News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Black in Latin America - Episode One Review

I applaud Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for exposing U.S. viewers to the diversity of Latin America's people in this landmark series. 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. Just like the United States, Latin America's population is composed of immigrants from every corner of the planet along with indigenous local people and African slaves. Moreover, the blending of ancestries is not even mix across Latin America--often showing a predominance of one ancestral group within regions of a single country. It is in this respect, that the first episode of Dr. Gates' series displayed some shortcomings.

The scenes from the first episode in the Dominican Republic were shot in a section of Santo Domingo where most of the people are of African descent. A visit by Dr. Gates to other parts of the Dominican Republic where European or indigenous ancestry are more common would have broadened the U.S. public's perspective of the nation's diversity.

In a more serious shortcoming of this episode, Dr. Gates appeared to judge the people of African descent in the Dominican Republic according to his own racial standards by implying they were in denial about their heritage because they did not abide by the U.S. "one drop rule" for establishing black identity. Dr. Gates seemed to find it troubling that people of mixed ancestry (like Dr. Gates himself), would not accept the same identity he embraced.

Most scholars agree that "race" is primarily a social construct. In reality, the labels White, Black, Asian and Hispanic (which most Americans accept as legitimate racial/ethnic categories) are simply identities that exist primarily within the borders of the United States. Outside the United States, the nations and people lumped within these arbitrary categories show little propensity for unity. Although unintended, I feel Dr. Gates imposed some of his own nationalistic hubris in this episode.

Despite these flaws, I support Dr. Gates and his attempt to broaden our perspectives. The most important thing he has done is to open our eyes -- and open a dialog.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez


Silvio Sirias said...

Raul, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important documentary. I, too, foresaw the challenge that Dr. Gates would face of distancing himself from constructs widely accepted in the U.S. It doesn't surprise me, then, that although a brilliant scholar, he missed the mark a bit.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez said...

Good to hear from you, Silvio. It's difficult, if not impossible, to divest oneself of preconceptions. And I don't exclude myself from that position. Still, I am very glad to see a noted scholar receive the greenlight from PBS to explore this virtually ignored subject.

Dash said...

Totally agree with this and the documentary project I am working on touches on these very topics. One thing I'd like to add is the term 'African slaves.' They were African people not slaves, they were ENslaved. Enslaved Africans. The indigenous people were also enslaved, the first slaves in Latin America but are never described as indigenous slaves. It's reductive to describe these resilient people as just slaves when they were much much more than that. I find that nuance very interesting when we are looking at the many people that comprise Latin America.

Amethyst220 said...

Thank you guys for this because in the US alot of Indigenous and Islanders were brought over here unwillingly and just labeled as black and discredit of their actually heritage. If it was even mentioned they would have been killed, especially in Texas. Our history is so in-depth even bibically it's not even fun but highly serious. You are extremely correct they were enslaved tremendously.

Meli said...

From the review, you sat, "I feel Dr. Gates imposed some of his own nationalistic hubris in this episode." This is true, as Dr. Gates explores the issue from his American perspective. Also, although you highlight that, "Most scholars agree that "race" is primarily a social construct," this fact does not diminish what Dr. Gates highlights, which is the rejection of one's African decent, in some cases, as part of one's identity due to the societal view of the inferiority of African ancestry, or in terms of race; blackness. Lastly, you highlight one of the shortcomings as focusing on an area of DR that has a concentration of people of African descent, but isn't that the purpose of the documentary, i.e. to show the experience in DR, in this case, which usually we in the U.S. would not see. Although, from an African American perspective, the episode tries to investigate how people of African descent in DR view their identity and how that African ancestry is embraced or rejected.

Jaime Andres said...

I reviewed it in video form:

Raul Ramos y Sanchez said...

Dash, as I noted in my previous comment, none of us can truly divest ourselves of preconceptions. Your point about my reference to "African slaves" in my blog post being a good case in point. In this case, I wanted to make it clear that the overwhelming majority of Sub-Saharan Africans that came to the Americas during the colonial period arrived in bondage. All the same, my choice of words could have been more precise.

Amethyst220, this applies to your comments as well.

Meli, I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Gates and admire his often ground-breaking work. Like all of us, he too comes to the table with preconceived identities.

Jaime, I check out your NEGRO video and wish you success with the project.