Black Women, West Indian Networks, and US immigration

Jamaica Kincaid at the Sweden Book Fair, 2019, photographed by Niklas Maupoix (Courtesy of Flickr/Bokmässan: Göteborg)

“I was numb, but it was from not knowing just what this new life would hold for me.” —Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy

On April 12, critically acclaimed Antiguan-American novelist, Jamaica Kincaid will be honored with The Paris Review’s prestigious 2022 Hadada Award celebrating her lifetime achievement as a writer on themes as diverse as family, poverty, and colonialism. As publisher Mona Simpson described in the December 2021 announcement of the award’s honoree, “I can’t think of another writer whose voice contains such intensities of rage and love. It is a sound incantatory, biblical, and full of music.” Throughout her over forty-year career as a writer for The New Yorker, published author, and professor of literature, Kincaid, born Elaine Potter Richardson in St. Johns, Antigua, W.I. on May 25, 1949, based many of her short stories and novels on her life. Her youth in Antigua and adulthood in America shaped the storylines and themes of many of her world-renowned books, including A Small Place, Annie John, and Lucy. Moreover, Kincaid’s literature has specifically given a voice to Black West Indian women who came to the U.S. as underappreciated laborers and set a trend for sociologists and historians to investigate their condition of “alien citizenship” from an intersectional point of view.1

Kincaid’s 1990 novella, Lucy, was semi-autobiographical and historical in recounting the immigrant experiences of Black West Indian women following the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 that eliminated America’s immigration quota system. In the narrative, Lucy is a nineteen-year-old Black woman who leaves her broken family in the Caribbean to live in America and ultimately work as a nanny for a wealthy white family. Lucy’s story provides readers with a humanized account of a nonwhite, female immigrant. Lucy experiences mundane things like choking from polluted New York City air as she descends from the plane and feels the cold of winter for the first time, along with expressing her frustrations with love, friendships, and family. For the American-born children of Black West Indian women, Lucy is the backstory of their grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and family friends who arrived in America seeking a better life but finding xenophobia, racism, and labor exploitation along the way. For sociologists and historians, the novella is an alternative primary source documenting the goals, struggles, and achievements of the women who left island nations with colonial ties to imperial Great Britain and arrived in England and America during the Windrush Era (1948-1970) and beyond.

Similar to her book’s protagonist, Kincaid arrived in the United States in 1966 to work as an au pair for a wealthy family in Scarsdale, New York while she attended night classes at a local community college. She later attended Franconia College on a full scholarship. While the conclusion of Lucy doesn’t provide a definite answer as to what becomes of the protagonist, readers do get an insight into the early experiences of working-class Black West Indian immigrant women to America post-1965. Although Black West Indians of varying social backgrounds and nationalities have been arriving to America as free people since the 1820s, monographs have often focused on Black intellectuals, the upper class, or working-class male laborers.

Early histories like sociologist Ira De A. Reid’s 1939 bookThe Negro Immigrant: His Background, Characteristics, and Social Adjustment, 1899-1937 set the research trends on Black West Indians for sociologists and historians alike. In Reid’s monograph, he analyzed themes of assimilation, intra-racial conflict, and economic and social status in the lives of 100,000 “negro immigrants,” residing in New York, Florida, and Massachusetts from 1899 through the Great Depression. He described how Caribbean immigrants were invisible to White America within the Black community unless they spoke Portuguese or Spanish. However, Black West Indians were viewed as “foreign” in the Black community unless they adopted (Black) American culture to blend into society. Since some Americans, Black and White, saw West Indians as economic rivals, they lumped all Caribbean immigrants together as being from one island instead of many, relied on “stereotypes, myths, and ideologies” to justify their superiority over the immigrant, and made threats of deportation when Caribbean immigrants achieved greater economic social status than them. Although “aliens” or non-citizens in America were barred from employment in public works, government pensions, and Social Security benefits in their old age, West Indians actively pursued naturalization to attain those citizen’s rights black Americans possessed. 

In the past thirty years, sociologists and historians have been concerned with analyzing intra-racial conflicts between West Indians and African Americans, residency, West Indian culture, and assessing the West Indian immigrant’s achievement of the “American Dream.” Nevertheless, most scholars have ignored or lightly investigated the Black West Indian woman’s labor experience. It has greatly been the work of few scholars like Irma Watkins-Owens, Suzanne Model, Mary Waters, Violet Showers, and Tamara Mose—academics who are often women and have familial or ancestral ties to the West Indies—that have explored the labor and life experiences of Black Caribbean women to America.

Since the 1930s, thousands of Black Caribbean women between eighteen and thirty years old immigrated to the U.S. and found work as maids, nannies, home health aides, and other menial laborers. Some of these women were undocumented and without a college education and their employers often exploited them by offering low wages, forcing them to work on holidays or without sick days, and threatening deportation if they complained about substandard working conditions. This history is significant because many undocumented women are currently enduring labor exploitation because their employers are aware of the “vulnerabilities” immigrants face when they have “illegal alien” status, non-white ethnicity, and socioeconomic needs of money and housing. These “vulnerabilities” enable employers and politicians alike to manipulate the lives of undocumented immigrants who lack the U.S. citizenship, job security, and financial stability necessary to live freely in America. 

In the past 25 years, scholarship on West Indian immigrant women has gradually increased, but there could be more to make a major impact in the general historiography of Caribbean immigration to America. One book that has opened the door to this field is sociologist Mary Romero’s 1995 monographMaid in the U.S.A. Romero used oral histories to discuss the experiences of Mexican immigrant women who worked as domestics in the homes of wealthy white families in the American Southwest. She argued that post-1960, Chicana immigrants are often exploited by their employers and the “stratified system” in which (illegal) Latina and Black immigrant women are hired as domestics further solidifies the race, class, and gender hierarchies and prejudices of American society dating back to the Mexican-American War of 1848 and American Reconstruction. Romero even discussed the multiple types of labor Chicana workers did: paid domestic labor, unpaid labor in their homes (harkening back to the cult of domesticity), and “shadow labor”–tasks outside of their job description—such as, be “surrogate mothers” to young wives and educate their employers about their culture (like cooking Mexican food). Chicana domestics also endured verbal abuse, humiliation, and racist and xenophobic insults from employers. While Chicana domestics experienced many abuses in their labor environments, some could negotiate higher wages, better working conditions, and vacation days with their employers. Although Romero did not provide details about the women’s lives prior to their arrival to the U.S., her work shed light on the hidden work environment of the undocumented immigrant woman who, in most cases, endured abusive treatment from their employers because they were vulnerable to deportation. 

One of the most recent books that connect Kincaid and Romero’s books while also thoroughly exploring the current Caribbean immigrant women’s experience as a domestic is Trinidadian-Canadian historian Tamara Mose’s 2011 monographRaising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare, and Caribbeans Creating Community. In her monograph, Mose argued West Indian immigrant women who work as nannies for families in Brooklyn create communities in public spaces like the park, where nannies are instructed to take the employer’s children during the day. In these public spaces, West Indian au pairs could share parenting skills with mothers and other nannies, and food and culture with their employers’ children. Like Romero, Mose did not ignore the unequal power relationship between employers and West Indian nannies when she explained how immigrant women tolerate their employers’ “surveillance” of their work (be it for child-safety reasons or racist stereotypes) via cell phone calls, nanny-cams, and blogs. Mose also stated West Indian nannies often show an “ambivalence” to joining together to form a union because they fear their illegal status may become publicly known and lead to their deportation. Therefore, West Indian immigrants are often “isolated” and left to negotiate working conditions and wages with employers on their own. Mose’s contribution to the field squarely focuses on Caribbean immigrant women’s labor experiences unlike other books in the historiography because it explores traditional themes of labor exploitation and racial discrimination, while also investigating how gender and “alien citizenship” shaped the immigrant experience for women.

The historiography on Black West Indian immigrant women is a work in progress. The work of historians and sociologists in this field have overwhelmingly demonstrated that oral histories and interviews are the most fruitful primary sources for researching this topic. Scholars must not only acquire interviews with aging West Indian immigrants who have historical knowledge of the immigrant experience, but also create “safe” environments for collecting stories from current undocumented immigrants who fear deportation. Historians who choose to study the West Indian immigrant experience should work with sociologists and ethnographers to document and expand this history to other regions like the Northwest, Southeast, and other U.S. territories and time periods like the nineteenth century to strengthen this field. While novels are controversial sources of historical information, they can be utilized to further research the West Indian immigrant experience. Novellas like Kincaid’s Lucy is proof that authors can facilitate the historian or sociologist’s investigation into first-person histories. Overall, documenting the Black West Indian immigrant experience requires quick action and interdisciplinary approaches to research to preserve this history for future generations.

  1. Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, Princeton, NJ, 2004.
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Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson is a Visiting Professor of History at Loyola University Maryland. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University. Her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson is currently researching race, crime, and policing surrounding the public transportation system in post-1958 Philadelphia.

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