La Afrovenezolanidad: A Historiography of the Black Experience in Venezuela

Statue of Black Venezuelan soldier who led their War of Independence (Wikimedia Commons)

During the month of May, Venezuelans celebrate Afro-Descendant Month in honor of the social, political, economic, and cultural contributions Afro-Venezuelans have made in the nation’s 500-year history. Venezuelans celebrate their African ancestry with mass ceremonies and parades filled with song, dance, speeches, and displays of African-inspired artwork. While these expressions of ethnic pride seem fitting for a multicultural country like Venezuela, this was not always the social practice of the nation.

In 2005, then-President Hugo Chavez launched a national initiative to increase awareness and education about the Black community. Chavez, a self-proclaimed Afro-descendant, established May 10th  as Afro-Venezuelan Day and installed a series of “programs and policies” to combat racism and discrimination under the 2005 Presidential Commission for the Prevention and Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination in the Venezuelan Educational System. Among Chavez’s policies, one required the commission to “examine, advise and propose reforms on racially and culturally appropriate education” and to instruct schools to incorporate “the contributions of Afro-Venezuelans in their curriculum.” Moreover, Chavez’s changes to the History curriculum in Venezuela’s schools followed a wave of scholars who have made the historical memory of Africans and their descendants more inclusive since 1895.

The historical narrative on Afro-Venezuelans has been evolutionary since the turn of the twentieth century. Narratives like Manuel Landaeta Rosales’ La Libertad de los esclavos en Venezuela (The Freedom of the Slaves in Venezuela) excluded the experiences of Black slaves and freemen, but focused on the efforts white politicians took to abolish slavery. This interpretation stigmatized Afro-descendants for their slave heritage because their ancestors were portrayed as victims, dependent on emancipation from white abolitionists. However, by 1911, José Manuel Núñez Ponte became one of the first scholars to focus on the plight of enslaved Africans and condemn the white slaveocracy with his book, Estudio histórico acerca de la esclavitud y de su abolición en Venezuela (A Historical Study on Slavery and Abolition in Venezuela).

In Núñez’s book, he asserted that the practice of slavery in the Americas was an act of injustice where “despotic lords” chained, oppressed, and subjugated people as “beasts of burden.”[ Núñez argued that the men who practiced slavery believed it was a “step of progress” in modern society. Enslavers believed slavery was admissible because it existed in biblical times and well-respected, ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle defended the use of slavery. Núñez also argued that slave traders did not import slaves like merchandise, but horribly “trafficked” them from Africa to the Americas. By 1854, emancipation arrived with the help of military officers and politicians like Simón Bolívar and José Gregorio Monagas. Núñez also gave details about slave life and resistance, such as the laborious work slaves did in the mines, their tumultuous relationship with their enslavers, and the uprisings slaves plotted. Núñez’s work was impactful because he analyzed the life experiences of slaves and wrote about them as people who were major actors in the establishment of emancipation. In later generations, renowned historians like Miguel Acosta Saignes and Juan de Dios Martínez produced monographs that restored agency to historical black figures. Many scholars would also assess whether Venezuela is a racial democracy, a term cultivated by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his 1933 book, Casa-Grande & Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves) describing a society where all races of people have equal opportunity to quality education, jobs, living conditions, and unhindered social and political rights.

In the 1940s and 1950s, historians investigated the culture, lifestyles, and social rebellions of free and enslaved Afro-Venezuelans by incorporating Anthropology, Political Science, Literature, and Language. Additionally, Marxist historians wrote bottom-up narratives analyzing capitalism, slavery, and their socioeconomic effects on Venezuela’s race and class-based society. While Juan Pablo Sojo’s 1943 book, Temas y Apuntes Afro-Venezolanos (Afro-Venezuelan Themes and Notes) examined culture, Federico Brito Figueroa’s 1951 monographs, Ezequiel Zamora: Un capítulo de la historia nacional (Ezequiel Zamora: A Chapter of National History) and La Liberación de los Esclavos Negros en Venezuela (The Liberation of the Black Slaves in Venezuela) dissected the “socioeconomic underpinnings of colonialism and neocolonialism.” Other historians like R.A. Rondón Márquez, Héctor Parra Márquez, and León Trujillo, gave agency to slaves who fought their enslavers’ subjugation with cultural resistance through African-inspired music and religion alongside revolution. These monographs became the foundation for future microhistories in subaltern studies.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, historians of the Annales School argued slavery left a legacy of socioeconomic hierarchy based on race and skin color. Since colonial times, Venezuelans of mostly white ancestry and light skin had greater socioeconomic opportunities and privileges than Blacks, indigenous people, and pardos (ethnically mixed with Spanish, African, and Indian ancestry) because their heritage closely tied them to their Spanish-born ancestors who first colonized Venezuela. Historians and anthropologists avoided mainstream narratives centered on economic analyses and explored marginalized topics in folklore, lexicon, religion, music, and social life. They narrowed their research to towns highly populated by Afro-Venezuelans in rural and impoverished urban regions away from Caracas. Austrian historian and anthropologist Angelina Pollak-Eltz’s 1976 book, La familia negra en Venezuela (The Black Family in Venezuela) became one of the most poignant pieces of scholarship from the era.

In Pollak-Eltz book, she advocated for more studies on Black families, their migration patterns, employment, and educational status in Venezuela free of negative racial stereotypes. Through Pollak-Eltz’s analysis of interviews, surveys, national census records, and the 1960s Universidad Católica, Andrés Bello migratory records of Black inhabitants, she explained how modern-day race and class-based poverty, racism, and discrimination against Afro-Venezuelans was rooted in the country’s history of slavery. The lower classes tended to be dark-skinned, Black people living in coastal cities and towns such as Barlovento and Guayana (where several large plantations existed in colonial times), while upper-class Venezuelans were often light-skinned and residents of urban communities. This trend was a result of slave-based ancestry, a lack of upper-level education, and bad fortune that made dark-skinned or Black Venezuelans the lowest class in society. Overall, her book convinced future historians to investigate the black family during slavery to determine the role slavery played in the creation of the socioeconomic hierarchy in modern-day Venezuela.

Since the 1990s, historians followed a New Left trend and wrote about racial conflict, colorism, class divisions, and political unrest. Scholars like Jesús García, Michaelle Ascencio, and Winthrop Wright investigated the relationship between class status and skin color in the formation of socioeconomic hierarchy. In Wright’s 1993 book, Café con leche: Race, Class, and National Image in Venezuelahe argued that although many Venezuelans consider themselves to be “café con leche” (coffee with milk), a mestizaje (racial mixture) of European, Indian, and African ancestry, racial democracy is a myth rather than a reality. As an American who left the Jim Crow South in 1966 to teach at the Universidad de Oriente, Wright investigated race, economics, social hierarchy, and blanqueamiento (racial whitening) to discover whether racial discrimination was an issue in the nation. His research consisted of examining cartoons, newspapers, speeches and other forms of propaganda from Venezuela’s national library and archival centers, while also conducting interviews with Afro-Venezuelan college students, city workers, police officers, poets, and laborers. Overall, Wright concluded that although some Afro-Venezuelans have achieved socioeconomic success, racist stereotypes, colorism, political propaganda promoting blanqueamiento, and immigration bans against Black foreigners have limited Black social mobility and increased socioeconomic opportunities for white and pardo citizens.

In the 2000s, historians of Afro-Venezuelan history focused on themes of race, class, and politics as socialism came to Venezuela under the presidency of Hugo Chavez (1999-2013). Historians particularly investigated how Chavez’s new policies of racial equality benefited Afro-Venezuelans and the poor. During Chavez’s presidency, he sought to narrow the economic gap between the rich and poor, and the racial discrimination gap between whites and Blacks. Chavez installed policies of wealth redistribution in which he authorized the government to take necessary land and money from the wealthy to provide food, healthcare, and education for the poor. This action not only angered affluent Venezuelans, but also reflected Chavez’s goal to uplift the socioeconomic status of Afro-Venezuelans from the lower classes.

In the scholarship produced by social scientists like Jesús María Herrera Salas and Barry Cannon, they analyzed political speeches, interviews, national polls, poverty rates, unemployment rates, and national surveys on the public’s opinion of the socialist government to determine whether race and class divided Venezuelans on political issues. Race and class conflict has often influenced Venezuelans to follow traditional norms and side with political candidates that support their interests. With the rise of Chavez’s socialist policies, many white Venezuelans and the wealthy have become enraged, “anti-Chavista,” and unwilling to lose their wealth to break the socioeconomic hierarchy. In Cannon’s 2008 article, “Class/Race Polarisation in Venezuela and the Electoral Success of Hugo Chavez: a break with the past or the song remains the same?” his survey-based research revealed that “Chavistas” were predominantly dark-skinned, poor Venezuelans who believed Chavez’s socialist policies would benefit them in the long-run. Nevertheless, academics concluded that race and class continued to define Venezuela, leaving people divided by a socioeconomic hierarchy stemming from slavery.

The legacy of slavery will always shape future scholarship on Afro-Venezuelans, even as scholars investigate how race, class, and politics continue to divide people under Venezuela’s socialist government now led by President Nicolás Maduro. With Afro-Venezuelans comprising approximately 10% of the population, it is necessary that their history is preserved and expanded. Many classic monographs on Black Venezuelans are decades-old, out of print, and/or completely in Spanish. These works should be updated and republished in multiple languages to safeguard the country’s history of slavery, emancipation, and twentieth century Black life in libraries around the world. Additionally, archivists and historians can enhance our knowledge of Black colonial life in Venezuela by analyzing, translating, and digitizing court records and other valuable documents from the Archive of the Indies in Spain. Overall, the historical narrative of Afro-Venezuelan history has progressed well since 1895, because today, it looks at multiple perspectives, surmounts racial stereotypes, gives agency to oppressed people, and offers valuable research that benefits multiple disciplines.

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Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson is a Visiting Professor of History at Loyola University Maryland. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University. Her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson is currently researching race, crime, and policing surrounding the public transportation system in post-1958 Philadelphia.