African gringos

Claims that the African diaspora has been a central component of national identity in Central America smack of US cultural imperialism


Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place
Edited by Lowell Gudmundson and Justin Wolfe
2011, Duke University Press
406 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

HOW IRONIC it is that a discourse suggesting that a flowering of scholarship on the “history of Africans and their descendants in the Americas” has largely passed by Mexico and Central America should emanate from the one country in the Americas where it has taken so long for the black population to achieve the highest form of integration by capturing the top office in the land.

One is left wondering to what extent the claims made by much of this scholarship – which appears to accept uncritically the ethno-racial hierarchy implied by the use of such deeply misleading phrases as “Africans and their descendants in the Americas” – are in themselves as ideological as the implicit (and predictable) suggestion that the academic populations of these Hispanic countries remain racist and as yet unreconstructed (ie backward).

It is precisely these implications that serve subliminally to justify the low-level (and at times high-level) racism towards Latinos that exists in the Anglo – and increasingly the black – communities within the US itself.


Given its ambition – to reinvent Mexican and Central American identity as largely an African-American affair – Blacks and Blackness in Central America is nothing if not ambitious.

But one hopes reason will prevail among discerning readers from page 1 onwards after they have read the absurd claim “…despite (or perhaps because of) the centrality of these people and imageries of blackness in the later development of national identities and historical consciousness, these same nation-states have often countenanced widespread practices of social, political, and regional exclusion of blacks.”

There is a strong whiff of ideological revisionism, and not a little cultural imperialism, about this hyperbole. It forms part of a continent-wide endeavour to insist Latin America accepts the ethno-racial categories and ideologies fashioned by academia in its northern neighbour: and that is precisely why it should resist doing so. Remember, the effort to impose hegemony, Gramsci taught us, is as much cultural as political.

Another clue to this cultural imperialism can also be found on page 1, where Mexico, Central America, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela are described as the “Hispanic mainland Caribbean nations”. Here, the ideological flow is outwards from the Black Caribbean towards Latin America, a term that is conspicuous by its absence.

To suggest, as this book attempts to, that black people have been ignored in official history is not entirely wrong; but to imply that this is because of intellectual resistance – to wit, racism – is insidious and blinkered. It is, in fact, because the size and historical influence of the discernible black community in these countries has indeed been genuinely limited.

The black contribution to history and identity in countries such as Mexico is frankly less than marginal, and genuine scholarship will not benefit from claiming this absence is the product of an overt, calculated process of marginalisation. Nor will it benefit from exaggeration or the use of clearly loaded terminology.

Moreover, black skin does not an African make: identity is as assumed as it is ascribed, and if a black Mexican or Central American chooses to identify himself as “national” as opposed to the preferred term of the editors of this title, “African-American”, he or she has every right to do so.

Nonetheless, we should not be surprised by the narrative in this book: the US has always exported its ideologies to Latin America, from republicanism to social Darwinism, anti-communism and more recently neoliberalism.

But in this case it seems clear that the main losers in the equation that is posited in this book and others like it will be the indigenous people (or “their descendants”) – who represent the overwhelming majority in the region. The real hierarchy in the Americas today has them still right at the bottom of the social pile.

At the same time, Mexican scholars and cultural theorists have long given recognition to the black component of identity that their northern neighbour completely failed to do: the editors of this title should go and look up what lies behind the idea of the “cosmic race”, for example.

One of the great achievements of post-revolutionary Mexico has been the assimilationist reflex to ignore the divisive issues of race that have plagued the US (and other Anglo-Saxon countries). That is true integration, something to which we should all aspire.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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