THE BLOG
07/28/2011 08:41 am ET Updated Sep 27, 2011

Black In Latin America

I first learned that there were black people living in some place called other than the United States in the western hemisphere when I was a very little boy, and my father told me that when he was a boy about my age, he wanted to be an Episcopal priest, because he so admired his priest, a black man from someplace called Haiti. I knew that there were black people in Africa, of course, unfortunately because of movies such as Tarzan. And then, when I was 9-years-old in 1960, our fifth grade class studied "Current Affairs," and we learned about the 17 African nations that gained their independence that year. I did my best to memorize the names of these countries and their leaders, though I wasn't quite sure why I found these facts so very appealing.

But it wouldn't be until I was an undergraduate at Yale, and was enrolled in my sophomore year, 1969, in Robert Farris Thompson's art history class, "The Trans-Atlantic Tradition: From Africa to the Black Americas," that I began to understand how "black" the New World really was. Professor Thompson used a methodology that he called the "tri-continental approach" -- complete with three slide projectors -- to trace visual leitmotifs that recurred among African, African American, and Afro-descended artistic traditions and artifacts in the Caribbean and Latin America, to show, a la Melville Herskovits, the retention of what he called "Africanisms" in the New World. So in a very real sense, I would have to say, my fascination with Afro-descendants in this hemisphere, south of the United States, began in 1969, in Professor Thompson's very popular, and extremely entertaining and rich, art history lecture course. In addition, Sidney Mintz's anthropology courses and his scholarly focus on the history of the role of sugar and plantation slavery in the Caribbean and Latin America also served to awaken my curiosity about another black world, a world south of our borders. And I owe so much of what I know about Pan-Africanism in the Old World and the New World to these two wise and generous professors.

But the full weight of the African presence in the Caribbean and Latin America didn't hit me until I became familiar with "The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database," started by the great historian, David Eltis, and his colleagues. Between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million Africans survived the dreadful Middle Passage and landed as slaves in the New World. And here is where these statistics became riveting to me: of these 11.2 million Africans, according to Eltis and his colleagues, only 450,000 arrived in the United States. That is the mind-boggling part, to me, and I think to most Americans. All the rest arrived in places south of our border. About 4.8 million Africans went to Brazil alone. So, in one sense, the major "African American Experience," as it were, unfolded not in the United States, as those of us caught in the embrace of what we might think of as"African American Exceptionalism," but throughout the Caribbean and South America, if we are thinking of this phenomenon in terms of sheer numbers alone.

About a decade ago, I decided that I would try to make a documentary series about these Afro-descendants, a four hour series about race and black culture in the western hemisphere outside of the United States and Canada. And I filmed this series this past summer, focusing on six countries, including Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, and Peru, choosing each country as representative of a larger phenomenon. This series is the third in a trilogy that began with Wonders of the African World, a six-part series that aired in 1998. This was followed by America Behind the Color Line, a four-part series that aired in 2004. In a sense, I wanted to replicate the points in Robert Farris Thompson's "Tri-Continental" approach to what some scholars called African retentions; another way to think of it is that I wanted to replicate the points of the Atlantic triangular trade among Africa, the European colonies of the Caribbean and South America, and Black America. Black in Latin America, another four hour series, is the third part of this trilogy, and this book expands considerably upon what I was able to include in that series. You might say that I have been fortunate enough to find myself over the past decade in a most curious position: to be able to make films about subjects about which I am curious, and about which I know nothing, or very little, with the generous assistance of many scholars in these fields.

The most important question that this book attempts to explore is this: what does it mean to be "black" in these countries? Who is considered "black," and under what circumstances, and by whom in these societies, the answers to which vary widely across Latin America in ways that will surprise most people in the United States. As my former colleague, the Duke anthropologist Randy Matory, recently put this to me: "Are words for various shades of African descent in Brazil, such as mulattoes, cafusos, pardos, morenos, pretos, negros, etc., types of 'Black people," or are pretos and negros just the most African-looking people in a multi-directional cline of skin-color-facial feature-hair texture combinations?" And how does wealth or class enter the picture? Matory asks.

"And suppose two people with highly familiar phenotypes are classified differently according to how wealthy and educated they are, on the same person is described differently depending upon how polite, how intimate, or how nationalistic the speaker wants to be? In what contexts does the same word have a pejorative connotation, justifying the translation of 'nigger,' and in another context connote affection, such as the word 'negrito?'"

You can read an excerpt from Black In Latin America here.

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