by Ryan Mann-Hamilton, Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center
These comments preceded the discussion of Richard Turits’s paper, “New World of Color: Slavery, Freedom, and the Making of Race in Dominican History,” at the Caribbean Epistemologies seminar meeting on 23 November 2010.
As Mintz states throughout his work, Caribbean cultures should be viewed by their particular histories and include analyses of power (Mintz 1995). Without the specificities of history, one’s understanding of current processes operating in the Caribbean is highly incomplete. This paper places the Dominican Republic at the center of the history of the Caribbean and the Americas as a microcosm and a precursor of similar processes operating in those spaces. It is a much-needed addition to the existing scholarship that has tended to privilege the narratives of the Anglophone Caribbean, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Michel Rolph Trouillot challenges scholars to tease out the ambiguous and uncertain moments of the past, to reveal rather than conceal, as the historical narrative has tended to do. The paper wonderfully showcases the various reasons why the Dominican Republic has escaped many of the totalizing narratives of the Caribbean. Benitez-Rojo and other scholars have pointed to the centrality of the plantation in the construction of racial categories, ideologies and societal formations in the Caribbean. Santo Domingo was able to escape these totalizing and violent processes because of its particular history of mixture, large population of free blacks, the advent and early demise of its sugar industry and the subsequent spaces that were created by the desertion of many of the Spanish elite and their inability to control the space of Santo Domingo. This left the formation and integration of that space by individuals who were of African descent.
Processes of racialization have been active since the so called discovery of the Americas. Dr. Turits provides a thorough exploration of the intricacies of race and slavery and the particularities of a society with a rapidly decreasing number of slaves and a rapid rise of the free population of color which formulated private spaces in the home, the community and region that differed markedly from the other islands. Slavery though present on the island was not an all-encompassing endeavor nor as long in duration as the other Spanish Caribbean island. The free African population had a much longer space of time to formulate their own notions of race outside the space of the plantation and slavery induced ideologies. Color acquired a different significance where it was not about dichotomies and bounded variables of black and white, but instead there was significant interplay within those categories. Working against absolute categories and working in between the dualities. Therefore, Turits interrogates and problemtaizes the spaces in between black and white, between slavery and freedom and gives agency to the peasant class that grew out of this space to construct their own identity.
The paper provides a valuable intervention into questions of identity that have permeated much of the recent scholarship on the Dominican Republic regarding race and nation and challenges to conceptions of blackness and the denial of such. These discussions have mainly focused on the categorization and the denial of blackness as effects of, and manipulated by, the ideologies of the Trujillo regime, but have not paid sufficient attention to the historical construction of these ideologies nor how they have been manipulated, expressed and circumvented by the population of the island. This endeavor forces us to push beyond the existing scholarship and interrogate the historical intricacies and particularities that led to a distinct formulation of identities whereas blackness was perceived vis-a-vis one’s position and proximity to slavery. Rather than an apology for the continued valorization of whiteness in the context of the DR, this paper explores why and how this valorization came to be as a mixture of beaurocratic processes and personal decisions. It seeks to understand the development of collective racial identification that have led to the perception of Dominicans as racist and denying their own histories and connections to the African Diaspora. Much like his previous work on the Trujillo regime, Dr. Turits is intent on giving historical agency to the island’s population and not succumbing to the notions of imposition and top down ideologies, but as manifested and perceived from below.
This work is especially important for anthropologists like myself who are invested in asking new questions in the space of the DR and have seen the limitations to current scholarship. The paper provides methodological examples using church registers, marriage records and alternate local archives to construct a narrative that points to the variety and flexibility of categories that existed during this time. We see the conflicts between law and lived realities and the inability of the crown/metropolis to control the manipulation and transgression of these categories. It opens up additional spaces to theorize about the relations between Haiti and its neighbor that have until now been presented through the lens and the influence of Trujillo with an emphasis on conflicts rather than many of the historical examples that point to collaboration, communication and relationships between the two communities that has been expressed in more recent scholarship. (Martinez 2003) Additional scholarship is needed that pays more attention to the economic conditions and class divisions within this space that will provide valuable insight into the day-to-day lives of these free people of African descent who carved out their lives and their identities within the space of Santo Domingo. More scholarly work is needed that pays historical attention to contemporary processes, work that looks at movement and the transgression of spaces while paying deep attention to geographies and how they impact the construction of these ideologies as ways of dismantling totalizing narratives. It is in conversation with much of the current work done on identities by James Sweet and Loran Matory with a focus on the power of the individual in formulating these identities; these regional variations are relational and not constant.
Turits uses clear evidence that racial identification categories were clearly available but not used to represent social identity. We can see an example of Colombia today and the existence of various categories that are being inscribed by the populations to define themselves rather than allow for the imposition of afro-descendant or negro. The naming and claiming of one’s own identity is still a prescient matter.
Why has the DR been so understudied in comparison with other Caribbean nations?
Do these regional variations of racial classifications and ideologies still exist today?
What can more comparative historical work yield for scholars of the Caribbean and what are the obstacles to doing this type of work that does not focus on national histories but the connection between and amongst?
When and how did color become reinscribed into Dominican identity in its present mode, that is, manifested in the distinctions between Haitians and Dominicans?
How does the Diaspora identify themselves in the context of either or classifications in the US? Are perceptions of denial of blackness impositions?
As Price Mars and Juan Bosch write about in later historical moments How does US interventions into the landscape of the DR in 1870, 1916 and 1965 and its subsequent relationship with it affect these racial categories and shift in ideologies?
Paying attention to the economic fluctuations of the white elite may provide additional insight to the ways they were forced to negotiate their own privilege within these spaces. Without the material means to express their difference and superiority what was it other than laws that maintained that distinction?
Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. 1992. “From the Plantation to the Plantation,” in The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Duke U. Press.
Martínez, Samuel. 2003. “Not a Cockfight: Rethinking Haitian-Dominican Relations,” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 30, No. 3: 80-101.
Mintz, Sidney. 1995. “Enduring Substances, Trying Theories: The Caribbean Region as Oikoumene,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 2, No. 2: 289-311.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1992. “The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory,” in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 21, 19-42.