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arturo schomburg

U Black, Maybe [AfroLatino, Part Two]

by Jose Vilson on September 19, 2011

in Jose

Mario Morales, AfroLatino

When we talk about black maybe
We talk about situations
Of people of color and because you are that color
You endure obstacles and opposition
And not all the time from … from other nationalities
Sometimes it comes from your own kind
Or maybe even your own mind
You get judged … you get laughed at…you get looked at wrong
You get sighted for not being strong
The struggle of just being you
The struggle of just being us…black maybe

- Common, “U Black, Maybe”

There’s something about being AfroLatino that people don’t quite understand. There’s an understanding of seeing race and culture as these malleable things that far too many people can’t always comprehend. Self-identity as a process complicates relationships, because whenever you think you have yourself figured out, others’ perceptions of you interfere with the mold you’ve already decided for yourself. They probe, poke, talk, whisper, yell, ask too many damn questions, and you’re asked to answer them as if you’re the representative of everyone in this self-identifying category. In general, people compromise on the intersection of race as a perception of self and a perception of someone else.

That’s why AfroLatinos get aggravated the most. People who consider themselves of one definite race never understand the emphasis of such a title. Many White people think it’s an intimidating title assuring the dominant culture that they won’t conform to their simplistic racial structures. Whether the reason they’re intimidated is because of the Afro or Latino remains to be seen. Many Black people, on the other hand, see the term AfroLatino as a way for people from Latin America to ostracize if not banish their African roots in favor of the Spaniard colonizers’ blood. Of course, I question whether people never noticed that the title “AfroLatino” puts Black first, and “Latino” isn’t the same as Spanish.

But it seems that, for many, speaking Spanish and being Spanish are exactly the same thing.

As we speak, people question whether such a title dilutes or disbands people of color in certain struggles for equity. To that end, I have four things to say. First, AfroLatino for almost everyone I know almost always means an inclusion and understanding of all the parts they represent and the histories that come with our origins. Secondly, we usually do this against the wishes and nudges of our last generation’s countries of origin (i.e. Dominican Republic, Mexico, Brazil), accentuating our Blackness as we grow. Third, we as a whole have to do better in finding characteristics of our race and culture without highlighting the negatives exclusively, because we’re allowed to smile against those odds and should continue to do so.

Fourth, one of the greatest African-American cultural researchers and scholars happened to be an AfroLatino: Arturo Schomburg. Not ironically, the public library and museum named after him are a few blocks away from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and on Malcolm X Boulevard right in the middle of USA’s original Black Mecca: Harlem. During his time on this Earth, people of his own kind belittled the contributions he made to the cultural movement, but now people recognize what he’s done not just for people of color in this country, for an entire nation.

Afro-Latino is a term of unity, an umbrella under which we invite people to contribute the best of their culture and progress past the titles set for us under rules we didn’t create but perpetuate. I can be Latino and Black at the same time, because my contributions to both cultures may not be enumerated or listed.

It’s tough enough just being ourselves when people want us to conform to their order. While people may point to outside factors for their own identification, I assure you my revolution is much more personal.

Mr. Vilson, who will have more to say by mañana …

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Arturo Schomburg by Marcano García at Taller Borinquen

A few weeks ago, a few people asked me why I helped create the now annual event Quisqueya, a celebration of Afro-Latino history throughout the Americas at Syracuse University. Honestly, it had a tinge of selfishness: by then, I helped run a series of workshops dedicated to understanding the relationships between Blacks and Latinos at a time when others kept seeing schisms. Plus, my Dominican-Haitian background spurred me to explore that in a more open forum, i.e. a celebration where I could subliminally prove that schism false. It’s also the most obvious representation of Blacks and Latinos on the same “field”, whereas other lands in the Americas aren’t known for this dual identity, even with the plethora of races occupying Brazil, Peru, Colombia, or Mexico, for instance.

To wit, as the education chair of La LUCHA at the time, I never got asked why it made sense to have such an event; it was obvious how much unity such an event would bring on a campus where the split even existed within organization of mutual interest. The questions of whether I should lead a Latino organization enraged me at the start of my tenure, but instead of taking a reactionary stance against the critics, most of whom never confronted me personally, I decided to take to the streets, finding ways to build bridges in spaces where I didn’t even know I could fit in.

As with any of these experiences, I learned something critical to my formation: the idea of Quisqueya.

“Quisqueya” is a word I’d known so commonly because Dominicans often referred to their part of the island as such. As it turns out, while La LUCHA and the Haitian American Student Association sought funding for Hispaniola, the original name of the aforementioned event, one of the members of the committee pulled us aside and asked us to change the name of the program to Quisqueya. Whereas Hispaniola is a name placed upon the island by people who never originated from there, Quisqueya (or Kiskeya, or “mother earth”) was a name the Tainos used to designate for the entire island, before the countries occupying the island split it into the current countries they are now. That made more sense for the purposes of the event, so we kept it.

This serendipitous lesson on Quisqueya planted the seed for me to go to an event at the Arturo Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at Harlem. It’s the first time I’d ever been to the museum, and the first time I’d ever heard about him. Naturally, I was annoyed for a bit because, even after I’d met so many  intelligent men and women in Syracuse U, no one ever told me about this man.

I think it was Howard Dodson Jr., head of the Schomburg Center, who said it best when he mentioned that Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s history was often ignored and ostracized when it came to Black history. He alluded to the fact that his contributions to Black history were only recognized later on in his career, even with the many allies he had. Thus, it was almost ironic to see that the primary center for Black history is under his name. Once equipped with knowledge, Schomburg found purpose for his work when others didn’t, or didn’t think he was the one who should do it. As a Puerto-Rican immigrant (an Afro-Borinquen at that), he had tons of battles, primarily for identity and membership.

For me, these were the most important contributions to history as a whole: he not only validated Black history, documenting and preserving the important parts of a history still not regularly integrated into our society, but he also validated Afro-Latinos as an essential part of Latino and African Diaspora history, because, while he may not have had the voice, he certainly had the knowledge, proof positive that history shouldn’t simply pass us by.

By being proactive in one’s history, you eventually become an integral part of that.

Jose, who should always write like this when we have snow days …

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