Q&A with Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about "Black in Latin America"Historians in the News
First, could you talk a little bit about this project?
I conceived of this as a trilogy of documentary series that would mimic the patterns of the triangle trade. There would be a series on Africa which was called Wonders of the African World in 1999. And then there would be a series on black America called America Behind the Color Line in 2004. And then the third part of the triangle trade was, of course, South America and the Caribbean. The triangle trade was Africa, South America, and the continental United States and Europe. That’s how I conceived of it. I’ve been thinking about it since before 1999. But the first two were easier to get funding for. Everyone knows about black people from Africa, everyone knows about the black American community. But surprisingly, and this is why the series is so important, not many people realize how “black” South America is. So of all the things I’ve done it was the most difficult to get funded and it is one of the most rewarding because it is so counter-intuitive, it’s so full of surprises. And I’m very excited about it.
And why do you think there is a lack of knowledge about the black populations in Latin America?
Well, incredibly, there were 11.2 million Africans that we can count who survived the Middle Passage and landed in the New World, and of that 11.2 million, only 450,000 came to the United States. That’s amazing. All the rest went south of Miami as it were. Brazil got almost 5 million Africans. In part, this reflects our ignorance as Americans who don’t know that much about the rest of the world. But also, it is in part the responsibility of the countries in South America themselves — each of which underwent a period of whitening. In the hundred year period between 1872 and 1975, Brazil received 5,435,735 immigrants from Europe and the Middle East and this was a conscious policy after 1850 to “whiten” Brazil which was such a black country. Brazil is the second blackest nation in the world. Brazil has the second largest black population — black being defined by people of African descent in the way that we would define them in this country. It’s second only to Nigeria. But no one knows this. So it’s those two reasons, that the countries themselves went through long periods of being embarrassed about how black they were and secondly, our own ignorance. That’s why this series is so important. It’s meant to educate Americans, and people in Europe and the rest of the world, but it’s also meant to educate people in South America, too. And in each of these countries there is a political campaign against racism, for affirmative action, and for their right to exist where they don’t as census categories. For example, in Mexico and Peru, they are fighting for the right to be identified as black. As in France, many people in these countries thought that if you put that social identity in the census that it reinforces racism. But doing that also prevents people from organizing around race when they are discriminated by race. It’s a paradox. And it’s fascinating to see what is similar and dissimilar in each of these countries.
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