Black in Latin America

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A few years ago a group of us went on a visit to "Ile de Gorée" -- the island was a sunlit 20-minute ferry ride off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. When reaching the shore, my first impression was that we had reached a tropical oasis: brightly coloured pink, brown and yellow buildings, children running along the dock, and vendors selling carved, rotund, wooden hippos. Within a 15-minute walk we came to a church and the guide informed us in elegant French, "In 1992 Pope John Paul II came here and asked for forgiveness."

Not far away we came to the Maison des Esclaves -- a slave house built between 1780 and1784. A UNESCO world heritage website tells us that hundreds of thousands of slaves were shipped from Ile de Gorée. Other studies tell us that the numbers were actually only in the hundreds, with many more slaves shipped from St. Louis, Senegal in the North and the Gambia in the South. In either case the effect of this nefarious house was chilling.

Slavery: the imperialist transformation of humans into instruments for the production of goods. Has humanity committed a worse crime? No doubt, the degree of violence that constitutes "worse" is one that 20th century totalitarianisms -- with their perpetual conversions of humans into statistics -- would have little problem challenging. Yet there was something distinct in the walls of Maison des Esclaves: a faint, tremulous request echoing across the centuries. A shudder reverberated through all of us visiting the memorial -- the psychological tremor that we normally repress when confronted with slavery's daily continuing impacts.

No region's descendants have been more shunned, violated, and exploited than those of the "dark continent" -- the continent which Frantz Fanon once noted had the shape of a revolver. Between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million slaves were brought to the Americas. While 450,000 slaves were taken to the U.S., 10.7 million were shipped to countries south of the U.S. border.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s recent 2011 PBS series has been transcribed into a superb book, Black in Latin America (New York University Press 2011), which examines the situation of the descendants of slaves south of the U.S. border. Gates, one of the most prolific academics in the U.S., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University. His research looks at the meaning of being black in Brazil, Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba. The text notes that despite the "racial democracies," cultural pluralism, and vibrant African-influence on the countries of the Americas, its black citizens remain its most unacknowledged.

Statistics and interviews demonstrate that Latin Americans -- not so differently from North Americans -- place those with the darkest skin at the bottom of the status ladder. Gates confronts this problem by consulting some of the continent's most interesting intellectuals, such as Brazil's Abdias do Nascimento and Haiti's Rachel Beauvoir, artists such as the Afro-Peruvian musician Susana Baca and the Cuban rapper Soandres Del Rio Ferrer, and athletes such as the former major league baseball pitcher José Rijo of the Dominican Republic.

As well, Gates looks back at some of Black Latin America's most interesting historical figures such as Mexico's second president Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña (1783-1831), one of the leaders of the country's War of Independence and a man whose father was of African descent -- though everyone, including contemporary Mexicans, seems to have forgotten this fact. Ironically and tellingly, it was President Guerrero, aspiring to a non-racial society, who eliminated racial categories from Mexico's state birth, marriage and death certificates.

Gates concludes that the solution to marginalization lies in affirmative action programs, education and a black consciousness movement -- such as Brazil's Blocos Afro. These proposals may or may not undo the structures and interests that have traditionally relegated sizable populations of minority groups to the periphery -- where they serve as cheap labour or as cultural scapegoats that enable the social cohesion of the majority. Despite the uncertain tenability of Gates' prescriptions, his impassioned investigation enables us today -- on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination -- to celebrate, learn from, and honour the formidable production, influence and resilience of Africa's descendants in the Americas.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

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