UPinion: Cocolo – Growing Up Black in Washington Heights

By Carl L. Clemons (@CarlLClemons)

Old School - Washington Heights

I love my hood! Many bellow this mantra but, a pertinent question would be; does the hood love back? As of late, the answer is not as clear as I would like it to be. There was a time where one would not be able to pay me to believe I would feel out of place in my own neighborhood, a place where I grew up, went to school and played in the streets with my friends for decades.

191st street and St Nicholas was my block, although I personally feel the entire five boroughs were my stomping grounds. Throughout my travails, I’ve learned via these experiences that; one’s initial strikes of racism, classism or prejudice, more often come from within. Whether it is the color distinctions in the African-American community, or the class distinctions of other communities, one initially experiences some sort of offense by one’s own tribe, race or people.

In the second grade, attending P.S. 189 in Washington Heights, I remember back on one of my first grade school crushes. Barely able to find the inner strength to approach this girl, I somehow managed to push past all of my pessimist thoughts and present her with my gift in the form of a note requesting to check a box, “do you like me? Yes or no? To my amazement and confusion, she would not even take the note because I was “black” according to her and “my people are dirty.” Albeit this incident was confounding and there was no one to transform the experience into a lesson learned, it would not alter my perception of Spanish women but, my experiences with men were another matter entirely.

Speaking truthfully, enduring discrimination from within my family and community, I theorize, propelled me towards identifying solely with the African-American aspect of my heritage. Despite this identification, the heights in the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s was much more diverse than it is today. Growing up in this diversity endowed me with rich experiences and fun times via the events, culture and zeitgeist of the heights and race was an upfront issue that was discussed openly. You would find those that were conscious of their environment in and there were those who may have not been as enlightened but were open and enthused by the revelation of new information. On the streets, sitting on cars or in front of the train station on 191st street, one would hear a conversation about the island of Hispaniola and how it is the oldest city in the new world and about the Spanish colonists that conquered the natives and the land. An argument may even be over heard about the state and conditions of the neighborhood and the people in it such as; is Washington heights a ghetto or is it a middle class neighborhood?

Today, I no longer find these types of dialogues and discussions taking place. Moreover, albeit the Hip Hop culture has transcended race and ethnicity, there is an underlying divide that is becoming more and more apparent in the new millennium. Present day debates may turn violent, fast. It is unimportant what an individual looks like or their manner of dress as much as one’s intonations when they speak. If you sound or speak like a Black American, Cocolo, Pietro, Moreno, etc. you are other, and therefore, not “mi jente”. Of course, this mind set is far from a universal one amongst the Dominican population but I challenge anyone to prove to me that it does not exist.

Being of African, Puerto Rican, and Dominican American descent, there has been a constant struggle of identity throughout my life. Once I began to educate myself, as well as obtain formal education, an oasis opened up inside of my mind. Learning of the plight of the African throughout history and specifically the periods of Arabian and European colonization, one can easily ascertain as to how a people became so divided. Therefore, whether you are from New York and of Dominican heritage or you live in Ghana of Caribbean heritage, the same African thread intertwines us all. Even though we share a common bond, we seem to have a hard time with one another when it comes to treating each other respectfully.

I, for one, would love for the day, I will not have to worry about getting in an altercation, jumped or critically harmed in my own neighborhood simply because of someone being ignorant enough to think because I am an American looking black, I am up to no good. Learn your history! Know Thy Self!

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  • David Serrette
    December 13, 2013 at 2:16 am

    Awesome post! Very interesting perspective on the interactions of minorities in N.Y.C. I think that unfortunately, we as humans are inclined to have ethnocentric views of other cultures and ethnicities. Hopefully through dialogue, we can become more informed and over come are prejudices. After all, the height of barbarism is the inability to adapt to different cultures.

    • Carl Clemons
      December 21, 2013 at 1:15 pm

      Yes, David, dialogue is integral to our growth. I must differ on one point: Humans are not inclined to have ethnocentricc views towards other ethniciities, it is our culture that exhibits these views.

  • Sir Charles Cary
    December 13, 2013 at 6:54 am

    Well said, well written, well expressed coming from these neighborhoods, I totally get it understand it and am saddened by it! You should be writing, and expressing to a generation that may not be able to express itself!

  • Carl Clemons
    December 21, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Thanks Charles

  • Forty Montana
    January 5, 2014 at 11:02 pm

    I went through the same as well. Luckily Public enemy, BDP and others gave me a reason to stick my chest out and learn about myself and history and I’m latino with a natural tan!!!. Many people fail to realize that Hisaniola was the 1st place captured Africans were taken to during colonisation.

    • Carl Clemons
      January 9, 2014 at 5:21 pm

      Forty Montana, 100% truth. We are so powerful if we know and appreciate our history. Our history did not start with slavery. Like you said, you are tan; the fact that slave masters sold their own half black children into slavery, should give you an idea of how they perceive any people of color?

      Peace and thank you for the feedback.

  • Benita
    January 6, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    It took my leaving Uptown and going away to college to really understand how “one’s initial strikes of racism, classism or prejudice, more often come from within.” As a history major learning about my past taught me the origins of the vile poison of self hate that still haunts us. I learned to embrace and appreciate everything that comes with being a Black Latina. Fast forwarding to the present as a parent of a child that is of Dominican and Jamaican ancestry I have really come to see first hand how engrained in our culture this self hate is. Countless family members have been corrected and taught not to discriminate against my child. Comments like “gracias a dios que ella salio fina aunque es morena,” are not acceptable even though “they mean no harm.” I’m beginning to feel like a one woman crusader defending my little one from her very own clan. Thank you Carl for highlighting this issue that hits so close to home.

    • Carl Clemons
      January 9, 2014 at 5:29 pm

      Benita thank you for sharing your views and your concerns are valid. There is a crusade going on against Africans/Blacks whether one is conscious of it or not. More so, there has been and will continue to be a direct assault on African people until we learn our hsitory and capitalize off of that knowledge instead of just using it as discourse or conversation starters.

      Being a parent definitely puts one’s life in perspective. I commend you and hope all the best for you and your family. As long as you teach your child, he/she will not ever be lost.