In a million years, I would never have thought to teach young students about their African heritage—especially as a white teacher.
One of the big roadblocks I’ve always had with students from Latin America (especially the Dominican Republic, where most of my kids are from) is recognizing their complex racial composition. All too often, it’s a matter of observation: a scan of faces instantly shows the African blood permeating through almost all of them. From other students, particularly from Mexico or Central and South America, one can notice the strong indigenous nature of their complexion.
Yet when this racial complexity is noted and explained by me, even as someone of Hispanic origin myself, it is met with pushback, denial and outright hostility. “I’m Dominican, not some ugly Black!” or “I’m no dirty Indian!” is the common response.
(The former statement, by the way, is from a student whose skin is darker than that of the Black students in our school.)
Yesterday, I saw the first part of a 4-part PBS documentary that helped shed light on the complex nature of race in Latin America. Hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—a scholar who has lately become PBS’ veritable point man on race and ethnicity—Black in Latin America highlights four areas of the hemisphere that have been shaped by African influences. The first part was of particular importance to me, as it concerned the tense relationship between the two countries of Hispaniola: the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The difference couldn’t be more startling: on one side, a multiracial society that shuns its African roots and embraces European identity. On the other lies a society that openly acknowledges and respects its African heritage, and has paid an agonizing price for it.
The Dominican Republic (previously the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo), the oldest Spanish possession in the New World, was also the first to import enslaved Africans as a labor force, especially in the sugar trade. Yet sugar quickly proved unprofitable, and the economy moved towards cattle ranching. On the range, the distinctions between enslaved and enslaver slowly dissipated, as intermarriage and cultural intermingling created a society that associated itself primarily as landowners, hence the magnetism towards Spain.
Gates points out the heroes and patriots that grace the squares of Santo Domingo—almost all are white Europeans, and the mulattos (or mixed-race persons) had their features Anglicized according to local prejudices. Although 90% of Dominicans have some African ancestry, it is an ancestry pushed to the background in the name of national identity and consciousness. It is only recently that many Dominicans have even begun to discover and analyze their African roots.
This “whitewashing” of Dominican identity was also influenced by its relations to its western neighbor. Haiti occupied Santo Domingo for 22 years, attempting to Francify the population. Upon independence in 1844, Dominican identity crystallized: anything Haitian, Creole, even African was considered low and inferior. When sugar was re-established as a commodity in the late 19th century, it was migrant Haitians who did the cane-cutting. Dominicans looked on these newcomers with derision, a hatred that resulted in the horrific massacre of over 15,000 Haitians in 1937.
Haiti seems almost the exact opposite. Even amongst the rubble and poverty of Port-au-Prince, the statues of Haitian heroes are almost all Black. Haitian culture, language and music pay open homage to Africa, whereas Dominican culture only tacitly recognized its African antecedents. Though both countries are Roman Catholic, Haiti also is a center for voodoo, a religion based on African and Catholic influences—a religion that helped united Blacks from various parts of Africa to begin the unthinkable: a large-scale slave revolt.
Haiti, a former French colony (Saint-Domengue, once the richest in the New World), was born not out of a struggle against its neighbor, but out of a slave rebellion that had far-reaching influence. Starting in 1791, the enslaved Africans of Saint-Domengue revolted against their French masters in the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas. One gruesome after-effect of the revolt—the massacre of the French masters on the island—made sure that even with many mixed-race Haitians, the culture of the country would focus not towards Europe, but towards Africa.
This independent spirit just could not stand, according to the slaveholding powers of France, Great Britain and especially the United States. Through embargoes, economic strangulation and outright military intervention, Haiti has paid a dear price for daring to exist as an independent nation of Africans. Political instability, poverty, corruption—these are but a sampling of the abuses suffered by Haitians since independence. Yet through all these hardships, Haitians are still immensely proud of who they are, and especially where they came from.
The show is extremely important to educators who teach multiracial classrooms, especially those with Latin American immigrants. While the episodes are a little too short (I really wished for two hours to really go in-depth), the first episode gives an important synopsis of how race affects societies in the New World. Thus, it also gives a window on how students view their own racial identity, and why they treat their ancestry in such complex ways.
Going back to my classroom, my Dominican students came from a culture where race was not confronted head-on, as it is in the United States. Their identity is based on their nationality, which was based on ties to former colonial powers and shunning of more “Africanized” neighbors. Yet it is important for them to see the complete picture of themselves, which may be very uncomfortable given their ingrained prejudices.
Race, or racial identity, often needs to be taught outright in order to be recognized. As Dominicans, these kids may have given lip service to Africans of the past, but nothing more. As Americans, it is important for them to acknowledge and embrace a culture that is theirs, whether they like it or not.
There is no shame in being of African descent.
Whether or not that sentiment can permeate the wall of Dominican identity remains to be seen.
2 responses to “Review of Part 1 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Haiti/Dominican Republic”
I thought Gates’ documentary was totally predictable. To summarize, it follows the same pro-Haitian, liberal lines on the Dominican-Haitian debate: Dominicans are bad Negroes who live in denial while Haitians are the heroes who saved humanity and every living thing under the sun. Not surprisingly, Gates reproduces the same American attitudes towards race that he has shown us on previous simplistic PBS series. He utilizes American one-dropism to elaborate and impose a racial discourse on others. Do most Dominicans have African blood? We certainly do. DO MOST DOMINICANS HAVE WHITE BLOOD? Of course we do and that explains the rainbow of browness Gates saw in DR. However, instead of recognizing our racial complexity, Gates, and you Mr. D, prefers to see “the black” in us. Fine, that is your understanding of identity. But then, the question I ask you. Do Dominicans have a right to see themselves as a national group (rejecting American racial structures)? I think the answer is yes. Mr. D, you are falling victim of the same racism you are trying to challenge. To say “well, Dominicans need see their racial complexity” but to concentrate solely on the African side is at least questionable. I won’t call it hypocritical.
Mr. D, you wrote: “Gates points out the heroes and patriots that grace the squares of Santo Domingo—almost all are white Europeans, and the mulattos (or mixed-race persons) had their features Anglicized according to local prejudices.” Prove it! Just prove it. I take this comment as fascinating as it proves that Gates plagued the documentary with errors and manipulation. What you call local prejudices is stating the fact that the Duartes were Sephardic Jews who converted to Christianity in Spain before they arrived in the Caribbean. (Probably the Diez familiy had a minimum of African blood) but Duarte was neither black nor a dark skin mulatto as the video suggest when Gates says “they whitened the brother.” Not even Hitler required such a degree of racial purity to classify people. To suspect that they could’ve had a remote black ancestor makes them Somalians. Nice, that is what I call pure American racial logic. What does Torres-Saillant know about the Duartes that makes him claim Duarte was a brother? Nothing, he wants to make every Dominican hero a black hero. This is very symptomatic in his writing. Funny how they did not discuss Mella or Sanchez, who were really mulato. Well, the documentary would not be as good because it proves that in the Altar de la Patria Dominicans praised their racially complex heroes without RACIALIZING THEM. You see, the hypocrisy is not to develop a national identity based on a common historical connection but to pretend to reject racism by imposing an American racial view on others. Mr. D, they were not talking about Dominican “heroes and patriots that grace the squares of Santo Domingo.” They were accommodating Duarte so that the ideologue of Dominican independence could fit the racialized/blackened model Afrocentrism requires. If the hero is too White, or too Jewish, for the story, just through some color. What the heck? It sits well with American racial worldview. Racial Imperialism 101, imported from the best American universities. And if it is American, it ain’t wrong, baby.
1. Dominicans have always known they have an African connection. The Congo of Villa Mella and la Cofradia del Espiritu Santo are examples of that.
2. Our rejection of a black identity under afrocentrims is acceptable because we have inherited a national identity that unites us as a people. To do the opposite would mean a rejection of our complex and beautiful racial mixture.
3. Haitians, our historical enemies, have used an Afrocentric discourse to justify their failures, misfortunes and their attempts to destroy us. Why are you and Gates surprise that we reject this so called racial pride then?
4. Gates should be making a video about white people who go to the beach to tan themselves into brothers. Not, that is ok. They are not people trying to be something else. But if a Dominican does her hair…These damn Dominicans trying an Aryan look.
5. Think of an elephant. The problem is that Dominicans have allowed the Afrocentric to take the lead. It was an African who sold some of our ancestors to the merchant ships. It was a European who enslaved them. I have both of these sins in me. Why should I revive through black hatred what I we have so hard fought to eliminate in white racial discourse?
6. The Haitians regained their liberty, not in a beautiful rebellion as they want you to believe, but in a savage and genocidal act of destruction. We, Dominicans, free ourselves when poverty allowed the master to see his own humanity in poor souls he –in a world of misery- enslaved. Poverty made them one. Then, they made love, and we were born. Wouldn’t that be more than a revolution?
7. As long as the blackness discourse is used as a tool to haitianize DR, we will reject it.
8. Another funny part is when Gates says that Dominicans see Haitians as White Americans USED to see Black folks. They used?????? What a freaking joke! First of all, White Americans this very week sent pictures of the Obamas portrayed as monkeys. That is all over the net. Dominicans don’t chained Haitians to a pick-up truck and drag their bodies through the streets in a spectacle of horror. We Dominicans don’t need to CELEBRATE our first mulato president. We always had them. Black, Mulato, Arab, White…Name them, we had them. Sorry, I forgot. This is America and we have the right to moralize others as our imperial godsend.
9. I won’t negate everything you see in the documentary. But the truth is that that piece of garbage is full of misinformation. (Even Francis Santana becomes Frank Cruz).
10. Dominicans never needed to come to the US to know they were not Aryans. As Juan Rodriguez wrongly suggests. But he is not the only clown to repeat that nonsense.
11. Had Haiti developed elsewhere, would not be having this fruitless discussion.
12. We are sick and tired of this accept-your-tribe-or-else propaganda.
Dios, Patria y Libertad!
“We, Dominicans, free ourselves when poverty allowed the master to see his own humanity in poor souls he –in a world of misery- enslaved. Poverty made them one. Then, they made love, and we were born. Wouldn’t that be more than a revolution?”
Nice mythology but that is exactly what it is – mythology. Slavery ended in the Dominican Republic when Haitians invaded the island and freed the slaves. No amount of “whitewashing” is will change that fact.
You call Gates and the author of this blog a racist but use terms like “haitianization” and refer to Haitians as the DR’s historical enemies who have attempted to destroy you. That smacks of racism and disturbingly reminiscent of the rhetoric used my Trujillo himself (who, incidentally, had a grandmother who was half-Haitian proving self-hatred is a real and terrible thing).