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.