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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.

Establishing Parallels

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,’”[1] 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.”[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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.”[5] 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.[6]



  1. 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.
  2. bell hooks, “Challenging Capitalism and Patriarchy,” Z Magazine, December 1995.
  3. Cecilia María Vélez White, “Documento No 2 Cátedra de estudios afrocolombiaños,” Misterio de Educación Nacional, October 2004.
  4. Universidad del Cauca, Centro de Educación abierta y a distancia (CEAD), Grupo de Investigaciones para la Etnoedcacion (, Primer Coloquio de Estudios afrocolombiaños.
  5. 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).
  6. 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).


ACADEMIC STUDIES ON PEOPLE OF AFRICAN DESCENT IN THE AMERICAS Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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