Developing a National and Global Identity

The previous post, Imagine: From the Black Atlantic to a New World Order, triggered an idea which we would like to continue to explore. First, what image comes to mind when you are asked to envision or describe a person from Ecuador? Brazilian religious practices? Traits of the Mexican persona? Cuban music? The literature of Uruguay or the politics of Columbia? Do any of these reflect an African influence in your mind? For those who know Latin American arts and society, many of the stereotypical features of national identity in the Americas do in fact incorporate African-derived sources. There are many factors that define the Brazilian, the Mexican, the Cuban, the Columbian, the American. Traditionally, some have insisted upon parsing and dissecting ethnic influences to the extent that justifies and labels Afro-Latino as “the other, the outsider” in most American nations. Through that omission and designation over centuries, many African American artists in the West, have developed a global as well as national consciousness.

Until recently scholars of American national literature insisted that, except as an exotic element, Afro-Anything was not an integral part of a country’s identity. Two factors are paramount in this perspective: Who writes the story? And whose stories are routinely told? Literature is designed to reflect not only personal intentions and interests, but to inform by encoding myths and establishing historical markers while deliberately omitting viewpoints that do not “fit.” When that literature is woven into the national narrative tapestry, these stories, definitions and absences are broadcasted as accurate portrayals of social status, events, and group relations. It is not a coincidence that art and literature are deliberately and routinely used to establish modern nations and to tell “ideal” histories. These then become the realities that those in power construct.

Through dedicated scholarship, particularly in the 1970s, the contributions of Afro-Latino writers and politicians became a ground-breaking and acclaimed academic field of study. Works that had been consciously ignored for more than a century were unearthed, shared, and critiqued. Much of this writing contained themes of national liberation, abolition and emancipation. A good portion incorporated slave narratives. But what startled many scholars is that from inception, there were two tracks that national literature followed in telling American countries’ stories. Beginning in the mid-1800s, Vicente Riva Palacio, considered to be the father of Mexican literature, was one of those writers who developed a national story with the descendants of Africans as equal partners with mestizo and indigenous people. Over time another version predominated, this one portraying Afro-Latinos as corrupt, ignorant, self-indulgent, and the exception to the ideal European and indigenous histories. The latter approach omitted anything positive about the African American, with the exception of an occasional martyr or rebel, while simultaneously glorifying the criollo or European influence upon the national identity and culture.

With a desire to promote the obvious and recurrent mestizo presence as in Mexico and parts of Central America, and with the additional exclusion of the West Indies as a major cultural influence, the inclination of Latin American nations was always to attribute the foundation primarily to Spanish, Portuguese or French culture. Any evidence of African strains were minimally and reluctantly acknowledged as exotic “sprinkles.” What resulted from this approach was the development of an underground literature by Latin American writers of African ancestry beginning in Cuba in 1821 with the poetry of Juan Francisco Manzano’s Poesia Lirica. Their works, initially expressed in poetry or slave narratives, surfaced primarily in Columbia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. Excluded from their native national discourse, these writers connected with other African Americans, especially in the United States, whose lives in some instances were much more vigorously constrained legally and socially. From Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson to Langston Hughes, a Latin American connection was nurtured. After all, their themes and concerns were mutual: social marginalization, discrimination, poverty, and disenfranchisement. A global black perspective flowered, conditioned by racial memory and the collective ethnic reality of enslavement throughout the hemisphere.

A pioneer in this field of scholarship, Martha K. Cobb, stated that in order to critically evaluate black literature in the “New World” at least one of four elements must exit:

(1) Confrontation with an alien and usually hostile society

(2) A sense of dualism or division between one’s self and the dominant culture

(3) A search for identity, and

(4) The goal of attaining spiritual or social liberation.

Our sense is that in describing these essential components of African American literature, Dr. Cobb hit the proverbial nail on the head as we now build upon this foundation for a global humanitarian philosophy and literature.

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