Black History Month: The Importance of Arturo Schomburg and Why I’m So Steadfast on Quisqueya

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 …