“Todos somos Africa.” Reflections on my trip to Colombia, June 2019

 In June 2016, in Santiago, Chile I performed in a theatre installation called Song for the Beloved, curated by Honor Ford-Smith, Anique J. Jordan, Kara Springer and Camille Turner. Song examined and performed how communities affected by violence remember and forget their loved ones and envision healing. As part of the curators’ aim to involve the audience/visitors, all who attended were invited to write on cards their ideas of social justice and on stones the names of loved ones who had died violently. I was unprepared for the outpouring of emotion as people wept openly while recounting instances of violence that had personally affected them and their communities. From the original violence of European genocide against indigenous people; African enslavement; the killings of Black and Brown people by state agents; gang violence that continues to ravage poor communities; femicide; and anti-LGBT violence; to the Pinochet Regime’s seventeen-year-long violation of human rights in Chile, visitors narrated how violence committed against one person, community or generation reverberates across space and time. At the same time, there were soul-stirring ideas about reparative justice and the need for public healing written on the various memorial objects the visitors left.

The memorial stone that left the most lasting impression on me held the simple sentence, “Todos somos Africa”/ “We are all Africa.” It was the writer’s way of affirming how integral Africanness is to Latin American identity and by extension, the making of the modern Americas. These words resonated with me as I left another Latin American country, Colombia, three years later in June 2019.

I went to Colombia to participate in the annual Caribbean Studies Association Conference in Santa Marta. Afterwards, I spent three days with friends from the Caribbean experiencing Cartagena de Indias, Colombia’s Blackest mainland city, which was at one point the main Spanish port in the world for trafficking enslaved Africans.

At CSA, I chaired a panel on Delia and Manuel Zapata Olivella, the Afro-Colombian siblings whose research and literary and performance art were significant in valorizing Afro-Colombian identity during the twentieth century. The scholars who presented, Ana Cecilia Calle (University of Texas, Austin); Juan Suárez Ontaneda (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and Viviana Quintero Márquez (Vanderbilt University) have drawn extensively on the Zapata Olivella archive at Vanderbilt University for which Márquez serves as curator, as well as other sources. This panel, and my visit to Colombia in general, brought to mind the archival work that has been, and is yet to be done regarding the experiences of Afro-Latin Americans. Despite their strong presence in this region for centuries they continue to struggle against being marginalized within the frames of mestizaje and/or whiteness employed by many countries.

Whitening policies implemented across the Americas[1], efforts at Black erasure and expulsion, exclusion from national censuses, and ongoing lethal violence against poor Black communities have all worked to place Afro-Latin Americans in a precarious position with regard to their racial-ethnic and regional identities. In reaction to this marginalization, Afrodescendientes in Latin America have a long history of resistance to anti-Black racism and against Euro/White American imperialism. This resistance includes their creation of national movements like the Movimento Negro of Brazil and The Proceso de Comunidades Negras in Colombia; as well as membership in global organizations such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which was at its height in the 1920s to 1930s. The activism of Afro-Latin Americans was vital in the creation of the United Nations International Year for People of African Descent in 2011 and now the UN International Decade for People of African Descent (2015 to 2024).

There is a growing bibliography on the subject of Blackness in Latin America, including the PBS series, Black in Latin America (2011), produced by Henry Louis Gates Jnr. and a considerable collection of scholarship that focuses on the region as a whole and individual countries.[2] These are situated within an ongoing imperative to examine Africanness/Blackness and anti-Black racism in Latin America and the Caribbean, and globally (including in Black majority countries like my own, Jamaica). The trip to Colombia created a tangible, affective experience of Black agency that I had not yet undergone in a mainland Latin American country. These manifestations of Black agency include the creation of distinct communities like La Boquilla, Cartagena, a coastal community founded by Caribbean immigrants; San Andrés, a Colombian island in the Caribbean Sea; and San Basilio de Palenque, the first town established by formerly enslaved Africans in the Americas. 

The common threads in the creation of these communities are the history of African enslavement and ongoing cycles of migration and settlement within the Americas. These African Diasporic roots and routes are most clearly present in cultural expression.

As I often tell my students, Blackness is not just about pain and our discussions around Black cultures must not solely focus on trauma. We must also engage with beauty and enjoyment.

Nowhere were these conscious expressions of Black aesthetics more discernible than in the stunning public art in Santa Marta and Cartagena. Most of these images were of Black women of different shapes, ages, skin colors, hair textures and occupations — an obvious concerted effort to celebrate Blackness and Black womanhood in particular. (My to-research list must include finding out some more about this artistic movement).

Afro-Colombian personhood was also highlighted in one particularly provocative exhibit at the Museo de La Inquisición in Cartagena. In a room by itself, playing on a reel was a short film recounting the three trials of Paula de Eguiluz,[3] who is perhaps the most well-known African-descended person  brought before the Inquisition in Cartagena under accusations of witchcraft in the 17th century. The experience of Tituba, the first person to be accused of witchcraft during the 1692 Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, U.S. also falls within this history. Formerly enslaved in Barbados and brought to Massachusetts, Tituba is usually left out of the popular and filmic conceptions of the Salem witch trials. However, her story, like de Eguiluz’s and those of others targeted by the Inquisition —the vast majority of whom were women— is integral to recognizing how deeply race and gender overlapped in the prejudices European Christian leaders harbored about philosophies, healing practices and ways of life that were beyond their dictatorial reach.

Watching de Eguiluz, memorialized in anime form, was for me one of the highlights of the visit to Cartagena. I especially appreciated the filmmakers’ decision to have her recount the experience in the first-person.

In the last frame of the film, from her prison cell she seems to reach across time to tell the viewer that her existence did not cease once her body died.  She lives on in the descendants of people like her in Colombia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. They are the products of the transregional exchanges and cultural, genetic and philosophical crossings between the Americas and Africa.

 The idea of Blackness rooted in African origins, notwithstanding intra-racial conflicts and hierarchies, forms of capitulation to white dominance, and ethno-national separations, resonates within these geographic, emotive, and political spaces. “Todos somos Africa.”

Photos: Mural in Getsemani, Cartagena, 2019. Memorial stone from Song for the Beloved, Chile, 2016. Statue in Magdalena on the way to Cartagena (sculptor’s name not included/not visible), 2019. Colombian tour company operator, Alex Rocha with his son following tour of Palenque, 2019. A performance from youths trained by the Tambores del Cabildo, La Boquilla, 2019. Teenagers from Palenque in performance (supported by Corporación Festival de Tambores y Expresiones Culturales de Palenque). The author with friends from the Caribbean at the entrance to Palenque, 2019. The author at one of the murals in Getsemani, Cartagena, 2019. Mural in Santa Marta, 2019. Mural in Getsemani, Cartagena, 2019. Exhibition based on Paula de Eguiluz, Palacio de la Inquisición, Cartagena, 2019 (The words read, “What you can be sure about is that I did not pass through the flames of the fire”). Mural in Palenque, 2019 |All Photos Copyright Nicosia Shakes.

[1] These whitening policies were in no way exclusive to Spanish and Portuguese-colonized territories, but were found throughout the Americas.

[2] See, Renée Alexander Craft, When the Devil Knocks: The Congo Tradition and the Politics of Blackness in Twentieth-Century Panama, Ohio State University, 2015; Jafari S. Allen, Venceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba. Duke University Press, 2011; Karen Juanita Carrillo, The View from Chocó: The Afro-Colombian past, their lives in the present, and their hopes for the future, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010; Alexander de la Fuente and George Andrews eds., Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2018; Jennifer Goett, Black Autonomy: Race, Gender, and Afro-Nicaraguan Activism, Stanford University Press, 2016; Jameela Medina, The Afro-Latin Diaspora: Awakening Ancestral Memory, Avoiding Cultural Amnesia, Authorhouse, 2004; Arlene Torres et al, Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean, Indiana University Press, 2018; Keisha-Khan Perry, Black Women against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil, University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Viviana Quintero Márquez, “Soldiers, Militias, and Tamboreros Cabildantes in Bocachica and Cartagena de Indias, 1741–1973.” The Latin Americanist 63 No. 1 (2019): 89-106. Christen Smith, Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence and Performance in Brazil, University of Illinois Press, 2016.

[3] See Kathryn Joy McKnight, “Performing double-edged stories: the three trials of Paula de Eguiluz.” Colonial Latin American Review 25 no. 2 (2016): 154-174. De Eguiluz was born in Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), and enslaved in Puerto Rico and Cuba before she was brought to Colombia to face the Inquisition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s