By David Becker
As psychology continues to grow and develop as a field, the importance of considering cultural factors when studying the behaviors and the mental well-being of individuals and communities becomes more and more apparent. To some degree or another, we are all influenced by our cultural heritage. I know for sure that my French Caribbean heritage has had an impact on who I am today.
My mother’s parents emigrated from Martinique to Washington, DC in the 1940s and brought with them elements of French Caribbean culture that have influenced my identity since childhood. However, because my heritage was so prevalent and normalized in my youth, I didn’t begin to fully grasp its uniqueness until I graduated from French immersion school and found myself among non-French-speaking classmates for the first time in the seventh grade. Suddenly I became “exotic,” a curiosity, especially in my high school French classes where I was the only one who spoke with a proper accent, aside from my teacher.
Unlike some, I wasn’t ostracized or treated unfairly because of my cultural roots, but it wasn’t always easy to appreciate my cultural heritage and its origins within the history of the French Caribbean. Some of my early ancestors were people of privilege who killed indigenous Caribs, owned slaves, and committed other acts that have impacted the lives of modern day Caribbean peoples who continue to struggle against the legacies of colonialism, slavery, indentured servitude, and centuries of warfare between rival European powers. Among these ancestors was Guillaume d’Orange, who arrived at Saint-Christophe (now better known as St. Kitts) in 1628. Saint-Christophe was the first Caribbean region settled by the French in 1625, and it was from here that Guillaume made forays to other islands, such as Guadaloupe where he lived for 12 years as an explorer, a warrior, and a planter. Afterwards, he moved to Martinique where he lived until he was killed in the Dutch invasion of Fort-Royal (now Fort-de-France) in 1674. Guillaume d’Orange was one of the pioneers who helped shape the modern French Caribbean, which included the genocide of the indigenous Caribs.
Other ancestors of mine owned sugarcane plantations and slaves, such as Guillaume d’Orange’s more famous descendant, Empress Joséphine, who was born into a plantation family in Martinique. During the transatlantic slave trade, France imported approximately 1,381,000 African slaves to the West Indies, and many of the 217,200 slaves who arrived in Martinique worked on sugar plantations. Although the French revolutionaries abolished slavery in 1794, it was reestablished by Napoleon in 1802 to help fund his campaigns in Europe, and it wasn’t until 1848 that France abolished slavery for good. The freed slaves in Martinique were offered the chance to continue working on the sugarcane plantations for money, which they understandably refused. In response, indentured servants from India started migrating to the French islands and performing this arduous labor. These immigrants brought Indian spices that influenced the local cuisine and resulted in the Colombo spice blend that my family still uses in recipes today. One such recipe is féroce (“ferocious” in English), an avocado dish that is similar to guacamole except that it includes fish and Scotch bonnets—Caribbean peppers so spicy that you dare not touch them with your bare hands. Even sugarcane remains an important part of my family’s cuisine, especially in ti’ ponche (meaning “small punch”), a mixture of Martinican rum, lime, and cane syrup.
During the French Caribbean’s postcolonial period, my ancestors continued to immigrate to Martinique from Europe. As the times changed, so did their reasons for migrating: Many of them were educators. Likewise, other people from across Europe, Africa, India, and elsewhere have come to the Caribbean—whether voluntarily or not—for myriad reasons over the centuries, and communities of indigenous peoples still live on the islands today. And just as my family tree intertwines with the history the French Caribbean and influences living generations, so do other individuals, families, and communities find their own identities tied with one or more Caribbean islands.
Understanding the diverse and unique experiences of Caribbean peoples along with the common themes that bind the islands’ histories together is a key goal of Caribbean psychology. But this is no simple task. In their book, Caribbean Psychology: Indigenous Contributions to a Global Discipline, editors Jaipaul Roopnarine and Derek Chadee (2016) argue that “the psychological stories of Caribbean peoples have been missing from the broader intellectual discourses in the psychological sciences” (p. 4). They acknowledge that this lack of cultural representation is a worldwide problem not isolated to just the Caribbean, and they further argue that “psychological principles that are not inclusive of other cultural groups around the world are inherently limited and fail to utilize the two-way flow and integrations of scientific information from the majority to the developed world” (Roopnarine & Chadee, 2016, p. 4). Yet, viewing contemporary Caribbean peoples through a historical lens is not enough. While understanding the impact of slavery, colonialism, etc. is important, Roopnarine and Chadee (2016) note that psychologists must consider “lived experiences and realities” (p. 7). To fully comprehend contemporary Caribbean individuals and communities, psychological theories and practices must therefore emanate from those individuals and communities. This indigenous knowledge will then feed into the bidirectional flow of scientific information, thus benefiting psychology as a whole.
Why do we need a localized Caribbean psychology? The answer is that Caribbean psychology—along with American psychology, French psychology, Chinese psychology, Turkish psychology, Nigerian psychology, etc.—are all pieces of the same, grand puzzle. Each of these pieces is itself a large and complex puzzle made up of many smaller components. Studying the psychology of African Americans, for instance, is crucial to American psychology as a whole. As we strive to put all of these innumerable pieces together, the hope is that we will come closer and closer to understanding ourselves.
Roopnarine, J. L., & Chadee, D. (2016). Introduction: Caribbean psychology—More than a regional discipline. In J. L. Roopnarine & D. Chadee (Eds.), Caribbean psychology: Indigenous contributions to a global discipline (pp. 3–11). http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/14753-001