Meaning is what gives us a sense of our own identity, of who we are and with whom we 'belong'--so it is tied up with questions of how culture is used to mark out and maintain identity within and difference between groups.
--Stuart Hall (1997, 3)
African diasporic identities are construed as an ongoing, ever-changing process, in which perceived African pasts are constantly renegotiated, constantly subjugated to new and changing realities. In the words of Stuart Hall (1990, 235), the diasporic experience "is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of 'identity' which lives in and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity." Furthermore, black/African identities, "far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past ... are subject to the continuous 'play' of history, culture and power" (Hall 1996, 4). As a result, the means and mechanisms by which people of African descent arrived and continue to arrive at definitions of identity necessarily involve a variety of social, cultural, and political sources.
On the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, a country yet to gain independence, complexities regarding identity are particularly pronounced. A wide range of cultural identities currently circulates across the island. "I am Cuban," one Afro-Curacaoan explains, pointing to his love of traditional salsa as the deciding factor behind this cultural affiliation. "In my heart, I know I am Colombian," says another as he claps out the Colombian cumbia rhythm across his chest. A man standing nearby quickly joins in the conversation by announcing his own affiliation: "African, Dutch, Sephardic Jew, Native American!"
Admittedly, these diverse concepts of self seem oddly misplaced. Most Curacaoans I have spoken with have never traveled to the region designated by their assumed identity (nor has anyone in their immediate family). What emerged during the course of our conversations was that Curacaoan identity is in flux, adjusting to and reconciling a changing Caribbean society--in the end, emphasizing the island's growing cultural heterogeneity. It is an approach to identity that developed so gradually that it became conceived as a natural condition or an accepted part of Curacaoan life. According to the Curacaoan rationale, identity is quite simply a reflection of cultures the people there find important and relevant, and there is nothing odd about it--"I can be from anywhere I choose. I think my history gives me that right," shares a young Afro-Curacaoan pianist and bandleader. "And I choose Cuba. It's as simple as that" (Arnell Salsbach 1997).
This article speaks to some of the identity complexities surrounding the African diasporic experience with reference to Curacao's own evolving construction of self introduced as a relative category. Like other New World colonies, Curacao adopted polemically based identities during slavery, when "Being Dutch" or "Being African" was the choice. When twentieth-century globalization introduced cultures fundamentally different from those of the Netherlands, Afro-Curacaoans found themselves drawn to new and different ways of life. By adapting these disparate cultures to their own needs, reshaping them in their own image, Afro-Curacaoans created an interactive system whereby they could pick and choose particular cultures from which to forge new, syncretic identities. A unique form of homegrown resistance took root, empowering Afro-Curacaoans to reject binary oppositions and assume belonging to that indeterminate "third space" distinctive to the diasporic experience (Bhabha 1994).
Music emerged as the primary means and mechanism by which distant cultures were introduced to and accepted by Afro-Curacaoans, becoming a creative--and effective--system to represent and maintain identity. As we shall see, the more involved Curacaoans became in the music, the more closely they aligned themselves with the culture or cultures behind the music, and the more complete--and permanent--was their adoption of new cultural identity. …