Race and José Martí

Posted on March 4, 2021


Studying, or rather suffering, angst, over race in this country is like someone focusing on their belly button. Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal on “Beyond Black History Month” is one (very thoughtful) American’s take on race, bringing the advantage of his having lived elsewhere, I think Paris, for a number of years to give him some perspective. Or as Mark Twain put it more felicitously: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Belly buttons are all a bit different, by the way, but they are the same. So are people when it comes to defining them by their color. They are all a bit different, but they are all the same.

Years ago, the greatest Cuban thinker and activist of them all (forget Fidel; you fail this quiz if you thought of him) was José Martí (1853-1895) who famously wrote in his brilliant essay Nuestra América (published in the newspaper El Partido Liberal (Mexico City, Jan. 20, 1891) “there are no races” in the Americas. There exists instead a “universal identity of mankind.” He has been praised and excoriated (today’s BLM considers him a false prophet, denying the reality of racism, ad infinitum) over the past century for expressing this truth, also expressed in Christian Scripture by the Apostle Paul, and quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are in in Christ Jesus.” (NRSV)

Americans are totally engrossed in this subject of racism just as they were in the 1960s when I kind of “came of age” when the old standards of segregation and Jim Crow were being toppled by the Civil Rights movement. There was a clarity of morality and justice then which is lacking today with everyone shouting at each other. I think William’s piece brings some insights to the table we need to consider.

Back in my day, leading American historians like Carl Degler, struggling to come to terms with what was happening, did something that American thinkers—historians and the rest of the lot—did back then to give us all some perspective. They looked to other countries, other nations, especially in Latin America, that had had similar experiences to us to see how, for example, the Brazilians and Cubans dealt withs similar issues. In Carl Degler’s Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States. he compared the role of race in the histories of Brazil which had a huge influx of Africans as opposed to small minority that were sent to the British colonies and new American nation over the years. Degler’s phrase the “mulatto escape hatch” stayed with me.

I also read Frank Tannebaum’s (1893-1969) classic study of slavery in Mexico, Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas, originally published in 1947. Although dated, it compared slavery and the end of slavery both in Latin America and the United States, and the consequences.

How do Latinos/Hispanics feel about race?

I had a friend from the Dominican Republic who came to the University of Alabama and Stillman on a joint Fulbright appointment years ago. He was a well-known and respected poet and writer in his own land, and, after a few months, he remarked to me, “Larry, I didn’t realize I was a black until I came to this country!” He was only exaggerating slightly to make his point.

The question of race, such a painful and rancorous illness in American society, has not played out the same in other countries with similar historical backgrounds. For example, in the U.S. ex-slaves were called “freedmen,” implying of course that they had not been free before. In Brazilian Portuguese, there were no “freedmen.” There were only free men and slaves before Emancipation which came in 1889. After 1889, everyone was a free man.

There was a famous story from the nineteenth century that also spoke to the issue. A French traveler to Brazil was surprised to find a very black man in the office of local administrator in one of the provinces.

“How can this be?” the Frenchman queried.

“Ah, monsieur, he used to be black until he became the chief administrator.”

Anecdotes tell us a lot about life in any country, but they don’t represent sustained, verifiable research. That research, nonetheless, exists, and one can find many examples of people of mixed racial backgrounds moving up through the political, economic, and even social ladders of Latin American society in the past two centuries.

Returning to Degler and his “mulatto escape hatch.”

Why was Brazil thought to be a “racial democracy” of sorts while the United States was fighting its way out of segregation? Both countries had had large African slave populations—Brazil’s much larger than America’s—both had emancipated the slaves in the nineteenth century, both were functioning republics, both were colonized by European settlers, and, so, why such different racial trajectories?

The difference was the “mulatto escape hatch,” or the ability of people of mixed races in Brazil to rise up through the ceilings of race, such as existed in the U. S., and integrate into Brazilian society without the stigma of color or background following them. It is a valid generalization, but, like all generalizations, there are big exceptions and one can find flaws. Yet, in the main, it portrayed the truth.

There are quite a few mestizos (descendants of Indian and white/European unions) and even an occasional mulatto (whites and blacks) and Indian (Benito Juarez in Mexico for example) who have risen to the top of the political heap in Latin America, especially in those countries—Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico—with significant Indian and/or mestizo populations.

There is a tendency, however, for the old white elites—whether Spanish, or heavily influenced by Italian, German and other immigration streams—to still control power. I remember, for example, Brazilians at some time touting their racial democracy, and some wag noted that the Brazilian Foreign Service was still lily white. That was some years ago.

What is different in Latin America is that the barriers that some think (endemic white racism, white fragility, 1619 Project, etc.) separate whites from blacks in this country don’t exist, or are very watered down, in Latin America. This begs the big question, of course. Why is this?

One, the stigma of slavery wasn’t necessarily associated with the color black in Latin America. Indian slavery was also widely practiced, while slavery itself had been long imbedded in Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) societies since the times of the Romans all the way through to the conquest.

Frank Tannenbaum explored this theme his Slave and Citizen. He too, like Degler, and like many others since then, like Williams’ piece, wondered by blacks were disenfranchised—formally through the then existing system of segregation at the time Tannenbaum wrote—or, informally, in our times, by perceptions of prejudice and/or real discrimination, such as police brutality, white supremacy, etc.

Tannenbaum’s thesis was that slavery was not associated with the color black in Latin America, because slavery had at one time or another snagged all people—white, black, Indians, barbarians, Romans, etc.—in its snare. Once free, they were free. Roman gladiators, for example, were slaves. They were from all across the Roman Empire. It was not their color that got them into, or out of slavery.

So, slavery in Latin America, descended as it was from Hispanic culture, did not carry the stigma associated with the color black. Fast forward from Roman times to the early seventeenth century when the first African slaves arrived in the English colonies in 1619. They were Africans.

Slavery as a system had long ago ended in England. But when it was restored in the colonies, it was largely associated with new African slaves coming across to work the fields and farms of the English colonists. Slavery and blackness became intimately associated in minds of English colonists who eventually morphed into Virginians and New Englanders and Carolinians, and they carried this cultural baggage right into Independence.

Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church insisted that all Africans, even those coming freshly off the ships, be baptized, and brought into the faith, even if it wasn’t entirely understood by the African slaves. This too had the effect of fomenting a sense of equality—even it was just a spiritual equality—among slaves and free people in Latin America.

In the colonies, the Church of England, the Anglican Church, which predominated in the large slaveholding states of the southern colonies, was reluctant to extend the full benefits of Christianity to the slave community.

Other streams of Christianity, the Quakers for example, argued against such discrimination and led in the charge to emancipate all slaves, but even among Christian worshippers, slaves and free people worshipped separately.

In fact, look around you today. Blacks and whites do worship occasionally together, but, as the old cliché goes, the most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning.

There were other arguments made over the past half century by Tannenbaum and his followers, and by his critics obviously as well. Some claimed that the economics of slavery—plantation labor largely—determined slave/master relations across the board, emphasizing the economics of the phenomenon. Others said almost the exact opposite.

A brilliant book by the Brazilian sociologist, Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987), The Masters and the Slaves (first published in 1933), stated that it was precisely the plantation system which threw everyone together with miscegenation practiced across the board and softened the distance between master and slave and so contributed to the peculiarities of Brazilian racial relations.

So, there you have it. It is complicated and it is fascinating. It is not simple, but it demands we look beyond ourselves and our own local and regional and national peculiarities and prejudices. Looking at other cultures with similar circumstances helps us understand ourselves. Williams’s piece brings us up to date on the hypersensitivity of some in the African American community, and of the use of racial prejudice in reverse to promote other political agendas.

Published as “Racial issues played out differently in other countries,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday April 25, 2021.

Posted in: racism