- Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000
The title and the text of the book may be brief, but Reid Andrews' latest work is an impressively thorough survey of the experiences of Afro-Latin Americans from the independence era to the present. In 200 pages he places the experiences of the "black" and "brown" descendants of the area's slaves in the major political and economic developments of the time, and traces how they have both affected and been affected by those developments. Coherently presented and clearly written, this will probably remain the definitive overview of the history of modern Afro-Latin America for years to come.
Andrews is very much interested in the issue of agency. The Afro-Latin Americans he describes are not passive bystanders or dominated peoples rendered mute by the brutality of slavery. They are determined participants taking advantage of the opportunities that arose to improve their status and in the process to challenge the racism and discrimination that centuries of slavery left in its wake. His examples are taken primarily from the principal slaveholding countries of the nineteenth century, Brazil and Cuba, but his sweep incorporates everywhere that a black population existed and literature on their lives has appeared.
After a brief Introduction, he turns to the background of African slavery in the area that lays out his theme of black activism, describing slaves' efforts during the colonial era to secure better conditions by participating in labor slowdowns and strikes, fleeing and creating runaway communities, retaining their cultural and religious traditions that became imbedded in their new homelands, and winning their individual freedom that led to the growth of a substantial free black and mulatto population. One of Andrews' arguments is that Afro-Latin Americans achieved their greatest successes as part of multiracial coalitions. An example is their involvement in the wars of independence that at the time secured freedom for many and paved the way for the eventual abolition of slavery. They also began establishing ties with their new countries' Liberal parties that seemed to offer opportunities for advancement. However, after helping to secure the Liberals' political dominance in the second half of the nineteenth century, they found that they had unleashed renewed repression, for many of the Liberal governments adopted the positivist and social darwinist ideas of the time with their emphasis on "whitening" in its various guises. In this more restrictive environment the marginalized black population turned to racially based—and less successful—groups to promote their interests, as well as to their cultural roots, which had wider and more profound repercussions, even if the emerging black middle class tended to reject this element of their past. At the same time, many of the increasingly urbanized Afro-Latin Americans were joining the nascent labor organizations where they achieved notable successes, setting the stage for the more favorable period under the populist regimes of mid century. [End Page 699]
Giving a nod to democratic forms, the populist era was also marked by an acceptance and even appropriation of elements of black culture for nationalistic purposes, ensuring its popularity far beyond the borders of Latin America. However, periods marked by advances were succeeded by periods of repression, and the restrictions of the neo-liberal decade of the 1980s resulted in a new upsurge of racially defined black mobilization and a final recognition that past claims of the region's racial democracy were a myth. The book ends in 2000, but the author recognizes that the struggle has not ended and points to some of the ways Afro-Latin Americans will likely promote their political, economic, and cultural goals in the future.
These examples are only a taste of the extensive buffet that this fine book has to offer. The necessity to synthesize may result in the occasional glossing over of quite complex issues and assertions that do not always strike true. And the book's overall tone of optimism may strike some as unjustified. But Andrews provides the evidence to support his claims and conclusions, and in the...