Notes From The Afro-Latin@s Now! Conference Plenary

The Afro-Latin@s Now! Conference is taking place as I write. It began on Thursday at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with the Plenary and continued through Friday with “traditional” presentations throughout the day and wraps up this Saturday with events targeting youth at El Museo del Barrio.

I was asked to participate in one of the sessions on sexuality but my workload didn’t allow me to attend any of the events except for the Plenary. I’ve included some notes I took on the plenary and some other reflections from other folks who did attend Friday.

The plenary had four extremely well-known people doing work within the Afr@Latin@ community in various capacities. The panelists included Educardo Bonilla-Silva, sociologist at Duke University and author of several texts on white supremacy, Maria Rosario Jackson a researcher and professor who works in urban planning and development and , Evelyne Laurent-Perrault a biologist and historian and founder of the annual Arturo Schomburg Symposium at Taller Puertorriqueno in Philidelphia, and Silvio Torres-Saillant a professor of English and founder of the Dominican Studies Institute at City College and the author of several texts about Dominican identity. The facilitator for the evening was James Counts Early the Director of the Cultural Heritage Policy Center at the Smithsonian instituion. You may read more about each panelist and a fuller bio at the Afro-Latin@ Now! Conference site.

The first question that was posed to the panelist were “why is there this interest in Black Latin@s at this time?” Responses included an increased interest in Blackness, the diaspora. Torres-Saillant shared that when he was growing up Blackness was something one had to apologize for in the Dominican Republic. Rosario Jackson shared that with the browning of the US being more local yet there is still a crisis which she believes may lead to more creative opportunity. Laurent-Perrault mentioned the term “coyuntura” and how there is an increase in energy within particular communities that is leading to this attention. Bonilla-Silva shared that we are living in a “new racial order” which is how the US is moving towards a more Latin Americanist perspective on race, which he believes is NOT a good thing. He states we, in the US, are living in a “multi-racial white supremacist regime” and that there is a three point racial consciousness for Black Latin@s which includes: being racially Black, being ethnically Latino and being US citizens as well.

The next question was about being proactive. Torres-Saillant began by indicating how mestizaje is connected to the “multi-racial white supremacist regime” where the US hides racism under mestizaje in the US in the same way that Latin American’s are currently finding themselves in crisis regarding their mestizaje. Rosario Jackson shared that we must begin to claim racially Black people as a strategy to be proactive. At this point the facilitator Early shared how many Black Latin@s Anglicized their names to pass just as Blacks in the US. He gave the example of actor and producer Terry Carter and several Black Latin@ baseball players who changed their names to simply be in the Negro Leagues and be Black only.  Laurent-Perrault indicates this is why she loves history because it already gives us some of the answers we need. It’s at this time that the panelists indicate that Black US folks can learn from LatiNegr@s as we have 100 years longer of Blackness in our countries compared to the US (based on documentation of when the first African slaves were brought to the areas in the 1500s). Bonilla-Silva mentions the connections to the ideas of mixing among Black Latin@s in an effort to “better” (i.e. whiten) the family and community. He also mentions this being connected to a myth of nation building where we validate whiteness by using the same categories and structures that were created by whites to identify and label/mark Latin@s worldwide.

The third question was about action, research and policy. Bonilla-Silva began by discussing how the system of racial domination is distinct to the US (and is specific because of location). He asks how do we organize and politicize within a pigmentocratic logic? Rosario Jackson states that she was thinking about this lately and things the media is one important outlet and believes we need a good comedian. Her thoughts are that we need someone who is witty, smart, and funny to make us laugh and think to move agendas forward. She also thinks media may be one way to help youth (teens specifically) who are at odds with one another when they must recognize they are a community that may work together to address similar issues they both encounter. Torres-Saillant states that we must work to fix the narrative that is created and being created about us. Laurent-Perrault looks to the same myth that all families are the same color and the problem with the ideology of the “raza cósmica.” She uses the television show Dora The Explorer as an example that everyone in her family is the same color, which is not true for a majority of Latino families.

At this time the floor was open to the 100+ participants to ask questions of the panelist or of one another. Some of the questions included:

  • What about the dis/connections between LatiNegra’s and the experiences that Black Latinas have among one another?
  • How do we push the connections we build and have with one another from ethnic and racial spaces?
  • How may dismantling the ideas of what is Latinidad help us in moving forward?

Bonilla-Silva answered the last question by stating that one cannot identify as Black and  then try to identify that Blackness to being a member of a nation because this is the game that white supremacy forces us to play. We must either be “Puerto Rican” without recognizing Blackness or Black and not recognize Puerto Rican ethnicity. We must dismantle the moral hierarchy which places Blackness as Other or less than.

More questions from the audience included:

  •  How do we mend and connect more to our relationships to Africa?
  • There must be the responsibility of racially white Latinos to challenge invisibility and anti-Black racism when they see/hear it as part of action.
  • If the term “Latino” does not travel outside of the US, how do these conversations become useful (or not) outside of the US with Latinos in Central and South America and the Caribbean?
  • Assuming that Black skin can unite and solve our problem does not seem to really speak to the complexity. What about bi-ethnic Black people?
  • How may we begin to get the media to recognize us?
  • What resources for educators working with youth ages K-6th grade have and where may we find them?

Unfortunately, there was not enough time for the panelist to address the questions presented and they were only given one minute to share final thoughts. The panel was followed by a cultural and musical performance by pianist Kwami Coleman.

It was a good evening and when I stood up to meet friends scattered about I was very happy to see that the auditorium had filled two-fold since I had arrived at 6pm when there was only about 50 people present. I also had a few things I too was thinking about that were not addressed (and yes all of these are a part of the work that I do and why I do such work) which includes:

  •  Colonization: what about the nations that still do not have or even begun a decolonization process and is examining Blackness and challenging anti-Blackness and anti-indigenous ideologies a part of that process? If so how has that occurred? What have been the outcomes? What may we learn from those attempts? And what about those spaces that have yet to experience sovereignty (i.e. Puerto Rico)? What role do those nations and countries play in this work?
  • What about youth? Where are the young people? What are ways we are open to being mentored by youth and having them be a part of helping us solve, create, and build solutions? I felt an overwhelming exclusion of youth at this plenary. I’m not sure if that was on purpose or if it was something that was not ever considered. I think it is often something adults do to talk about youth versus including them to talk about their experiences. Perhaps their lived realties and solutions will challenge many theories and ideas and then what do we do?
  •  Sexuality: clearly the Blackness that we are discussing is connected to sex and sexuality. We are not experiencing a difference in skin color and pigmentocracy by happenstance, it is because of sex, rape, power and these are topics we are NOT discussing. Why is that?

Writer and Activist Carmen Mojica shared some of her thoughts about the conference Friday on her Tumblr page. Mojica shares the following in her piece “Keeping It Real & Relevant: Reflections After Today’s Panels @ The Afro-Latin@ Conference“:

  1. I felt that the majority of the panels were composed of talented individuals who promoted themselves more than actually talking about the subject at hand. I remember walking out of the discussions unresolved, with more questions than answers. I was also annoyed because their entire bio was in the program pamphlet and it was repeated verbatim in various forms.
  2. I have always been an intellectual. I once had an intimate affair with academia. Then I realized that academia is a public ejaculation session in which academic people talk about their work and themselves until they get off and strive to walk out feeling like their research is comparable to none. That being said, academia is patriarchal in nature. It is a dry documentation of real life and quite individualistic in the pursuit to achieve this illusion of being well-educated. I appreciate my education but also believe the real teacher in this life is experience and the relationships you have with others.
  3. This need to “professionalize” the AfroLatin@ experience or any experience for that matter walks the thin line between absolutely necessary and appeasing the system. On one hand, it is important for our history to be documented in the canons of this world. On the other hand, who really benefits from the information we painstakingly research? Academics with PhDs? How does that information get to our neighborhoods effectively?
  4. Before we began talking about abstract things such as trans-nationalism, appropriation, assimilation and the like, we grew up in [insert urban community i.e The Bronx, Brooklyn, Chicago, etc]. Where is that story? Where is the very human experience of what that was like? And where is the non-academized version of that human story that will connect us on a basic level of interaction? It is my experience that the personal narrative is much more valuable when being in the real world (the one in which people are unemployed, on public assistance and hope not to be evicted tomorrow). How is our research translated to something digestible that does not alienate our real constituents? The conversation that is for the proletariat and not just the privileged individuals that were able to take the day off and discuss social constructs?
  5. Internalized oppression. I cannot say this enough. But this time in the context of, “master’s tools will never dismantle master’s house.” Meaning that we have a long way to go if we think that being academic and “professional” will somehow dismantle the racist system that has affected our communities and their self-esteem, mental, spiritual and emotional health, economic status and overall quality of life. Granted, we need the research but it is not the end all be all. We need real life solutions. We’ve done the research and have tried to apply it and the hood is still struggling. Clearly we need not sit in conferences all day and take action directly.
  6. I do however feel that we are in process. That this conference is important. But we must move out of individualism, self-promotion and strictly research and get to policy and action. Direct action. Action that reaches our families and communities in a very human way. The only panel I genuinely felt like I got something from was the one on youth and education. The panelists came with their experiences as educators and very practical ways of addressing teaching culture to our youth. They also had solutions and resources that could help anyone sitting in that room make their work effective and relevant. And real.

Finally, it was fabulous to run into folks who recognized the work we are doing with The LatiNegr@s Project and introduced themselves. Our team is growing in ways that I didn’t ever imagine when I co-created the project last  year. Today we have doubled in size and have four folks on our team, a twitter account (@BeingAfroLatino) and a Facebook page. We have over 1,000 posts (over 100 pages of content), people still submitting, and almost 500 folks following the project (and that doesn’t include those who are NOT on Tumblr but may still visit the page)! It’s such a great feeling to know this project is growing and it is a useful educational tool, affirming project, and one that will be here to continue to make us visible!

For those of you who did attend the conference what were some of your thoughts? Ideas about what the plenary presented?

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