- Diaspora CrossingsAfro-Latin America in the Afro-Atlantic
As a review essay in these pages recently remarked, “Afro-Latin America is on the map. The black presence in Latin America—which until recently was socially invisible as blacks were cleansed from the sociological landscape—is more visible than ever.”1 The works under review here bear out that statement while exemplifying the many different ways that scholars today are studying people of African descent in the region. These works approach Afro-Latin America from widely varying disciplinary perspectives (sociology, history, anthropology, literature, theology, and communications) and from different geographical perspectives as well. Although some cast their analysis at the national level, others, especially the edited volumes, range broadly over Afro-Latin America as a whole. Others set the region (or specific countries) within an even broader geographical context, tracing connections, movements, interactions, and dialogues within Afro-Latin America, and between Afro-Latin America and the larger Atlantic world, particularly Africa and the United States. In so doing, they seek to conceptualize and understand Afro-Latin America as part of the black-or Afro-Atlantic.
In Being and Blackness in Latin America, Patricia Fox takes Afro-Atlantic connections, and the flows of people along and through them, as her starting point. Since the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1400s, mobility and uprootedness have been basic conditions of the African diaspora. The experience of uprootedness is foundational in diaspora history, yet, she suggests, it remains poorly understood: “Representations that typically describe the sojourn of peoples of African descent in the Hispanic New World . . . emphasize enslavement, offering a picture of catatonic beings dumped into an alien and hostile environment where these piezas de India would endure unspeakable horrors and humiliations.” Africans and their descendants are portrayed as “pitiable, empty-handed drones in constructing the New World and its system” (151).
To counter such images, Fox “proposes to rethink Blackness as a narrative not about slavery, lack, and open-ended neediness, but rather as a journey propelled by uprootedness and expressed with improvisation, responsively shaping life strategies as much as world views and behaviors” (4; original emphasis). Beginning with the slave trade, Afro-Latin American uprootedness continues in recent centuries through intraregional labor migration, land dispossession (including, Fox notes, struggles over desirable urban real estate in Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and other cities), and migration to the United States and Europe. Quoting the (uprooted) Jamaican literary theorist Sylvia Wynter, she observes that “our uprootedness is the original model of the total twentieth century disruption of [End Page 210] man. . . . We anticipated, by centuries, that exile, which in our century is now common to all” (20).
Bereft of home and, in the case of the slave trade, possessions, migrants and exiles had to engage in improvisation, “a gutsy intersection of skill and serendipity” (50). As Fox notes: “Those strategies in turn constitute the values celebrated and esteemed by people of African descent in specific cultural learning contests, especially those of play, of joking...