From Slavery to Freedom in Latin America   7 comments

When I was young, in high school, I was teased for being too African looking. They used to call me Nairobi – the capital and largest city in Kenya. I was offended and hurt. This was a time that black was not beautiful. And it was very easy to make darker skinned African Americans feel less than valued because we were not light skinned, with wavy hair and European features. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois was right when he called the color line the problem of the 20th Century. And former Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice was right when she said the United States still has problems dealing with race of a national “birth defect” that denied black Americans the opportunities given to whites at the country’s very founding. “Black Americans were a founding population,” she said. “Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together — Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That’s not a very pretty reality of our founding.”

We, African Americans, AfroColombians and Blacks in Costa Rica have as our common heritage the forced pollination of the Americas by Spain, England, Portugal and others supporting the slave trade. In the United States Africa’s strongest, brightest and beautiful youth labored in the tobacco, rice and cotton fields. They worked as servants and served as concubines for their masters. They forged a new nation from the occupation that displaced the Native Americans from their lands. In Costa Rica they worked the cacao farms in Matina. Their descendants joined Panamanian, Jamaican and other Caribbean laborers in building the Costa Rica’s railroad to the Atlantic. The country owes much, including becoming the world’s largest producer of bananas in 1911, to Africa. Spain used African slaves to replace the rapidly declining Native American population, who either died from the diseases the Spanish brought with them; died because they could not work the mines as vigorously as their conquerors demanded; or died in conflicts with their enslavers. Africans were forced to work in gold mines, on sugar plantations, cattle ranches, and their master’s houses. In eastern Colombia Africans manufactured textiles in commercial mills; they worked the emerald mines outside Bogota; and African laborers were the majority workforce behind the production of tobacco and cotton.

But the results of slavery seemingly have had a much more profound and continued impact on African Americans than the other members of the African Diaspora. Somehow we internalized the messages, the pain and the cruelty; forging the lashes used against us into weapons of words and worse that we use against ourselves. I have looked to the work of Dr. W.E. B. DuBois to help me understand why. His concept of the veil provides at least one explanation of the impact racism has on the psyche and health of African Americans. He describes the veil as the consistent, or perhaps best said persistent, shroud that separates Blacks and Whites. This theme runs throughout Souls of Black Folks and is not easy to encapsulate. Yet, this is the quote that sticks with me. “… the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Going through life living this double consciousness, as Dr. DuBois calls it, can be exacting on one’s consciousness. What happened when I was called Nairobi was that I was made to feel ashamed that my dark skin and high cheek bones and broad nose were too reminiscent of a descendancy that African Americans were trying to erase. I was an every present reminder of the Negro, an identity that was filled with reminders of a cruel physical, spiritual and psychological warfare that the African American community wanted to forget. Sometimes at all costs!

To keep from being torn asunder, and prosper while living the double consciousness, many African Americans have developed a social network of family, friends and mentors. My spiritual counselor, Patty Lattanzio, calls us “anchors” to one another. We walk with each other through our life’s journey providing strength, answers, explanations, comic relief and shoulders upon which to cry when doubts and trials come to us because of our skin color. We help each other keep our balance in whatever storm we were enduring. My sister Exa, Karen, Cherri, Joe, Belle, Jimmy, Doris, Toby, Lynette, Ms. B. Renee, George, John, Cynthia, Herman, Jack, Jeanne and many others have been my anchors. I have needed them. And they have let me use our friendship and love to get me to this point.

Dr. DuBois, believe that creating greater linkages between peoples of the African Diaspora would address the problems the color line played on the advancement and health of the Negro (African Americans). And I agree. Later in my life, when I was 27, I was traveling in Europe. In Paris I met a group of young Ghanaian men who refused to believe that I was from the United States. Their words have remained with me all of these years. They said, still with doubt in their voices, if you are telling us the truth, then come to Ghana, we could take you to the village of your ancestors. The pride in their recognition was jubilant. Though I have not visited Ghana yet, that was the day my healing began.

In many ways I feel like Santiago in the Alchemist, liberating myself, learning, unlearning, detoxing and coming out from under the veil that I lived with for so long in the United States.  Here, in Costa Rica and Colombia the sense of living a double consciousness does not exist. There is no separation in the psyches of the people of African descent, and in the views of others, as to whether they are Tico (Costa Rican) or Colombian. They are not preoccupied by the ways white people see them. There is a sense that they have won that battle. They have taken what was thrown at them and survived. Now is the time to live their lives and advance themselves, their families and their country.

Pura Vida is the expression that embodies Costa Rica, loosely meaning: Live life to the fullest. Embrace your connection to God, community, your family and yourself. Celebrate the day and whatever blessings, big or small, that God has granted you. It is estimated that Colombia’s Black minority comprises 36-40% of the national population, though it is officially recognized at 26%. This means that about 11 million of the 42 million people in Colombia are considered AfroColombian. This is the second largest population of African descent in Latin America, after Brazil. I love the discussion within the exhibits at the Colombian National Museum, Bogota. Many of the historical accounts talk about being one people forged from European conquistadores who thought the indigenous peoples were less than human and left Colombia with the rich cultural influences of the world, especially Africa.

In this part of the world I feel like I am a part of the landscape responsible for the development of the world; a part of the diaspora that helped to create these cultures and economies. Perhaps this is what Dr. Dubois wanted for the Negro (African Americans). I am liberated from the double consciousness I felt in the United States. This liberation gives my consciousness space to become healthier and live life in greater balance. Pura Vida!!!

Posted October 7, 2011 by Wayne in Uncategorized

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7 responses to “From Slavery to Freedom in Latin America

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  1. When are you going to make videos’ for youtube? We’d like to see some the sights there in Colombia and Costa Rica.

    • Mac. Left my new camara in Atlanta::( My plan is to launch a website in January with video and stills. I hope to do a few tours to this part of the world next year also. Thanks for keeping up with me. I hope that you, and family, are well.

  2. Wayne,

    I enjoyed the comparative analysis and the use of the personal to communicate the message. I would like to have heard more and so look eagerly to your next installment. Having cycled in Nicauragua, Bluefields on its coast, Brazil and recently staying two weeks in the rainforest of Costa Rica, I readily identify with your analysis. Until the next reading,

    Ed Valeau

  3. Wayne: Thanks for the update on your qwest there in Columbia. You know that I think of you as a dear friend, enjoy your company and miss you from our Hearts.
    Marty and Lana.

  4. What a profound message, Wayne! Thanks for sharing.

  5. I am across your site as I was researching for a book I am writing regarding the health of slaves during the African diaspora.

    Wayne, your blog blessed me. Great, knowing you are well! I will ALWAYS value you as the ultimate professional.

    Sharon Jones-Eversley

    Sharon Jones-Eversley

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