Dr. Henry Louis Gates, star professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, has just completed a four-part documentary on the African diaspora in Latin America – titled ‘Black in Latin America – that’s currently airing on PBS (last episode, tomorrow night). He’s visited Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Mexico and Peru to shed light on the past and present of blacks (and browns) in these countries; a past and present often as little known to people in the USA as to people in those particular countries.
I’m always a little ambivalent about the good Prof. Gates (I saw the whole ‘blacks participated in the slave trade too’ as a bit of pandering to assuage white guilt, as if Africans selling Africans had any bearing on the institution of slavery and the treatment of slaves in the United States; and the whole DNA testing thing makes little sense, since both race and racism are essentially based on phenotype – skin-tone, hair texture, facial features and other surface-level traits – and not how many African genomes you possess), but I decided to look at the documentary with the faith that at least the Prof’s I’s would be dotted and T’s crossed.
Before offering my ‘take’ on the program, let me establish some credentials: Aside from having an intense interest in Latin American culture from an early age, my major in undergrad was political science with a minor in Spanish. I completed my last semester as a study abroad student in the Dominican Republic, where I lived with a Dominican family and studied Afro-Dominican history and culture under the late, great Prof. Blas Jiménez, poet and ex-director of UNESCO (the cultural arm of the United Nations) in Santo Domingo. A serious advocate of negritude in the Dominican Republic, Blas took us on tours of Santería temples and sugar plantations, and exposed us to the obvious and pervasive African element of Dominican culture, backed up by reams of scholarly literature on the topic, including work by Prof. Frank Moya Pons, who also appears in Gates’ documentary. I’ve visited Cuba three times, lived four years in Colombia, and now one year in Brazil. And as a culturally- and politically-black American with a mixed-race phenotype, I’ve had to navigate the minefield of race and identity constantly since leaving the United States six years ago (see my post ‘Black Like Me‘ for more on that foolishness). Basically, yo, I am ‘Black in Latin America.’
So, looking at the first episode of the series, I have to say that I appreciate the fact that Gates is even exploring the topic. Often, ‘blackness’ and ‘Latinness’ are seen as exclusive entities when they’re not: as we all should know by now, there’s more than one way to be black (just as Icelanders and Greeks, Finns and the Portuguese are all considered ‘white’). While I felt like the DR unfortunately got short-shrift, the Haiti portion was intensely enlightening, as I’ve only read about some of the history and hadn’t seen many images of the people and the places from Haiti’s past. Love the constant big-ups to 1804, when black Haitians beat back the French in order to be free men in a strange land, and how Gates explains the punishing debt Haiti had to pay to France, which essentially bankrupted the country forever, and US interference on both sides of the island.
From a historical standpoint, I can’t qualm with much of the presentation. But, as subjective documentaries sometimes do, the viewer is led to generalizing: not all Dominicans are anti-African/anti-black/anti-Haitian, in fact many, many do understand and accept their blackness (not most, but many) and not all Haitians practice Vodun and many, many Dominicans do (either Vudú, or the related faith, Santería). Gates doesn’t explain how Gen. Rafael Trujillo, US-backed dictator of the DR, actually changed the history books in schools to say that Dominicans are brown because of their ‘Taíno Indian’ ancestry and that more than a couple of generations of Dominican school children learned this as official history – on one hand, you can’t blame them for claiming ‘Indian’ over ‘black'; you’re messing with a fundamental educational matrix that these people were raised in. Trust me, opening people’s minds to new realities ain’t as simple as taking a blue or a red pill.
A few of my own pet peeves:
Gates’ horrible pronunciation of Spanish names and words that, even for English speakers, aren’t all that hard to pronounce. Trujillo is true-HEE-yo, and Gates is all true-EE-ho. Dude, did you even ask somebody how that shit should be pronounced? As an academic talking about non-English topics, you need to at least try and approach a reasonable facsimile. It’s not that hard. Inexcusable, inelegant.
Every time I heard the word mulatto – especially in Gates’ bass-less, Harvard-ese register – the hair on my neck stood up. Though it’s still used in Spanish and Portuguese, it’s a slave term in English (from same linguistic root as mule, the hybrid of a horse and donkey) and I would have much preferred ‘mixed’ or ‘mixed-race’, but that’s just me.
The music they played at the beginning of the segment was NOT merengue, it was Cuban son, a precursor to salsa. Get your rhythms right, my brother. On this particular point, it’s sloppy presentation, sloppy research, sloppy journalism, and just plain irresponsible. You’re supposed to be educating people – get it right.
Overall grade from this humble educator: B+
I’ll review episode two, Cuba, next week. What are your thoughts?
Watch the full episode. See more Black in Latin America.