L. Garcia Peña: Translating Blackness

Translating Blackness. Latinx Colonialities in Global Perspective

García Peña, Lorgia
336 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Lena Dallywater, Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Leipzig

“It takes a village to write a book”, writes Lorgia García Peña in the beginning pages of her study, published in 2022 at Duke University Press. We all know this feeling too well. Conceptualizing a study, conducting it, and translating into words what has been encountered are indeed a daring task. One of García Peña’s impulses that led her to write the book, as she explains, was the “imperfections of translating racial meaning and racial politics across languages, cultures, and geographies” (p. ix). The aim of this review is, in turn, to “translate” her study again to the interested audience in a European social sciences and humanities context – from one village to another, one might say.

Using archival sources and oral interviews, the study focuses on the USA, Hispaniola, and Italy as three sites of racialization and unbelonging. Conceptually, García Peña draws upon Jorge Duany’s “culture of vaivén”,1 the travels of diasporic subjects back and forth between home and diaspora, associating both with their ethnic identity as well as the nation they reside in. In García Peña’s book, vaivén is understood broadly as coming and going, as a life between belonging and unbelonging, and also as signifier for ambivalence and uprootedness, as well as the possibility to challenge the existing social order and ideologies of national identifications (p. 20). A second conceptual notion the author puts forward is that of “contra diction” (italics in original), which she had introduced in her previous writing on The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction (2016).

García Peña’s new book is about “Black Latinidad” across the globe and how it manifests through geographies and historical periods, lending to “non-hegemonic blackness”, as she terms it. Black Latinidad, in García Peña’s study, is understood as a category of belonging (p. 23) and as an epistemology, thus as a way of understanding and producing knowledge (p. 2). Translation then is conceived of as a metaphor for understanding “how ethno-racial labels are used by multiple communities to make visible the historical processes that (re)produce their minoritized subjectivity: global capitalism, and migration” (p. 7). The construction of Blackness is always situational, García Peña argues, historically and geographically specific. Translating specific experiences through hegemonic Blackness however allows historical actors, organizations, and communities across the globe to make their experiences of unbelonging visible to a larger, more powerful audience and to gain solidarity in their struggle for freedom and belonging. Hegemonic Blackness, from her perspective, means Blackness defined through US culture, politics, and histories and the anglophone experience. In this argument, García Peña follows Angela Davis – a political activist, an academic, and an author – when presenting her central theses regarding Translating Blackness in the general introduction. The specific context of the study – Black Latinidad (non-hegemonic Blackness) in its translation through and relation with the US Black experience (hegemonic Blackness) to lay out, claim, and frame global Black experiences – needs to be kept in mind when reading. While transnational imaginaries of global Blackness are evoked in the introduction, the angle from which to look at them and the lens through which to understand them – Black Latinx people living in the Global North – are actually rather specific.

The study is divided into five chapters that are included in two larger parts – the first being “On Being Black and Citizen: Latinx Colonial Vaivenes” and the second “Black Feminist Contra dictions [sic] in Latinx Diasporas” – together with an introduction and conclusion. García Peña begins her analysis with a discussion of “Latinx Difference, Colonial Musings, and Black Belonging during Reconstruction” (chapter 1), continues with an outline of “Diaspora Archives and the Epistemology of Black Latinidad” (chapter 2), and then comes to the specifics of the Black feminist perspective in “Black Latina Rebellion in Diasporic Community” (chapter 3). Chapter 4 follows up on this with the depiction of “Black Immigrant Women’s Life and Death in Postcolonial Italy”. The chapter on “Archives of Black Belonging in Postcolonial Diaspora” (chapter 5) then leads the reader to the conclusion on “Confronting Global Anti-immigrant Antiblackness”. The book thus covers a wide span from the nineteenth century to the present day.

García Peña begins in a chronological order by discussing the roots for what she calls the “mistranslations”, which continue to separate US Black and Black Latinx struggles, namely the contradictions of citizenship and empire that shaped the perspectives of Black thinkers in the USA during Reconstruction and the US expansion in the nineteenth century. She argues that, in contrast to an understanding of Black as a global category of oppression and the transnational interventions she is ultimately promoting, the struggles back then were very much driven by nationalism and a perception of the nation as the central site of struggle for racial justices (p. 35). In this first chapter, the relation of Black Latinidad to hegemonic Blackness is examined through the examples of two contemporary intellectuals, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) and Gregorio Luperón (1839–1897), and of their godchild, Gregoria Fraser – daughter of Sarah Loguen, one of the first Black female physicians in the USA. The way in which García Peña places a woman, that is to say Loguen, and her perspective directly at the beginning of this study is an inspiring example for how to encounter dominant narrations. The historical outline and discussion of the genesis of Black Latinidad as epistemology continues with a depiction of the work and striving of the historian, archivist, and activist Arthur (Arturo) Schomburg (1874–1938), whose vaivénes follows in parallel the experiences of the actors who frame the story in chapter 1 – Fraser and her mother Loguen – as García Peña argues. This narrative connection is a very nice feature in the book.

The book then jumps to another century, the late 1980s, and to the author’s personal experiences and memories. She places Black Dominican women – and queer people – at the centre of this section and explains her research activities in Italy since 2013, forcing the reader to be a bit flexible in his/her reading flow. Chapter 4 then follows with a discussion of Italy as a nation of immigration, the category of “immigrant”, and the multilayered violent colonial histories that shape the life of a Black migrant woman in the Global North at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Racism and misogyny are central here, as well as the exoticization and sexual exploitation of Black bodies. Chapter 5 then considers how subjects who live within multiple colonial, post-colonial, and intracolonial positionalities translate Black Latinx into everyday use. Here it is all about “Second Generation Unbelonging” and also the struggle for citizenship rights. The focus here is also placed on individual actors, albeit contemporary ones. The conclusion is brief, totalling only seven pages that take the reader back to García Peña’s own position. “Translating Blackness comes from a very personal place – from my own subject position as Black Latina immigrant and scholar living in the United States”, as she would point out (p. 236). “My goals were simple”, she continues, “I wanted to start a conversation about how xenophobia and antiblackness operate together across the globe to exclude human beings, particularly those who identify as Black and migrant, from accessing basic human rights and recognition” (ibid.). The author has certainly succeeded in providing this food for thought.

Alongside this global ambition, it is nevertheless worth taking a brief look at the specific context of the book. The study is situated in the field of Black Latinx studies, which for historians and cultural scientists in European academia may appear like an unknown, very specific niche in the humanities. Racial politics and categorizations, such as Black, Brown, Latinx, Mulato/a, and the like, are (perceived to be) rather distant to the majority of readers in Germany, and the disciplinary context of the book, critical race and ethnic studies in the broader sense, is not necessarily known to the readership of this journal. Fortunately, García Peña offers a note on terminology following the table of contents, which is helpful for any reader outside of ethnic studies and related disciplines. Latinx, as García Peña defines it for her study, is a “gender inclusive/neutral term that names people who identify a link to Latinidad either through Latin American ancestry or to cultural belonging to communities in the diaspora”. Scholars of Black Latinx studies therefore understand themselves as rethinking hegemonic conceptions of Blackness and diasporic imaginaries. At the same time, Black Latinx archives and stories are constitutive of global Blackness, the author argues.

The publication thus relates to the charged field of US-based critical race and ethnic studies, charged because of the genesis of the field and the diverse positions within it. To fully understand the academic-intellectual and scientific-practical embeddedness, beyond terminology, two remarks on ethnic studies in the USA and the author herself may be helpful. First, institutes of ethnic studies in the USA, also under the rubric of Latin American studies, African American studies, or Africana studies, have a specific history. Especially the latter owes their foundation to the institutional and ideological possibilities shaped by the Black Power and other nationalist movements in the 1960s and 1970s,2 with some still presenting themselves as nationalist or Afrocentric up to the early twenty-first century. Latin American studies saw “an unprecedented expansion” in the period 1939–19453 and renewed interest during the Cuban Revolution in 1959, as part of US Cold War politics. So it has been global and national policies and conflicts that have shaped this field over time. It does not come as a surprise then that the broader field, in the multiple entanglements and disruptions of twenty-first-century social sciences and social politics, appears to the outsider at times as emotionally charged and contested – from various sides.

Second, the author herself has made headlines in the USA. She in fact addresses the éclat about her person (see, e.g., “Denying a Professor Tenure, Harvard Sparks a Debate Over Ethnic Studies”4 and “A Latina Professor Who was Denied Tenure at Harvard is Demanding a ‘Revolution’ in Academia”5 in the acknowledgements). All this is mentioned here not to diminish the value of García Peña’s study but to make the context palpable in its entirety, from emotional connection to academic debate. García Peña does not hide her positionality, quite the contrary, and so it should not be missing from a holistic view of her work. If this context shows anything, it is certainly the topicality and relevance of what is written – on a global scale.

In the research field, there are, in turn, diverse lines of thought, depending on the decade (from Afrocentrism to post-Blackness). At present, “Afropessimism”6 appears to be attractive to well-established scholars as a lens through which to understand the lived experiences of Black people. In contrast to the theses and theoretical claims of the currently rather dominant stream, authors like García Peña offer an activist component, a committed attitude to the academy – one that has not always done her own career any good. In a similar vein – in fact also drawing upon Black intellectual Frederick Douglass, who features so centrally in the first part of García Peña’s study – A. Shahid Stover in 2023 critically discusses Afropessimism thinking and its main argument that Blacks do not function as political subjects. He criticizes the relinquishing of emancipatory praxis in view of globalized structures of a Western imperialist continuum.7 “If there is no struggle there is no progress”,8 Stover quotes Douglass, the controversial figure in the history of Black emancipation. García Peña’s thoughts, presenting yet another discordance within Black subjectivities within the US empire and asking for renewed Black solidarity against white supremacy beyond the nation-state, is an innovative addition to an already complicated assemblage. Her call for “revolution” in academia can but hint at the various constellations that could or should be overturned.

That this vast field opens up to the reader, or at least a small window, is the first asset of this book. Another is that García Peña draws upon Spanish sources and authors and brings them to the English-speaking readership. This indeed adds another view of the anglophone discussion of colonialities in a global perspective and brings together two discourses that are interlinked, not the least through US expansionism in the Caribbean during Reconstruction, or the most recent waves of migration from Latin America, and the hegemonic counter-reactions. These counter-reactions are also addressed by García Peña in a personal, yet compelling way.

The book – with its historical overview laid out in the first part – also connects with other publications on US expansionism in the nineteenth century in the Caribbean and its relation to radical Black internationalism, such as Millery Polyné’s From Douglass to Duvalier: US African Americans, Haiti and Pan-Americanism, 1870–1964 (2010)8 or, most recently, Brandon Byrd’s The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (2019).10 Other than these historical studies, the combination of historical roots of “Latin difference” in the first part of García Peña’s book and contemporary migrants’ experiences of (un)belonging in the second part is quite a stretch, demanding full attention and cognitive flexibility from the unacquainted reader.

García Peña writes against white supremacy, racial capitalism, and colonial violence. In this ambition and in her hope towards a future free from these situations, the author connects with the interests of many other authors, readers, and scholars, from post-colonial to decolonial and from Black radical to left alternative. Covering the intersection of gender violence, migration, and Blackness, the study invites the reader to make connections and comparisons, though very specific ones at first. It takes on queer and feminist issues and agendas and generally speaks to experiences of citizenship exclusion and unbelonging. The way García Peña traces the relationship of Black Latinidad and hegemonic (i.e. US experience) Blackness from the nineteenth century to the present, on the basis of the actions and thoughts of individual actors, inspires a comparison and contrast with other regional formations of Blackness or Africanness, both anglophone and francophone, to fully consider the entire spectrum of the many translations of Négritude.11 This would then also allow the reader to re-examine the terms hegemonic and non-hegemonic. Irrespective of the fascinating research approach, this is also a slight criticism of the book: while the introduction starts with broad claims and compelling theses on global Blackness, the story is rather US-centric. Continental African migrants feature only as a side story, as part of the elaboration of Italy’s involvement in the colonization of East Africa and the discussion how the image of the savage, exotic African (woman) was produced, which still lingers in the representation of sexualized female Black and Brown bodies. García Peña's study is an important component of a larger context of Black subjectivity, and her findings should in turn be related to the diversity of Black and African subjectivities. Thus, García Peña’s study is a good example and an invitation to start with further, similar investigations in other world regions.

In summary, García Peña offers a valuable contribution to the discussion of Blackness and citizenship, together with the inclusion of (female) migration. The book is a welcome addition to a discussion that, despite its global scope and scale and the desired effects towards social and racial equalities, does not yet equally take into account all local and regional perspectives from Global North and Global South and the various epistemologies and language contexts. That would be too much for one book and one author – also too much for an entire village. Collective, transregional work is called for here.

Next to being a pleasant read, García Peña’s study is the right place for the reader with an interest in entering a field rather unknown to the historical sciences in Germany, however with global relevance and a multiplicity of connections to questions of white supremacy, colonialism, and citizenship.

1 J. Duany, La nación en vaivén. Identidad, migración y cultura popular en Puerto Rico, San Juan 2009.
2 J. E. Smethurst, The Black Arts Movement. Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, Chapel Hill 2005.
3 L. Hanke, The Development of Latin-American Studies in the United States, 1939-1945, in: The Americas 4 (1947) 1, pp. 32–64.
4 K. Taylor, Denying a Professor Tenure, Harvard Sparks a Debate Over Ethnic Studies, in: The New York Times, 2.01.2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/02/us/harvard-latinos-diversity-debate.html.
5 Z. Schermele, A Latina professor who was denied tenure at Harvard is demanding a ‘revolution’ in academia, in: NBC News, 9.08.2022, 11:39 PM CEST, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/latina-professor-was-denied-tenure-harvard-demanding-revolution-academ-rcna41005.
6 See, e.g., Patrice Douglass, Selamawit D. Terrefe, Frank B. Wilderson, Afro-Pessimism, in: Oxford Bibliographies, URL: https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/display/document/obo-9780190280024/obo-9780190280024-0056.xml; DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0056
7 A. Shahid Stover, Slave Revolt and Black Subjectivity as Exceptional Antagonism, in: The Brotherwise Dispatch 3 (2023) 15, URL: https://brotherwisedispatch.blogspot.com/2023/03/slave-revolt-and-black-subjectivity-as.html (accessed 14.09.2023).
8 F. Douglass, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vol. 2, New York 1857, 1975, p. 437.
[9] P. Millery, From Douglass to Duvalier. US African Americans, Haiti and Pan-Americanism, 1870–1964, Gainesville 2010.
10 B. R. Byrd, The Black Republic. African Americans and the Fate of Haiti, Philadelphia 2020; see also L. Dallywater: “Rezension zu: Byrd, Brandon R.: The Black Republic. African Americans and the Fate of Haiti. Philadelphia 2020, ISBN 9780812251708”, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 05.03.2022, <www.connections.clio-online.net/publicationreview/id/reb-50562.
11 As developed by francophone intellectuals in the African diaspora during the 1930s.

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