Monthly Archives: May 2011

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These whirling women lead rituals during the syncretic Festival of the Divine Holy Spirit, a tradition in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão. They’re here in São Paulo for one week  (everything comes here). The elderly lady who opens the video is in her 80s! She was being possessed by the orixá, an African spirit manifested in Afro-Latin religions such as Vodun, Santería, and Candomblé. Somewhere in there, you can hear me say ‘Amen,’ cuz they was havin’ church, y’all.

Sorry about the craptastic quality of my camera. I’m working on it. You still get the picture. 😉

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Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series Black in Latin America looks into the African element of Latin American societies and investigates both the accomplishments and disappointments of Afro-Latinos in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. In the second instalment of the series, he visits the largest of the Greater Antilles, sitting just 90 miles south of Florida: Cuba.

I’ve been to the island three times – in 2001, 2002, and 2005 – each time falling under the spell of majestically-crumbling Havana. I’ve walked down arcaded streets, photographing buildings and old people and kids (known locally as ‘futuro’). I’ve snapped sea-sprayed lovers and sanguine sunsets along the Malecón, the waterfront promenade fronting the Florida Straits. I’ve danced to salsa and merengue and reggaeton and hip hop at a New Years’ Eve party in the shadow of drab, Communist-era housing blocks. I’ve been mistaken for an American spy. I’ve been blocked from entering my own hotel when the security guard thought I was Cuban. I’ve run out of money and bartered clothes and a camera for the fifty dollars I needed to change my flight. I’ve left clothes and books and money in exchange for food and conversation and memories. I’ve made friends and I’ve made love in Cuba. God, how I miss that place.

Enough poetic wax; regarding this episode, I enjoyed learning more about black Cuban heroes like António Maceo than the little bit I knew from the history books I’ve read about Cuba. I also loved the footage and photographs of Havana’s past and present, visually conveying the cosmopolitan energy of what’s arguably the most sophisticated city in the Caribbean, before, during, and even after the revolution. Watching the interviews – especially of the professor who went into the countryside as a girl to teach people how to read – the sense of excitement, of expectation, of infinite possibilities that the revolution promised, still seems palpable.

I was a bit annoyed that Gates pointed out the propensity of black Cubans for putting country before race, contrary to black Americans, without offering context: that a communist system inherently ascribes nationhood to each citizen under the trope of egalitarianism, whereas the United States has consistently denied full ‘nationhood’ to a number of citizens (the current president, for instance). In other words, black Cubans, at least since the revolution, have been taught that they are just as much a part of the national fabric as anyone else. Black Americans, at least in my opinion and experience, have rarely been extended that sort of mainstream societal inclusion in the 235 years that the US has existed as an independent nation; why wouldn’t we see ourselves as black first and Americans second? Gates did mention, however, that the Cuban intellectual establishment began embracing African cultural elements as integral to cubanidad in the 1940s (some even earlier), a time during which black Americans were still trying to earn respect from white America on far-flung battlefields and atolls.

I definitely appreciated Gates’ inclusion of the two-tier economy, a discrepancy that clearly works against darker-skinned Cubans as they have less access to tourist dollars/euros and less access to remittances from abroad, as it was mostly well-educated, well-placed white Cubans that had the means to escape Castro’s dictatorship (many of whom were conspicuously silent as Batista imposed US-style racial segregation in posh hotels and restaurants to appease white American visitors in the ’50s). While yes, most of the island’s population is racially mixed, this isn’t socioeconomically proportionate. And, as we see with the young rapper at the end of the episode, there’s a political price to pay for speaking that unpleasant truth.

Oh yeh, and though Castro’s homeboy says that no white person in Cuba will say their daughter can’t marry a black guy or vice versa, best believe there are plenty of Cubans in Miami that will – and do – say just that. I’ve heard it.

Overall, I liked this episode better than the first; I felt enlightened and entertained, the music was correctly identified, and Gates’ Spanish pronunciation was less ruinous than in the Dominican Republic. However, I strongly disagree with his last statement, that after speaking with Cuban intellectuals, he thinks racial discrimination will disappear. If it hasn’t after 500 years, why would it ever? Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia will always be present in every society on some level: there will always be douchebags. That’s not to say that things won’t get better – they have and will probably continue to – but only when people confront these demons in all their manifestations (including ‘positive’ remarks about things like black sexual prowess) and realize that just because something hasn’t happened to them personally, that doesn’t mean the thing doesn’t exist.

Gates also didn’t venture into speculation, either on his own or with the people he interviewed, about the state of race relations in Cuba after Castro. I do not believe the opening of the economy to foreign investment and the mass return of exiles to be a wholly positive development. In many ways, Cuba has an incredibly inclusive society, in spite of historical and current inequalities. I wish I could be more hopeful for the future.

My grade: A-

I’ll review Episode 3 next week. Thoughts? (By the way…these are my personal opinions as an educator and editor living in Latin America. If you don’t like ‘pedantry,’ carry yo’ ass on over to a stupid person’s blog. A well-funded PBS documentary by a Harvard professor should be academically accurate and intellectually responsible).

Watch the full episode. See more Black in Latin America.

Read my review of Episode One.

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Henry Louis Gates/PBS

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, star professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, has just completed a four-part documentary on the African diaspora in Latin America – titled ‘Black in Latin America – that’s currently airing on PBS (last episode, tomorrow night). He’s visited Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Mexico and Peru to shed light on the past and present of blacks (and browns) in these countries; a past and present often as little known to people in the USA as to people in those particular countries.

I’m always a little ambivalent about the good Prof. Gates (I saw the whole ‘blacks participated in the slave trade too’ as a bit of pandering to assuage white guilt, as if Africans selling Africans had any bearing on the institution of slavery and the treatment of slaves in the United States; and the whole DNA testing thing makes little sense, since both race and racism are essentially based on phenotype – skin-tone, hair texture, facial features and other surface-level traits – and not how many African genomes you possess), but I decided to look at the documentary with the faith that at least the Prof’s I’s would be dotted and T’s crossed.

Before offering my ‘take’ on the program, let me establish some credentials: Aside from having an intense interest in Latin American culture from an early age, my major in undergrad was political science with a minor in Spanish. I completed my last semester as a study abroad student in the Dominican Republic, where I lived with a Dominican family and studied Afro-Dominican history and culture under the late, great Prof. Blas Jiménez, poet and ex-director of UNESCO (the cultural arm of the United Nations) in Santo Domingo. A serious advocate of negritude in the Dominican Republic, Blas took us on tours of Santería temples and sugar plantations, and exposed us to the obvious and pervasive African element of Dominican culture, backed up by reams of scholarly literature on the topic, including work by Prof. Frank Moya Pons, who also appears in Gates’ documentary. I’ve visited Cuba three times, lived four years in Colombia, and now one year in Brazil. And as a culturally- and politically-black American with a mixed-race phenotype, I’ve had to navigate the minefield of race and identity constantly since leaving the United States six years ago (see my post ‘Black Like Me‘ for more on that foolishness). Basically, yo, I am ‘Black in Latin America.’

So, looking at the first episode of the series, I have to say that I appreciate the fact that Gates is even exploring the topic. Often, ‘blackness’ and ‘Latinness’ are seen as exclusive entities when they’re not: as we all should know by now, there’s more than one way to be black (just as Icelanders and Greeks, Finns and the Portuguese are all considered ‘white’). While I felt like the DR unfortunately got short-shrift, the Haiti portion was intensely enlightening, as I’ve only read about some of the history and hadn’t seen many images of the people and the places from Haiti’s past. Love the constant big-ups to 1804, when black Haitians beat back the French in order to be free men in a strange land, and how Gates explains the punishing debt Haiti had to pay to France, which essentially bankrupted the country forever, and US interference on both sides of the island.

From a historical standpoint, I can’t qualm with much of the presentation. But, as subjective documentaries sometimes do, the viewer is led to generalizing: not all Dominicans are anti-African/anti-black/anti-Haitian, in fact many, many do understand and accept their blackness (not most, but many) and not all Haitians practice Vodun and many, many Dominicans do (either Vudú, or the related faith, Santería). Gates doesn’t explain how Gen. Rafael Trujillo, US-backed dictator of the DR, actually changed the history books in schools to say that Dominicans are brown because of their ‘Taíno Indian’ ancestry and that more than a couple of generations of Dominican school children learned this as official history – on one hand, you can’t blame them for claiming ‘Indian’ over ‘black’; you’re messing with a fundamental educational matrix that these people were raised in. Trust me, opening people’s minds to new realities ain’t as simple as taking a blue or a red pill.

A few of my own pet peeves:

Gates’ horrible pronunciation of Spanish names and words that, even for English speakers, aren’t all that hard to pronounce. Trujillo is true-HEE-yo, and Gates is all true-EE-ho. Dude, did you even ask somebody how that shit should be pronounced? As an academic talking about non-English topics, you need to at least try and approach a reasonable facsimile. It’s not that hard. Inexcusable, inelegant.

Every time I heard the word mulatto – especially in Gates’ bass-less, Harvard-ese register – the hair on my neck stood up. Though it’s still used in Spanish and Portuguese, it’s a slave term in English (from same linguistic root as mule, the hybrid of a horse and donkey) and I would have much preferred ‘mixed’ or ‘mixed-race’, but that’s just me.

The music they played at the beginning of the segment was NOT merengue, it was Cuban son, a precursor to salsa. Get your rhythms right, my brother. On this particular point, it’s sloppy presentation, sloppy research, sloppy journalism, and just plain irresponsible. You’re supposed to be educating people – get it right.

Overall grade from this humble educator: B+

I’ll review episode two, Cuba, next week. What are your thoughts?

Watch the full episode. See more Black in Latin America.

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Ramón Casero/Flickr

•    Everything is so clean.
•    Everything is so cheap.
•    There are indeed a few loud, obnoxious American douchebags. Conversely, most Americans are friendly, polite, and helpful.
•    Products come in too much unnecessary packaging.
•    The weather couldn’t be any more pleasant than in Northeast Florida in spring.
•    At 72, my mother is age-defying.
•    The McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport is off the hook (see image above). Motown, baby.
•    I remain deeply ambivalent about Wal-Mart’s (very handy) extra low prices.
•    The fruit looks unnaturally unblemished.
•    Tyler Perry continues to degrade the race and proffer pure d. coonery in the name of “success.”
•    The TV news is still slanted heavily towards inconsequential drivel while the country unravels socially, economically, and politically.
•    My faith that “the people” are informed enough to make wise electoral choices remains nil.
•    No free in-coming cell calls sucks!