Dominicans in Denial

In visiting the Dominican Republic, The Root's editor-in-chief discovers that its citizens claim they're anything but black.

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How do race and racism play themselves out in the Caribbean? To see for myself, I boarded a fight to the Dominican Republic, on the island of Hispaniola -- which it shares, somewhat uneasily, with Haiti.

The people here, on opposite sides of this island, have faced each other across this body of land for 360 years. And their two cultures are studies in contrast. Haiti was colonized by the French; the Dominicans were colonized by the Spanish. In Haiti, people speak Creole; in the Dominican Republic, they speak Spanish. In Haiti, the national sport is soccer; here, the national sport is baseball. In Haiti, the national religion is vodou and Roman Catholicism; in the Dominican Republic, it is Roman Catholicism. On the Haitian side of the Massacre River, which divides the two countries, when it is 7:00 a.m., it's 8:00 a.m. on the Dominican side.

Hispaniola is an island divided by two peoples who, to some extent, have shaped their identities in opposition to each other. In fact, the Dominican Republic is the only country in the New World that celebrates its independence from another American country, because for Dominicans, the separation from Haiti in 1844 is their Independence Day. (Between 1822 and 1844, Haiti occupied the Dominican end of the island.)

From afar, I thought, the Dominican Republic seems like heaven on earth. I thought of its seemingly endless beaches, its long tradition of merengue and its dominance in baseball. And I love its cuisine, especially the dishes such as chofán and locrio, characterized by its flavor-filled burnt rice, called concón. I knew that the nation was filled with black faces -- more than 90 percent of Dominicans possess some degree of African descent -- and that the very first rebellion of black slaves occurred here in 1522.

But I also knew that the Dominican Republic has a complex past. Few people here self-identify as black or Negro; rather, a wide majority of Dominicans -- most recently 82 percent in a federal census -- designate their race as indio, while only 4.13 percent designate themselves as black. And I wanted to understand why.

After Christopher Columbus stopped in the Bahamas, the northern end of Hispaniola was his first stop -- his ships landed here in 1492 -- and racially at least, it has been a troubled melting pot of Europeans, Africans and native people almost ever since, its people and its government deeply ambivalent about the country's relation to its black past.

Santo Domingo, the capital city, was founded in 1496 by Columbus' older brother Bartholomew. It was the first permanent European settlement anywhere in the New World. (Columbus had created a small fort at La Isabela on his first voyage, but when he returned, all its inhabitants were dead.) It was also the first city in the Americas to import slaves from Africa. The first boatload arrived just 10 years after Columbus, in 1502.

Surely, none of those slaves or the newly arrived colonists (or even their royal patrons in Europe) could ever have imagined that more than 11 million Africans would follow that first boat's path to slavery in the New World. Traders called Santo Domingo the Gateway to the Caribbean. It might as well have been called the Gateway of the Slaves.

Santo Domingo has an unmistakably Spanish flair, its architecture in the Zona Colonial recalling Spain, but Spain with a tropical ease and flavor. My hotel was near the center of town, in a grand square with a majestic, Spanish-style cathedral at one end and an enormous statue at the other. Though I was tired, dusty and thirsty when I landed, I asked the driver to pull over and let me take a look. He told me that this was Columbus Square and that the church, the Catedral de Santa María de la Encarnación, was the first cathedral in the Americas.

I stepped out to get a closer look at Columbus' imposing statue. There he was, looking regal and well fed, pointing a finger toward new horizons. No surprise here. But as I thought about it, I found it a bit odd that the central square of the capital of a Caribbean country was dedicated to the European who colonized it. (Curiously enough, in 1986, at the time of the overthrow of Baby Doc Duvalier, a Haitian crowd actually knocked over a statue of Columbus in Port-au-Prince and threw it into the sea.)

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