In the PBS documentary series Black in Latin America, host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. cites a statistic that may come as a surprise: of the 11.2 million Africans that have been recorded as passing from that continent to the Americas in the slave trade, a small proportion of them—450,000—came to the United States. It’s this figure, and the surprise it’s meant to provoke in the American viewer, even those aware of America’s tendency to skew history around itself, for which this series was made. That Gates himself, a well-known intellectual and professor at Harvard, is often times surprised by what he learns in the course of exploring the history of African culture in South and Central America speaks to how sorely overdue we are for a popular history on this topic.
After airing on television in May, Black in Latin America has now been released on DVD, with a companion book by Gates scheduled for release in late July.
The series is broken up into four one-hour installments in which Gates travels to six different countries – the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru – and explores the history of African immigrants and African culture from the slave trade to the present day. He frequently leans on academics for the history part and then talks to societal figures like musicians, social activists, religious leaders to discuss issues of race in the present day.
Each country was chosen for the stark difference in how they dealt with race. The Dominican Republic embraced its Spanish ancestry while Haiti, where slaves rebelled against the French in the late 18th century, has wholeheartedly embraced its African heritage. After Castro’s revolution, Cuba’s political structure embraced a policy of no racial discrimination while societal discrimination, what one interview subject calls “the racism in the heart,” still very much exists. Brazil, the country with the second largest African population in the world, also boasts of racial equality while masking enormously complex racial dynamics. Mexico and Peru have suppressed their substantial African roots. Yet there are common, unfortunate threads between all of the countries, primarily a societal hierarchy based on skin tone, with lightest unambiguously on top. Issues of race are nearly always inseparable from issues of power and class.
Gates is a constant presence on the screen, interviewing the participants and strolling the city streets, country lanes, and historical monuments of each country. He’s an active listener, patiently observant, but not afraid to offer his opinions and reactions. He provides comparisons and fills in background knowledge that might be lost to American viewers. His enthusiasm for academic studies and analysis is a refreshing antidote to the suspicious political lens through which it’s increasingly viewed in the US. He encourages the viewer to identify with him as an eager pupil, as when he’s shocked to learn that Mexico elected its first black president, Vicente Guerrero, in 1829.
When discussing evidence of racism similar to the United States – as with a minstrel caricature called La Negra Mama on Peruvian television – he’s most clearly upset and dismayed. Looking at an offensive political cartoon in Cuba he’s dismayed at how, “Everything black became immoral, ugly, and bad.” He’s strident when discussing the often-shameful history of US intervention in Latin American politics. Yet he also devotes an equal amount of time to celebrating the beauties of multiculturalism – the mash-ups that produced the music of merengue and the dancing/martial arts hybrid of capoeira.
Black in Latin America serves as a complex but inevitably introductory primer. There’s an impossible amount of territory to cover and Gates does an admirable job of synthesizing a wide variety of issues and topics – historical, cultural, societal – without overwhelming the viewer. The series website contains a variety of additional videos, interviews, and essays by some of the Latin American academics featured in the programs. Unfortunately the DVDs are devoid of any meaningful extras. Hopefully Gates’ soon-to-be-released companion book will provide more in-depth discussion of the material.
In presenting the wide diversity of African cultures in the Americas, Gates challenges the US tendency to view race under clear-cut lines, to see a person as either black or white, Hispanic, or Asian and to consider a person simply “black” if they have any trace of African ancestry. (Barack Obama and Tiger Woods being notable cases of mixed race personalities commonly viewed as black.) Gates marvels at how different cultures are able to accept a complex variety of racial identities, particularly in Brazil, where a man-on-the-street montage has him asking passerby to tell him their skin color and they all give different responses.
Black in Latin America occasionally falls victim to the American train of thought. In focusing on the influence and presence of African culture it can distort the impression of the other races and cultures that are also a part of Latin life. Pulling out the individual strands can be useful, but is in many ways ultimately an impossible task and to say that one person is black or white or Hispanic, reductive. Gates acknowledges this briefly at the end when he considers the complexities of global multiculturalism, but justifies the series by saying that black culture in Latin America has been routinely undervalued.
When Gates is in Mexico a local radio station interviews him. They ask him about the documentary and he delivers his most eloquent summary of his aims, “I hope that it makes Americans more aware of Mexico’s complex racial past…It had a noble idea, it abolished slavery in 1830, 33 years before the United States did. But it had a romantic idea that if it eliminated racial categories it would eliminate racism. But that was really a form of racism itself. You can’t be great if you try to suppress a huge aspect of your history and a huge part of the identity of your people.”