Henry Louis Gates and Black in Latin America: A Review

Harvard Professor Henry Louis, perhaps best known to most Americans for his run-in with a Cambridge Police Officer, than for his scholarly writings and academic entrepreneurship, is back on public television.  His television series is entitled Black in Latin America.  The name of the series is somewhat misleading since three of the countries he visits are on islands in the Caribbean, and a fourth, Mexico, also is not located on the Latin America continent.  Nevertheless, the series promised to be eye opening.  As one reviewer wrote, “When most U.S. citizens think of a Latino, they rarely picture someone black. This series broadens our understanding of the very complex identity of people from Spanish-speaking countries, an identity that is usually oversimplified into misleading racial stereotypes in the U.S. media.”  But here again, characterizing the series as about Spanish-speaking “Latinos” also is misleading since the series includes Brazil where the national language is a form of Portuguese and Haiti whose national language is a form of French.  So you are getting some idea of this subject’s complexity.

David Eltis and David Richardson in their wonderful book, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Yale Univ. Press 2010), map this trade in human chattel that lasted for 366 years “and resulted in the forced deportation of 12.5 million Africans to the New World.”  Black in Latin American briefly looks at the status of these unfortunate humans and their descendants now scattered throughout the islands and the Americas. There is, however, no mention of Central America where the Atlantic slave trade also distributed West Africans.  But this omission is not a criticism, the topic is simply huge.

The Atlantic region includes countries whose history of slavery pre-dates the U.S., and where slavery persisted in some places until the end of the nineteenth century.  Race in the Americas, especially Brazil and Cuba, is a topic that has long excited a small group of anthropologists, historians and sociologists.  Today, however, “Latin American” notions of race have more meaning to Americans because of our growing Hispanic, primarily Latino population, which on the surface celebrates its mestizaje (mixed racial culture) while papering over the racialized divisions within and among each community.  Latin America is a region, like the U.S., that, as a result of the slave trade, is equally bedeviled by race.

Over the years I’ve visited and studied about the construction of race in Cuba, Brazil and Mexico.  A few years back I even wrote an essay about Afro-Mexicans and Mexico’s hidden third root, its African heritage.  By looking at laws in Mexico during the seventeen, eighteen and early nineteenth century, the presence of Africans and their descendants is apparent.  Thus, I eagerly looked forward to this series.

Black in Latin America is divided into four two-hour segments.  The first segment compares and contrasts the histories, institutions of slavery and notions of blackness in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two nations that share a single island – Hispaniola.  The second segment looks at the status of Africans and their descendants in Cuba before and after the Castro-lead Revolution.  Brazil, the so-called “racial democracy”, is featured in the third segment.  The final segment, which aired last night, compares and contrasts the experience of Africans and their descendants in Mexico and Peru, two countries with large indigenous populations and more hidden histories of black slavery.

Unfortunately, the series does not live up to its billing, or to Professor Gates’ reputation as a scholar.  As one reviewer wrote, “The first episode offered some promise.  The second left me completely unsatisfied.”  I was similarly disappointed with the third episode.  Only in the final episode was there a glimmer of the series’potential.

In each segment race is discussed from an American perspective where, until recently, anyone with known African ancestry, no matter how remote, was classified as black or African American.  A point Professor Gates does not make until the fourth episode.  Despite his own acknowledged mixed racial ancestry, Gates seems genuinely befuddled that people in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Brazil who look like him might not identify or be classified as black.  There are other problems as well.  At the end of the segment on Brazil the results of ancestral DNA tests taken by several informants is announced and Gates triumphantly announces that one person who self-identifies as white has some African ancestry.  So what, isn’t race socially constructed and not biologically based?  Haven’t ancestral DNA tests been criticized in scientific journals and the popular press as not being determinative of a test taker’s race or ethnicity?

Further, the treatment of each country seems overly simplistic like Professor Gates is talking to some cultural tourist group from the United States.  There is a gee, golly wow aspect to these shows, what legal scholar Neil Gotanda might characterize as a “white innocence” moment.  These “new” revelations about race in “Latin America” allow us to think of race-based distinctions in that region as more pernicious, and irrational, than in the U.S. where the lines seem so clear, and where some hope that the election of Barack Obama signals that this nation has transcended racial divisions – dream on.

This dummying down is surprising for a program aimed at the fairly sophisticated PBS audience.   But then I probably am among the minority in my assessment.  Despite these criticisms Professor Gates should be applauded for his effort.  Only someone of his statute has the clout to bring this information to our television screen.

Fortunately, for the more academically inclined, the television series is supplemented by a nifty website with videos of each segment, timelines, photographs, essays, lesson plans and links to resources (including Professor Gates’ forthcoming book).    The website treats the topic in a more scholarly fashion.  Black in America, Professor Gates’ book, will be out in July (New York Univ. Press) and I hope it too gives us a more scholarly treatment of the topic.  In the meantime, readers who want to know more about Afro Latinos should look at the edited volume Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean (Norman E. Whitten, Jr. & Arlene Torres eds., 1998 Indiana Univ. Press), or for a more local focus read Edward E. Telles’ Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (Princeton Univ. Press 2004) and George R. Andrews’ The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900 (U. Wisconsin Press 1980) as well as the work of legal scholar Tanya Hernandez (Fordham).

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4 Responses

  1. Anon says:

    I keep looking on my world map for the “Latin America continent,” and I am just not finding it. Where does it lie in relationship to North America or South America?

  2. Cheryl Lemur says:

    Maybe you should try looking next to the continent full of telemarketers: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/05/06/finally-putting-an-end-to-telemarketers/

  3. Chris says:

    Huh? You go right after Gates’ subject matter by claiming that The Carribean and Mexico are not part of the Latin American continent. Well, not only is there no such thing as a Latin American continent, but the Carribean and Mexico are both considered part of “Latin America”.

  4. Espinoza says:

    It is obvious that Banks is not an intellectual. Brazil of course is Latin America. Portuguese is a language that proceeds from Latin. Latin America implies a history of domination by Europeans. Spaniards brought the African slaves for they were exterminating the natives through oppression and diseases. There is an issue of difference of opinion in some areas in the Caribbean and Central America because they were semi-colonized and used by the British, but, geographically and culturally they Afro-Latinos.