Series Explores Being 'Black In Latin America' In a four-part documentary, Black In Latin America, premiering Monday on PBS, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examines how a shared history of slavery and colonialism has influenced understandings of race and identity in six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
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Series Explores Being 'Black In Latin America'

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Series Explores Being 'Black In Latin America'

Series Explores Being 'Black In Latin America'

Series Explores Being 'Black In Latin America'

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In a four-part documentary, Black In Latin America, premiering Monday on PBS, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examines how a shared history of slavery and colonialism has influenced understandings of race and identity in six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A couple of months ago on TALK OF THE NATION, historians David Ellis and David Richardson told us the United States received just four percent of the slaves transported across the Atlantic, while almost half, nearly five million men, women and children, ended up in Brazil.

In a new documentary, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., visited the city of San Salvador, Brazil, where a master named Wagente(ph) told him how slaves there developed a combination of martial arts and dance called Capoeira.

Mr. WAGENTE: (Through Translation) The slave owners didn't want black people to organize themselves. In the coffee plantation, in the sugar plantation, weapons were not allowed, but the black people were tortured and needed a way to defend themselves. And they discovered, in Capoeira, a way to strengthen and defend themselves.

CONAN: So what we should we know about the legacy of slavery in those places? If you're from the Caribbean or Latin America, we want to hear from you. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, demographer Ruy Teixeira tells us how a spike in the Hispanic population in the U.S. cities could change the political landscape of much of the municipalities in America.

But first, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the executive producer and host of a new four-part documentary, "Black in Latin America," which starts tomorrow on PBS. Skip Gates is also the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard and joins us from a studio there in Cambridge. And it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. (Director, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, Harvard University): Nice to be back, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you. I wonder, how did the research that went into the Atlas of Transatlantic Slave Trade, how did that change your ideas about the African-American experience?

Mr. GATES: Oh, it was fundamental. Like many people - remember, I was raised in the '50s and '60s. I'm 60 years old. And like many people my age, I thought that slavery, race, the African experience in the New World, really was about us, about our ancestors here in the Continental United States.

But the most astonishing fact in this whole series, and the most astonishing fact which I think that the Transatlantic Slave Trade database has produced is the following: Between 1502 and 1867, 11.2 million Africans survived the Middle Passage and landed in the New World. And of that 11.2 million, as you said, only 450,000 came to the United States.

All the rest, Neal, went to places, as it were, south of Miami, south of our borders. The real African-American experience, as it were, just in terms of numbers alone, unfolded in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America.

And so I wanted to do a series bringing this lost or hidden black world to light, both to Americans and to many of the black descendents, the Afro descendents, throughout Latin America themselves.

This is the third part of a trilogy. I wanted to replicate the three points in the triangle trade: Africa, that was my first big series, 1998, called "Wonders of the African World," which aired in six parts on PBS and BBC; and then in 2004, the Afro-American component was called "America Behind the Color Line"; and now finally in 2011, "Black in Latin America."

I wanted to ask, what does it mean to be black, quote-unquote, in Latin America, in another set of countries in the New World outside of the context of race and racism in the United States? And, well, we'll see what people think.

CONAN: We'll see what people think. It's interesting to just look at your face. I knew you knew this before you made the point in the documentary about Brazil, but to watch your face as you learn again that the - as badly as slaves were treated in this country, it was much worse in Brazil.

Mr. GATES: Are you playing a clip?

CONAN: No, no, I was asking you about it.

Mr. GATES: Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were about to play a clip.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No, you're much more of a professional than I am. Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: No, when Jawal Reese(ph) or Hayes(ph), as it's properly pronounced in Portuguese, tells me that - he's describing to me the conditions of slavery in Brazil, why in the world could there be more than 10 times more African slaves brought to Brazil than the United States?

And the reason is they were replaceable cogs in a wheel, as it were. They would just work them to death and then get new ones. Seventy percent of the 4.8 million slaves came to Brazil from Angola, from Congo Angola, and so it was a very dehumanized institution, much more so, in its way, than with slavery in the United States. And it's quite a shock.

CONAN: And it's quite a shock. Brazil, you also point out, the last country in the New World to abolish slavery and the first to declare itself, well, past racism.

Mr. GATES: Yeah, it was - it abolished slavery in 1888. Think about that. That's just over 100 years ago. Cuba was the penultimate country in the New World to abolish slavery, 1886, Brazil in 1888, and then they embarked on - both of them, four countries, Brazil, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, all embarked on official policies called branqueamento, or whitening.

And they would import, you know, subsidize European immigrants to come to their countries because they were worried that they were too black, and that they would never be great countries if they had such a high percentage of a black population.

So over four million Europeans were subsidized to come to Brazil alone, and when they realized that they could never make it all-white, each of these countries then embraced their mixed or mestizo kind of identity, Mexico through the work of Jose Vasconcelos in 1925, Gilberto Freyre in a very important book called "The Masters and the Slaves" in 1933 and Ferdinand Ortiz in his theories of Cubanidad, in Cuba, in 1940.

Each celebrated a new brown or mixed identity that blended in the black and the white and the Native American into a new form of universalism. But in the process, it kind of ironically, sometimes intentionally, devalued the pure black or African essence as being too crude or embarrassing or not cleaned up enough. You know what I'm trying to say?

CONAN: Yeah, no, there's this moment in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, where you're looking at marble statues of the founders of the country.

Mr. GATES: Yeah, and they are as white as the driven snow, as my daddy would say. Even the - there are three figures. One is the intellectual, the theorist. One's a tactician. And the black man was a mulatto, but you would never know it. And Silvio, whom you quoted, the professor at Syracuse, said that even in his representations outside of marble, which obviously is white, they whitened or Europeanized his features.

In Cuba they did the same thing with the bronze titan, the great general of the Cuban revolution was Antonio Maceo, who clearly was a black man. But in - as I show in the series, many subsequent representations of him are lightened.

And as you saw, they even did an autopsy. They did an autopsy of this poor man who was killed in battle in about 1895. In 1899, they unearthed him and did an autopsy and had anthropologists decide if he was more European than African.

And they were very pleased to announce, in an official scientific paper, that Antonio Maceo was much more European than African, and that explained why he was a great leader. It's just the vestiges of racism were so complex.

And speaking of that complexity, each of these countries had many, many words for the shades of blackness. I think my favorite - or the funniest part of the whole series is when I go into a market in Brazil. Now, Brazil has 134 categories of blackness, 134.

You remember our octaroon, quadroon, mulatto? Our categories are on steroids when you get to Brazil.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: And so I asked these guys in the marketplace, I had to ask a lot of people. We just wandered around with a camera crew, and I'd say, tell me what color I am. And they'd say, well, you're negro, or you're mulatto, you're moreno(ph).

So then I got these five guys, and they said, well, we're all negro. And I go, okay, what are we really? Let's look at our differences? And all of a sudden, they produced these words that you'd never heard of before, showing the gradations of blackness embedded in the consciousness in Brazil.

And that's because nobody wants to be black. Nobody in any of these societies wants to be at the bottom of the social scale. And sadly, poverty is socially constructed around blackness in each of the six countries where I filmed.

And by that I mean the poorest people in each of these countries were the people with the kinkiest hair, the thickest lips, the flattest noses and the blackest skin. So when Brazil claims to be a racial democracy, as many of the scholars and activists I interviewed there proclaimed, it's a ton of rubbish.

Brazil has a long way to go. Its ruling elites are all white, overwhelmingly white. The - I stand at a newsstand in Rio, and you'd think you were in Geneva. There are no black figures or even mulatto figures on the covers of these magazines.

And the Dominican Republic is just an extreme example, historically, of that color consciousness, or the lack of color consciousness, as we would say here in the United States.

CONAN: Even Cuba, the - where socialism was supposed to put an end to this.

Mr. GATES: Yeah, Fidel, the Cuban revolutions of 1959, 1961, Fidel Castro has a press conference, basically announcing that, well, we dispensed with racism. And, to be fair, the - because of the socialization of medicine, universal access to education, people represented disproportionately in the poorest segments of the economy did benefit from that aspect of socialism.

But as you see in the film, the privileged class, even within communism, are still the people who are the whitest and with the longest tradition of whiteness in Cuba.

And we call that program "the next Cuban revolution" because the next Cuban revolution will have to be a revolution in race relations because black people are still at the bottom of the social totem pole, as many black intellectuals and activists were eager to tell me on-camera.

And that civil rights movement or black power movement is manifesting itself through the hip-hop movement, as we were able to show.

CONAN: We're talking with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., about his four-part documentary, "Black in Latin America." You can find a link to the series at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION. More with Professor Gates in just a moment. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. narrates and produced a new four-part program, "Black in Latin America," that starts to air on PBS tomorrow. In it, he argues not many people realize how black South America is.

If you're from the Caribbean or Latin America, tell us: What should we know about the legacy of slavery in those countries? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Skip Gates is with us from a studio at Harvard. Let's go to a caller, Santiago, Santiago with us from Kalamazoo.

SANTIAGO (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SANTIAGO: I was calling to make several points that - I haven't seen the presentations that Dr. Gates is putting together yet, but I'd rather raise them as questions as opposed to comments on the film.

One has to do with the impact of maroon republics - that is self-emancipated Afro-descendant populations that defeated slavery militarily: in Haiti and Surinam, in Cuba, in Puerto Rico, in Mexico, in Venezuela and Colombia, et cetera, which is a different approach than was taken in the United States.

The second point is that there is a whole tradition of intellectuals in the Caribbean and in Central and South America who've been studying the impact of African cultures in Latin America that precedes that of the United States by quite a few years. And I refer to people like (unintelligible)...

Mr. GATES: (unintelligible)

SANTIAGO: Haiti or Franklin Franco in the Dominican Republic or the Independent People of Color Party in Cuba.

And the third point...

CONAN: Santiago, I don't mean to cut you off, but you've asked two big questions. Why don't we see if we can get some answers?

SANTIAGO: Yeah, and I'll comment after he finishes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, we may have a dissertation here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: Santiago's ready. He's been thinking about this. And, you know, Neal, Santiago's enthusiasm and his list of questions is significant, because not many people know about this field. It is bringing to life a world that was hidden or had been silenced, even in our history books.

For example, his question about the maroons, just - we deal with this -and Santiago, you don't know, but I dealt with six countries. They're four hour programs: Mexico and Peru is one hour, Cuba's one hour, Brazil is one hour and Haiti and the Dominican Republic, that's one hour.

In the Mexico program, we deal with maroonage, or, you know, the runaway slaves who became independent through the area of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, Mexico has got two black areas. One is Veracruz, where the governor is a black man - a mulatto, but black. And the other is called the Costa Chica on the Pacific, south of Acapulco. In the 1770s, let's say, Acapulco was overwhelmingly black, and that area is a very black area, even still.

Well, over in Veracruz, on the Gulf, there's a town called Yanga, Y-A-N-G-A. And in 1570, Gaspar Yanga ran away and led a group of runaway slaves, and they fought the Spanish, Neal, between 1570 and 1609.

The Spanish tried to subdue them. They never could beat them. And finally, the Spanish signed a peace treaty and incorporated this separate settlement under Yanga's leadership.

And many scholars - scholars argue about this - but many scholars say that Yanga was the first independent black town in the whole New World, 1609. Man, that's 11 years before the Mayflower.

So it's incredible. This is a - this sort of - the strain toward independence, self-determination, was very strong in Brazil, in Cuba, in Mexico and throughout the New World. In terms...

CONAN: And you focus - as you mentioned, one of the films are - is half about - more than half about Haiti, which is, of course, the first black republic in the world.

Mr. GATES: That's right. The Haitian Revolution begins in 1791 in the Forest of the Alligators, Bois Caiman, under Boukman, after a Vodou ceremony. And finally, Haiti declares its independence from France in 1804. It's one of the great sagas of liberation both in the New World, and throughout the world.

But it has been demeaned, devalued, because all of the major powers at that time - starting with the United States, headed by Thomas Jefferson - did their best to undermine this independent republic because they did not want this passion for liberty - this belief that you could subdue the white man militarily - to spread, obviously, to the Southern United States.

So Thomas Jefferson, the leaders of France, of course, the leaders in England, everybody in the world conspired to undermine Haiti.

In terms of the list of scholars that Santiago listed, Franklin Franco is in my film on the Dominican Republic. I always build my documentaries around a series of interviews and observations. I interview, quote-unquote, "regular people," and I interview scholars. And so some of the people that you mentioned, as you'll see, Santiago, are in the film.

You have to be careful, as an American, not to want to impose our understanding of race on each of these societies. And the way I get around that - or I do my best to get around that - is to let experts in the country speak to me in the country.

If Franklin Franco had been here at Harvard, I wouldn't have interviewed him. I only talk to experts in the country themselves and let them teach me about the phenomenon that I'm trying to explore.

And finally, he referred to the Independent Party of Color. Neal, this is a terrible tragedy. I said earlier that Antonio Maceo was one of the leading generals in the Cuban war of independence, and that, of course, culminated with what we call the Spanish-American War and what in Cuba they rightly call the Cuban-Spanish-American War.

Cuba was on their way to defeating Spain. It was just a matter of time. America intervened for - remember the sinking of the Maine, which was highly dubious? American intervened for dubious reasons of control.

But many scholars think that Cuba, because it had such an integrated army - Ada Ferrer, who's a professor at NYU, is of Cuban extraction. I interviewed her in Cuba, and she taught me a lot about the Cuban Revolution, that the army was overwhelmingly black.

They had black generals 50 years before we had our first black general, General B.O. Davis here in the United States, with Maceo and other black generals.

And it was only the American intervention, with the successful defeat of Spain, that some scholars believe set - kept Cuba from developing, early on, as a truly multiracial society.

Well, many of these former soldiers were really upset that there wasn't kind of a new wave of racial democracy in Cuba following independence. And so finally, in 1907, they formed the Independent Party of Color. And that was greeted in 1912 with a terrible massacre, and 3,000 of these black men were killed. And parties organized around race were banned legally.

So Cuba has - and many black cultural forms, like son music, were driven underground because they were too embarrassing. Because Cuba, again, was caught in that whole process of whitening. It wanted to whiten itself, its image to the United States and to the rest of the world. And these African retentions - Santeria religion, son music, Samba, other kinds of black cultural forms - were driven underground or were certainly not celebrated as part of the official public national identity.

CONAN: Santiago, I know you're still there, and I know you've still got plenty to say, but we're going to have to go on and give somebody else a chance, okay?

SANTIAGO: I'm not okay with it, but I'll live.

CONAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you very much, appreciate that.

Mr. GATES: Watch the program.

CONAN: Well, we appreciate his candor, in any respect. Let's see if we can go next to J.B. DeSantos(ph), with us from Easthampton in New York.

J.B. DESANTOS (Caller): Hey, Neal. Thank you for taking my call. And Mr. Gates, a pleasure talking to you again. I had the pleasure of meeting you and Mr. Bill Gates at the Juilliard school when I was in graduate school in Manhattan.

Mr. GATES: Oh, that's right. I remember that. My cousin Bill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

J.B. DESANTOS: Yeah. That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

J.B. DESANTOS: I still have the video that we shot that day in my house.

Mr. GATES: Oh, that's great. Send me a copy, African-American studies at Harvard. I'd love to have a copy.

CONAN: Go ahead with the question.

J.B. DESANTOS: I was born and raised in Brazil, and my grandpa, while herding his cattle from Bahia to the state (unintelligible), he said -he used to tell us that he saw a black woman standing in the window, and he took the time to lasso her and take her home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

J.B. DESANTOS: And our legacy is the beauty from that mixing, from the white man with the black woman, or vice versa. And when I look at my family and our beauty and the Brazilian beauty in general, it's something that I think everyone admires. And, you know, again, I never heard the black - the term black or negro, as we say in Brazil, because I grew up seeing everyone as equal. Not until I came to America that I learned that here, you know, people look at me and thought that I was Hispanic or, you know, that you distinguish between black, white, yellow or brown, and also in college, when everyone sits in different parts of the cafeteria.

Mr. GATES: Well...

CONAN: And - go ahead, Skip.

Mr. GATES: Sorry, Neal.

CONAN: No. I was just - go ahead.

Mr. GATES: Gilberto Freyre's theory of - expressed in "The Master and the Slaves" was exactly that, that Brazil was poised to be the world's first racial democracy because of miscegenation, as we used to say, because of interracial sex.

Now, just like your lasso metaphor to the caller, it's - I laughed because it echoes this enforced in sexuality between white men and women of color, it - and Freyre kind of glosses over this. There weren't really relationships based on equality for many of these sexual relationships, obviously because these women were slaves.

On the other hand, there were tremendous percentage of black women who were freed who had been lovers or concubines of white men. And the most famous was, he mentions, Mina Gerais, was the most famous was a woman who lived there called Chica da Silva. And there's been a famous film made about her. She was a black woman who was a slave. White man came from Spain, fell in love with her. He buys here in August, frees her on Christmas day, they had 13 children together. And she became a rich and prosperous person of society in Brazil.

But on the other hand, to the caller, I would advise you not to romanticize that race and intermarriage and democracy because, again, the poorest people in Brazil are still the darkest people, the blackest people. So that Brazil - on the one hand, every Brazilian has some African in them - culturally, Brazilians like to argue. They secretly practice Candomble. Everyone loves Carnival. But on the other hand, if you look at the ruling classes, the ruling classes in Brazil are overwhelmingly white.

And, Neal, they've just introduced the most radical form of affirmative action that I've had ever heard of. It's very controversial. But many of the universities are mandating a fixed percentage of the entrances, you know, admissions for the entering class in each college for, say, 20 percent of the spaces are for either black people or poor people. And they allow the...

CONAN: Which of the 134 categories of color?

Mr. GATES: Well, the black, Negro. You have to identify yourself as being a person of African descent.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GATES: And all of these 134 categor-- not all of them. But many of them are of degrees of African descent and they get around this. So my obvious question is, okay, who's black? What are you going to do, give everybody an admixture DNA test? And, no, it's self-identification. Anyone who shows up and says they're black is admitted under these programs at the few universities that have them. And one university, as I said, has allocated 20 percent of its entering first-year student spaces to black or poor people.

And another one has just introduced a 40-percent policy. Now, the supreme court of Brazil is hearing this case. It will be the equivalent of our Bakke case. But that is how dire many people feel that race relations are in Brazil, that they have to go to such radical lengths to try to redress the problems.

CONAN: "Black in Latin America" debuts tomorrow night on many PBS stations. We're talking with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Patricia, Patricia with us from San Antonio.

PATRICIA (Caller): Yes. I would like you to please verify something for me. I lived in Washington, D.C., and while I was getting my doctorate I took off (technical difficulty) months and I lived in every country in South America.

Mr. GATES: Wow.

PATRICIA: When I arrived in (technical difficulty) Brazil - hello?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead.

PATRICIA: When I arrived in Brazil, I had (technical difficulty) friends in Brazil and I'd notice - go to their houses, there'd be a sculpture of the elbow up to the hand with a fist. And I kept asking my Brazilian friends, how come all of you have this on this the door? And they'd say to me, because we honor the slaves that built our country. Did I get a misconception?

Mr. GATES: Well, Neal, could you tell me what - her voice faded out. I couldn't hear what it was that was over the doorway.

CONAN: Can you describe it again, Patricia? It was a face with the hand to it?


CONAN: And this was meant to honor the slaves?

PATRICIA: Yes. Take your fist and double it up...

CONAN: Oh, a fist.

PATRICIA: ...under the elbow.

CONAN: A fist.

PATRICIA: Most - all my Brazilian friends that invited me over for dinner...

CONAN: I think we got it, Patricia. Did you...

Mr. GATES: No, I didn't see any clenched fists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: I mean, not to say that they're not there. But I went pretty far and wide in Brazil and throughout Bahia. But maybe another caller can call in and...

CONAN: We may not have enough time for that. But we...

Mr. GATES: Oh, but it sounds perfectly plausible to me.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in before we have to go. Let's go to April(ph), April with us in Ephrata, Washington.

APRIL (Caller): Yes. My comment - I am not Latina but my - I married Venezuelan. And because we live out here, I'm always looking for Spanish women's magazines for my mother-in-law. And I'm always very affronted by the models in these Latin magazines are so white.

Mr. GATES: Absolutely.

APRIL: They're all Scandinavian white. And it's - my daughter, who's only four, isn't into women's magazines. But that is not something - I want her to be proud of her dark skin, her beautiful chocolate brown eyes. And so I'm always taken back by the media that's presented to the Latina women to be more white.

Mr. GATES: Absolutely. I filmed a woman who is both a political activist and a hairdresser. She's obviously of African descent. And her entire mission is to stop women who come into her shop from having their hair straightened. And she told me horror stories. I mean, women having little, tiny babies who can't even walk. And she wants them to have their - their mothers want them to have their hair straightened.

So the same problems that we started protesting in the black power movement in this country in the '60s, people throughout Latin America are protesting today. It's fascinating, isn't it, Neal, to see the series and see what's similar in Latin America to race in America, and what's different in Latin America to race and race relations here in the United States. And I learned a tremendous amount.

CONAN: And how different people define themselves. Indio, I'd never heard that expression before.

Mr. GATES: No, it only exists in the Dominican Republic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Skip Gates, thanks very much, as always, for your time. Good luck with the series.

Mr. GATES: Thank you, buddy. Thanks for having me on the show.

CONAN: We were talking with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at Harvard University. He's the executive producer, writer and host of the new four-part documentary "Black in Latin America." You can see it starting tomorrow night on PBS.

Coming up after a short break, we're going to be talking about the explosion of Latino population in this country, which is rewriting the map of the politics.

Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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