Oral History, Assimilation and the Black Christ


I feel compelled to continue relating my personal experience with assimilation and how the history behind the black Christ helped me.  Assimilation seems to be on the minds of many people around the world these days, especially young people like I was when I first immigrated to the United States.

Since assimilation is a process it wouldn’t be until some sixty-five years after my formative years beside my grandmother in Panama, when I was pursuing university studies that these things would begin to clear up. By this time in the United States, black Americans had undergone their own process since the late fifties of clarifying their identity and issues with freedom.

Again, I began thinking about how important the time spent beside my paternal grandmother had been. She, in fact, had been the key person in opening up channels for me in regards to our ethnic group, the Westindian Panamanians, and the Black race in general.  Unwittingly, she had opened my mental windows to everything regarding our English speaking colony and the few Latin American blacks who knew us then.  She, Fanny Elizabeth McKenly Reid, who was an English speaking Jamaican woman and almost illiterate, loved her Panama very much.

I perceived her sincere efforts and noted that she had attempted to assimilate into a Panamanian as best she could and all her neighbors and Susú partners, many of whom were Spanish-speaking ladies, adored and trusted her. I recall accompanying her when she attended English classes at night school and how hard she tried.  She made a gargantuan attempt but she could never really dominate the Spanish language or become fluent in it either.

I also noticed that my grandmother seemed to have these “Protestant feelings,”  if you can relate to that; but, she was never one for being attracted to the Catholic or any other organized church, Protestant or otherwise.  So there you have two key factors in the process of assimilation, language and religion that my grandmother couldn’t quite fit in.

It became real clear to me that I was being raised by an outstanding member/founder of the Panamanian Silver Roll community in the Black Canal area. During these formative years she was my only storyteller. She told me things about the history and development of our ethnic group from the moment they arrived from Jamaica and their life in Panama and the Canal Zone.

I mention this so that our readers can understand and appreciate the importance of their family’s oral history and of the community and the country’s part in preserving our intangible heritage. I firmly believe that my grandmother saw in my person someone whom she could transfer all the valuable things concerning our ancestors to our future generations. Today we work hard towards enlightening our friends and family so that they may appreciate and help us spread this important experience of our Black Latin America which, for the most part, remains quite African.

This key to understanding, it is my belief, would help thwart some of the negative aspects of assimilation, which wants to completely wipe out who you really are and what you come from.  This, then, would not be real assimilation but cultural genocide.

Real assimilation, ideally, is blending what you are and what you look like with the environment you seek to assimilate with- harmoniously. Listening to my grandmother’s story about the Black Christ helped me in this direction a great deal.

This story continues.

2 responses to “Oral History, Assimilation and the Black Christ

  1. Such a glowing tribute to your grandmother…It warms my soul as I too am a grandmother and a great grandmother and hope that some of the things I have taught my children and their children becomes a part of them and enables them to be the best that they can be. It is our heritage more than the mere pennies we work so hard to set aside and a treasure to strive for. God bless you and your wonderful grandmother.

  2. Judy,

    Thank you for expressing such insight into what we are trying to convey on this chronicle about heritage. Thank you also for the blessing and on behalf of my beloved grandmother. She, as well as my grandfathers, left me a priceless jewel as a legacy.