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.)
Perhaps I was overreacting. Still … I wondered if there were any monuments to the Dominican Republic's black heroes. I looked around hopefully, but I saw nothing suggesting a connection to blackness in this quasi-Spanish square.
(Of course, in the United States, we celebrate all those early European ancestors because we believe that the Native Americans don't count as much, having been driven off their land or killed, and because we believe that we are all descended from those early Europeans in an almost cosmic sense. I think that even African Americans share a version of this, though of course they interpret the story of colonial America through a filter of slavery, and — unlike the way Mexicans and Peruvians might see their relationship to the conquistadors — most African Americans don't see themselves as having been colonized.)
I asked my driver, Adolfo Guerrero, if he could take me to such a monument. He turned his head one way and then the other, looked back at me and shrugged. The quizzical expression on his face spoke volumes. I did find a statue eventually, honoring Lemba, a great leader of the Maroon slaves in the 16th century. It was positioned not in the central square but at the entrance of the Museo del Hombre Dominicano in Santo Domingo. But that discovery was still in the future.
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.