Henry Louis Gates has produced a wonderful new documentary series Black in Latin America. It is a series that looks at the historical representations of the importation of African slaves in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. Each episode is pretty strong standing alone, but viewing them together really helps to synthesize some of the shared dynamics — the ideas cross over episodes.
Particularly interesting to me is the impact that cane sugar has on European tastes and the relationship sugar has to plantation economies. When Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian rebellion denied Europe this now vital commodity, Cuba is flooded with slaves to gear up sugar cane production. This not only allows European flavor access, it also speaks to the compelling desire to never be without refined sugar. Not to mention enabling France and the United States to isolate and embargo the newly-emancipated Haiti, crushing the economy and facilitating US military take-over.
Also fascinating are the attempts to ‘whiten’ the populations by encouraging immigration from Europe and the impact this has on racial self-identification. As Gates notes when asked about the racial difference between the nations in the documentaries and the US he notes:
Whereas we have black and white or perhaps black, white, and mulatto as the three categories of race traditionally in America, Brazil has 136 kinds of blackness. Mexico, 16. Haiti, 98. Color categories are on steroids in Latin America. I find that fascinating. It’s very difficult for Americans, particularly African-Americans to understand or sympathize with. But these are very real categories. In America one drop of black ancestry makes you black. In Brazil, it’s almost as if one drop of white ancestry makes you white. Color and race are defined in strikingly different ways in each of these countries, more akin to each other than in the United States. We’re the only country to have the one-drop rule. The only one. And that’s because of the percentage of rape and sexual harassment of black women by white males during slavery and the white owners wanted to guarantee that the children of these liaisons were maintained as property.
Gates covers the history with a certain quickness. But he get’s at the cultural impact — in each nation we find some folks whitening, changing the features on statues and in history books, shifting the representation of black leaders to affirm non-blackness. He also maps the resistance of music, religion, language and the threads of political pan-African identity.
This is a massive topic and I would watch a 12 or 15 part series on the subjects. It is a shame that Gates only has five episodes to get at the story. He does an admirable job organizing the ideas and also exposing current themes in each nation that point back to their historical relationship to the slave economy.
The episodes are up for viewing on pbs. Highly recommended.