Friday, May 13, 2011

Henry Louis Gates's Black in Latin America

Gates talks with
Brazilian rapper,
MV Bill

Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s 4-part PBS series Black in Latin America, which ran for each of the last four Tuesdays, has concluded, and all of the episodes are available free online. I have deep respect for Gates as a scholar, intellectual leader and institution-builder, but I must admit that I was a bit wary about this series after I saw some of the pre-broadcast clips on The Root's website. Based on these trailers, my two main fears were that Gates might oversimplify things and that he would allow some of his presuppositions to overwhelm the discussion. For example, in the Brazil trailer, Gates, who has written extensively about race and racism, fails to disarticulate the differences between between Brazilian names for skin colors and racial categories and identities in Brazil, while also failing to historicize these categories or broach contemporary discussions of them. He even denies that the lighter-skinned man can be negro (black). Here we go...I thought. But this thankfully was only a snippet.
Musicians perform at the Toro de Patate
In fact, Gates's discussion of race, and in particular, of blackness and black people in 6 Latin American countries--Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru--turned out to be one of the best, concise introductions to the topic I've come across in a while. He not only did not oversimplify, but he repeatedly challenged some of his own assumptions. In the background for me always as these episodes unfolded were magisterial overviews like the late Leslie B. Rout Jr.'s The African Experience in Latin America (Cambridge, 1976; Wiener, 2003), John Thornton's Africa and Africans and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Cambridge, 1998), and George Reid Andrews' Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000 (Oxford, 2004), as well as numerous excellent historical, sociological, and other kinds of studies on the specific countries.  Given how little many Americans know about our own national history (histories)--given how much I myself am always learning about moments that I have previously studied, like the US Civil War, from the New York Times's Disunion Series--I did not expect even a handful of Gates' viewers to know much of what could be found in these or similar books, and it was clear that he didn't either. This lack of knowledge included, it was refreshingly clear at times, himself.
Gates in Cuba with the son music group, Septeto Típico de Sones
Each of the episodes ran for an hour, so Gates had to shoehorn quite a bit into a small slot, and given the long histories of each of these countries (Hispaniola's going back to 1492, let us not forget). In the cases of the DR and Haiti, and later Mexico and Peru, he split the episodes in half.  I still believe Haiti alone deserved an hour, and that this particular episode did not take into account more recent and popular racial self-representations among younger Dominicans. That said, Gates' overall presentation of the processes and dynamics of historical development, the role of economics and politics in racial and cultural formation (incluing discursively), and the effects of US hegemony, particularly in the Caribbean, illuminated a great deal about each of these countries and their societies.  He thoughtfully consulted scholars, archivists, and activists from each of the countries, sometimes bringing to light, through minor details, what 1000 words might not fully convey. To give one example, in visiting a museum that housed the late Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo's effects, he and the curator examined a large pot of white (rice?) powder that Trujillo used to whiten his skin. The pot was still nearly full, and its contents blindingly white--as I glimpsed it I thought of the well of racial self-loathing this man possessed, of his ghostly, murderous face looming before me, and a shiver ran up my spine as I considered what terror it must have struck in the eyes and backbones of the Dominicans, Haitians and others (like Venezuela's Rómulo Bettencourt, whom Trujillo attempted to assassinate).
Chebo Ballumbrosio and his family with Gates
The Cuban and Brazilian episodes were the best, in that Gates had the time to delve more deeply than most commentators do about each of these countries, debunking something I have seen up close, Cuba's myth of having abolished racism (officially, perhaps, yes, in reality, no) and Brazil's "racial democracy." In the case of Brazil, Gates started in Salvador da Bahia, the heart of black Brazil, but traveled to other cities--Rio de Janeiro and, quite surprisingly, Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, the huge, populous interior state built, from the 17th century onwards, on mining--to explore questions of blackness, race and racism.  Anyone watching would have grasped the complexities of Brazil's history, but also parallels with the US in terms of how economic activities, geography, and so on, affected the system and practice of slavery.  Most revelatory for me, perhaps because I was reminded of information I had forgotten, was his episode on Mexico, and its intrinsic but obscured black history. From the slave ports to its maroon societies to the role of black Mexicans in the country's liberation, I think it's fair to say that almost none of this history is known or even mentioned in the United States, and, as Gates suggested, remains obscure even to many (most?) Mexicans, save those direct or semi-direct descendants of the Africans in places like Veracruz and the Costa Chica. One of the many great flashes of insight during this episode occurred when an Afro-Mexican interlocutor suggested to Gates that it would be better for Jesse Jackson to forgo protesting about the racist Memín Penguín cartoon figure and to spend more time taking interesting and advocating for black Mexicans living in the United States! I think most Americans, including Mexican Americans, would be surprised to know that black Mexicans are living in the US, and thus facing the same issues as other Latino immigrants and other black Americans, let alone that there are (not just were) blacks in Mexico.  To moreover hear this uttered on television, to hear someone break the silence about a group over whom a veil of ignorance still lies, was startling in the best way.
Gates talk with Bernard Diederich at Haiti's Fort Dimanche
Seeing the parallels between all these countries is in itself quite illustrative; so too is to consider how far blacks in the United States have come, for a variety of reasons, long before the election of President Barack H. Obama, whose election is the result not only of the long black struggle for freedom but also of its effects on white Americans and, more broadly, everyone in this country.  What Gates' show suggested more than once, however, is that in some cases other countries, like Mexico, were ahead of us in terms of racial attitudes, far ahead of us, in some ways, and yet the struggles that black people are battling in these countries are perhaps now multiple generations behind where black Americans were a while ago. What his series suggested too was the ways in which the slave trade also impacted Africa, especially the western and southwestern regions of that continent, an aspect of our global and hemispheric histories that still does not merit enough attention or discussion.  Unfortunately, I doubt enough people will see these episodes to deepen knowledge either about the presence or experiences of black people in Latin America or change a great deal of public and private discussions about race, racism, blackness, immigration, or anything else. (I can hope, though.) Indeed, I don't think that a sizable enough number of black Americans, or Latinos who are not black, will watch these shows, let alone white people, though we all would benefit from knowing more about the histories of all of these societies, especially given how deeply implicated the US and its political, economic, social and cultural politics and policies have been in many of them (cf. DR, Haiti, Cuba, Mexico).  But I know that's unlikely to happen, and that particularly those in power will continue to speak and act from positions of gross, sometimes willful ignorance about such things, since they benefit from the ignorance and the divisions and diversions it sows. PBS, however, is doing us all a huge favor by making the videos freely available, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. has done us a tremendous favor by producing these informative gems at all.

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