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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Being Black in Latin America

Against Post-Race? A Review of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Book on ‘Black in Latin America’

“All race, all racism, just like politics, is local ” – Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (p. 88)

Chambi Chachage

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s 259-paged book on Black in Latin America, published in 2011 by the New York University Press, is an intriguing travelogue on ‘race’. It has six main chapters, each bearing the name of one of the countries that the author visited as its title. The author began his journey sometime in February 2010 as an attempt at understanding “the many ways in which race and racism are configured differently in Latin America than they have been in the United States” (p. ix). Of particular interest to the author, who chose each of the six countries – Brazil, Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba – “as representative of a larger phenomenon” (p. 2), is their varied African-cum-Black presence and experience.

Like its accompanying documentary series that is a third in a trilogy, the book is methodologically informed by the “Tri-Continental Approach” that it attributes to Robert Thompson Farris. This approach takes the “points of the Atlantic triangular trade: Africa, the European colonies of the Caribbean and South America, and black America” (pp. 2-3) as the “cardinal points of the Black World” (p. 2). In this regard, of course, one can critique it as privileging, or rather, emphasizing the history of the ‘Black Atlantic’ at the expense of that of the ‘Indian Ocean World’ in making sense of the African presence in the world in the context of slavery, colonialism and racism.

Chapter one on “Brazil: ‘May Exú Give Me The Power of Speech’” is a critique of “Gilberto Freyre’s theory of Brazil as a unique racial democracy” (p. 14); celebration of “compelling cultural products of Pan-African culture in the New World” (p. 16); and affirmation of “Affirmation action – by which [he] mean taking into account ethnicity, class, religion, and gender as criteria for college admission” (p. 56-57).

The Brazil that the author knew before – and no doubt experienced in – his visit is “also a place of contradictions” (p. 16). It “received more Africans” (p. 13) than any other places in the Northern hemisphere yet it was the last country therein “to abolish slavery” and “the first to claim it was free of anti-black racism” (p. 16). The country “remains one of the most racially mixed countries on earth” yet it has “at least 134 categories of ‘blackness’ (Ibid.). Since in “ a sense, this book is a study of the growth and demise of the sugar economy in many of these countries, along with that of coffee and tobacco” (p. 10) and sugar “is the leitmotif of the book” (p. 18), the author traces how it impacted, in varying ways, the expansion of slavery and experience of slaves across time and space thus coloring the construction of race and institutionalization of racism. Even though the answers he got about the difference between slavery in the US and Brazil “were complex” (p. 19) the author seems to acknowledge, on the basis of his interviews and studies, that generally there are places in Brazil that slavers were treated relatively humanely than in others. True as it is this understanding is a fodder for critics who are so adamant that ‘slavery is slavery’, that is, it is simply inhumane.

Chapter two on “Mexico: ‘The Black Grandma in the Closest’” continues Gates, Jr.’s interrogation on why, despite that Latin America received more slaves than the United States of America, blackness generally tended to be buried. Ironically, as the author later discovered, black is located by way of denigration in a popular Mexican lottery card game. As one of his interviewees “explained the history of racial classification within her own family”, Gates, Jr. “nodded in recognition of a larger phenomenon, one that” he had thus “encountered throughout” his “research in Latin America”: “Just as I had in Brazil, I was encountering here in Mexico a society in which traces of black roots were buried in brownness. Blackness was okay, if it was part of a blend, an ingredient that doesn’t exactly disappear but that is only rendered present through a trace, a hint, a telltale sign” (p. 66). The intersection between class and race – and even gender – also features prominently in Mexico as this analysis indicates:

In mixed-race societies, color is used, in part, to mark class. You see it in Africa, in India, in Asia, throughout the Americas. And this fact contains another – something I’ve also seen over and over again: It is very tempting to hide one’s blackness in a mixed-race culture…. From inside a culture that actively works to whiten itself – as Brazil had done and as I learned Mexico had done – claiming African heritage isn’t always easy, especially when your skin color and physical characteristics don’t look African to others (p. 67).

The author also uses the case of Mexico to strongly argue against erasing race as an official category in census among other records since, for him, doing so does not necessarily eradicate racism. In other words, he does not see ‘post-race’, or what may be termed ‘color blindness’, as a way out racism. After getting a pleasant surprise of getting to know that the second president of Mexico in 1829, Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, descended from Africans the author was thus disappointed after also being told that his well-meaning attempt to create a post-racial society resulted in unintended consequences that continue to inform their ambivalence on blackness:

I had encountered this logic in Brazil and would in Peru as well. The idea about abolishing the recording of color differences, as we might expect, was intended to facilitate the elimination of privileges tied to these color differences…. I recognized the well-meaning spirit behind Guerrero’s actions. He had yearned to create a society beyond race, to act as if race didn’t matter. This same idea gave birth to the idea of racial democracy in Brazil. But denying roots is different from respecting them equally. Guerrero, with the best intentions, inadvertently took an action that helped, over time, to bury his own African ancestry and that aspect of genetic heritage of every Afro-Mexican who followed him (p. 77-78).

But if race is a social construct that is used to institutionalize racism why cling to it?

Chapter three on “Peru: ‘The Blood of the Incas, the Blood of the Mandingas’” has some of the most touching personal testimonies on how people of ‘darker hue’ tend to discover and juggle their blackness. One will read a story of Susan Baca, the “young, but demonstrably talented teenager, unfairly overlooked in a dance competition” because of her blackness but who “had grown into a noble woman who knew her own value – and, in the process, had become a national treasure” (p. 93-94). Therein one will also read the story of Ana and Juana, “proud, happy women doing right by the next generation” (p. 107) that they don’t want to see pick cotton like them. It is in this chapter that one encounters such a strong case for writing as activism against racism:

Seeing El Negro Mama [‘The Stupid Negro’] sent a shock through my bank of anti-black stereotypes. It made Memín Pinguín seem almost tame by comparison… I’d seen some racist things on TV as a child: Buckwheat and Stymie from Our Gang and, of course, Amos and Andy. But I’d never seen anything as racist as El Negro Mama.... ‘Why did it come back?’ I blurted. This story is unbelievable. ‘They said we are attacking free speech.’ she replied. ‘So now, we’re trying to organize an international campaign against El Negro Mama, including institution from the US too, of course.’ I told her she could sign me right up” (p. 112-113).

Chapter four on “The Dominican Republic: ‘Black behind the Ears’” is a sobering analysis of how “over 90 percent of Dominicans possess some degrees of African descent” yet few people “self-identify as black or negro; rather, wide majority of Dominicans – 82 percent most recently in a federal census – designate their race as ‘Indio’” (p. 120). One of the main reasons for this, the travelogue indicates, is the uneasy historical relationship with its neighbor within the Island, Haiti. In line with his focus on sugar the author, in collaboration with his interviewees, also locates these varying racial dynamics and their respective slavery patterns in the historical changes of the political economy that shifted to cattle ranching in the Dominican Republic.

Since Haiti ultimately replaced it as a booming sugar economy when the United States of America occupied both countries after World War I, thousands of Haitians were brought to the Dominican Republic to work on the plantations thus exacerbating the racial animosity between the countries that also had to do with the fact that they were colonized by two different European powers – Spain and France. For the author, however, “the cultural relation and the relation of identity between the Dominican Republic and Spain, at least symbolically, seemed, at times, to have been almost incestuous” (p. 126). It was thus easy for Dominicans to identify more with ‘white’.

Chapter five on “Haiti: ‘From My Ashes I rise; God is My Cause and My Sword’” is a passionate, almost conventional, defense of a nation that “had technically been independent since 1804” but one that “foreign powers never gave it a chance to flourish, free from their interference” and in “fact, all they did was punish, sabotage, and abuse” (p. 175-176) it. Of course the author, in collaboration with one of his interviewees, acknowledges that the reasons for Haiti’s problems are also internal. But for him, as it is for some if not many of us now, the United States of America is one of the main culprits. However, the author makes this curious observation when he laments why Haiti abandoned, wholesale, its political economy of sugar: “If they had just maintained the plantation system, Haiti would have been rich – it would have become one of the world’s richest economies” (p. 173). Interestingly, upon reminding himself of the “pain of slavery”, he thus retracts: “ Only truly inhuman circumstances could have compelled Haitian to abandon their country’s best chances for success, which would have been to maintain their level of sugar production, soon to be assumed by Cuba” (Ibid.).  It was a painful, albeit rational, choice that one author thus aptly captures and which explains why we ought not demonize ‘subsistence farmers’:

Following the Revolution, Haitian workers sought an end to the plantation system and the assurance that they would never return to the backbreaking work of sugar cultivation or to the indignities of cane field overseers. As a result, many ex-slaves abandoned the estates, which were almost all in the hands of the state by 1806, and turned to the practice of squatting on vacant lands…. They cultivated subsistence crops and picked and marketed coffee beans from existing bushes according to local needs…. Those ex-slaves who were able to secure title to plots of land by virtue of their military service followed similar economic patterns. In this way, squatters and landowning ex-slaves established subsistence culture as their primary mode of existence while also making possible limited export economy  (Mary A. Renda, 2001, on Taking Haiti: MilitaryOccupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 p. 48).

Chapter six on “Cuba: The Next Cuban Revolution’” is both a critique of the failure of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 to continue its then promising reversal of the effects of institutional racism and the role of the U.S. occupation in blocking a historic social movement for racial equality there. In the case of the latter the author observed that even though “Cuba had successfully banned institutional racism against people based on the color of their skin” (p. 220) he “found an informal racism that is pervasive, internalized by some white people and even by some black people” (p. 221). In the case of the latter Gates, Jr. notes that he “was deeply troubled by how far US intervention reached into the history of Cuba’s race relations” for the “country’s nascent black-equality movement was suppressed before it even had a chance to take root in a nation made independent to a considerable degree by the sacrifices and courage of black men” (p. 187). For him a revolution driven by youth is underway.

Thus the answers to “the most important question that” Gates, Jr.’s “book attempts to explore” i.e. “what does it mean to be ‘black’ in these countries? Who is considered ‘black’ and under what circumstances and by whom in these societies?’ indeed “varied widely across Latin America in ways that will surprise most people in the United States, just as they surprised” (p. 3) him. However, one may be tempted to think that by emphasizing these variations as captured in the epigraph above the author is understating the impact of race constructed as a global category and racism as a worldwide system of oppression. Racism is local. But it is also global. The localization is part of its globalization. And as the author puts it in the case of Cuba after noting in all the countries he visited that generally blacks are poorer: “ If you really think blacks are equal to whites and as capable as they are, don’t you have to question what keeps them in poverty?” (p. 218). Or as he put is slightly differently in Mexico: “Why, in every mixed-race society, is black always on the bottom?” (p. 66)

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