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Dr. Henry Louis Gates: The ‘Black in Latin America’ Interview

  • Written by Tri-State Defender Newsroom
 henry Louis gates in Cuba

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates – author, literary and cultural critic and noted documentarian – talks about his latest PBS series, “Black in Latin America.” Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates – author, literary and cultural critic and noted documentarian – talks about his latest PBS series, “Black in Latin America.”

Kam Williams: Hi Dr. Gates, thanks for the time.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates: Thank you, Kam….  

KW: Boston-based children’s author Irene Smalls asks: “What do you hope to accomplish with ‘Black in Latin America?’”

 henry Louis gates in Cuba
Dr. Henry Louis Gates in Cuba for his latest PBS series “Black in Latin America.”  (Photo courtesy of Graham Smith)
Between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million Africans arrived in the New World. And of that 11.2 million, only 450 thousand came to the United States. So, in other words, the real African-American experience unfolded south of our borders. And most of us don’t know anything about that. It’s an extension of what scholars call “American Exceptionalism.” We think that everything revolves around the continental United States, including when we think about the slave experience and about race and racism.

But obviously, over 10.5 million black people landed in countries throughout the Caribbean and South America. My goal with the series was to unveil that world to the average American. Did you know that the first black president of a multi-racial society was not Barack Obama but Vincente Guerrero, who became president of Mexico in 1829? How come we don’t know that? It’s incredible!...

KW: Teresa Emerson asks: “How did you settle on the countries which would be the subject of the series? Which one has the largest presence of Africans outside of Africa: Brazil or Colombia?”

HLG: We picked the countries strategically, because we couldn’t cover everything in a 4-hour series. We had different categories, and one was size. For instance, we passed on Columbia, the second largest, because we went with Brazil, the largest. Brazil is also Portuguese, which we wanted to contrast with the Hispanic experience. We picked Cuba, because it’s so fascinating and mysterious to Americans. So, I wanted to bring that country to the fore. The island of Hispaniola was interesting because it’s divided into Haiti, where the people are very proud to be black and they speak Creole and French, and the Dominican Republic, where the national motto was that the country was Catholic, Spanish and white.

Finally, we chose Mexico and Peru. Why? Because nobody thinks about their ever having sizable black populations. All anybody remembers are the Aztecs and the Incas. But they had 700 thousand slaves combined, compared to America’s 450 thousand. That’s astonishing! So, the series was designed to offer some amazing revelations and to reeducate the American people.

KW: I found the episode about Haiti very informative, particularly about how President Thomas Jefferson tried to sabotage its independence movement.

HLG: Yeah, America systematically attempted to undermine it. Jefferson called it a terrible republic and referred to the people as cannibals. Man, that’s cold. But Haiti has a long and noble history as a free civilization…

KW: Dr. Karanja Ajanaku, (executive editor of the Memphis Tri-State Defender, says: “You seem to be making the point that in the U.S., we are mostly unaware, substantively, of “blacks” in Latin America. Would you speak to how aware or unaware, substantively, “blacks” in Latin America are of African Americans?

HLG: Blacks in Latin America are keenly aware of African-American popular culture, entertainers, athletes, Oprah Winfrey, movie stars and musicians. The whole world is enthralled with hip-hop. They’re listening to the same music as our kids. And then there’s Obama! Good Lord! But in terms of a more profound understanding of the black experience in America, I’m not sure. I’d guess that they would have a long way to go.

KW: Dr. Ajanaku also asks: “Did you encounter any signs and/or reasons to be hopeful that “blacks” in Latin America and Africa Americans could transcend the boundaries of country and culture and forge an economic union of sorts that would be uplifting to both?”

HLG: No, I didn’t see any sign of that, because most of those folks’ first identity is a national one, as a Brazilian or a Cuban, not as a black person. For instance, in the Dominican Republic episode, Juan Rodriguez says he never even thought of himself as black until he visited New York. One of the points of the series is that identity is a very complex and ever-shifting matter. We might think that these people are obviously black, but they might not identify themselves that way. During this whole trip, I never met anybody who said they were black first and their nationality second, in the way that African-Americans tend to say, “We’re black first.” That’s another important lesson of the series….

KW: Irene says: There has reportedly been a great deal of tension between African-Americans and Latino immigrants. Can blacks and Latinos find a common ground to work together in this country?

HLG: Yes, I believe so. I think that all Americans should speak Spanish, just as I also think that all Americans should speak English. If blacks and Latinos begin to form alliances across ethnicity and realize that they should be voting as a bloc, they would have a tremendous amount of power. But we can’t expect them to be like us. Just because their skin is dark and their hair is curly doesn’t mean they’re going to approach issues of race and racism in the same way as someone born in the continental United States.

(“Black in Latin America” airs on PBS check local listings)

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