Dominicans in Denial
In visiting the Dominican Republic, The Root's editor-in-chief discovers that its citizens claim they're anything but black.
Climbing back into the car, I realized that my first interview was already under way. I love meeting with scholars and historians, politicians and activists. But there's so much you can learn about a place just by chatting with everyday people, whose understanding of where they live is, of necessity, profound.
I told my driver about my project, learning about the black experience in Latin America, and I asked him about blackness in the Dominican Republic. He told me amiably that Dominicans don't think of themselves as black. They call themselves indio instead, in a reference to the color of their skin, echoing a myth about the extent of their genetic descent from the island's indigenous inhabitants.
I knew those tribes were long gone from the island. So I asked him to define indio for me more clearly. I wanted to understand why the term is used to describe a people who, back home in the States, would be described as black. But he struggled to find an explanation that would satisfy me.
It seems that anyone who isn't white -- whether the person is lightly tan, medium brown or dark black -- self-identifies as indio. It is more about being Dominican, he explained, than being African or indigenous. Who is black? Who is "negro"? Why, the Haitians!
And the fact is that if we applied the United States' "one-drop rule" to Dominicans and made Indian ancestry that one drop, most Dominicans would, in fact, be descended from Taíno roots, as DNA evidence reveals quite clearly. I sat back, thinking about that, as we neared the hotel.
The Dominican Republic was born a Spanish colony named Santo Domingo, and as it became a maturing nation, its Eurocentric ruling elites identified it as Caribbean but proudly declared that its heritage was primarily "Spanish, Catholic and white." And this in a country where mitochondrial-DNA evidence reveals, as the anthropologist Juan Rodríguez pointed out to me, that "85 percent of the residents ... have African ancestry, 9.4 percent Indian and less than 0.08 percent European! And on the father's side, through Y-DNA, we now know that only 1 percent of us descend from an Indian male and 36 percent from an African male. Yet the average person here describes their race as indio."
In other words, this country acknowledges its indigenous past but not its African heritage. But where had its blackness gone, outside of its music and baseball? Where was the cultural mark -- and the cultural recognition -- of the hundreds of thousands of slaves whose labors built this country? I was determined to find out.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. This excerpt is from his book Black in Latin America (New York University Press), based on the PBS documentary series that aired earlier this year.