Essay: Why it is Necessary that all Afro-Descendants of Latin America, the Caribbean and North American Know Each Other More

Written by Tomás Fernández Robaina
Translated by Miguel Contreras

My main focus is the following: to exchange experiences regarding the struggle and visibility of the contributions of Africans and their descendants in the formation of Latin American nationalities and cultures, to highlight that historical legacy and its actual presence, to obtain a foundation that will allow us to reclaim our rights at all levels of society, and to attempt to eliminate the history and social omission perpetrated by the eurocentric political and cultural influences inherited from colonization.

It is very important that we recognize how this struggle began long ago, when we did not call ourselves “Negroes,” “African-Americans,” or “Afro-descendants,” as has been used more recently, but as “Cubans,” “Mexicans,” “Colombians,” “Brazilians,” identified, rather, as citizens of our respective countries, and as such, rightfully evidenced in our constitutions. Beautiful words, which, in practice, have been mostly lies not exempt from some exceptions.

We should keep in mind that what is now considered an indisputable achievement of this campaign is the result of the great struggle of black Colombians, of the Afro-Colombians for their rights to fight against obscurity and against the silenced relevance of the Afro-Colombian presence in history and society.

Similarly, we cannot overlook that Colombia’s work, rather, its struggle, has been come to fruition jointly with similar social movements of our Afro-descendant brothers present in all our American countries, with a large visibility in some more than others.

In the case of Colombia, that effort contains a profound and paradigmatic lesson because the country has the largest population of Afro-descendant men and women who speak Castilian, in addition to a beautiful, brave and lengthy social and political struggle for their rights.

The progress of Colombia’s Afro-descendants struggle, their successes, must exert a greater influence in similar endeavors taking place in other countries, and as such, their triumphs are also ours. And those that take place partially or wholly in other territories within our continent are also Colombia’s.

The particular and emergent struggle in Latin American societies must be recognized by all of us who make up the social movement of Afro-descendants in America, so that our demands and claims will gain more social and political strength of solidarity, which will particularly influence each and every one of its national movements, bringing it to the attention of and gaining more support from others, as this struggle becomes more internationally visible.

In that same vein, it is necessary that we know what is happening in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Uruguay, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and in each of the republics of Central America where are present the demands of the garífunas, black people of Caribbean origin.

However, our goals should not only be intellectual, but also practical and ideological. We must note that wherever there is an Afro-descendant population, there exists a movement demanding our rights. We must transform our modern struggle in our national trenches, through support and solidarity in actions that benefit us mutually, and making our presence more visible in order to do away with the obscurities and omissions accumulated in the official histories of our countries.

We should know where our ancestors came from, what their cultures were, their traditions, why some remained more visible in certain places more than others, their dances, their traditions, customs, songs, where the African influence is undeniable, as well as the reasons that new customs, traditions, beliefs and dances that were African coexisted with the European in a very interesting process of mutual influence, some more visible than others, just as those new things that emerged as a result of reciprocal religious, musical and cultural influences.

More often than not in our countries, “the African” was diluted and disappeared totally or partially as a consequence of the repressive politics of British, Dutch, and French colonialism exerted through successive generations of slaves who altogether lost their newfound traditions held by the first generations; but being prohibited from practicing them, they failed to maintain their pure African roots.

In general terms, there are many questions regarding the peculiarities of the different colonial powers in our lands, but there is still a need for broad and deep answers that must become socialized, such as the causes of why the cultures and religions of Africa are more prominent in some of our countries than they are in others, in some cases disappearing altogether as a result of deculturalization by the European metropolis. What is African or seemingly African in Afro-Colombian culture? What is really newly Afro-Colombian in Colombian society? We should ask these questions in all Latin American countries. Who here is able to answer so that I may know more about Columbia? Are there popular beliefs stemming from contact with Catholic practices and African and aboriginal religious beliefs? Who here can tell me which ethnic groups you are descendants of, the real Afro-Colombians?

I ask these questions not for immediate answers, but to motivate reflection and appreciation of belonging to a population historically marginalized from culture and from a eurocentric history promoted by economic and political powers of Colombia’s dominant classes. In Colombia, as in most countries with black or aboriginal populations, only a portion of its members has been accepted and has had more opportunities for social advancement, insofar as they have been bearers of the same cultural, economic, social and religious codes of those classes that exert political power in each of our republics.

Therefore, let us debate some of the ideas presented, let us convert this embattled encounter not only to reclaim the forgotten and ignored places of the Afro-descendants in the history of Colombia, but rather, similarly for all our places in our national histories. The struggle is not unique to the Afro-Colombians, but it belongs to us all, Afro-Brazilians, Afro-Cubans, Afro-Ecuadorians, Afro-Latin Americans as a whole.

About Tomás Fernández Robaina
Tomás Fernández Robaina is a researcher and professor of the National Library of Cuba, and holds a degree in Technical Information and Library Science. He has worked at the institution since 1962. His bibliographic inquiries regarding Afro-Cubans and Afro-Latin Americans include a bibliography of Afro-American studies (1969).

His bibliography of Afro-Cuban subjects led him to write The Negro in Cuba: 1902-1958 (1990); Speak Paleros and Santeros (1994); Cuba: Personalities in the Racial Debate (2007); Afro-Cuban Identity: Culture and Nationality (2009). He has also published Secret Memories of Two Public Women (1982); Histories of Public Women (1998); Notes for a History of the National Library (2001); Mass for an Angel (2010).

He has lectured at conferences, given seminars, and taught courses on the history of Africans and their descendants in his country, as well as in Germany, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Spain, the United States, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mexico, Nigeria, Senegal, and Venezuela. He has been professor of Cuban Bibliography and in other disciplines in the department of Communications, as well as in the school of Arts and Letters of the University of Havana.

His current projects include An Anthology of Anti-racist Cuban Thought; A Historical, Cultural and Bibliographical Chronology of Afro-descendant in Cuba; and The Cuban Afro-descendants: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

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