What is a Plantain? The Importance of Cultural Retention in the Caribbean Diaspora
by Cherise Charleswell, BA, MPH
During undergraduate studies I took an elective anthropology course which led me, at the time a biological sciences major, to decide to take the required courses to graduate with a minor in cultural anthropology. To be honest I always found anthropology, history, and geography intriguing; and the three subjects certainly overlap. Some of the greatest examples of their overlap can be seen in the Caribbean basin and Latin America. Although the island-nations and territories share a tropical climate, they exhibit great variation in their geography and landscapes; and it is this geography that makes each island somewhat unique. There is the spice island of Grenada, Dominica – the land of many rivers, the mountainous island of Tortola and those that are flat and low lying like Anguilla.
The region is a distinctive area that has been a site of constant migration for millennia. Whether it was the movement of Arawak, Taino, and Carib tribes up the eastern Caribbean archipelago, the forced migration of Africans across the Atlantic, or the many waves of Europeans from England, France, Spain, Denmark, Portugal, Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands.
People continue to migrate from island to island in search of work, opportunity, and a chance to reconnect with family members. The Virgin Islands in particular, continues to be a clearinghouse for people from all over the Caribbean. And for this reason most Virgin Islanders, myself included, have heritage from many other islands ( in my case: Tortola, St. Kitts, Puerto Rico, and Anguilla) and have family histories of migration and ties to other areas within the Caribbean and Latin America (again, for me that would be the Dominican Republic and Panama)
As a person of Caribbean descent, I am aware of the fact that we, and our culture, are a product of the process of Creolization; the intermingling of the cultural aspects of Indigenous, African and European people. Realizing this, it makes me laugh when I hear folks talk about the Creoles here in the United States. For them being Creole centers so much around a certain complexion and hair texture; as well as origins in Louisiana; particularly New Orleans. However, never once do they take the time to consider that much of what they think is distinctive about that North American sub-culture, actually is due to the migration and influence of Caribbean people from Haiti. Again Creole people.
Needless to say, I am quite proud of this rich cultural heritage and it is for this reason that I will never allow myself to truly assimilate. I understand that my parents moved to the United States in pursuit of greater opportunities and I am thankful for that. I embraced all of the opportunities afforded to me here, but I always kept in mind that I had to practice my own form of cultural preservation. Black history is hardly taught in the schools in the States, not even at the collegiate level unless one takes a Black Studies course. And when World History is actually taught, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa are often left out. So the Black Studies course that I sat in focused on the Antebellum South and the rise of King Cotton; while the world history courses focused on Ancient Greece, medieval Europe, the renaissance and so on. And while I do acknowledge the European contribution to my genome, I still do not believe that these courses represented me. Being an avid reader, I did a lot of self educating. My ancestors did not pick cotton, but they sure as hell harvested sugarcane in the Caribbean ‘seasoning grounds‘ which many enslaved people who made it to North America had to pass through.
It is this pride in my culture that helped me to respond to African-American people who shared the same ancestral past as me but who looked at me and my accented speech as ‘the other’ when they hurled their insults at me:
‘Coconut? Coconut yuh mudda skunt ‘
‘Buh my family does live in guys. Scatter yuh skunt and worry about yuh roach infested durty homes. Dats why yuh leg sparky an hav heap of ring worms!’
My tongue was and continues to be as sharp as a machete. I always provided very colorful responses and these interactions only made me more determined to practice cultural retention. The shortest definition of cultural retention is actively retaining the culture of a specific group of people, especially when there is a reason to believe that this culture may be lost through assimilation, a changing way of life, disuse of language, or some other mechanism.
Culture itself is the common characteristics and knowledge of any particular group of people, and one of the greatest markers of culture is cuisine. Yes, the ingredients that we cook with, the process that we use to prepare the meal, and the types of dishes that we create are an expression of our culture; and it is one of the mostly easily transmittable forms of culture. This transmission forms the basis of the Caribbean cuisine. For example, this is how the West African dish fufu, became the ubiquitous West Indian dishes funge, mayi moulin, coucou, or mofungu. The enslaved Africans simply brought over their recipes and cultural knowledge, and recreate the dishes with the ingredients that they could find in the New World. I have always acknowledged and appreciated the importance of our cuisine, in terms of cultural retention. For this reason, I make sure that even when celebrating (or at least taking the day off of work and enjoying) traditionally US holidays, such as Thanksgiving or Fourth of July, I include Caribbean dishes on the menu. Food takes center stage during these gatherings, and the sharing of these dishes is a process of cultural transmission.
As I am doing all of this, imagine the horror that hit me when my eldest niece, my mini-me, the child that inherited my face and mannerisms (Lawd m’h brother must ah been mad with my rass when she mother was carrying her) asked me ‘what are those‘ when I was scooping plantains onto her plate. I felt like screaming. Instead, I quietly stated, ‘These are fried plantains, you had them before.‘ Her response was to wrinkle her nose and look at me with confusion.
What di rass??!! How does this child not recognize plantain??!!
I fry plantations all the time. My home smells like plantain 4 out of the 7 days of the week. Could it be that she never saw a large bowl of fried plantains together? Maybe she never noticed it before on her plate? No man! How could that be? I was literally frustrating myself and looking for my brother, because I wanted to pump words into him. ‘See this is why you need to learn to friggin’ cook! Bring the children around more!’ All I could do was tell her to go sit down and try it, then I went for a sip of the rum punch that we had flowing. I needed a drink, because in that moment I felt like I had failed. It was as if I was coming face-to-face with cultural erasure. They say that it happens over many generations and is gradual (Buh di child is first generation!), and things that once had a noticeable prominence become a rarity.
I refuse to sit back and let that happen. Not while I am still here, so that means that as my nieces grow older they will be marched into the kitchen to help their Auntie cook, so they can familiarize themselves with the scents, textures, and taste of Caribbean cuisine. I want them to be able to reproduce these flavors, and share them with their own kids, nieces, and so on. As we cook we will listen to the sounds of the Caribbean, because cooking is always more enjoyable when you have music blaring. Besides, there is no way any niece of mine is going to end up stiff and unable to whine her waist. Music and dance are just as much a part of our culture as our cuisine.
Cherise Charleswell, BA, MPH is a self-proclaimed Wombanist, a self-and -internationally published author, poet, activist, Biocultural anthropologist and public health practitioner of Caribbean descent; with heritage from the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, Torotola, St. Kitts, Puerto Rico, and Anguilla. She proudly practices cultural retention, while openly and actively pursuing various interests and endeavors due to her refusal to be place ‘in a box’ or limited by societal labels. She is the creator and host of Wombanist Views Radio, while serving as the Women’s Issues Chair of The Hampton Institute. She is currently releasing Walking in the Feminine: A Stepping into Our Shoes Anthology, for which she is a co-editor; and is working on the brook project The Link Between Food, Culture and Health Disparities in the Africa Diaspora.