Locating and Connecting Latin America and the African Diaspora

2015-0430-cse-us-locating-and-connecting-latin-america-and-the-african-diaspora-2015 A few months ago, Greg Childs explored the connections between African Diaspora and Latin American historiography, noting the need for more intense engagement of black history by scholars of the region, as well as the need for more overtly theoretical approaches to Afro-Latin American history. A conference I attended earlier this month at UNC Charlotte attempted to do some of these very things. This conference, entitled “Locating and Connecting Latin America and the African Diaspora,” was organized by my colleagues Erika Edwards in the History department and Oscar de la Torre in the Africana Studies department and explored topics such as space and region in the African Diaspora and Latin America, the construction of identity, maroon communities in various locales, hip hop in Argentina, the census, migrations, and social movements, among others.

The first panel I attended was on “Diaspora Conversations in the U.S.” Gregory Mixon examined the creation of free black militias in colonial Mexico and post-Civil War Georgia, arguing that despite the different times and regions, militia service had very similar functions in the two areas, providing an avenue for social and economic mobility, claims for citizenship, and political autonomy. James Padilioni Jr. meanwhile explored the cult of St. Martin de Porres, a Dominican lay brother from early 17th century Peru who became the patron of racial and social justice in the Catholoc Church. Padilioni noted that memory of de Porres is used by groups and individuals throughout the Diaspora, including a couple Catholic churches in Atlanta, to construct their own social and cultural identities.

The third paper by Nicholas Rinehart of Harvard University was mainly historiographical in nature, arguing that scholars must take a broader conception of what a slave narrative is. Many scholars of Latin America and the Caribbean argue that there is no comparable slave narrative tradition there as in the United States, but that is not the case, Rinehart argued. The forms of slave narratives continually shifted, going from the confessional, spiritual autobiography style of James Gronniosaw and Olaudah Equiano in the 18th century to the sentimentalism of works by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs in the mid-19th century to the racial uplift narratives of figures such as Booker T. Washington. Slave narratives have taken the form of interviews, letters, autobiographies, stories told to whites, and stories told to blacks, among other forms. The institutional particularities of slavery in Latin America, Rinehart argued, provided for very different forms of narratives, often religious in nature. The Jesuits, for instance, used slaves to make money for their colleges but were also very concerned with their conversions. One Jesuit in particular, Alonso Sandoval, wrote a treatise on slavery in the early 17th century that explores slave life and efforts to convert to Catholicism. Sandoval’s treatise was based partly on interviews with slaves that seem very similar to methods used to produce narratives in the U.S. 300 years later. This source shows us that the genre of the slave narrative stretches back much farther than we think. And it also speaks to a key element in the study of slavery, one that Greg Childs also noted in his post, namely the tendency of scholars of slavery to privilege the exterior lives of slaves without looking seriously at their cultural and intellectual lives. Exploring these different types of narratives could help alleviate this situation.

A roundtable discussion on the second day of the conference explored the topic of “Space and Region in the African Diaspora and Latin America.” The first question posed related to how special considerations and migration shaped the panelists work on Afro-Latin America. Andrea Queeley of Florida International University noted that forced, voluntary, and derailed migrations had significant impacts on race relations in Cuba, the region on which her research focuses. Understandings of Diaspora, she noted, must look beyond slavery to issues of displacement and migration because Diaspora is produced as much through, and emerges in, immobility as much as mobility; shared experience is made possible through fixity, just as in migration and movement. Questions of space and migration are likewise key to the work of Tiffany Joseph of Stony Brook University, as her recent book explores the way that migrations between Brazil and the United States impact race relations in Brazil. For Alejandro de la Fuente of Harvard University, this question had more personal resonance, as his own migration from Cuba played a central role in both his life and scholarship. In Havana he had been a law professor, focusing on slavery and the law, but when he came to the U.S. he was shocked by the separation of groups by race, class, etc. all throughout society so began to examine these phenomena in more depth. This experience also pushed him to explore the construction of race in Cuba.

Another interesting question that this roundtable explored involved the larger ramifications of the invisibility of Afro-Latinos in the United States census, where less than 3% of all Latinos identify as black. For Queeley, one way to approach this problem is to broaden the census, which currently does not allow for an articulation of an Afro-Latino identity. But this also raises another important question, namely should outsiders impose an African identity on people who do not see themselves as black? Joseph took a different approach, looking at how the racial configurations in countries of origin, many of which marginalize those with an African identity, play a role in their presentation of identity in the United States. In addition to this, Brazilians do not identify as Hispanic because they speak Portuguese, another factor complication their identity. De la Fuente built on this latter point by Joseph, noting also the limiting nature of the census, which only allows for Hispanic or Latino identification when many people from Latin America see themselves as neither. While all called for some type of change to the census and the way it categorizes both Afro-Latinos and Latinos in general, partly because the allocation of resources depends on census figures, they also sounded a note of caution because the census can also reinscribe taxonomies of difference. De la Fuente noted that a major development as a result of Latino migration has been a Latin Americanization of race relations, with more tiers than black and white that reflects racial categories in disparate Latin American nations.

The final event of the conference was an excellent keynote by Alejandro de la Fuente, the director of the Center for Afro-Latin American Studies at Harvard University. His talk, entitled “Afro Latinos and Afro-Latin American Studies: Connecting the Dots,” summarized many of the major themes of the conference, explored some of the central questions of the field, and offered a few key points to assist in the field’s development. For some of the earliest scholars of Afro-Latin America, he noted, a major assumption was that there were identifiable differences between America and Latin America in terms of racial classifications and taxonomies. This was especially true of works published in the 1940s and 1950s, including Frank Tannenbaum’s classic book Slave and Citizen. Scholars in the 1970s and 1980s argued more for the similarities between the two regions, especially in terms of racial politics, while those of the past 20 years have returned to Tannenbaum’s approach of arguing for difference.

One strain among more recent scholars has been to look at how slaves claimed legal rights and used the legal system to a much greater degree in Latin America than those in the United States, providing the foundation for a key difference in the experience of slavery and the process of emancipation. While this framework has merit, other views of difference between the two regions, de la Fuente argues, are based more upon the types of questions scholars are asking more than the evidence. For instance, one question guiding a number of works on Afro-Latin American politics is “Why did Afro-Latinos not mobilize politically like African Americans?” Here, the point to be proven is assumed in the question guiding the research and itself helps to inscribe notions of difference.

De la Fuente also noted the key importance of including activists in the work of the center. Rather than inviting a bunch of activists to hear faculty members talk about their research, he organizes events where Afro-Latin American activists give talks and scholars of the field listen. He feels it is essential for scholars of Afro-Latin America to develop their research questions in conversation with the work and experience of activists and that this type of partnership will provide a foundation for the field’s future growth.

For more on the conference, check out the Tweets under the hashtag #AfroLatamUNCC.

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.