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Callaloo 23.3 (2000) 1086-1111

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The Tribulations of Blackness
Stages in Dominican Racial Identity

Silvio Torres-Saillant

The island of Hispaniola or Santo Domingo served as port of entry to the first African slaves who stepped on Spain's newly conquered territories following Christopher Columbus' eventful transatlantic voyage in 1492. Nine years into the conquest of what thenceforward became known as the New World, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella appointed Fray Nicolás de Ovando as new Governor of Santo Domingo, authorizing him to bring "black slaves" to their colony (Saco 164). Marking the start of the black experience in the Western Hemisphere, the arrival of Ovando's fleet in July 1502 ushered in a social and demographic history that would lead in the course of five centuries to the overwhelming presence of people of African descent in the Dominican Republic today. 1 Blacks and mulattoes make up nearly 90% of the contemporary Dominican population. Yet no other country in the hemisphere exhibits greater indeterminacy regarding the population's sense of racial identity. To the bewilderment of outside observers, Afro-Dominicans have traditionally failed to flaunt their blackness as a collective banner to advance economic, cultural or political causes. Some commentators would contend, in effect, that Dominicans have for the most part denied their blackness. Faced with the population's tolerance of official claims asserting the moral and intellectual superiority of Caucasians by white supremacist ideologues, analysts of racial identity in Dominican society have often imputed to Dominicans heavy doses of "backwardness," "ignorance" or "confusion" regarding their race and ethnicity (Fennema and Loewenthal 209; Sagás). I would like in the pages that follow to reflect on the complexity of racial thinking and racial discourse among Dominicans and urge the use of indigenous paradigms to explicate the place of black consciousness in Dominican society and culture.

Dominican Blackness, U.S. Racism, and Racial Awareness

The Dominican Republic came into being as a sovereign state on February 27, 1844, when the political leaders of eastern Hispaniola proclaimed their juridical separation from the Republic of Haiti, putting an end to twenty-two years of unification under a black-controlled government with its seat in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian leadership originally resisted the idea of relinquishing authority over the whole island and made successive attempts to regain the eastern territory, which resulted in sporadic armed [End Page 1086] clashes between Haitian and Dominican forces until 1855. As the newly created Caribbean republic sought to insert itself into an economic order dominated by Western powers, among which "the racial imagination" had long taken a firm hold, the race of Dominicans quickly became an issue of concern (Torres-Saillant 33-37). In December 1844, near the end of President John Tyler's administration, U.S. Secretary of State John C. Calhoun spoke of the need for the fledgling Dominican state to receive formal recognition from the U.S., France, and Spain in order to prevent "the further spread of negro influence in the West Indies" (Welles 76). Calhoun, as would many other American statesmen and journalists throughout the 19th century, conceived of Dominicans as other than black.

When in 1845 American Agent John Hogan arrived in Santo Domingo with the mandate of assessing the country for an eventual recognition of its independence, he sided with Dominicans in their conflicts with Haitians and lamented the predominance of people of African descent in the country. Addressing the Dominican Minister of Foreign Relations Tomás Bobadilla, Hogan wondered whether "the presence in the Republic of so large a proportion of the coloured race" would weaken the government's efforts to fend off Haitian aggression, but Bobadilla assuaged his fears by stating "that among the Dominicans preoccupations regarding color have never held much sway" and that even former "slaves have fought and would again fight against the Haitians" if need be, on account of the oppressiveness of the Haitian regime (Welles 77-78). In a dispatch addressed to U.S. Secretary of State John M. Clayton, dated October 24, 1849, American Commissioner in Santo Domingo Jonathan E. Green...