DEBATE BETWEEN THE AMERICAS
Mónica Carillo, Center for Afro-Péruvian Studies on the African Diaspora and Afro-Americans
(Translated by Ejima Baker, Ford Foundation)
The conference, “Conversations for Sustaining Black Studies on the 21st Century,” held on April 21–22, 2006, was a space for debate between many diverse perspectives on the development and the future of studies on people of African descent in the United States. To continue this conversation, I want to share a few comments with respect to the principal themes that were shared during this important meeting.
Diversity of Concepts and Foci
It has already been pointed out that there exists a diverse number of terminologies that are currently used: African Diaspora, Black Studies, Afro-American Studies, etc. In accordance, the diverse perspectives that exist were made visible through the names used when each program was created. But, there actually are many more similarities than differences between these programs, despite their different names.
One of the observations made was that Afro-American Studies is actually synonymous with Afro-United States Studies, and usually does not include the other people of African descent who live in the Americas. There is a main response to this observation: it was really a matter of terminology because in English, there is no such word as “Afro-United States-ian,” and the absence of the other nations in the Americas must be recognized.
There is actually the tendency to include immigrants and Afro-Latinos as a theme/subject of study. The program at the University of Texas at Austin has a perspective that responds to the larger idea of “diaspora,” in that it analyzes the African Diaspora, which visibly includes South America. The African New World Studies program at the University of Florida also emphasizes that perspective, which is influenced by its Miami location where there is an important Caribbean and Central American immigrant presence.
The Need to Re-Orient Our Perspectives
These differences imply that there is little communication between the programs. One of the other issues was how to connect our studies to everyday life. Or rather, how useful is our work in the academy in helping to promote the elimination of structural racism that exists in the lives of “Afro-United States-ians,” and for all people of African descent in the Americas?
The group also evaluated the importance of having constructed new terms of reference, especially in the social sciences, where a new generation of scholars originated and became more conscious of their rights, and their contribution to the construction of the nation, thanks to the access of these programs.
The Limits of Affirmative Action
The academic programs of studies on people of African descent were born as a part of the affirmative action movement, where the object was to make visible the contribution of the “Afro-United States-ian” population and to generate new paradigms of knowledge. It wasn’t just actions that created those programs, but the existence of quotas in diverse spaces of participation, the economic inversion in investigation projects. Actually, there exists a tendency among the youth — generally the children and grandchildren of the first generation that has superseded the quotas — to not want to remember those experiences and not know about the importance of affirmative action.
At this time, we responded to those people who were against the quota system, and who attack “Afro-United States-ians” and believe that their social and political ascension is not a product of their intellectual capacity but rather because of the privileges won through affirmative action. The “Afro-United States-ian” movement has been debilitated by the new themes that have changed its agenda and is immersed in a logic of extreme neo-liberalism and individualism, where the collective sentiment of unity which promoted the development of the battles for civil rights and politics no longer exists.
Another perspective that permits us to analyze the relation between theory and politics was to talk about Critical Race Theory, which was born in the academic and intellectual spaces of “Afro-United States-ian” students and professors. What stood out the most was the important notion that theory should not create an essentialism of race, but instead focus on deconstructing the racist structures of the law. Critical Race Theory signaled that race created a range of subjectivities that must be evaluated on many diverse levels: in teaching, in relations between students or professors, and between students and the education system itself.
Orientation and Optimization of Economic Recourses
This theme was very important in the discussion and was raised by the responsible administrators of the academic programs. The tensions between the diverse departments within the university and the need for internal debates about the value of African Diaspora studies not only responds to the needs designated by affirmative action and the political movement, but also advocates for the same importance and space that other disciplines have. Then, the leaders discussed the importance of identifying how to orient the field, not only in terms of themes, but also in terms of perspectives and focus.
The themes that have been previously discussed resulted in many comments that can be connected to the important debates in South America. The studies of the Afro-American population in South America have nuances that are differentiated. To raise the issue, we can cite the comments made by Jesús Chucho García in his article “Encuentro y desencuentro de los ‘saberes’ en torno a la africania ‘latinoamerica,’” where he points out that there have existed three determining foci in the studies of “Africanness” in the Americas: the first focus uses “scientific instruments” that objectify and measure whether or not people of African descent have any apparent knowledge about their culture, know how they supported the independence movements of their country, and know about the Africans who returned to African as part of the “Diaspora of the returned.” The second focus is intellectual and relates to issues of exoticism, the scorn from people of other cultures, and the many occurrences of in-group racism. The third is the recognition of the person of African descent and reflects their practices and systemization.
Returning to the ideas that were planted during the discussion with the academics from the United States, the following ideas came about.
Diversity of concepts and foci
As pointed out earlier, there exists a relationship between the academic currents of scholars of the African Diaspora and the political movements of people of African descent, and the development of the academic field is due to the movement because laws exist that guarantee access to education and promote programs and studies on the Afro-American population. The US perspective has determined the development of studies in Latin America, with the important contributions of diverse foci, but with limitations that become visible when the people try to apply concepts that respond to the reality of a local country that has markedly different characteristics from other countries in the Americas. For example, the definition “Afro-American” or “African American” has been used as a synonym for “Afro-United States-ian.” The great majority of people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean do not identify with those labels, which are considered “imported” because society, including “Afro-United States-ians,” uses those words only to refer to people of African descent in/from the United States.
Interest in the Afro-Latino population in the United States is growing because of the encouragement of Afro-Latino academics, but the “Afro-United States-ian” organizations have not established concrete ties to the people of African descent from Latin America or Central America who live in the United States, who have been made invisible and are discriminated against because they are part of the periphery. A large part of the US population not only doesn’t know anything about the “others” (immigrants, Latinos, etc), but is not even interested in knowing them. The majority of “Afro-United States-ians” are part of a individualistic culture that places the personal at the center, and live their lives in accordance with the ideas associated with consumerism and neoliberal capitalism.
The “Afro-United States-ian” thinker bell hooks said that “for Black women, it is also much easier to speak about gender and ignore class, because many of us are not dispossessed of our support of capitalism and our longing for luxuries. I believe that it is one thing to enjoy the good life, beauty, and things, and quite another to support the assassination of other people in order to have a nice car and other foolishness.”
In this context the utilization of the term “Afro-descendants,” instead of “Afro-American,” sustains and creates an affirmative space for the population in Latin America who feel like their ancestry is reflected in the term. This term clearly signals that African ancestry in the Americas was a direct consequence of the Diaspora and was a result of the crime of slavery. The term’s utilization allows for the development of more effective strategies for international rights and the implementation of affirmative action.
Actually, there are important initiatives to develop strategies to improve knowledge about the Afro-Latino population in university programs. “The Afro Latino Research and Resource Project,” supported by the Ford Foundation, supports research, network, meetings, and disseminate information about this population.
Individuality Versus Collectivity
In countries where there exists a major indigenous and mestizo (mixed) presence, the agendas of the movements are weak. They even refer to the attainment of fundamental rights and legislative acts: evidence of the gap in relation to the US.
We have deviated from the theme in order to explain how the social movements and the context differentiate mestizo and “Afro-Indo identity”—a term coined by Jesús “Chucho” García—and have determined the perspectives of the studies on South America in relation to the US. As a result, it is necessary to rethink the perspectives that respond to the historic processes in the regions.
Since the Academic Debates: Epistemological Reflections
In South America, we find diverse advances that also relate to the number of the population and the political processes of the social movements. For example, in Colombia, the famous Law 70 clearly recognized the Afro-Colombian towns and thusly permitted the development of other public politics. The Ministry of Education promotes a politics denominated “Afro-Colombian Class” and “Ethnic Education” of Decree 804 of 1995, “the National government regulates the education attention to the ethnic groups, noticing that as a general rule, ethnic education, territorialism, autonomy, the conception of the life of each town and its history and identity according to their uses and habits.” There are different events like in October of this year when the University of Cauca will hold a colloquium on Afro-Colombian studies, where the objective is “to know which developments have been obtained up until this moment in the field of academic studies of the theme, and to elaborate the divisions within the state of this question.”
In the case of Ecuador, a program exists at the University Andina Simón Bolivar that has a specialization in the Andean region. Péru and Bolivia are countries that are not identifiable as major advances in respect to the African Diaspora theme, and we consider them limited; the weak organization of their political movements has not enabled them to consolidate a movement that can plan public politics in education that can guarantee access for people of African descent and development of lines of investigation on and by them.
In the case of Péru, which was one of the axes of colonial power, we find important historic investigations or historiographies with an emphasis on the characteristics of the slave trade. But, we cannot assert that there exists a current of Afro-Péruvian studies, which debates the limitations of the production of knowledge and of the gaps in the social sciences.
One of the challenges is to formalize the critical thinking that arranges the particular experiences of the descendants of the Diaspora, and the presence of the processes of mestizo (mixed) and indigenous identity formation in resistance movements, with differentiated characteristics from Afro-North American thought.
Or rather, a type of thinking that in actuality is not a European type or a type of thinking from the US; but as Walter Mignolo states, it is “the decolonization of the knowledge that was born from our historic experiences.” In his work on the decolonization of knowledge, Mignolo asks three important questions that result in profound reflections: What types of knowledge do we want/need? For whom and for what? What methods/theories are relevant the types of knowledge that we want/need to produce and to transmit? With what purpose do we need/want to produce and transmit knowledge?
It is important that there exists a dialogue between the social movements of people of African descent and the academics that are interested in African Diaspora studies. It is common to meet ‘Black-logues” researchers who study “the Black person” and base their studies on racist, naturalist, and objectifying conceptions. Consequently, the proposal needs to be oriented from an ethno-racial perspective, which would be applicable to all types of research. In other words, we must always keep in mind that ethno-racial differences determine the processes, foci, and theories upon which contemporary knowledge is based.
In this sense, what is the role of researchers in the production of knowledge? Is it possible to think from an Afro-descendant point of view without referencing the power of the process of slavery in that experience? Does there exist an Afro-descendant worldview and paradigm that can allow for a re-creation of an American way of thinking? The promotion of the articulation and the debate of these perspectives must also keep in mind the role of the mestizo identity in the reconfiguration of the Péruvian nation and the population of African descent at the turn of the nineteenth century. Remember that in South America, the mixture with the indigenous population has created a pigmentocratic culture, which is different from the one-drop rule of the United States, which qualifies a person as Black not by their color but by their heritage.
One of the proposals that is applicable to the contexts that exist in Péru and Bolivia should then be able to debate and engage with the point of views that exist in studies on the Afro-Andean population; a population that can be labeled as Afro-American, Afro-Péruvian, of the African Diaspora, or in the best of cases can reconfigure the epistemological base that would enable us to label Jesús “Chucho” García as an Afro-epistemologist.
Our work is to confront the proposals, and to analyze the questions of their coincidences and contradictions. For example, to place in perspective the debate between García and the Jamaican author, Stuart Hall, who bolsters the idea of moving away from essentialism, which implies that it is not only to understand the processes of construction and recreation of people of African descent, as signaled by the Venezuelan García, but also to develop a “different logic of difference,” to move us completely away from this competition, this binary of Black-white, included-excluded. Essentialist schemes and dichotomies that, as stated in dialogues with Marcel Velásquez, respond to a “network of epistemological antagonisms” constructed by the “enslaved subject” who is not a person but a place of enunciation, a budgeted subject whose function is to limit the view, words, and sensibilities of the interpretation of Afro-Péruvian slavery and culture.
- Jesús García, “‘Chucho.’ Encuentro y desencuentro de los ‘saberes’ en torno a la africanía ‘latinoamerica,’” in Cultura, politica y sociedad: Perspectivas latinoamericanas, ed. Daniel Mato (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2005), 359–77. ↵
- bell hooks, “Challenging Capitalism and Patriarchy,” Z Magazine, December 1995. ↵
- Cecilia María Vélez White, “Documento No 2 Cátedra de estudios afrocolombiaños,” Misterio de Educación Nacional, October 2004. ↵
- Universidad del Cauca, Centro de Educación abierta y a distancia (CEAD), Grupo de Investigaciones para la Etnoedcacion (firstname.lastname@example.org), Primer Coloquio de Estudios afrocolombiaños. ↵
- Walter Mignolo, en enrevista con Catherine Walsh, in Indisciplinar las ciencias sociales. Geopolíticas del conocimiento y colonialidad del poder. Perspectivas desde lo Andino, ed. C. Walsh, F. Schiwy, and S. Castro-Gómez (Quito: UASB/Abya Yala). ↵
- Marcel Velásquez, Las máscaras de la representación. El sujeto esclavista y las rutas del racismo en el Perú (1775–1895) de Castro(Lima: Fondo Editorial de San Marcos y Banco Central de Reserva del Perú, 2005). ↵