- Black Writing, Culture, and the State in Latin America ed. by Jerome C. Branche
This book is an ambitious collection of scholarship in the field of Afro-Hispanic literary criticism whose stated aim is to "expand the scope of the current research efforts beyond the standard genres of the lettered tradition. It therefore includes, alongside narrative and lyrical poetry, analyses of film and popular theater, material form the oral tradition, and in one case, the speech act of the oath" (1). This is indeed the volume's principal contribution. This survey of Afro-Latin American literary output (literary in a broad sense) is also admirable in its geographical scope: there are chapters on black cultural production in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, and Uruguay. Most strikingly, however, the volume expands the archive of Afro-Latin American literature by including analyses of speech acts, oral poems (coplas), collective memory, and musical genres such as hip hop.
Bringing in the oral tradition allows Paulette A. Ramsay's excellent essay to trace racial consciousness among Afro-Mexicans today, for example, making an exception to the dominant historiographical trend that confines them to the colonial past. This expansion of the kinds of "texts" that are considered and found legible by scholars of Afro-Latin American literature is an important intervention, within and outside of accepted canonical forms. Thus the volume also contains many fine chapters on [End Page 414] poetry, in contrast to other analyses of Latin American nation-building in which prose dominates (34).
Among the strongest chapters in the volume are the first three, on Cuba, including Matthew Pettway's innovative reading of loyalty oaths in a nineteenth-century Cuban slave uprising as a form of ritual poetics that exemplified the practices of concealment central to slave resistance and the role of African-derived religions in simultaneously endowing these political movements with a spiritually subversive character. Marveta Ryan makes a welcome intervention by highlighting the gender politics of poems published in Cuba's late nineteenth-century black press, including those by Afro-Cuban women. Odette Casamayor-Cisneros's essay turns to the films of black Cuban filmmakers to trace the Cuban Revolution's embrace of a socialist, nationalist discourse that could not envision a distinct black Cuban subject. Other chapters in the volume engage with similar themes in differing national contexts, such as the afterlife of slavery and the importance of marronage and slave resistance as a model of black political mobilization, seen in the chapters by Lesley Feracho, Melva M. Persico, and Niyi Afolabi.
Despite these seemingly unifying threads, the book suffers from a problem common to edited volumes: this is a disparate collection of essays that do not have much in common apart from the fact that all address one broadly conceived subject area. The introduction attempts to address this gap by arguing that the chapters in the volume all speak in different ways to Afro-Latin American cultural production's fraught relationship to the state. One problem with this framing, however, is that "the state" appears as a kind of all-purpose foil against which the scholars position the work of the black artists or black communities they are analyzing. This is true in the case of the Catherine Walsh and Juan García Salazar chapter on collective memory in Esmeraldas in Ecuador, and also of María Mercedes Jaramillo's essay on popular theater in the Chocó in Colombia.
Yet, the specific historical and intellectual contexts in which each of the Afro-Latin American writers or artists considered in these chapters operated, or still operates, is vastly different, as were the racial projects they confronted and participated in. Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo's intriguing chapter on Afro-Panamanian multilingualism, for example, is framed in light of US and Caribbean debates about bilingualism and the development of black vernaculars, respectively, but pays relatively little attention to the politics of language on Central America's Caribbean Coast, which is key to...