children outside a school in cape verde

Growing up Black?

by Desmond Fonseca

What does it mean to be black? A Cape Verdean teen explores this question, juxtaposing his American experience and African cultural roots.

“We’re not really Black,” my father has said to me often, usually in a joking tone, but sometimes there’s a hint of seriousness nonetheless. “Cape Verde? Is that in Massachusetts?” my uncle recalls being asked when questioned about his nationality while he lived in Florida. “Do you mean Cape Cod?” he would always respond. Though it is far from the New England city, the relatively unknown African nation of Cape Verde is inextricably linked with Massachusetts, and the New England coast. Our culture is a very distinct and unique one, with both African and European influences, but as a first-generation American with black skin and Black features I also identify with the Black experience.

​Outside of New England, one would be hard pressed to find a person of Cape Verdean descent or who even knows of Cape Verde (Cabo Verde in the native Kriolu or Portuguese). The westernmost of all African nations (off the coast of Senegal), and comprised of ten tiny yet distinct islands, Cape Verde’s history is atypical compared to much of Western Africa. For one, the islands were not populated until the 15th century, by European slavers and West African slaves. The intermingling of Europeans and Africans contributed to the widely diverse gene pool that still exists today in Cape Verdean populations, including in my family. To paraphrase Kanye West, “I got a light skinned aunt look like Michael Jackson, got a dark skinned aunt look like Michael Jackson.”

Despite cultural differences, Cape Verde and its descendants share common history and similarities with all West Africans and others of West African descent.

To an extent, the Cape Verdean experience is different from the Black experience. At our cookouts my color wheel of a family doesn’t play “Black” music (whatever that may be), we sing and dance Morna, a very melodic and nostalgic genre, whose most prolific singer is Cesaria Evora. She’s like our Michael Jackson (that’s now two MJ references), except if when he died the United States named an entire airport after him. We play funana, my personal favorite, which is distinct for its heavy use of the accordion, called the gaita, and the ferrinho, which is a perforated sheet of iron strummed by another instrument, typically a spoon. We dance to Maria Julia by Gil Semedo (think of the song that gets you the most hyped to dance to, now multiply that song by 10 and that is Maria Julia). We dance Passada. If I were to list all of our beloved songs and dances I’m afraid it would never end.

Then there’s the food. How I love the food! My coalition of tias in the kitchen prepare meals based primarily on corn, beans and meat. Whether it is Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, or a birthday, I can expect the staple dishes of cachupa, jigacida, feijoada, along with many others. To find a Cape Verdean who has never heard of or had cachupa is an impossibility in my experience. Following every mesa, or mass (Cape Verde is a predominantly Catholic country), we hold in honor of my grandmother, we gather for canja, which as far as I can tell is glorified chicken noodle soup, with extra chicken bones.

​There is a good chance that the aforementioned foods, cachupa, jigacida, and feijoada, would be spelled or pronounced differently to different Cape Verdeans, depending on geographic heritage. The plasticity of Cape Verdean Creole (or criolu or creola or kriolu) allows for words to be spelled however the speaker pleases, or sentences to be crafted without serious attention to grammatical structure, making for an informal language. For this reason Kriolu is primarily an audibly learned language (I never fully learned it because my father never spoke to me in Kriolu as a child), as it is difficult to learn in a typical class-type setting. These elements of Kriolu are similar to many elements of African American Vernacular English, and one would think the beauty in both languages could be a source of common ground between two cultures. Rather, older, traditional Cape Verdeans tend to mock AAVE, my father jokingly calling it “swahili nonsense,” without a hint of irony.

While there is no doubt that there are cultural differences between Cape Verdean Americans and African Americans, the same can be said of any African community in the diaspora. Despite those cultural differences, Cape Verde and its descendants share common history and similarities with all West Africans and others of West African descent.

View of the Atlantic from the hills of Cape Verde

The first similarity of course is the connection to slavery. Cape Verde would not exist as a nation if it were not for the transatlantic slave trade. Of the West Africans imported into Cape Verde, many of whom were likely Guinean and Senegalese, those who avoided transport across the Atlantic and stayed in the island nation were the lucky ones, escaping the unique horror of American slavery. Once in Cape Verde, West Africans similarly worked cotton and sugar plantations but the aforementioned intermingling of colonizers and the enslaved led to the unique mestizo portion of the Cape Verdean population. This intermingling is not entirely unique to Cape Verde as there are parallels with the French Creole of Louisiana. As is common in all of history, those with lighter skin were given opportunities not available to those with more melanin.

Those opportunities manifest in a way similar to colorism and light-skinned privilege in the United States. In Praia, the capital city of Cape Verde, there is a beautiful valley near the southern coast. In this valley there is a forest of greenery–rare in dry-season Cape Verde–full of bright flowers and vividly green bushes. Deep in this valley live mostly poor and the dark-skinned people. Surrounding the valley are the rich and the fairer-skinned; the descendants of African slaves still literally overlooked by the descendants of Portuguese slavers. Last summer, I trekked this valley where green grows in overabundance and running water is hard to come by. At its end is a luxurious shopping center/cinema on the oceanfront, waves crashing on the rocky coast.

The second similarity between Cape Verde and the greater diaspora is a subsequent history of economic isolation by European colonizers. As a colony, Cape Verde brought prosperity to ruling Portugal, as slavery did to many European nations during the Age of Mercantilism and beyond. During its heyday, cities like Cidade Velha, and Praia brought prosperity to Portugal, drawing naval attacks from famed pirates such as Francis Drake. However, with the cessation of the transatlantic slave trade, that prosperity declined and darker skinned Cape Verdeans were blocked from accessing it, a phenomenon similarly experienced by other African nations and African peoples. Unlike other colonizers, the Portuguese allowed much of the mestizo population to receive formal education which would eventually come back to haunt the Portuguese and liberate Cape Verde. The islands’ lack of natural resources combined with feigned Portuguese interest in the Cape Verdean population led to periods of drought and starvation which fueled much of the Cape Verdean emigration to the United States. Initial migration to the United States was predominantly by men looking to find work on whaling ships which passed by the islands of Brava and Fogo. This wave of migration, in the early 20th century, was concentrated primarily in southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. A new wave of migration, starting in the 60s and still continuing to this day, brought entire families towards Boston and its surrounding suburbs. Today, there are more Cape Verdeans outside the country’s borders than inside.

When a police officer sees me on the street none of this history or this culture matters. I’m a black body with black skin, black lips, and black twisted hair. My being Cape Verdean won’t save me, as my family seems to think it will.

The third tie to the diaspora—and to African Americans—is that of oppression. In the 19 years from 1956, the year of the PAIGCV’s (African party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) formation, until 1975, Cape Verdeans struggled to gain their independence from Portugal. As a part of this struggle, my uncle served time in the Campo da Morte Lenta concentration camp for political prisoners. Upon Cape Verde’s liberation on July 5th 1975, he delivered a short speech in the capital of Praia. However, Cape Verdean struggle existed for those immigrants in our United States as well. The earliest of Cape Verdean immigrants were vital to the whaling and cranberry industries, yet, unsurprisingly were paid less than their white counterparts for their backbreaking labor. In 1933, Cape Verdean cranberry bog workers in Massachusetts organized a strike to protest their menial working and living conditions in spite of their importance to the industry. The strike failed, as did many Black-led strikes of the mid-20th century, but highlighted the shared struggles that Blacks and Cape Verdeans shared in America. In the mid-70s my grandmother moved with her 13 children from Brava, the smallest of the 10 Cape Verdean islands, to Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston home to many immigrants. Cape Verdeans dealt with the same segregation, harassment, and redlining that Black Bostonians dealt with, as well the busing crisis that gripped Boston in the 60s and 70s. My father was unable to speak English when he moved here in 1976 at age 13, and recalls having rocks hurled at him by groups of white kids while being chased down the street.

Future NFL Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez, TLC singer and enigma Lisa Left Eye Lopes, and stripper-turned-model-turned-Slut Walk organizer extraordinaire Amber Rose. These are some of the most visible Cape Verdeans today. However, they are not often described as “Cape Verdean”, and often people fail to see Cape Verdeans as Black, despite hailing from sub-saharan Africa. In an interview on the OWN network documentary Light Girls, Rose explains “with my family, they feel like they’re more superior or better than an African American because we’re Creole [Cape Verdean Creole]and we have culture, and that’s something I battle with most of my life.” Amber Rose isn’t the only one of us to battle with identity as a Cape Verdean American.

When a police officer sees me on the street none of this history or this culture matters. I’m a black body with black skin, black lips, and black twisted hair. My being Cape Verdean won’t save me, as my family seems to think it will. Unlike so many of my Black people in America, I have yet to have that moment with a police officer; that moment when it is just me and an officer, late at night and no witnesses. A moment that sadly seems to serve as an affirmation of my Blackness: a rite of passage, of sorts. In spite of the the danger my skin seems to present to others, I love my Blackness. And I love my Cape Verdean-ness. No, we aren’t the mythical “model minority,” and we may be invisible to those outside of New England, but our world is my world and I wish you all would visit. And no, I don’t mean Cape Cod.

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Published by Desmond Fonseca
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