Afro-Latin America: Black Agency and Nation-Building
A Review by Omar H. Ali
Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction. Edited by Alejandro de la Fuente and George Reid Andrews (Cambridge University Press, 2018, 641 pages)
In the ongoing process of exploring, making and re-making the modern world, some stake flags, others publish books—both being political constructions and assertions as part of larger institutional projects. Such is the case with Alejandro de la Fuente and George Reid Andrews’ edited volume Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction. With contributions from nearly two dozen historians, anthropologists, sociologists, ethnomusicologists and literary scholars, largely based in the United States but shaped by scholars from Latin America, the thick volume brilliantly, if densely, offers a synthesis of much of the research in the humanities and social sciences from the past century on Africans and their descendants in Latin America and the ways in which they have been imagined. The book grows out of the most recent efforts to institutionalize Afro-Latin American Studies as a field of its own.
Of the nearly eleven million enslaved Africans who were forcibly taken to the shores of the Americas between the 16th and mid-19th centuries, almost two-thirds were taken to colonies under the control of Spain and Portugal. The other third were taken to British, French, and Dutch colonies in the region. Brazil received the largest number of Africans in the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans were brought there, and elsewhere, to work on plantations, in the mines, and to build the cities that became the new metropolises of the Americas. The system of violence lasted three and a half centuries and it was not until 1888 that slavery was abolished in Brazil—the last country in the Americas to do so. By then the former Portuguese colony had received nearly forty percent of all the enslaved men, women, and children taken out of the western side of sub-Saharan Africa, mostly from West Central Africa, but also from the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra, followed by the Gold Coast and Senegambia.
As De la Fuente and Andrews explain, Brazil would become “home to the second largest Afrodescendant population in the world, exceeded in size only by Nigeria.” While most of the enslaved people taken to Brazil came from the Atlantic side of Africa, the majority coming from Angola, upwards of 700,000 people were also taken from Mozambique on the Indian Ocean side of the continent. The massive forced migration had lasting consequences in both Africa and in the Americas (destruction, disruption, and dislocation of societies, that is, beyond the suffering and sheer loss of humanity) and in the formation of the societies and nations in the Americas. The editors of the volume note that “Close to a million Africans arrived in Cuba during the nineteenth century and over two million in Brazil, a process that helps explain the profound influence that African-based cultural practices have exercised in the formation of national cultures in those two countries” [emphasis added] (p.1). But how and to what extent did African-descended peoples and their ‘African-based cultural practices’ form the national cultures of Latin America?
Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction takes readers through the histories, research and scholarly debates regarding the lives and impact of African-descended peoples in Brazil, Cuba, followed by Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, among nearly two dozen other nations in Latin America today. Brazil and Cuba, however, figure most prominently in the edited volume. The scholarship of Raimundo Nina Rodriques in Brazil and Fernando Ortiz in Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century serve as a launching point. Theirs, however, is from the perspective of uncovering the “black ‘pathologies’ of Afro-Latin American religious life, criminality, and family structure” (p. 4).
The editors describe the development of Afro-Latin American Studies since the turn of the 20th century as such: “The scientific racists had seen black people as hapless victims of their genetic inferiority. The proponents of racial democracy did not completely escape the heritage of scientific racism, assuming that blacks and mulattoes would progress in Latin American societies only to the degree that they were able to whiten themselves, either genetically or culturally. The Marxist-influenced writers of the 1950s and 1960s ... forcefully rejected any hint of racism but viewed Afro-Latin America and its inhabitants as being very much at the mercy of the needs and ‘imperatives’ of capitalist development” (p. 12). Over the course of the 20th century, and into the 21st, scholars took different approaches based on their own sets of assumptions—from the studies by scientific racists to those that propounded the notion of ‘racial democracies,’ to those who focused on capitalist exploitation, to still others who searched (and continue to search) and give expression to the voices of Africans and their descendants in the Americas, placing emphasis on black agency, in all its forms. As the volume demonstrates, the scholarship encompasses a range of disciplinary lenses, including music, literature, art, politics, religion, environmental studies and law—with sub-topics that are manifold, as they are nuanced, revealing multiple historiographical threads that create the tapestry that is Afro-Latin American Studies.
The volume’s publication marks a historic moment—a watershed in the historiography of the field. As De la Fuente and Andrews explain, “it was not until quite recently that the scholarship on race, inequality, and racial stratification in Latin America has grown enough to sustain and constitute a field of study” (pp. 1-2). The ground shifted in the last thirty years, they note, with ‘race’ seen as more central in understanding Latin America. “This shift occurred partly in response to the realization, articulated by postcolonial scholars, that race is central to historic and contemporary processes of coloniality” (p. 2).
To be sure, the field of Afro-Latin American Studies was relatively late in developing because of institutional forms of racism—university-supported research across the Americas that reflected the racist views of their scholars, and of their time. For much of the 20th century, black people were effectively denied their historical agency in favor of dominant colonial and post-colonial narratives that minimized the totality of their economic, cultural and social contributions in the making of American societies. This included black slave labor that extracted the natural resources of the land that produced the wealth of the Iberian empires, black military contributions that forged national independence across Latin America, and the technical skills, languages, religious practices, worldviews and arts Africans brought from various parts of West, West Central, and Southeastern Africa which were mixed and re-mixed—created and re-created—by their descendants with indigenous Americans and Europeans forming (and continue to form) the Americas.
Just as one cannot begin to understand the history of the British colonies in North America and the United States without at least a basic understanding of African and African American history, one cannot understand the history of Latin America without understanding African and Afro-Latin American history. In these ways, the edited volume enriches evermore. That is, it also helps to enrich African American history by offering a broader and more expansive view of the Black Atlantic world. American, African American and Latin American studies all benefit from Afro-Latin American Studies.
Afro-Latin American Studies—like black studies generally—is an outgrowth of black political struggle, even as it documents and analyzes aspects of this very struggle. Afro-Latinos (Afro-Latinx people) and their allies pressed for changes in their nation’s academies starting in the 1970s to include the study of African-descended peoples into their research projects and teaching just as African Americans and their allies in the United States helped to create African American Studies (initially Afro-American Studies, then Black Studies, and now African and African Diaspora Studies) as an extension of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s. Black political struggle (not only making outright demands, but creating intellectual and artistic products that challenged traditional racist views of black people and their histories) was therefore a driving force in the institutionalization of Black Studies in the United States, as it would be in Latin America. One early attempt to connect African American and Afro-Latin American experiences and histories was the establishment of the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City in 1969. A more recent example in Latin America is the Grupo de Estudios Afrocolombianos as part of the Centro de Estudios Sociales at Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá.
Both African American Studies and Latin American Studies (the latter began as one of a number of area studies as part of Cold War state-funded political imperatives) largely would develop on their own before Afro-Latin American Studies emerged as a field, or perhaps, more accurately, as an overlapping subfield of African and African Diaspora Studies. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the fact that the Afro-Latin American Research Institute, which editor De la Fuente directs, is part of Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. Similarly, the Afro-Latino Studies undergraduate certificate at Florida International University is offered through that university’s African and African Diaspora Program. Panning out, the emergence of Afro-South Asian studies is taking place in the wake of Afro-Latin American Studies having become established, ever expanding our understanding of the global impact and influence of Africans and their descendants across much of the world. (See the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture digital exhibit The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World.)
In their illuminating opening chapter, “The Making of a Field,” De la Fuente and Andrews define Afro-Latin American Studies “first, as the study of people of African ancestry in Latin America, and second, as the study of the larger societies in which those people live.” (p. 1) Interestingly, their definition of Latin American Studies lacks the very black agency in the creation of Latin America and the “societies in which those people live” that the many chapters of the book (including their own) demonstrate. Perhaps the editors felt the need to define the field in a way that distances the very subjects in the creation of the field—that is, in the modernist tradition of the natural and social sciences creating a sense of objectivity, when as the development of all fields of study over time reveal the subjectivity of scholars (the assumptions shaping the questions they ask, to the data they seek, to the interpretations they make, to the findings and conclusions they present). To be sure, Afro-Latin American Studies, like all studies, is an iterative process that reflects the societies of its scholars.
The chapters written by the scholars in the edited volume are not only summaries of the research and the development of that research in their respective areas of work but often provide key insights. For instance, Peter Wade’s chapter on “Afro-Indigenous Interactions, Relations, and Comparisons,” takes readers through the ways in which African-descended and indigenous peoples were pit against each other early in the colonial process. It also offers the deep irony that “recent processes of political mobilization and multiculturalist reform actually tend to reinstate the divide [between indigenous and Afrodescended people]” (p. 94). Other chapters reveal methodological changes and innovations in the study of black people across the Americas. Frank Guridy and Juliet Hooker’s chapter “Currents in Afro-Latin American Political and Social Thought,” which focuses on black political agency, reveals the richness in sources that include black newspapers, poetry and song lyrics. In these ways, the fifteen chapters, including a final chapter by Jennifer Jones that looks at Afro-Latinos (Latinxers) and Black and Latino Studies in the United States, comprise a rich and layered edited book that synthesizes as much as it stimulates new ways of thinking of Latin America, the history and the people that have made/continue to make and re-make its societies.
It was not a foregone conclusion that Afro-Latin American Studies would ever come into being, let alone come of age. It did not develop out of an impulse to better appreciate the contributions of Africans and their descendants in Latin America. As the editors make plain, the origins of the field derive from racist views of Africans and their descendants—inherent black inferiority—in Latin America as part of the scientific racism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was the starting point. It would take three generations of scholars, in tandem with social and political movements across the Americas, for the ‘shift’ towards what might be recognized today as an appreciation of the economic, social, cultural, political and religious contributions of Africans and their descendants in Latin America in the making of their respective geographical areas (organized and bounded as nations) in the broader Atlantic world.
The extent to which Afro-Latin American Studies is able to impact and shape the study of the wider Diaspora is a practical question, not resolved by a single book—even one as comprehensive as this one—but through the multiple activities of using this book among many other books and specialized studies and the networking and sharing that goes on online, at conferences, symposia, public lectures, classrooms, coffee shops, while commuting, at the library, at home, on the street and other venues. In this way, the volume is part of a much larger project, both a reflection of the ‘coming of age’ of Afro-Latin American Studies and part of its creation.
There are two things I have learned in teaching about the global African Diaspora: the first is to make seemingly distant histories, geographies and cultures more familiar to students by providing broad strokes and demonstrating similarities between people and societies, such as shared musical forms (as in the use of the single-stringed bow called the malunga in India, and played in parts of East Africa, which is very similar to the berimbau in Brazil); the second is to explore histories, geographies, and cultures using as vivid examples as possible, centering on biographies to explain broader themes (whether that is the West African Bijago maroon leader Benkos Biohó in New Granada, or more recently the Garifuna cultural ambassador Nodia Mena of Honduras in North Carolina).
Having used Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction in the classroom, I can say that it pushes the non-Latin Americanists. While the book requires a priming in Atlantic history, it ultimately helps to make familiar the seemingly distant, doing so through multiple disciplinary lenses—but not readily. In other words, the book presupposes a degree of historical and cultural knowledge of Latin America and the experiences of Africans and their descendants in order to follow the historiographical threads.
Regarding future editions of the book, I offer four suggestions to make it even more inviting and accessible—and of greater pedagogical value, I believe. Firstly, the volume would benefit by including a preface that concisely lays out the broader history of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Iberian colonization in the wake of the Reconquista, the rise of the transatlantic slave trade with a particular focus on West and West Central Africa, and Latin America since independence. Doing this will help orient readers less familiar with the history of the Atlantic world.
Secondly, it would be of great pedagogical value to include perhaps six to eight excerpts (less than a page in length each) from primary sources (colonial and early republican Iberian sources, as well as more contemporary sources from Latin America) in both English and in the original languages (primarily Spanish and Portuguese).
Thirdly, I believe it would help all readers to include a timeline with major historical events, including events in the historiographical development of Afro-Latin American Studies. This would provide a chronological framework to guide readers newer to the field (or having had little exposure)—that is for the relatively uninitiated reader who wants to be challenged and stretched.
And, fourthly, it would be very helpful to include at least two maps, one of the Atlantic world and a second more detailed map of Latin America. These additions would make this truly an introduction and synthesis of the scholarship, helping to bolster the field ever-further by inviting non-specialists and non-sub-specialists (someone who studies Afro-Latin American politics say, but not art history or ethnomusicology in the region) to delve into the particular scholarly debates and help reconsider their own fields and sub-fields within the global African Diaspora.
De la Fuente and Andrews have nevertheless made their goal in editing the book plain: “It is precisely because the field has grown so much, both thematically and in terms of disciplinary approaches, that we felt the need to assess its current state, recent achievements, and possible future directions. That is the purpose of the chapters in this volume” (p. 11). Does the book achieve this? Yes. But for me, there is another question: How inviting is this ‘Introduction’ to non-specialists? I believe it could be more inviting, starting with its title, which could have simply been “Afro-Latin American Studies.” The additional “An Introduction” makes it seem as if it is far more basic. But it is not. It is a sophisticated look at—and powerful tool—in helping to establish the field. The edited volume is a staking of a flag, the field of Afro Latin American Studies.
Read more about Afro-Latin America here.
Omar H. Ali is dean of Lloyd International Honors College and a professor of African Diaspora history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Selected as the Carnegie Foundation North Carolina Professor of the Year, he previously served as a DRCLAS Library Scholar