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.
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.
“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 US often feel a sense of loss and guilt. What does it mean to be your multiple entities? 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.
“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.”