Black Writing, Culture, and the State in Latin America ed. by Jerome C. Branche (review)
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Black Writing, Culture, and the State in Latin America, edited by Jerome C. Branche. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2015. 288pages, chapter endnotes, references, list of contributors, and index. $79.95 hardback (ISBN 978-0-8265-2062-3); $24.95 paperback (ISBN 978-0-8265-2063-0); $9.99 ebook (ISBN 978-0-8265-2064-7).

Jerome Branche’s edited volume, Black Writing, Culture, and the State in Latin America is a necessary, if eclectic volume whose focus on black writing(s) and culture(s) spans Latin America—from Mexico and the Spanish Caribbean in the north, to Brazil and Uruguay [End Page 169] in the south, as well as Equatorial Guinea to the east. While the racial and regional focus is rather straightforward, the third prong mentioned in the title—the State—is occasionally somewhat hazier.

The strength of this edited volume is in its breadth of consideration of black Latin American writing. No matter what a reader’s area of specialization may be, I cannot imagine someone who would be familiar with all of the topics under discussion. In the Introduction, Branche identifies the variety of genres addressed in the volume: “alongside narrative and lyrical poetry, analyses of film and popular theatre, material from the oral tradition, and in one case, the speech act or of the oath” (1).

The first chapter considers the power of the religious oath and its perceived threat to the colonial state when uttered by enslaved Africans or their descendants in the Escalera uprising in mid-nineteenth century Cuba. Chapters 2, 9, 10 and 11 analyze (respectively) poetry in late nineteenth century Cuba, women’s oral poetry in Mexico, contemporary poetry and the musical practice of Candombe from Uruguay, and a renaissance of Abdias Nascimento’s concept of quilombismo (marronage) in Brazilian poetry. Chapter 8 bridges these poetic concerns with orality and performativity in its attention to bilingualism in Panamanian hip-hop. The other end of that performative bridge--theatre and drama--is found in in Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 7. Chapter 3 addresses longstanding racial policies in Cuba through the works of black filmmakers Sara Gómez and Nicolás Guillen Landrian (nephew of the famous Cuban poet). Chapter 4 focuses on “scenarios of becoming” in Costa Rica, Uruguay, and in an unexpected spin on Afro-Hispanic literary conceptualizations, the Hispanic African context of Equatorial Guinea. Chapter 5 attends to healing in Colombia from the Bojaya massacre through theatre. Chapter 7 considers comparative dramatizations (two short stories and a feature length film) on the 1974 death of Isabel “La Negra” Luberza Oppenheimer—a famous black madame from Ponce, Puerto Rico. Chapters 6 and 12 extend on this latter issue of storytelling in their attention to narrativity related—in the former, to published post-abolition accounts of women from Cuba, Ecuador, and Puerto Rico; and in the latter to an Uruguayan elder/ancestor (and his interlocutors) musing on what is lost and what is gained in the transcription of orality to the written word.

Throughout the volume, Spanish or Portuguese texts are provided, usually with full translations in the text (very rarely in the footnotes). Further, given the extensive analyses of poetry, the full poem is often provided, even if in segmented format. Novels, films, and plays are fully summarized such that readers who are unfamiliar with these largely unknown works have a good sense of the material under consideration. This full explication was not always the case with musical and cultural forms like Uruguayan Candombe.

While the disciplinary perspectives of the collection of authors is often difficult to discern, even from the “Contributors” description at the end of the book, after reviewing the entire volume, one gets a strong sense of the influence of Spanish Language and Literature and/or Cultural Criticism. Perhaps the editor was concerned that clearly asserting a disciplinary angle would limit the book’s audience; I doubt that would be the case given the wide variety of topics addressed relating to Latin Americans of African-descent. Indeed, with a clearer understanding of the disciplinary approaches, I can [End Page 170] envision anthropologists, geographers, historians, political scientists, and sociologists—as well as scholars...