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Born Afro-Latino

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I was born “la persona negra” or the Black person, in a country that hates my skin color. A country where “Blackness” would define my every waking moment from birth to death, a world in which sight condemned my hue as "less than." Words are packets of "power" and are used to create a structural hierarchy; thus the term black had defined me at conception. The Merrimack Dictionary uses the following expressions to describes the term “el negro,” black, with rage, dirty, soiled, grime absence of light (Blacklight), wicked, condemnation, black mark, black magic, sad, gloomy, calamitous, black Friday, disaster, grotesque as in black humor, or ugly.” The juxtaposition is white defined by Collins English Dictionary as pure, radiant, spotless, innocent, and harmless honest, poetic (fairness of complexion). At birth, I had already been defined by terms that would hold the community I was born into an enslaved people. Words define and are a source of "power" which determine social status and they liberate or enslave.  Philosopher Michel Foucault would state, a language composed of words can create society. I was shaped by terms used by courts that legalize my "otherness."         

Who is Black in America, the construction of race has a long history where color was and still is the defining points for many? In the U.S Black was defined as a person who has one drop of black blood, notwithstanding of how light an individual's skin or appearance was. As Michael Omi & Howard Winant in their work Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960's to the 1990s, wrote, a person was defined as Black if one drop of Black blood existed in their body; denoted if at any point in their lineage a person of dark hue could be found. In essence, the law based its bias on genotype.  Blackness was genetically determined. This definition found throughout American History reinforces a bias narrative.

Thomas Jefferson believed “Blacks” were a separate race and were by no means be equal to whites, an egalitarian society, the one he wanted to build, was for enlightened men who did not include those from Africa. He held that emancipation of Blacks would only result in a race war, he, therefore, called for expatriation of slaves back to their homeland. In his work, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) he argued “Blacks were a different race inferior to whites in the endowments of both body and mind…” and  that their inferiority was “fixed.”[i] However, this did not stop him from having six children by his slave Sally Hemings, creating a mixed society on his plantation which held seven hundred slaves. Thus creating a racialized hierarchy of mulattos who further divided into quadroons and creoles. 

Garry Wills in his book LINCOLN AT Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, attempts to look at Lincolns views on the status of "Blacks" in America and finds some fascinating statements. He like Jefferson, could not see a nation which included an egalitarian society.   As he stated in a speech, in Charleston, Illinois September 18, 1858,

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarrying with white people, and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of political and social equality. Moreover, inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man is in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.  I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position, the Negro should be denied everything.  I do not understand that because I do not want a Negro woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife. ”[ii]

In the work of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault works on decolonization both address the contradictions faced by Jefferson and Lincoln. They maintained within each of us existed "Polar Opposites" or clear contractions coexist at the same time in our beliefs, but at first glance makes little or no sense. For example, one can speak of peace while engaging in a conflict. During the Vietnam conflict in the United States, many called for Peace and the withdrawal of American troops from Indo-China but did not call for the hold sale pull out of American Troops from Germany or Korea. Others believed in troop withdrawal from Southeast Asia, but not the end of building submarine-based ballistic missiles, which could end life on earth. Likewise one can be a racist and at the same time have an abundance of affection for a particular member of the race they disdain. These polar-opposites or duality are common, hate and love, or negative feelings which can coexist in the same space.[iii]  This definition explains Jefferson's love for Sally Hemmings, a slave, while surrounded by hundreds of slaves brutally treated. He did not see her in the same light; she was the mother of his children. His relationship with her was not the typical master-slave relationship, but one of tenderness. Deborah Gray White in her groundbreaking work, Ar’n’t I am Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1999) researched love relationships between planters and slave women. They were atypical but did exist in more cases than not.[iv] On the other hand, Lincoln did not acknowledge equality for those who had darker hues but accepted that slaves and former slaves had a right to have land and be self-sufficient. Thus his many statements on liberty did not include those of African descent.  The famous "Emaciation Proclamation" although elegant in tone, simply meant autonomy not participation in the discourse of American political life by slaves or freemen.

With that said, it was after the American Civil War that racial philosophies and laws were launched to justify “Black” inferiority, which was a continuation of an old theme. What was different, however, was not the idea of race, but the penalties for not following racial rules, which could lead to incarceration and death. Laws were passed across the nation to relegate and confine "Blacks" as objects.

Jim Crow Laws or laws of race similar to those in South Africa during Apartheid signified the legitimization of anti-black xenophobia. Numerous Christian pastors and theologians asserted whites were the designated people of God. Blacks were cursed and could be no more than domestics at best. Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists, and Social Darwinists, at every educational level, bolstered the acceptance that “Blacks” were innately intellectually and culturally inferior to whites. Pro-segregation officials offered stirring speeches on the threat of integration and tainting of the white race. The news media strengthened anti-black stereotypes. Every key social institution supported the domination of Blacks. Above all they believed giving Blacks egalitarianism would encourage interracial sexual encounters; violence must be used at all times to keep Blacks at the bottommost segment of a preconceived racial latter. The subsequent Jim Crow etiquette customs validate how comprehensive and prevalent these standards were:

  • "A black male could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a white male because it implied being socially equal. A black male could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a white woman, because he risked being accused of rape.

  • Blacks and whites were not supposed to eat together. If they did eat together, whites were to be served first, and some sort of partition was to be placed between them.

  • Under no circumstance was a black male to offer to light the cigarette of a white female -- that gesture implied intimacy.

  • Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended whites.

  • Jim Crow etiquette prescribed that blacks were introduced to whites, never whites to blacks. For example: "Mr. Peters (the white person), this is Charlie (the black person), that I spoke to you about."

  • Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to blacks, for example, Mr., Mrs., Miss., Sir, or Ma'am. Instead, blacks were called by their first names. Blacks had to use courtesy titles when referring to whites and were not allowed to call them by their first names.

  • If a black person rode in a car driven by a white person, the black person sat in the back seat or the back of a truck.” 

  • White motorists had the right-of-way at all intersections.

  • Never assert or even intimate that a white person is lying.

  • Never impute dishonorable intentions to a white person.

  • Never suggest that a white person is from an inferior class.

  • Never lay claim to, or overly demonstrate, superior knowledge or intelligence.

  • Never curse a white person.

  • Never laugh derisively at a white person.

  • Never comment upon the appearance of a white female.[v]

II

Racial issues among American Latino have always existed, but is currently being discussed more. As Afro-Latino, I can understand all of the issues presented in the first part of this article, it is my family's issues and legacy.  Despite the harshness of the system People of African descent during the 20th century have made attempts to find commonality. The 1930's is a case in point, where colonialized people of hue addressed issues of culture and sameness. They moved about in Harlem, Havana, Chicago, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean Nations. They sought to overcome their differences and address how language impacted their experiences. This was also true during the 1960's, but since then "Blackness' has regained its concept of negativity, of course, there are many historical reasons for this change.

Today as an Afro-Latino, I walk between worlds, as many of us do. If I am with other with Latinos, I am merely Latin (although from time to time I can hear someone refer to me as “mestizo” or “you know the professor who is Moreno (Usted sabe el profesor que es Moreno). It is codification for my brown pigment. Among African Americans, I am "Black" until I speak a Spanish term, in which case I become something other than "Black."

No one oppresses better than those who have seen suffering.  I live in a grey world where I must define myself, most certainly not using the current terms of "Black" or "Brown" which denotes African American on one hand and Latino on the other.   My history is the history of both American and Spanish slavery. As are my heroes who are a combination of both, Arturo Schomburg (Afro-Puerto Rican-research), Nicomedes Santa Cruz (Afro-Peruvian poet and journalist), Juan Fualberto Gomez Ferrer (Afro-Cuban revolutionary), and Vicente Guerrero (Mexico's and North Americas first black president) who ended African slavery in 1829, as well as many of those commonly celebrated during African History Month.     

When the Spanish, Portuguese, and British arrived in the "New World," they forced the people to speak their language, adopt their religion, and social norms. In the Spanish held areas, the Indian population was forced to speak Spanish and become Catholic; this was also true in the Portuguese and British areas of control. The English of course, pushed their mother tongue and Protestantism. The very nature of colonialism was to force native people to adopt new social norms and to view themselves as different. They were harshly treated, devalued, and forced into a labor pool which made Europe rich. In both the Spanish and Portuguese territories as the slave numbers decreased caused by disease, overwork, and murder, the slave trade made up for these lost workers harshly treated. Working long hours in rubber plantations, they died in mine cave-ins, from infected abscesses after toiling in salt pools, beatings, and mutilation.  Europeans enforced stereotypes of the "Black" which was adopted by their subjugated populations, including racial hierarchies where "Black" skin denoted less than, evil, and worthless.  Thus the racialized "other" was trapped between his kin who were of lighter tones and those who created the definition. A clear example of colorism (intercultural racial hierarchies) is seen on the island of Hispaniola, where modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic exist. Both people are of African lineage. However, Haitians are considered "Black" and Dominicans are not.

The ability of self-discovery and acceptance of one's Africanist does not preclude their national origin (country of birth) it only enhances solidarity with millions of people whose ancestors were enslaved.  It is the celebration of “Blackness" or “the African" of all hues that have the possibility of creating a positive image of a despised term. It is healing to be oneself and not an entity created by a colonial power. It takes work, but in the end, one is enriched knowing millions have traveled the same road, there is power in numbers. In the final analysis, we are the same people across the Americas.


[i] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787)

[ii] Wills, Garry, LINCOLN AT Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Simon & Schuster New York, 1992 .p.93

[iii] Foucault, Michel, The Birth of the Clnic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. A.N. Sheridan Smith, translated. New York Pantheon, 1973

[iv] White, Deborah Gray, Ar’n’t I am Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. W.W. Norton Company. 1999

[v] Section on Laws of race can be found in Jerrold M. Rickard, Crow American Nightmare: The History of Jim. 2002 and online https://ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/academics/courses/pdfs-docs/thunder.pdf  (retrieved June 14th, 2018) See also J. Douglas Smith. Managing White Supremacy, Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. Chap Hill. The University of North Carolina Press. 2002. The material was taken in part from above sources. Stetson Kennedy, the author of Jim Crow Guide (1990), offered these simple rules that blacks were supposed to observe in conversing with whites

Author: Cranston Ramirez-Knight