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Reviewed by:
  • Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay
  • Anton Rosenthal
Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay. By George Reid Andrews (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2010) 241 pp. $59.95 cloth $22.95 paper

Andrews situates his intriguing study of this small corner of the African diaspora at the uneasy intersection of national mythology and racial discrimination practiced across the twentieth century. Though today constituting between 6 and 9 percent of the national population, Afro-Uruguayans disappeared from the historical narrative in the late nineteenth century. Andrews seeks to rescue their history for an English-language audience, building on recent scholarship while offering the dual perspective of a social historian and a participant observer in the annual celebration of Carnival. He draws from rich data to examine how blacks came to be seen as "extraneous to Uruguayan modernity"(5): dozens of interviews with Carnival performers and directors, historians, artists, and politicians; an anthropological study from the 1950s; a documentary film from the 1940s; and an official history from 1930. Situating the study in Uruguay provides some key opportunities, since the country "generated by far the most active black press anywhere in Latin America" (5), numbering at least twenty-five newspapers before 1950. It was also home to one of only three black political parties in the region. In the arts, blacks created a musical form, the candombe, which was eventually adopted by whites, hybridized, and performed publicly in whiteface, before becoming what Andrews identifies as "a national rhythm" (17).

Andrews has conceived a far more ambitious study than simply resurrecting a lost narrative. He unravels an alternative history to the one in which Uruguay imagines itself as a European country in the New World—imbued with "whiteness," "civilization," a high rate of literacy, and a frequently iterated commitment to egalitarianism. In the process, he deciphers the contradictions between this progressive official ideology and an array of evidence that demonstrates a prolonged pattern of discrimination against blacks—a lack of access to such public places as theaters, restaurants, cafés, and schools; segregation in menial jobs and poor neighborhoods; and disproportionate conscription into the military. Emblematic of these contradictions is the fact that only five Afro-Uruguayans graduated from the national university in the first half of the twentieth century in a country that prided itself on making education accessible to a broad public (91).

Through juxtaposing accounts in establishment newspapers with stories in the black press, Andrews uncovers the historical agency of Afro-Uruguayans in constructing strategies of resistance to the racial hierarchy. Combining these tactics with the observations and memories of his oral-history subjects, Andrews is also able to provide a spatial dimension to the history, leading him into the world of the working-class neighborhoods in Montevideo that gave birth to Afro-Uruguayan popular culture and, in the 1970s, to its erasure through the demolition of buildings that had provided the communal housing in which candombe [End Page 322] arose. His discussion of networks and community in these neighborhoods benefits from his participation as a drummer in a comparsa, a corps of performers that ritually march in named groups through the streets of the city during Carnival, playing candombe tunes and competing for recognition.

Though Andrews makes a good case for the value of comparative history (19), he does not follow this approach in a sustained way. Rather than employing case studies, Andrews occasionally uses examples from African-driven popular culture in Cuba, Brazil, and Argentina to provide a wider context for his study of Afro-Uruguay. The last chapter offers a short analysis of black access to social services in contemporary Brazil and Uruguay, based on recent census data, but it also bypasses an opportunity to develop a briefly mentioned institutional alliance with Jews into a comparative discussion of discrimination against a different "outsider," another subject of much recent historical scholarship (149).

Andrews' engagingly written, creative, and politically relevant study contributes to a trend in scholarship that emerged in the 1990s. It has subjected the "social imaginary" of Uruguay, constructed in the early twentieth century, to an autopsy occasioned by a brutal military regime that cracked...


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pp. 322-323
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