The dictionary defines the word identity as the extent to which a person is being his/her own self. A clear indication of a person’s knowledge of this begins with a careful analysis of how he/she refers to oneself by name; also by ethnicity, culture and race. What has historically been a detriment to all conquered cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere is the superimposed false notion that race is not a major factor in our countries of origin, but rather class struggle is. The truth is that no matter where you travel to in the Caribbean or Latin America these two factors are noticeably if not vividly interwoven; that is, the higher you are in class status the lighter skinned you tend to be and the more European you are in your lifestyle. Hence, the opposite is true; the lower you are in class status the darker skinned you tend to be and the more African or Indigenous you are in your lifestyle.
When we immigrate to the United States many of us as Latin Americans attempt to both escape this painful reality and achieve the greatest level of success possible (with our limited understanding of what success is) by disassociating ourselves from those who most obviously experience racism and classism the most, with Black Americans being at the top of the list. However, for many of us that truly cannot escape the racial polarity that still exists in this country because of what we look like phenoltypically we are now forced to confront the very ugly reality of prejudice and the agonizing realization that we truly do not know who we are.
Coherently, utterly confusing and perhaps even more painful for many Latin Americans is transitioning from a “white” category as we were known in our home countries, to now being compared to the very racial groups we outright refused to be “lumped up” with (i.e. African or Indigenous). Most of us that experience this vehemently resist by not only overemphasizing to our children the belief that we are in some way “white in our own way” (not like white American “gringos”) but also attempting to get Latin Americans with more “African” features that live amongst us to buy into the notion that they are not really “Black” and should rather assume a national form of identification above anything else (i.e. Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Colombian, Venezuelan, etc.).
For the majority of us as Latin Americans, we continue to virtually live all of our lives this way with huge empty voids that do not allow us to ever truly feel actualized, not even in the most remote sense, yet in a constant mode of rationalizing why we shouldn’t look deeper into who we are and our overall purpose in life based on that introspection. In essence, we end up willingly living a lie.
The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan said in a lecture entitled The Purpose of Knowledge on February 16, 1983 at Wellesley College in Boston, Massachusetts, “When you feed on truth, you think in harmony with the truth, you think right. When you feed on lies, you feed on that which is against the nature of the cell of the brain, and destroy the beauty of the brain cell. It is like planning wood against the grain. The more you plane it against the grain, the uglier you make it. The more you think against truth, the uglier you become spiritually, mentally and even physically.” Hence, the more we feed on the lies that this white supremist world has taught us about ourselves (i.e. the beliefs that lighter skin is better than darker skin, “kinky” hair is “pelo malo” or “bad hair,” that Black people will never amount to anything good, etc.)
As a starting point to come out of this self-hating condition that is detrimental to self and others, the Latin American of color (of African and Indigenous ancestry) must become actively engaged in the study of both what has been done to us as a people under the state of 400 to 500 years slavery/colonialism and the greatness of our histories prior to slavery/colonialism. Many Latin Americans of color here and abroad continue to believe the premise that “Christopher Columbus discovered America” and that “The Conquistadors explored the Americas”, yet at the same time thinking nothing of their own existence in relation to these events beyond suffering in a state of subjugation and perpetual servitude.
Earl Shorris writes on page 15 in the book Latinos: A Biography of the People, “Latino history has become a confused and painful algebra of race, culture and conquest; it has less to do with evidence than with politics, for whoever owns the beginning has dignity, whoever owns the beginning owns the world.”
As a personal testament to how necessary this process is, I will say that I, like many of the second generation Latin American children of color, grew up with in New York and Miami in the 80s and the 90s and had many questions about my own racial identity while living in a society that often compels the individual to choose sides (“Black or white”). I recall how the Hip Hop music of the time attracted many us and briefed us quite a bit about the importance of learning the truth about our history, mainly through a Black American vantage point. Despite the content of the music being specifically related to another culture’s quest for self-identity, it compelled many of us as Latin American youth who were confused about our own identity to begin studying ourselves and our history through the lenses of books like Message to the Blackman In America by The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, The Isis Papers by Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery by Na’im Akbar and The Autobiography of Malcolm X; a quest that would unknowingly and ultimately lead many of us to realizing that our true identity is connected to The Creator.
Tony Muhammad has been teaching Social Studies in Miami-Dade County Public Schools for over 10 years and is currently involved in The MIA (Music Is Alive) Campaign for the development of the National Hip Hop Day of Service. Tony is most noted for his work as publisher of Urban America Newspaper (2003 – 2007) and co-organizer of the Organic Hip Hop Conference. He currently serves as a student assistant minister to Student Minister Rasul Hakim Muhammad at Muhammad Mosque #29 in Miami, Florida.