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This is a column about hating black history. It's occasioned by a question I've heard more often than I'd like: What do you want from me?Happens every time I write about the harsh days of slavery or Jim Crow. Some white reader will pick up the phone or dash off an e-mail asking the same thing: Why are you telling me this? What do you want from me?
The last person to ask was a 17-year-old girl. I've often been asked that question by older people, the implication being that I sought to bludgeon them with guilt so they might . . . I don't know, support affirmative action or something. They are terribly, tellingly defensive about the guilt they don't feel. I've learned to shine such people on.
That's not so easy with a teenager. It's her youth that gets to me, that requires an answer.
She's not alone in being discomfited by black history. Sometimes blacks are, too. I once asked an elderly black lady about a lynching she saw when she was young. She wondered why I would want to know about such a thing, kept insisting she had put that terrible night out of her mind. Her eyes were furtive, her voice trembling, and I knew she had done no such thing.
What's telling is that she felt the need to try, the fact that she did not want to deal with the pain.
It is, perhaps, also difficult to deal with if you are white. Indeed, it's not hard to see how a recitation of black history might leave you feeling indicted and accused. And resentful because of it.
I think that's what the girl was getting at when she asked her question. You could sense the walls being raised, the bridges drawn, the defenses set in place. And God, she's only 17.
Too young to be that cynical and defensive. Too young to be like the dozens of others I've met who struggle with this thing, the ones who deny, who obfuscate, who raise emotional barriers. The ones who sometimes just cry in shame.
Each response seems to spring from the same gaping irresolution, the same untreated wound. Trouble is, as a nation, we've never even acknowledged that wound exists. Black people have spent generations trying to come to grips with their passages and have done, at best, an imperfect job. Yet that process has scarcely even been contemplated for whites who, after all, went through the same passage, albeit from the other side.
We have yet to grapple, or even truly pose, the questions arising from that fact. What do you do, if you're a person of conscience, faced with a history that damns much of what your forebears did, believed and were? How do you find a comfort place with that, a space to simply be?
Which makes the girl's question -- What do you want from me? -- seem vital. Because you sense that what's being touched on here is not government programs or public policy -- she has no power over those things. Rather it's a simpler, more profound question of our ability to coexist, to be Americans, together.
I spent some time pondering what she asked me. Here's my answer:
Don't hate black history, if only because it's your history, too. It exists not to accuse you or to shame you. It simply exists. And you, every bit as much as I, have to make peace with it.
Understand that this is sacred ground and it hurts to walk here. But at the same time, I need to walk here, need the strength, the sense of purpose, the knowledge of self, that walking here imparts. And I'm obliged to witness here on behalf of those who can no longer witness for themselves, no longer say the things they saw and felt.
So please, don't tell me how to walk this ground. Don't tell me when you think I've walked it long enough. And don't think every silence needs a voice to fill it. Sometimes, silence is an opportune place to ponder and to pray.
What do I want from you?
I want you to be my sister and to walk here with me. I know it's a hard walk. I know it causes you pain.
But this much I also know: If ever we learn to tread this ground together, there's no place we can't go.
Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column runs in Living & Arts every Thursday and Saturday. To call Pitts, dial 1-800-457-3881. Please dial 1-800 even if you live in South Florida.
|Garifuna Community, Honduras,C.A. Photo: Jonathan French|
|Dom. Republic. Photo: Jonathan French|
|Dom.Republic.Photo: Jonathan French|
|Honduras. Photo: Jonathan French.|
|México. Photo: Jonathan French|
Unnoticed and unheard in
the corridors of Latin American power debates, Black Latins comprise an
estimated African ethnic minority of 90 million and at least an
additional 60 million of mixed African ancestry, according to the
organisers. They constitute one third of the continent's 450 million
Two groups have sparked the initiative. The charitable Organisation of Africans in the Americas (OAA) works for the social, political and economic empowerment of communities. The ad hoc group Afroamerica XXI represents communities and leaders in 9 countries and has lobbied major finance and assistance agencies for development funding.
Strengths and needs
OAA director, Jamaican-born Michael Franklin is clear about one essential goal. He says the Barlovento reunion in a region with strong African influences "will contribute to the spiritual and familial strengthening of the Black community in Latin America and the Caribbean".
But the poverty of millions of Afro-Latin Americans will also be highlighted. National and inter-governmental organisations, like the Inter-American Development Bank based in Washington D.C., will be urged to invest in projects beneficial to and determined by Afro Latin American communities.
Black communities exist in all Latin America countries as a result of the slave trade and imigration. Significant groupings are found in Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico. Black populations range in size from less than 1% to as high as 30% in Colombia and 46% in Brazil. They are majorities in some Spanish speaking Caribbean nations: Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
Though Blacks have gained education, social status and high office in their countries most endure lives of persistent poverty and disenfranchisement on the basis of their colour and ancestry. Some live on the edge of poverty as manual factory, plantation and mine workers and rural peasantry; others eke out a meagre existence as petty traders and live on the streets or in shanty towns.
Blacks remain victims of a history of what can be called "skin-colour apartheid". According to the authors of No Longer Invisible, a survey of Afro-Latin Americans today: "Colonial and postcolonial society partitioned off people, classifying and categorizing skin pigmentation with a bewildering array of legal codes and linguistic terms".
Overcoming this legacy of
uprooting and separation is a fundamental goal of the Barlovento
reunion, say Franklin and his associates. The organisers highlight the
affinity of Afro-Latin Americans and their life styles. They call for a
Declaration of Rights of Peoples of African Descent in the Americas.
The reunion echoes the historic heritage of black rebellion against slavery. It will sing the praises of the Black Family and thereby reject the degrading belief that embranquecimento (whitening) offers the only route to improvement and social mobility.
Crisis of choice
Equipping Afro-Latin Americans to tackle the social institutions that make "black" synonymous with poverty must also be an important goal. The central challenge will be achieving beneficial change for Afro-Latin Americans as global and technological forces emanating from the USA and Europe engulf the continent.
Notwithstanding, there are pervasive problems of racial exclusion, governmental violence and societal repression of black traditions of African origins. The remedy may require specific legislation, never forthcoming after slavery's abolition, that identifies and manages contemporary race relations.
The crisis of choice facing Franklin and his associates is fundamental. Can blacks gain common, valued nationality with all other citizens and also obtain public legitimacy for their Afro-identity? This set of issues, with their human rights implications, resonate in all parts of the world where blacks are minorities in majority white or ex-colonial societies.
(See No Longer Invisible: Black Latin Americans Today (1995), reviewed in The Chronicle Black Books section, and Afro-Central America: Rediscovering the African Heritage (1996), both published by the Minority Rights Group, London; NACLA Report on the Americas, The Black Americas; Britannica Yearbook; and Leslie Rout, The Black Experience in Hispanic America: 1502 to the Present.
Copyright (c) 1999 The Chronicle
Source: The .Chronicleworld at www.chronicleworld.org
Wayne S. Smith reports a 1999 conference on "Afro-Cubans in Cuban Society: Past, Present and Future."
February 27, 2001
Black Colombians Seek Peace and Freedom by Playthell Benjamin
The Other Side of the Colombian Anti-Drug Policy
On Saturday afternoon February 24, three black Colombian
exiles -- Oscar Gamboa, Carlos Rosero and Luis Gilberto
Murillo, the ex-governor of the state of del Choco -- spoke
to a group of Colombians residing in the US, along with
Americans who support a just policy for the South American
nation of Colombia. It was the most frank and enlightening
talk that most in the audience -- this writer included --
had ever heard about the Colombian situation. And the
Afro-Colombians pulled no punches in their criticisms of US
policy toward their country, which they view as misguided
and driven by military imperatives rooted in their desire to
prop up the present corrupt and racist regime. Sponsored by
the Colombia Media Project and the Patrice Lumumba
Coalition, the meeting was held at The House of The Lord on
Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, the pastorate of
activist/preacher Herbert Daughtry.
It must have been quite a pleasant surprise for the visiting
Afro-Colombians to look about them and see the huge
paintings of the biblical characters that adorn the church's
walls portrayed as black people. Especially since, as they
reiterated throughout the afternoon, the existence of black
people is barely acknowledged in their country. A point
underscored in remarks by Afro-Americans during the question
and answer period, who pointed out that they didn't even
know that Colombia had a black population. The
Afro-Colombians were not surprised by American ignorance of
their existence, although they are almost half the
population and are visible everywhere on the streets of
Colombian towns and throughout the countryside.
Located on the northernmost tip of South America, Colombia
is mainly known in the US as the premier source of the
cocaine that floods the streets of this country. But, as we
learned on Saturday, Colombia is a country of 40 million
people -- 40% of whom are black according to Oscar Gamboa --
bordered by the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea that is rich
in oil, natural gas, coal, nickel, emeralds, many species of
flowers, and what many would swear is the world's best
coffee. The country also has an abundance of forest and
rivers. Hence, as the speakers constantly pointed out, there
is much more to Colombia than cocaine.
The present crisis of Afro-Colombians must be viewed within
the context of the generalized crisis in that country, which
includes a civil war, mass fumigation of crops, and the
worst economic depression since the 1930s. With unemployment
rates ranging from 20%, which is the official rate, to the
50% that many observers say is the actual rate, a majority
of Colombians live below the poverty line. With such
widespread poverty it is not surprising that there is a
flourishing cocaine trade.
However as Oscar Gamboa, who was the first of the Colombians
to speak, pointed out in arguing against the US inspired
crop fumigation policy of the Colombian government, "The
coca plant is not the problem. The peasants have long used
it for medicine. The problem is cocaine, the sale and
consumption of cocaine. And there are millions of dollars
surrounding the cocaine business!" Gamboa also pointed out
that most of the people arrested for drug dealing in
Colombia are the same type of small fry dealers that are
generally locked up in the US, and the big money laundering
traffickers at the top go untouched.
Furthermore, Gamboa told the attentive audience, "The
spraying of coca crops hurts other crops more. It is
contaminating rivers and lakes and destroying food crops
that the peasants need to survive. We must find an
alternative to this or the peasants will starve." He also
informed the crowd that Afro-Colombians were heavily
concentrated in the areas where the fighting and fumigations
were taking place and portends a major disaster. He warned
that, "If you destroy the countryside blacks will be forced
to go to the cities. And because of racial discrimination
they will not find work. Then in order to survive they will
either turn to crime or make their way to the US by whatever
But it is not only the crop damage due to fumigations that
is forcing many black Colombians to leave the countryside.
Violence from the Colombian army and the right-wing
paramilitary groups who -- as abundant evidence demonstrates
are the unofficial terrorist arm of the Colombian government
-- also wreak havoc on the black and Indian peasantry. "In
Colombia, killing people is almost an exercise. And we who
attempt to organize to better our condition are risking our
lives because we are labeled as guerrillas," says Gamboa.
But he argues that, "We as blacks in Colombia can't just sit
with our arms folded and do nothing because we have children
and we must leave them a country that they can live in. What
we need in Colombia is peace so that our children can play
and adults can work in peace knowing their children will not
be killed in the war." Gamboa went on to describe the
killings, kidnappings and bombings that are taking place in
his country and pleaded with right thinking Americans to
"Help us create a new reality because we don't want drugs or
The murders in far away Colombia became all too real when a
black Colombian expatriate dramatically arose from the
audience and told of the murder of her brother. "That's why
we are here," said Gamboa, "I heard about your brother's
murder in Colombia. The media reported it but one death
quickly follows another.That is why the people who are still
in Colombia, still doing the work are the real heroes."
While Oscar Gamboa delivered the longest speech of the
evening, Carlos Rosero, who followed him to the podium, also
made a powerful statement on the plight of Afro-Columbians.
"We are located all across Colombia, on the Caribbean and
Pacific coasts," says Rosero, who is very dark complexioned
with long dreadlocks and looked like he was from the
neighborhood, in fact all three of them looked like
round-the-way boys. He summed up the Afro-Colombian
contribution to the national economy this way: "Everything
that leaves Colombia, including products of the mines, has
been largely produced by black hands." But he quickly
pointed out, "still we have nothing. Slavery has been over
for 150 years, but they compensated the slaveholders. We
have yet to receive reparations."
Along with the war against the two major guerilla force --
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-peoples Army, or
FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN -- and the
crop fumigations, Rosero offered an additional reason why
the black population is forced to move from their land. "It
is only recently, after 500 years, that we have land rights.
Yet we, along with the indigenous people, are being
displaced at a rate of 36%. At first our lands were
considered worthless, but now that they have been found to
be valuable we are being dispossessed. Every time they build
a bridge it seems as if it is to remove black people. That's
because our lands are rich with biodiversity and other
products, including oil!"
"We must develop a strategy to halt these dispossessions,"
argues Rosero. "Without territory we cannot build a
community power base. A great part of the problem of
Afro-Colombians in recent years is the absence of autonomy
for our community. Colombia is ethnically diverse, but there
is no official recognition that blacks have a right to
develop as a people, as a community. That is the central
problem of development." Rosero said. He then pointed out
the similarity in the situation of Africans and Indians in
Colombia. "The problems of the UWA Indians and the big US
oil companies is based on this lack of recognition of their
right to autonomous development by the Colombian government.
The blacks and Indians should be consulted on any plans for
After presenting some statistics on the thousands of animals
killed and the vast acreage of farmlands destroyed, Rosero
pleaded with the audience for their active support in
changing US policy towards his country. "We must deescalate
the war because it is being fought in our regions and we are
most of the dead and displaced," he said, "so we want all
parties to negotiate a peaceful solution to this conflict."
Rosero's statement echoed Gamboa's earlier observation that,
"We cannot continue the strategy of trying to seek peace
through violence. We must seek peace through peace."
With guerrilla armies controlling almost half of the
national territory and the US sending new arms to the
Conservative Party's Andres Pastrana, who presently occupies
the President's office, there seems little hope that peace
will be given a chance. Among the weapons provided the
Pastrana government by the $1.3 billion military aid package
are 42 Huey helicopters -- an aircraft that wrought much
death and destruction in Vietnam -- 18 Black Hawk copters
and funding to train more special forces units to combat the
insurgents. With these kinds of preparations only more
warfare is visible on the horizon.
Luis Gilberto Murillo, the former governor of the state of
Choco, was the last to speak. Driven from office and into US
exile by white Colombian paramilitary death squads, Murillo
said the situation in Colombia is so dangerous he wondered
after arriving in the US whether he should "speak out or
remain silent." He told the astonished gathering that: "Some
of my friends advised me to keep quiet because blacks have
enough problems in Colombia."
But Luis Murillo is glad that he decided to speak out
because by doing so he "discovered that most African
Americans were surprised that there were blacks in Colombia,
and especially so many!" Murillo said "I want to show how a
misguided US policy is affecting blacks and others in
Colombia. So we decided to use Afro-American history month
to begin a dialogue with our Afro-American brothers. We want
to open a dialogue with other races in Colombia, but that
attempt will only exacerbate other problems." This statement
brings to mind the situation of Afro-Brazilians, who risk
being indicted for "disturbing the racial tranquility of
Brazil" for accusing a white Brazilian of racism. Such is
the strange Barnum and Bailey world of many blacks living in
Latin America. Hence they have a long and complex struggle
ahead in countries where simply speaking out for basic human
rights can result in imprisonment or death.
But for the moment says Murillo, "We want to change American
policy so that it is not so warlike. We would like to see a
peaceful US policy, and in that respect we could use a lot
of help from American citizens!" The Afro-Colombian
delegation plans to travel around the country telling their
troubling story. The high point of their American odyssey
will be a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, a
body that has no counterpart in their native Colombia. And,
obviously, there is no black person as powerful as Colin
Powell either. Yet it remains to be seen whether Powell's
tenure as Secretary Of State in the richest and most
powerful nation in the world will have any positive benefit
for oppressed and impoverished black peoples struggling for
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness around the world.
The Colombians are wise to concentrate their efforts among
African Americans because as Mario Murillo, WBAI producer
and member of the Colombia Media Project, pointed out at the
meeting, even the progressive white left often overlooks the
Afro-Colombian problem. Mario, a light skinned native
Colombian who has resided in the US for many years, referred
to a flyer put out by white leftists that was distributed at
the meeting yet failed to even mention black Colombians.
Anyone who would like to get involved in supporting the
Afro-Colombian struggle to change a destructive American
policy that is killing them, to one that is constructive and
life sustaining, should contact the Colombia Media Project
at 212-802-7209, or on-line at email@example.com. The struggle
Copyright (c) 2001 The Black World Today. All Rights Reserved
Connie White announces the first session of International Tribunal on Africa
Manthia Diawara reflects on Blackness
International Day for the Abolition of Slavery: Africa Centre
December 2nd is the UN's International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. On December 4th, the Africa Centre held this conference.
Quest for Inclusion: Realizing Afro-Latin American Potential. US$29.95 + s & h.
Organization of Africans in the Americas
1234 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite C-1007
Washington DC, 20005
Tel: 202.638.1662 Fax: 202.638.1667
reporter's account of a meeting betweenAfro-Ecuadorian groups and
representatives of the Ecuadoriangovernment.] Independent Media Center
12 August 2001
(GUAYAQUIL) August 9
- These are exiting and trying timesfor the Afro-Ecuadorian community
across the country. Inrecent months important moves have been made to
consolidatea common voice to push for greater rights for this1.3-million
person strong national minority (roughly 10% ofthe population of the
country). If successful in gaininggreater recognition, the
Afro-Ecuadorian community couldserve as a beacon for Afro-Latin
communities across thecontinent, which have been identified by the UN as
one ofthe most vulnerable groups in the region.
I was able to sit in
on a meeting at the Defensora de losPueblos offices, that united various
Afro-Ecuadorian groupsto hash out a common strategy for how best to
press theirdemands against a still pervasive system of
There has been a
recent spate of activity on the part of thegovernment to appease this
sector of the population,especially in Guayaquil, as a meeting with the
US ambassadorto the region is scheduled for August 20. Although
moreopportunistic groups tried to steer the debate towards howbest to
work with the government and the USA, otheractivists argued that the
black community must not adopt apliant attitude, but should instead push
its demands forgreater rights without compromise.
The government is
particularly concerned with pushing a morepliant agenda. To this end
FISE - the government organresponsible for social programs - called a
meeting of allAfro-Ecuadorian groups for the 9th and 16th of August
todiscuss how the FISE can work more closely withAfro-Ecuadorian groups.
The national Minister of SocialWellbeing was on hand to propose how to
improveAfro-Ecuadorian access to FISE's programs for the poor.According
to the Minister the situation in Guayaquil wasparticularly deplorable as
there was barely any cooperationbetween the FISE and Afro-Ecuadorian
groups. The Ministeralso wanted to discuss recent conclusions made at
the UNConference Against Racism in South Africa (something whichdidn't
actually happen, although the resolutions adopted atthat conference were
After the Minister
had listed various programs that FISEsupposedly undertakes to help the
poor, representatives fromthe Afro-Ecuadorian community rose up one by
one tocriticize the institutional racism that is inherent withinthe
government bureaucracy. A spirited debate ensued aseloquent speeches
made by Afro-Ecuadorian activists weregreeted by stonewalling and
denials from the governmentbureaucrats present at the meeting. Some of
the criticismsleveled at the government included:
- The criticism that
these government programs were designedin a paternalistic way that was
predetermined by governmentbureaucrats and had little to do with the
actual needs ofthe black community.
- The government was
acting over the heads of civil-society.
- A spokeswoman for
the Organization of Black Women(Organizacion de Mujeres Negras, OMN)
argued that thegovernment needed to improve its capacity of listening
tothe needs of the black community in the country.
- Others argued that
the accessibility to programs was basedon racist norms, including the
criteria in application formsthat unfairly ignored the special situation
- While indigenous
groups had a special section of FISEdedicated to their needs, there was
no similar concern forthe needs of Afro-Ecuadorians, even though this
sector wasalso marginalized and discriminated against in the same wayas
natives on the basis of race.
- Access to
micro-credit programs was also difficult toobtain as a result of
government bureaucracy in applying forthese credits.
- The channeling of
funds for social programs throughinefficient and corrupt government
subsidiaries such asMIDUVI, instead of directly channeling these funds
- The lack of
Afro-Ecuadorian representatives in governmentdecision making bodies,
which results in a lack of a blackperspective in the planning of these
- Questions were
also raised about the governments suddeninterests in the Afro-Ecuadorian
community, and theopportunistic nature of this meeting given the
forthcomingaudience with US-diplomats.
- Many activists
claimed that the government has donenothing for blacks, and while funds
and programs increasedso did the poverty of all peoples in the country.
The FISErepresentatives were challenged to show palpable results oftheir
- The government was
accused of misappropriating funds andcharged with directing poorly
targeted assistance programs.
The Minister of
Social Wellbeing responded to most of thesecriticisms by completely
denying all accusations against theFISE. He refused to hear the
extensive complaints of the 50odd Afro-Ecuadorian groups assembled for
the meeting,insisting that racism of any kind did not exist in the
FISE,despite the near unanimous claims of activists that therewas a
serious problem with institutional racism.
What made the
situation worse was that the Minister falselyclaimed that he was married
to a black woman, and had ablack son and then went on to chastise the
Afro-Ecuadoriancommunity leaders for daring to accuse him of
racism.Another minister took the example of a black FISE organizerin
Esmeraldas, who had done a lot for the black community inthat city,
calling her "a black woman of the first order",thus implying
that the critical voices in the room wereAfro-Ecuadorians of a
"lower order". These white ministersreminded me in many ways
of the white network exec in SpikeLee's Bamboozled, as he tried to
pretend that he was just"as black" - if not more so - as the
other people in theroom. These outbursts by FISE bureaucrats underlined
thedeep-seated racism of the organization despite officialdenials.
In the end it became
clear that the government wasn'twilling to listen to the legitimate
grievances of theAfro-Ecuadorian community but was instead looking
onlylooking to displace the burden of responsibility for thedeplorable
situation of blacks in Ecuador from thegovernment onto the shoulders of
Afro-Ecuadorian groups. Inthe wake of the assassination of Jaime Hurtado,
an MPDactivist and the country's only black congressman, and
thegovernments historically deplorable attitude towards theAfro-Ecuadorian
civil society, it is no wonder that thiscommunity is seeking to
formulate a common voice in order topress its demands for greater
justice in a more concertedfashion.
Copyright (c) 2001 Konstantin Kilibarda. All Rights Reserved.
Inikori, J.E. Forced
migration: the impact of the export slave trade on African societies. Hutchinson
university library. Hutchinson university library for Africa. London:
Inikori, J. E. The chaining of a continent: export demand for captives and the history of Africa south of the Sahara, 1450-1870. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, c1992.
Rath, Richard Cullen, "African Music in Seventeenth Century Jamaica: Cultural Transit and Transition," _William and Mary Quarterly_ 3rd series, 50/4 (1993): 700-26.
Rodney, Walter. West Africa and the Atlantic slave-trade. Historical Association of Tanzania. Paper; no. 2. Nairobi, Published for the Historical Association of Tanzania by the East African Pub. House, 1967.
Toplin, Robert Brent, Slavery and Race relations
Toplin, Robert Brent,
1940 Freedom and prejudice .. the legacy of slavery in the United States and
Brazil Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, c1981.
Valladares, Clarival Do Prado (ed) The Impact of African Culture on Brazil, Rio de Janeiro 1977
"Oro Negro", an Afro Chilean Organization
Africans in Chile:
African Diaspora http://www.cc.colorado.edu/Dept/HY/HY243Ruiz/Research/diaspora
How African slaves held on to native rituals, language, and religions despite their capture, manipulation, and forced exodus.