Black Is Black

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A rose may indeed be a rose, but black isn’t always black enough, at least not for some people. During Black History Month 2010, Torii Hunter ignited a minor controversy when he described Major Leagues Baseball’s black Latino players as “imposters.” “People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they’re African American,” the L.A. Angels center fielder, himself a black player, told USA Today. “They’re not us. They’re imposters.” Hunter later tried to clarify:

What I meant was they’re not black players; they’re Latin American players. There is a difference culturally. But on the field, we’re all brothers, no matter where we come from, and that’s something I’ve always taken pride in: treating everybody the same, whether he’s a superstar or a young kid breaking into the game. Where he was born and raised makes no difference.

There has always been a chilliness around the question of whether the black people of Latin America have anything in common with black people in the United States besides the history of the Atlantic slave trade — and, if they do, to what extent. Most North Americans, including “blacks and Latinos” themselves, tend to view blackness, capital-B, as a unique outcome of Southern slavery and Northern racism. “Black” is a racial, historical and political category, it’s thought, reserved only for those people who can trace their ancestries through the fires of Jim Crow to the blood-soaked plantations of Dixie. According to U.S. mythology, the black slaves were freed by President Lincoln and loitered around for 150 years, steering clear of the white part of town and avoiding the police as their lives depended on it.

Eventually, like Darwin’s tortoises, a mixture of environmental conditions — politics, socioeconomics and, apparently, mere geography — caused blacks in the United States to transform into something apart from the people back in Africa or anywhere else. Now, they’re no longer “African American”; they’re “Black.” Hence, because his father was Kenyan and not Kenyon, you get people arguing that Obama isn’t the country’s first black president, only its first African-American one.

Meanwhile, the exact opposite occurred in Latin America, where white-washing has been the rage since time immemorial. The Dominican Republic, for example, claims only four percent of its population has African blood, and, if that’s the case, then an overwhelming majority of Dominicans are blind, since it’s been shown that a full 90 percent of dominicanos descend from Africa. (There’s also the curious case of Sammy Sosa.) During the later half of the last century, as Latin America was pushed into acknowledging its blackness, the term “Afro-Latino” became increasingly popular among those unhappy with simply negro, tying the region to its African roots instead of slavery. Today you’ll rarely see the term “black Latino” appear in print, since blackness isn’t quite a thing in Latin America, not yet anyway, whereas Africanness is now widely celebrated.

Personally I never gave much credence to the separation between blackness here and blackness there. For me, and for any human being who sees him or herself as such, race is itself an invented distinction — albeit one with real-world consequences — and there can be no separation between the individuals of an already imaginary category. To put it another way, when’s the last time you heard someone say that white people are unique to the United States, and that white people everywhere else aren’t really white people? It’s silly and purely divisive to suggest that, while nearly all black people in America are the posterity of African slaves brought here in chains, the blackness of a person depends on where his or her African ancestors were shipped thereafter.

And then I came across this from W. E. B. Du Bois, who, in his sprawling history of the Civil War era, quotes Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts describing what some desperate slavers did with their human inventory following Emancipation:

Another big trade is going on; that of running Negroes to Cuba and Brazil. They are running through the country dressed in Yankee clothes, hiring men, giving them any price they ask, to make turpentine on the bay, sometimes on the rivers, sometimes to make sugar. They get them on the cars. Of course the Negro don’t know where he is going. They get him to the bay and tell him to go on the steamer to go around the coast, and away goes poor Cuffee to slavery again. They are just cleaning out this section of the country of the likeliest men and women in it. Federal officers are mixed up in it, too.

Du Bois points out that, not only were black people enslaved throughout America, blacks were also shipped back and forth between the United States and the rest of the continent. The fact is an obvious one, but it’s hardly ever mentioned.

Black is black, a slave is a slave, and a profit is a profit. Southern slavers had no special affinity toward the Stars and Stripes — hence, the war — and I can’t imagine any one of them having qualms about selling their human resources to a counterpart in Havana or Rio de Janeiro, especially if the price was right. Given such revelations, we must contend with the reality that black Latinos not only belong to the same tribe as Black Americans, so to speak, but some of them can also trace their roots through Southern slavery and Jim Crow, further blurring the line between aquí and allá.


Featured image: Ministério da Cultura/Flickr

Hector is the editor of MANO. He's also the host of Latinish and Hits from the Brain. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's a former deputy editor of Latino Rebels, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, TIME and other outlets, and his writing was featured in Ricanstruction, a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Hector studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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