Between Latin America and the African Diaspora?

“Well obviously we need another Latin Americanist, because when ‘X’ leaves, we won’t have anybody who does Latin America anymore.” This is what was said last year during a committee meeting I was a part of to discuss possible replacements for another committee member who was stepping down. It was my first year as part of the group and apparently for at least one of them, I did not register as someone who did “work on Latin America.” Thankfully someone spared me the uncomfortableness of rectifying the situation myself by informing the gentleman that we did in fact have someone in the room who worked on Latin America, and that that person was sitting right beside him.

Perhaps because I was indeed sitting right beside him the man did not see me. Or maybe he saw me but genuinely had no clue what kind of work I did or what to make of it or how to understand the way he had heard my work described. After all, I had in fact been introduced to the committee at the previous meeting as the new guy and as a specialist in African Diaspora and Brazilian history. Whatever the reason was that he did not see me, so to speak, it was merely a re-incarnation of a scene that had become quite familiar, that had happened many times before in prior years and that was essentially informed by a singular confusion: was I a scholar of black studies or a scholar of Latin America? Or perhaps even more generally, was I a historian of a subset of people who could be located anywhere or a historian of a “legitimate” region (and indeed a few days later the same individual approached me and apologized by saying “I’m sorry. I just thought you studied black people out there, you know, in lots of places”)?

For all the academic and mainstream recognition of black folk in Latin America over the past few years, such encounters are disheartening reminders that inclusion does not signal transformation. But lamenting how blackness is included but not viewed as central or characteristic of Latin American history is less interesting than asking why this continues to occur, and for me the answer seems to cohere around two issues: the power that “institutional history” has had in shaping questions about subjugated peoples in Latin America, and relatedly the enduring influence that theories concerned with structures and institutions of history have had in Latin American scholarship.

Of course the pushback to my assertion could be that there is in fact no paucity of books on slavery and freedom in Latin America. This is correct. Without question there are scholars who write about black people in slavery and freedom who are seen as major historians of Latin America. The countless books that one calls to mind on the subject, however, actually reinforce my claim. If one thinks closely about what happens within the pages of most such books on slavery and freedom south of the United States we are treated more to an extended meditation on the institution of slavery rather than on experiences of Black intellectual or identity formation under slavery. One learns about work hours and production and family formation and master-slave relations. But how black people thought through (not just lived through) the space of slavery, how they related and talked to each other about what it meant to be black or free or community is cordoned off as either impossible or as moving too close to thinking about black life and white life as separate. Similar anxieties about separating blacks and whites too much in scholarship pop up around reactions to studies that focus on endogamous marriage and instead of focusing on family formations that are racially mixed or exogamous. 1. Furthermore, the study of slavery in many of these works remains a nationally bounded phenomenon, meaning that the critical arena we designate as “blackness,” a critical arena that clearly travels and lives beyond national boundaries, becomes constricted and taken for granted as a social fact that requires little analytical explanation in a given slave society.

Similarly the sorts of theories that are brought to bear on understanding a “totalizing institution” like slavery range from Foucault to Freud to Bourdieu to Marx, etc. Seldom does Dubois or Fanon or C.L.R. James or any contemporary critical race theorists appear in these texts. The grounds for such a refusal are often couched in terms of not wanting to import racial thought from the global north to solve racial realities of the global south (never mind that neither Fanon nor James originate from the so-called global North), and yet not a stink is made about the long-standing practice of importing and building on or extending or, in the best cases, of creatively transforming thought originating in Europe to resolve Latin American institutional dilemmas. The result is that Latin Americanists who make claims about race in Latin America are often woefully under-read on critical race studies and see no problem with this. And yet at the same time many Latin Americanists will still lament how today’s historians intend to make statements about capital formation without having read enough Marxists historiography. Or to put it in another register, it is nothing for historians of Latin America to expect grad students and colleagues to be well informed about “primitive accumulation” or “uneven development” and to simultaneously dismiss the need to know anything about theories of “double consciousness” or “creolization” in order to make statements about black workers, whether enslaved or free. For scholars who aim to write histories of the African Diaspora but also to be admitted to the table of “Latin Americanists,” then, the job requires becoming an astute reader of institutional history and theory as well as keeping up with scholarship that aims to think through the question of blackness across a range of geographical and epistemological sites.

Take Micol Seigel’s Uneven Encounters: Making Race and Nation in Brazil and the United States, a work that is deliberately anchored by African Diaspora scholarship and theory, as well as broaching the problem of transnationalism through “extending the legacy of that obscure nineteenth-century transnationalist, Karl Marx.” (xiv) This, then, is a book that consciously straddles the theoretical worlds that usually live divided in Latin American historiography. And indeed, in reading the text one cannot help but be impressed by the range and depth of Seigel’s readings on race, communication, and nationalism. Yet for many it feels like an odd book, one that begs the question of “what is this?” or better yet “how do we classify this?” I am not quite sure how US historians discuss the work, but among Brazilianists the question of whether such a work is Latin American enough has hovered around the book since its publication. By daring to assert that race in neither Brazil nor the US can be understood as long as the scholarly optic remains national, Seigel followed a line of reasoning that had already been suggested in works like Brent Hayes Edwards The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Yet theory of this sort has little purchase among many Latin Americanists, and thus much (though by no means all) critiques of her transnational approach fail to understand, acknowledge, or even know of the existence of the intellectual genealogy from which she makes certain claims. Hence, paradigm shifting works on race such as Seigel’s continue to be read as though they were being written in a vacuum of thought that speaks to the national reality of neither the US nor Brazil, not as texts that put critical pressure on national narratives of race by building on a well-established theoretical corpus. This is the state of the field at the moment.

  1. This problematic is noted, for example, in the forthcoming work of Karen Y. Morrison, Cuba’s Racial Crucible: The Sexual Economy of Social Identities, 1750-2000, (Indiana University Press, 2015; and in recent work by Herman L. Bennett, Colonial Blackness: A History of Afro-Mexico, (Indiana University Press, 2009), esp. Ch. 2, “Geneologies of a Past,” 58-85

Greg Childs

Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.

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