Deprovincializing Black Studies and Translating Blackness Beyond Borders

This post is part of our online roundtable on Lorgia García Peña’s Translating Blackness.

Black Brazilian woman in street protest (Shutterstock).

Lorgia García Peña’s Translating Blackness is a monumental achievement. By decentering the U.S., it deprovincializes Black Studies and offers a genuinely transnational framework for understanding race and Black-Latinidad from the Caribbean to Europe. And it deploys “translation” as a way of seeing how Blackness is used in the structures of gendered racial capitalism (i.e., colonialism, migration, globalization, etc,) to reproduce “minoritized subjectivity,” creating the conditions for exclusion and marginalization, for new expressions of political inclusion and solidarity across borders, and sometimes both simultaneously.

For example, in her extraordinary first chapter on the tensions between Gregorio Luperón and Frederick Douglass, she shows how the struggle to fulfill the promise of Black freedom during and after Reconstruction fueled U.S. imperial expansion. García Peña reminds us that 1898 was not the beginning of U.S. imperial expansion but rather the culmination of at least a century of imperialism. She traces various U.S. attempts to annex the island of Santo Domingo back to Reconstruction under the “liberal” Republican regime of Ulysses S. Grant. She is not arguing that this is the first instance of U.S. imperial designs on the Caribbean. During the antebellum period, annexing some Caribbean island or Latin American nation had been the dream of slave holders looking to extend their power and longevity. And it had been the dream of 19th century “racial liberals” like Abraham Lincoln, who did not believe Black people were safe in a white man’s country, to save Black folks by deporting and resettling the entire population in some far away land. One cannot help but recognize how this ostensibly benevolent form of population transfer, dating back to the American Colonization Society, mirrored the slaveholders’ logic that enslavement was an act of Christian benevolence because it saved Africans from heathen rulers who sold us in the first place.

Translating Blackness hones in on the extraordinary disconnect between Luperón, once president of Santo Domingo and an internationalist who fought tirelessly for Dominican and Haitian sovereignty, and Douglass, militant abolitionist turned champion of Ulysses S. Grant and American power, and an adherent of a racial science that denigrates “Latin” peoples and elite Negroes like himself at the top of the evolutionary ladder of Blackness. Arguably the leading spokesperson for annexation, Douglass believed he was doing his duty as a U.S. citizen under the 14th amendment, and regarded the taking of Santo Domingo as, in García Peña’s words, “an opportunity to expand democracy, freedom, dignity, and civility for people of color across the hemisphere” (34). Luperón and other leading Caribbean figures (not just Dominicans) vehemently opposed annexation plans and publicly criticized Buenaventura Báez, the dictator willing to sell the island to the highest bidder. Douglass, of course, is held up around the world as a symbol of Black resistance; Luperón is virtually unknown outside of the Dominican Republic. Thus García Peña locates in African American support for imperialism an early expression, if not the roots, of the U.S. hegemonic narrative of Blackness that dominates the way “we define and translate Black lives, Black histories, Black knowledge, and Black political movements today” (35).1

The U.S. did annex Puerto Rico, however. García Peña examines what it means to be a colonial subject of an empire in denial of its own colonial rule through the life, work, and migration of the Puerto Rican scholar and activist, Arturo Schomburg. In his own inimitable way, Schomburg himself posed the question of his people’s status, especially in light of the Supreme court’s ruling on the Insular Cases guaranteeing Puerto Rican residents all the rights and protections under the U.S. US Constitution except the right of citizenship. Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York occupied a unique status as non-immigrants and non-nationals, which Schomburg considered less a liability than a way of seeing and moving through the world. García Peña calls this Schomburg’s epistemology of Black Latinidad, or “a way of knowing that is guided by the intersections of colonialism, diaspora, migration, and blackness that shape the historical processes and experiences of people who are linked—by birth, language, culture, or ancestry—to Latin America but who are also immigrants . . . in the Global North” (81). Rather than accept hegemonic Blackness or a particular Puerto Rican or pan-Caribbean nationalism, Schomburg recognized and constructed a capacious, global, diverse identity out of an accumulation of cultures and experiences. Black Latinidad claimed the world and did not claim a specific homeland. Like the Jews before the Nakba and the modern state of Israel, he identified Black people as a “nation without a nation.” And he proceeded to document and archive the lives, movements, thought, and creativity of a “global collective.” What makes the African diaspora a coherent collective is what Schomburg refers to as “racial integrity,” which I read as antecedent to Cedric Robinson’s notion of an “ontological totality” or Black people’s “shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being.” García Peña elaborates: “The call for racial integrity—for wholeness—brings together all the parts that make up the Black diaspora; it summons difference to produce unity. To come to racial integrity is to understand how diaspora came to be” (88-89).

Schomburg’s archiving of Black history the world over was a project of “translation and correction,” in that it interrupted the erasure or suppression of history by both white supremacy and hegemonic Blackness, by allowing Black intellectuals “to reclaim the rhetorical and historical space that Black people were entitled to yet denied” and centering “Black belonging in contradiction to white supremacy.” This last point, whether intended or not, disrupts a now common trend to speak of “the archive” almost exclusively as an imperial space of unremitting violence. It is a position that never sat well with me. What García Peña’s account of Schomburg does is to challenge an increasingly common assumption that archives are only assembled by “the state,” as if there is some coherent, anthropomorphic entity called ‘the state’ that seems to do everything everywhere. There have always been alternative archives, oppositional movements that keep their records, oral histories, and the like. Often these kinds of archives rival the official archives in scope—and they are often preserved by those official archives. As oppositional, anti-imperialist annals, their raison d’etre was more than preservation; they provide the raw materials for mapping a potential future, imagining the full achievement of “racial integrity” or ontological wholeness in a world without exploitation, oppression, or occupation. This is the project of Translating Blackness.

Indeed, she constructs her own archive for the final section of the book, which explores how Blackness in the late 20th and early 21st century travels through the lens of gender and sexuality. For example, she examines narratives of Black women who fought in the Dominican Civil War of 1965 and forced into exile because of their radical politics. She deftly uses photographs, interviews, pamphlets, oral history, and literary texts produced by Afro-Latinas living in the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe in conversation with Third World Feminist writers, while also mapping radical Black Dominican women’s migration and the continuation of radical politics in the U.S. and Europe in the 1980s and 1990s within socialist and feminist migrant women organizations. Her case study of the posthumous media representation of twenty-one-year-old Carolina Payano, a Caribbean migrant killed in Milan, Italy in 2012, is a tour de force. The media exoticized her Blackness, her Caribbean-ness, her physical features, as a way of displacing the dangers of Italian sex tourism on to her foreign body while completely ignoring Italy’s—and Europe’s—racialized anti-immigrant regime and its colonial legacies. At the same time, Dr. García Peña reveals the “dialectic” of empire: the various ways in which Black immigrant women, through acts of solidarity, political organizing, and transnational networks of information, resist violent and repressive structures. García Peña ends the book with an extended examination of what she calls the “second generation” Black Latinidad activists in Italy through their political and cultural activism. Here in plain view is the political work of translating Blackness, creating transnational, counterhegemonic networks of inclusion that simultaneously open up new understandings of race and global Blackness. Translating Blackness gives us a much-needed guide, not only for deprovincializing Black Studies but for preparing us for rising fascist power on a global scale.

  1. The tethering of Black American freedom and U.S. imperialism was not limited to the Caribbean. We see parallels in how late 19th and early 20th century Black proponents of emigration converge with U.S. imperial designs in Africa as well as Asia. One of most striking examples was T. Thomas Fortune, a leading Black intellectual of the post-Reconstruction era and noted supporter of both the Populist movement and the Anti-Imperialist League, promoted plans to establish colonial settlements of Black workers in Hawaii and the Philippines. “The Negro and the Filipino: Two Races Outside the Constitution, But Under the Flag,” Washington Post, June 27, 1903; “Negroes for the Hawaiian Isles,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 25, 1902; T. Thomas Fortune, “Politics in the Philippine Islands,” The Independent, September 24, 1903; “Fruits of T. Thomas Fortune,” Washington Post, Feb 16, 1903; Michele Mitchell, “’The Black Man’s Burden’: African Americans, Imperialism, and Notions of Racial Manhood 1890–1910,” International Review of Social History 44 no. 7 (1999), 77-99; Brian Shott, “Forty Acres and a Carabo: T. Thomas Fortune, Newspapers, and the Color-line in the Pacific,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 17 (2018), 98-120.
Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Robin D. G. Kelley

Robin D. G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include the prizewinning Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009); Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (1990); Race Rebels: Culture Politics and the Black Working Class (1994); Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (1997), which was selected one of the top ten books of the year by the Village Voice; and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2002).