Eric Stinton: It's Time To Recognize That Black History Is Part Of Hawaii's History - Honolulu Civil Beat

Over the next five days, supporters Darlene and John Abt are pledging to match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $7,500!

We've raised $38,000 toward our $100,000 goal!

Donate Now

More than 550 donors have already made gifts during our summer campaign!

Over the next five days, supporters Darlene and John Abt are pledging to match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $7,500!

We've raised $38,000 toward our $100,000 goal!

Donate Now

More than 550 donors have already made gifts during our summer campaign!


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

On the cover of Nitasha Tamar Sharma’s recent book, “Hawaiʻi Is My Haven,” is a striking image of Kamakakehau Fernandez wearing a pink bombax flower lei. The Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning falsetto singer and ukulele player was adopted from Arkansas by a Maui family when he was six weeks old, and was enrolled in Hawaiian language classes starting in kindergarten. He grew up in Hawaii and with Hawaii in him.

Opinion article badge

Fernandez is one of countless examples of Black locals who have contributed to Hawaiian culture and life for over 200 years, yet whose stories have largely gone unrecognized.

“Black people have been evacuated out of the narrative of who is in Hawaii,” Sharma says. “Historically we don’t think Black people were in Hawaii when they actually were.”

Sharma was born and raised in Manoa and is currently a professor of African American Studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. “Hawaiʻi Is My Haven” is the culmination of a lifetime of research and a decade of talking with Black Hawaii residents. The result is a detailed, nuanced look at Black life in Hawaii, now and throughout history.

“There is a continuing throughline – from historical narratives of Black people escaping enslavement, Jim Crow and segregation, to young students today – that Hawaii is a haven. It’s a sanctuary, it’s a refuge. These are the terms Black folks use to describe Hawaii,” Sharma says.

Historically, it’s easy to understand why; a free and peaceful life in Hawaii is clearly better than the racist violence that defined Black life in America for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. But even today, Hawaii offers possibilities that are rare on the mainland, if they exist at all.

The cover of Nitasha Tamar Sharma’s recent book features Kamakakehau Fernandez, an award-winning falsetto singer and ukulele player. Duke University Press

“Their Blackness does not become all-defining for their experiences in the islands,” says Sharma.

Part of this is the local perspective of identifying with more than one race. In the same way someone can be Hawaiian-Filipino-Japanese-Portuguese, Black people in Hawaii are able to be Black and, which is not often the case on the mainland.

“When Black folks come and stay for a long time, they come to a place where it’s common to be multiracial and account for all of your ancestries, where you don’t really have segregated communities. They come to a place where people allow them to not only be reduced to Blackness,” says Sharma.

This leads to one of the many paradoxes of Black life in Hawaii. Hawaii is an escape from Blackness in ways that are liberating but also isolating.

“Black folks who weren’t born in Hawaii and come from the continental U.S. often feel a sense of loss and guilt. What does it mean to be your multiple beings? To be Black and a surfer, or Black and Korean? How do you raise a child with Black self-knowledge when there aren’t any discrete Black communities?” Sharma says.

“Part of the guilt, especially from Black mothers, emerged during the Black Lives Matter protests. There’s this sense of disconnect, like ‘we’re not over there fighting that fight. We’re here and it’s not happening to us here, and that’s why we came here, but how can we help our people who are experiencing that there?’”

Sharma unpacks such tangled questions with fierce honesty and rigorous research. The result is a work that clarifies misconceptions and challenges common assumptions about race.

“On the continent, if you’re Black or white, the assumption is you’re American. If you’re Asian or Latino, you’re seen as an immigrant. Indigenous people are seen as people of the past, who have experienced genocide, that this is no longer native land. In Hawaii these things are inverted,” Sharma says, and not just because Hawaii is a place of active Indigenous resistance.

“If you’re Asian or brown in Hawaii, you’re presumed to be from here. If you’re Black or white, you’re either a tourist or you’re military. This leads to a collapse of the Black-and-white binary that becomes unsettling for a lot of Black folks, because it places them in alignment with white people,” Sharma says.

It is difficult to square all of these contradicting narratives: that Black people are both local and immigrants; that they experience anti-Black racism while also being grouped with white people; that their experience of oppression in many ways mirrors that of Native Hawaiians, but they also contribute to Hawaiian dispossession. Black people may be a small minority in Hawaii, but they are large; they contain multitudes.

One of the great successes of the book is that it doesn’t try to flatten all the angles into a single, easy story. It dwells in the complexity of its subject matter, and in doing so it illuminates new ways of understanding race in Hawaii.

Nitasha Tamar Sharma is a professor at Northwestern University. Courtesy: Nitasha Tamar Sharma

“Anti-Black racism is a technology of white dominance that transfers onto other people,” Sharma says. In Hawaii as of late, those other people tend to be Micronesian.

“Micronesians are seen as dark, prone to criminality, uneducated. These are the same tropes that were created in the European encounter with Africa to justify colonization and enslavement,” Sharma says. “If locals in Hawaii disparage Micronesians in the same ways, it shows how the transference of Blackness can happen.”

The idea that racism exists in Hawaii can be difficult for a lot of local people to accept. After all, Hawaii is a place where everyone is intermingled, where everyone jokes freely about everyone else. Ethnic humor is not only common and accepted in Hawaii, many would argue it’s part of Hawaii’s charm.

“Local humor is an amazing practice. It attempts to flatten differences in tight spaces with lots of different kinds of people. That’s really important for day-to-day pleasure and laughs and community building,” says Sharma.

“But it’s important to also recognize that people’s life experiences in Hawaii are not flattened. Joking can show how much you know about the other person, but a lot of times it’s used to brush away actions that need to be taken. If joking means we don’t have to do anything about inequality, that’s a problem,” Sharma says.

“Hawaiʻi Is My Haven” is an ambitious and original work of scholarship. By focusing on an oft-overlooked demographic, it creates a fuller, more accurate picture of Hawaii’s history.

“I just want people to see that there are Black locals,” Sharma says. “There is a long history of Black participation in Hawaii, from the kingdom to today. I want people to understand their experiences and see what we can learn from them. It’s not saying welcome them as part of our ohana, it’s recognizing they’re already in it.”


Read this next:

An $18 Minimum Wage Won’t Raise Prices Dramatically


Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.

Contribute

About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

Thatʻs a really interesting conundrum; An African American flees State X for totally justifiable reasons many of which mirrors the plight of Kanka Maoli in Hawaiʻi then comes to Hawaiʻi displaces Hawaiians. You escape a problem just to contribute to another - its ironically and poetically extremely American. Iʻm glad Hawaiʻi can be a haven for folks, truly. Just wish it didnʻt come at the cost of Hawaiians.

MokeKalani · 6 months ago

Coming home to Hawaii and the US several years ago, I was struck how race permeates so many discussions. Honestly, it gets a little tiresome. That said, many injustices obviously need to be addressed and this piece also gives some interesting perspectives. I agree that it’s about time that black people in Hawaii got more on the radar. The binary discussion is also important. Not acknowledging all of someone’s background is itself a form of racism. Why was Barack Obama considered black? He is a mixed race person! In the end, humans have relatively low genetic variation compared with other species and we can all trace our ancestry to Africa, so any differences are pretty much artificial constructs that we’ve made up, for better or for worse.

paulo · 6 months ago

"If you’re Asian or brown in Hawaii, you’re presumed to be from here. If you’re Black or white, you’re either a tourist or you’re military. This leads to a collapse of the Black-and-white binary that becomes unsettling for a lot of Black folks, because it places them in alignment with white people," It is also unsettling to a lot of white folks, especially those who grew up elsewhere.

Rob · 6 months ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.