha Dowridges arrived in New York, largely from the English-speaking Caribbean islands. They arrived when Harlem was in the process of becoming, their presence would affect greatly what it would become. Northern blacks migrating from lower Manhattan, their southern kinfolk, and their Caribbean-born cousins all converged on Harlem in the three decades of the twentieth century. "The result," Watkins-Owens argues, was a "unique" "intraracial, ethnic community" which contemporaries described as a "seething melting pot of conflicting nationalities and languages," a "homegrown ethnic amalgam," "a diverse and complex population." (p. 1) Present day scholars have largely ignored the "intraracial ethnic dimensions as an important dynamic in African American community life," the author contends. This study proposes to re-insert this variable into the study of the African-American community.

It is not surprising to learn that, for Caribbean immigrants, their initial interactions were largely limited to their own "ethnic" communities. They came primarily with the assistance of family members already here, who often provided the money for the passage, a place to stay, and help in finding employment. Like their southern black counterparts, the Caribbean immigrants formed associations and institutions to aid their own. While the newer immigrants tended to be isolated, however, the immigrant leaders were not. They maintained ties to and participated in the activities of their native born cousins. The relationships, while not entirely harmonious, do not appear to have been especially venomous. The authors contends, and rightly so, that there is much more to the interaction than the familiar theme of "antagonism" between the West Indian and the native African American. (p. 9)

One reason is that both Caribbean and native blacks were economically and politically powerless. Political power was not controlled by either group of blacks in Harlem, the author points out. It was nonresident whites who controlled political power in Harlem, not native-born blacks. To gain political autonomy for Harlem, black leaders needed votes, and the immigrants were non-citizens. Thus the West Indians were a problem for the leaders and a degree of animosity resulted. However, the Caribbean-born leaders did not disagree with their native-born brothers on this issue. "Political leaders, especially Caribbean, were often financially secure and Americanized," the author contends. (p. 91) She suggests that, in many ways, they had more in common than not.

Marcus Garvey became the primary source of most of the alleged friction between the native-born blacks and West Indians. Even here, however, there seems to be no clearcut division in the attitudes toward Garvey. He had a following even among prominent blacks including such luminaries as Madame C. J. Walker and T Thomas Fortune. Moreover, in criticizing him, the native black newspapers seldom mentioned his foreign birth. The author suggests that Garvey's political naivete more than the "nativism" of black New Yorkers proved Garvey's undoing. He seems to have misunderstood the damage that would result from his meeting with the Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan, for example.

On the whole, the West Indian immigrants seemed more often to have added another dimension to the Harlem community. The Caribbean immigrants "invented the streetcorner speaking tradition," which provided an alternate forum for espousing radical or non-traditional ideas. "It is here the West Indian shines," a WPA researcher observed. (p. 93) To get their own ideas out, the native-born blacks soon followed the Caribbean migrants to the "soap boxes." As a consequence, the traditional organizations were forced to become "more responsive to community concerns." (p. 110)

Another area in which the West Indians helped to alter the landscape of Harlem was in business enterprise. For the most part, West Indian entrepreneurs were not perceived as "outsiders." The author examines the presence of West Indians in both legal and illegal enterprises, specifically the "numbers." She found that the presence of Dutch Schultz was resented but the West Indians were not. For one thing, they lived in and bestowed their largesse upon the community. Dutch Schultz did not.

The West Indians also enriched and added another dimension to the Harlem community in the area of the arts, particularly literature, and to the black news media at all levels. Specific mention is made of the poet Claude McKay and the journalist J. A. Rogers. While some, like McKay, sometimes struggled with the issue of "identity," the monograph leaves little doubt that they were not the "other" to native-born blacks.

This study is extremely valuable for its exploration of "the fabric of community life, including the ethnic dimension," and the author proves that the "intraracial antagonism" has been over-emphasized. This reviewer sometimes found the language a little thick, however. For example, the author noted that "the interplay of race with foreign background in the context of the Harlem community and the larger white community is important to an investigation of the dynamics in an intraracial ethnic setting." (p. 5) The meaning came across eventually, but it took some time. This reviewer was also uncertain about the issues raised with regard to social class and gender, or how assertions of "preferential treatment" to West Indians affected community formation. What did come through was a genuine sense of how Caribbean blacks lived and related to their American-born brothers in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The monograph is therefore a welcome addition to the literature on intraracial interactions and on black community life.

Joyce Thomas Cleveland State University
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Author:Thomas, Joyce
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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