Translating Blackness and Transcending Hierarchies of Belonging

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

Protests in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Febrero 17 2020 (Shutterstock).

In the penultimate chapter of Translating Blackness: Latinx Colonialities in Global Perspective, Lorgia García Peña recounts a telling exchange between herself, Medhin Paolos (a Black Italian film director) and a Black street vendor selling silk fabrics in Milan. The vendor had greeted them in English, immediately situating them as non-Italians under the assumption that they were visiting from the United States. Paolos’ Blackness made her Italianness illegible not only to the vendor but to nearly everyone around her. “A Black person should always speak English,” he told them. When García Peña asked why (an excellent question!), he replied: “Because Black in English is better.”

This quotidian, matter-of-fact acknowledgment of U.S. and Anglophone Blackness as not only preferred but also more legible than the Blackness of an Italian woman in Italy immediately reminded me of similar scenes of hegemonic Blackness that unfolded during my years of fieldwork in France—a nation where it is still common to hear the English word black used as a euphemism for the French word noir. From the ubiquity of African Americans films and popular music to the symbolic weight accorded to symbols of Civil Rights and Black Power activists outside of the United States, to the access and status granted to African American holders of U.S. passports, it is clear that global understandings of Blackness are heavily distorted by and translated through the hegemonic positionality of U.S. and North American representations of Black identity.

García Peña deploys at least two meanings of translation throughout this powerfully illuminating work. On the one hand, she describes translation as articulating belonging “through the hegemonic notion of Black citizenship constructed and sustained through the colonial regimes of white supremacy—the ‘better’ blackness associated with US Black success” (229). On the other hand, she also narrows the scope of translation to a particular kind of political intervention—an expression of belonging that seeks to conjure unbelonging: to make visible the colonial/colonizing process that engenders human exclusion” (7). Such conjuring aims to strengthen solidarity across diasporic differences—to make comprehensible and legible the predicament of colonial oppression, racialization and gendered violence that uphold global antiblackness. In so doing, García Peña reveals that translation inevitably involves visibility and erasure, legibility and illegibility by tracing the vaivén (coming and going) of Black Latinx migrations across the globe—and across time. The book simultaneously traverses and obliterates the borders, silos and silences that all too often obscure the mutual imbrication of Black and Latinx diasporas. Tracing Latinx migrations through upstate New York to the Dominican Republic to Haiti to Italy, Puerto Rico and a dizzying array of circuitous paths in between, Translating Blackness brilliantly illustrates how and why Blackness exceeds the strictures of national belonging and citizenship.

As an anticolonial scholar and a Black Dominican woman, García Peña enriches our understandings of Black belonging and unbelonging with her own reflexive meditations on the complexities of Latinidad as well as her critical methods informed by Black feminist praxis. She listens for silences in the archives, sits with contradictions, disrupts hegemonic representations, inquires into colonial hauntings and uplifts occluded histories with particular attention to the experiences and knowledges of women who live(d) within the Black and Latinx diasporas. Her stunning chapter on the opposing political projects of Fredrick Douglass (the African American abolitionist) and Gregorio Luperón (the Dominican general who helped secure the nation’s independence from Spain) actually begins with the little known herstory of Sarah Loguen Fraser (1850-1933) and her daughter Gregoria Fraser. Sarah Loguen was the grandchild of a formerly free Black woman named Jane McCoy who, at the age of 7, had been kidnapped in Ohio and forced into slavery in Tennessee where she was repeatedly assaulted and tortured by the rapist who owned her. Loguen’s parents were influential community leaders and activists heavily invested in the Black church and the Underground railroad. She would go on to attend Syracuse University, where she graduated in 1876 and became the first woman of any race to practice medicine in the Dominican Republic. Her husband, Charles Fraser, was a wealthy West Indian plantation owner—and the reason for her deciding to live in Puerto Plata. And the reason why she linked up with Charles in the first place? That would be Fredrick Douglass—an apparently gifted matchmaker. What makes this story of Black and Caribbean vaivén all the more remarkable is that Gregoria—Sarah’s multilingual and cosmopolitan daughter—grew up with both Fredrick Douglass and Gregario Luperón as her godfathers. By centering these women’s experiences circulating between the United States and the Dominican Republican, García Peña explores the contradictory politics and vexed conceptions of freedom that were (mis)translated between Douglass and Luperón as well as their respective nations during the reconstruction era and the dawn of U.S. imperialism.

One of the most important contributions of Translation Blackness is its cogent critique of Fredrick Douglass’s shift from abolitionist to an active and enthusiastic agent of imperial domination on behalf of the United States. García Peña retraces how and why President Grant selected Douglass an emissary of the U.S. government to advocate for the annexation of the Dominican Republic. She argues that “it is precisely during Reconstruction and US expansion, as US Black subjects grappled with the contradictions of citizenship and empire, that we find the roots of hegemonic narrative of blackness—shaped by the US empire—that continues to dominate transnational conversations, political processes, and intellectual cultural discourses across the globe” (35). Indeed, Douglass’s embrace of annexation as an avenue for African American uplift—and an imagined escape from racial terror—was deeply intertwined with his own fantasies of inclusion and citizenship as well as the violent project of U.S. expansion overseas. “My selection to visit Santo Domingo,” he wrote, “with the commission sent thither . . . placed me on the deck of an American man-of-war, manned by one hundred marines . . . under the national flag, which I could now call mine . . .” (51). García Peña further specifies that Douglass’s advocacy for annexation was informed by an ethnoracial hierarchy that placed Dominicans and others in the Global South as inferior to the cultural sophistication and political development of African Americans.

It is easy to see the connections between Douglass’s ethnic chauvinism, his emergent self-identity as a “man of war” and the mission civilatrice (‘civilizing mission’) enacted by French colonizers, similar logics employed in the context of Japanese colonialism during the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the imperial Blackness of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Barack Obama. Douglass viewed the Dominican Republic as an imagined refuge for Black U.S. Americans and also described Dominicans as inferior and uncivilized vis a vis U.S. Blacks. Luperón, on the other hand, dismissed Douglass as a “Yankee” and understood annexation to be fundamentally opposed to the project of anticolonial liberation. For García Peña, Douglass and Luperón were unable to translate their Blackness and find common cause because they failed to “impress upon each other their common struggles for freedom and equality in the face of white supremacy” (70). From this perspective, we might understand ‘mistranslation’ as a kind of false consciousness—the nonrecognition of shared forms of subjugation and dispossession within the context of colonial violence. While she frames the divergent visions of freedom expressed by Luperón and Douglass as “mistranslations”, I found myself wondering how the men’s respective attempts at translating their Blackness could ever be reconciled if the underlying political projects and stakes were fundamentally opposed. In Chapter 3, García Peña returns to this analytical thread and tracks the historical shift from the Dominican Republic being imagined as a place of multiracial freedom and a refuge for African Americans to a place of contemporary unbelonging—a place for Dominican women to escape from. Another shift that is worth examining is the contradictory rise of hegemonic U.S. Blackness globally and the continued positioning of African Americans at the bottom of the ethnoracial hierarchy, as argued by sociologist Vilna Bashi Treitler in her book The Ethnic Project. While xenophobia and antiblackness are intimately intertwined, the “better Black” in the United States is not usually a Black person who is actually from the United States.

Overall, Translating Blackness is a major achievement that recaptures the historical archive of Black Latinidad while reclaiming “Black humanity as a global category of belonging” (9). This revelatory work left me wondering: how can we both imagine and build a transcendent future in which Blackness does not have to be continually (re)articulated through hegemonic representations and discourses? And, perhaps most importantly: what shifts in the global political order would be necessarily to bring about such change?

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Crystal M. Fleming

Crystal M. Fleming is a critical race sociologist, the author/editor of four books and an internationally recognized expert on racism and antiracism. Her work empowers people of all backgrounds to become change agents and dismantle white supremacy. She is Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at SUNY Stony Brook where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on racism and ethnic relations, sociological theory and qualitative methods.