Global Blackness: More than Strangers, More than Citizens

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

Augusta, Sicily Italy, 2021 (Shutterstock).

There she stood, in the middle of a dirt road in a colonia on the near outskirts of Tapachula in Chiapas, southern Mexico, her hip was raised as though she were carrying a sibling on it. Something about this child (how old was she? I’m still not sure) was familiar as she threw back her head, popped out that hip a bit more to accommodate a slightly bolder stance to ask me: “Ey! E ou mem, ou blan obyen ayisyen?” And you? Are you a foreigner or a Haitian? As I reacted with surprise, I thought briefly about a scene from the film, Rabbit Proof Fence, a heart wrenching movie about two sisters and their cousin who escape from an institution created to “reform” mixed-raced children, a pillar of Australia’s genocidal policy against Aboriginal peoples. At one point along their trek, the three girls meet up with an Aboriginal man and one of the protagonists presents the palm side of her hand and then flips it to the darker, skin side to see if this “skin folk” was also “kin folk.” The tension of the scene dissolves into relief and some humor when, in response, the man holds up the dark side of his hand: everyone nods in recognition then they move on. I felt as though we were playing that scene, in a slightly different way. The literal translation of the question, “Are you a foreigner (white) or are you a Haitian,” conveyed, in part, her curiosity about me, a stranger, but by translating my Blackness, she reversed the power dynamic between researcher and informant. She demanded to know more than my origins or my nationality. Like the girls in Rabbit Proof Fence, she held up a hand to ask, “Are you one of us” or “Are you one with me?”

In her recent book, Translating Blackness, García Peña argues that “Black Latinidad [be considered] as a category from which we can better understand the vaivenes of colonialism and migration that shape Black experiences in diaspora” (5) and translation treated as a both a metaphor and an act that can make visible ongoing forms of oppression through racial capitalism. As governments in overdeveloped countries respond to Black migrations by building walls, plucking people from the seas, and caging families, and since nation-states in the era of climate crisis can only imagine death as necessary for their survival—human, animal, environmental rights be damned—García Peña’s epistemological and methodological interventions in Translating Blackness are urgently needed. Part of García Peña’s brilliance in this book is how the argument empowers readers, creatives, and future scholars to start with what we already know to be true: white supremacy is active and global; the nation, while a convenient unit of analysis, is a terribly limiting one for the study of Black lives and futures; and that ongoing imperialism and colonialism, having created economic precarity and climate crisis, have also forced an increasing number of people many of them African/Black/Afro-descended, from their homes in the Global South, elsewhere.

As I read Lorgia García Peña’s Translating Blackness, the memory of this interaction came to me often. Ours was not a Twitter battle in yet another round of the “diaspora wars,” but a slightly contentious interaction characterized simultaneously by familiarity, we could speak to each other, but also strangeness, mostly due to the differences in our mobility and my location within and from the United States. These are precisely the connections that the first two chapters of Translating Blackness tackle in their discussions of Frederick Douglass, Gregorio Luperón, Gregoria Fraser Goins, and Arturo Schomburg. As García Peña so carefully documents, a key element of U.S. imperialist ideology was the belief in “Latin” inferiority but another pillar was added to the framing of U.S. empire—“a hegemonic narrative of blackness” (35). While both Douglass and the Dominican freedom fighter, Gregorio Luperón shared a belief in Black political rights, full membership within the U.S. nation-state meant exercising citizenship at the expense of Dominican sovereignty. This put Douglass and Luperón, two of the most important Black political figures of the nineteenth century, at unbreachable odds during the debates over the annexation of the Dominican Republic to the United States in 1869 and 1870. García Peña argues that U.S. Black political sovereignty was exercised through imperialism; meanwhile, Luperón countered this with a conceptualization of Latinidad that was anti-colonial and racially inclusive. Black Latinidad sovereignty, for Luperón, was fundamentally an exercise in freedom from any form of subordination and a defense against U.S. expansion and financial control.

Arturo Schomburg’s intellectual legacy, García Peña notes, built on this revolutionary, anti-colonial ideal, as it should have, given his involvement in Puerto Rican and Cuban independence movements. She argues that Schomburg’s archival project and his archiving method “laid the groundwork for the field of Latinx studies” (87). Most important, Schomburg’s project was anchored in Haiti as the site of Black freedom, belonging, and Black power. The late Haitian American anthropologist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, once wrote: “Haiti . . . represents the longest neocolonial experiment in the west” (Trouillot) and also the site of the longest resistance against necolonialism. Schomburg’s political uses of Haiti becomes a way for García Peña to outline a different chronology for Latinidad within and in relation to the United States, beginning with the triumph of the Haitian Revolution in 1804. Haiti is decidedly and fundamentally central to the story of Latinidad and to Black Latinidad as a category for analysis.

And now that Haiti has joined other Latin American countries as a sender nation, Haitians’ vaivenes across the Americas and to the Global North provides a point of comparison to the immigrant communities García Peña covers in the book’s second section. The immigrant, the refugee, and asylum seeker are, she argues, “racialized subhuman [categories] of unbelonging” (16). Dominicans and Habesha in Italy, like Haitians, know this intimately; many Haitians resist categorization as refijye because of how inhumanely they are treated, pulled from boats or physically beaten at the border. Official responses to Haitians’ present-day migrations across mainland Latin America, from Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, through the Darién and to Mexico’s border with the United States, reveal not only the persistent coloniality and enforced subordination of a people who dared to free themselves from enslavement and colonialism, but also how the “historical intersections of race, ethnicity, migration, and citizenship” (20) inform xenophobic legislation and anti-black violence. As García Peña argues in chapter four, Italy’s “refusal to culturally and legally admit new citizens of color into the nation” is an example of its ongoing colonialism which is expressed as its sovereign right to determine who can become Italian citizens.

The legal scholar E. Tendayi Achiume argues that as long as colonialism and neocolonialism remain “essential to sustaining the political and economic dominance of the First World” Black migrants to the Global North merit consideration not as migrants but as equal members of a transnational, political community created from this relationship. García Peña’s discussion of exclusion and unbelonging in Translating Blackness echoes Achiume’s call to recast immigrant exclusion and “unbelonging” as practices of state sovereignty. Both García Peña and Achiume note that the legal doctrine of sovereignty was “constituted through colonialism.” As a result, sovereignty is a racialized, spatialized, gendered, and sexualized concept. Political exclusion and racialized, sexualized, and gendered unbelonging are not merely the residuals of colonialism’s past or evidence of its continued effects. They comprise the very meaning of sovereign right and authority, in essence, the nation-state itself.

Therefore, in the move from hegemonic Blackness to global Blackness comes the recognition that, for example, Haitians, Dominicans, and U.S. Americans comprise a transnational, political, economic, and cultural community, as co-(trans)nationals with equal claims to the freedoms, rights, and material benefits that accrue from their admittedly troubling relationship. This would mean Douglass seeing in Luperón a co-constituent of Black citizenship or, as Achiume insists, this may mean advocates eschewing immigration reform in favor of the radical recognition that colonialism has forged bonds, however coerced and unjust they were, that have positioned formerly colonized people as co-members of a political entity. Simply put, this would mean embracing Black Latinidad as the method, the archive, the lens to cast the child and the adult in Tapachula, not as strangers, but as co-citizens whose belonging does not rely on the vicissitudes of any one nation-state or the other, but who both belong to the nié, the third space that sits in the messiness of these unequal, violent, yet still intersecting and co-constitutive histories that make us something more than strangers, more than citizens. The child’s question, “Are you one of us” or “Are you one with me,” illustrates how global Blackness centers solidarity, protection, and care. As García Peña argues, global blackness pits us against death; through this lens we can imagine a future of our living and thriving. It is about time.

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April J. Mayes

April J. Mayes is Associate Dean and Professor of History of Pomona College. She focuses her research on the Dominican Republic and teaches courses in Colonial Latin American history, Afro-Latin American history, women’s and gender studies, and Africana studies. Mayes is the author of the book, The Mulatto Republic: Class, Race, and National Identity in the Dominican Republic (University Press of Florida).