Hiding Black Behind the Ears: On Dominicans, Blackness, and Haiti
The first friend I made in Elizabeth, New Jersey was a white kid named Billy. As a New York transplant my Dominicano look wasn’t too popular with Jersey folk. I had an afro, wore dress pants, a collared shirt, and black leather shoes with little gold buckles. Most of the kids just wanted to know what my thing was. Billy and I couldn’t have been more different, but we got close pretty quickly. Despite the fact that Billy’s parents wouldn’t allow him over my house, my grandmother allowed me over his. She took one look at Billy’s blonde hair and blue eyes, and at his mother’s middle class American manners, and pronounced their household safe. “Where are you from?” Billy’s mother asked, referring to my grandmother’s heavy accent. “I thought you were black.” On that day I couldn’t have imagined how many times I’d have to answer that question in my lifetime. “We’re Dominican.”
A couple years later, when the neighborhood became predominantly Cuban, African American, and Haitian, Billy and his family moved away. My new best friend was black, and his mother wouldn’t let him over my house either, on account of us being “Puerto Rican.” You can imagine our surprise when I returned with a similar story. My grandmother didn’t want me over his house because they were black. We looked each other over. Two skinny round-headed, chocolate brown boys wondering what the hell each other’s families were talking about. As far as we knew, we looked the same. My grandmother was just as black as Tyshaun’s mother and I told her as much every time she chided me about playing with him. What was I missing?
My aunt took me to black barbershops for shape-ups and number ones. I spent a lot of time at Marvelous Marvin’s crying as he picked my tender head before cutting it. Friends called me Del Monte because my head was so peasy. Yet my grandmother believed we were something other than what I was living, what I believed we were: black people who spoke Spanish. I was living a distorted Dominican version of Willie Perdomo’s poem “Nigger-Reecan Blues:”
—Hey, Willie. What are you, man? Boricua? Moreno? Que? Are you Black? Puerto Rican?
—No, silly. You know what I mean: What are you?
—I am you. You are me. We the same. Can’t you feel our veins drinking the same blood?
—But who said you was a Porta-Reecan?
—Tu no eres Puerto Riqueño, brother.
—Maybe Indian like Gandhi-Indian?
—I thought you was a Black man.
—Is one of your parents white?
—You sure you ain’t a mix of something like Cuban and Chinese?
—Looks like an Arab brother to me.
—Naahh, nah, nah. . .You ain’t no Porty-Reecan.
—I keep tellin’ y’all: That boy is a Black man with an accent.
As I got older I began to recognize the differences between African American culture, Afro-Latino culture, and being black in between. Black being the giant label America puts on anyone darker than a paper bag. I also knew the word Negro well. I’d heard it my whole life in Spanish. What you mean when you say Negro depends heavily on the modifier because Latinos call each other Negro all the time: Negrito lindo (black and pretty), mi Negro (my black friend/brother), or maldito Negro (damned black guy). One thing, however, remained steadfast; my family members never identified themselves as black, and they never spoke about Dominican culture, or Dominican history as having anything to do with Africa. “Tu no eres negro” or “No somos negro,” was repeated over and over by my grand uncles, and my grandmother. They’d use slurs like cocolo, and monokiquillo when referring to African Americans or other people with strong African features. But they referred to themselves and to me as Indio, a term which means of Indigenous descent. You could say I was more than a little confused growing up, but mostly I was angry. I knew what I saw in the mirror and what I experienced out in the world. Other Latinos repeatedly called me cocolo, and white cops often referred to me as darkie and nigger.
I felt like I was living in a perpetual Twilight Zone episode. I’m black in a country that by all indications hates black people, and I’m descended from people that are black, but pretend not to be black. Like most teenagers, I was too wrapped up in it to see the bigger picture. There was some serious history behind all this un-blackness. And history starts at home.
My grandmother, Altagracia Felicia Garcia, was born in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic in 1933. She grew up during the height of Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship. Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic for 30 years and his mania knew very few boundaries. He was a virulent racist and rapist. Trujillo ordered the deaths of countless Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans in a Hitler-style quest to “whiten” the Dominican Republic. Snitches kept their ears open for three things: anybody disrespecting Trujillo or his regime, young beautiful girls for Trujillo to rape, and confirmation of Haitian blood in the family tree of Dominicans so they could be wiped out.
Dominicans living in this atmosphere were paranoid. Some wore make up to make their complexions appear whiter, families hid their daughters and/or married them off and sent them to the mountains, or out of the country. People were given to spontaneously praising Trujillo in public so others could hear them. I imagine my grandmother growing up in that country, staring in the mirror everyday, convincing herself she’s not black/Haitian, and probably having to convince others. I imagine she also practiced reciting the word perejil (parsley), even though she could roll her r’s perfectly, just in case she was put to the test. Pronouncing perejil with a French/Creole accent is difficult. The r sound comes out like a th or, more commonly, an l sound. In 1937 Trujillo ordered that all the sugarcane plantation workers along the Dominican/Haitian border be given the parsley test, and those that couldn’t pronounce the word to be murdered, which resulted in a massacre that killed thousands of Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans.
But Dominican anti-blackness goes back even further than Trujillo’s 30-year reign of terror. During the colonial era, Spaniards set up a naming system called las castas, which translates to caste. Under las castas Spaniards stood at the top of the social hierarchy, possessing all manner of wealth, power, and influence. As Spaniards copulated with the indigenous and African slave populations (by rape and sometimes, rarely, by marriage) their children were labeled and placed at a certain level within the hierarchy. For example, the child of an African and a Spaniard would be called a Mulato. The child of an African and a Mulato would be called a Sambo. The child of a Spaniard and an Indigenous person was called a Mestizo, and on and on. (It is important to note that these are zoological terms applicable to animals.) In order to move up in the social hierarchy everyone needed to be something else. The African or Negro wanted to pass as mulato, the mulato wanted to pass as Spaniard, or Indio, and nobody wanted to be Negro. Under las castas, Africans were always at the bottom of the pyramid.
Trujillo built his sick twisted rule on top of casta. He took the manipulative colonial system of psychological conditioning and self-hate that Dominicans internalized and magnified it with the power of 10,000 suns. In Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, denying blackness was life and death. I’ve heard people who grew up in communist countries tell their horror stories. Secret police picked them or friends, or family members up because of an anonymous tip. They were tortured, imprisoned, or killed on the whispered word of some stranger. I think of the generations upon generations of Dominicans living that way, and how the racial/cultural mind fuck Trujillo created has been passed on in the island’s DNA. I wonder how much of my grandmother’s denial was a self defense mechanism, how much was self hate, and how much was just her carrying out what she was taught. After all those years, what did reality have to become?
My grandmother never spoke about her life during the Trujillo era. She owned a colmado, or a small grocery store in her village. I know this because when we lived in Harlem she also owned a colmado and she would say grocery stores were in her blood. When her Alzheimer’s started, little bits of her past would come out unexpectedly, and finally my mother told me her story. My grandmother escaped the Dominican Republic after Trujillo was assassinated. Not only was she running from the burning shack, so to speak, she was also fleeing from an abusive husband. He was a tall, blond, honey colored man who owned lots of land, but was quick to use his hands around in bouts of anger.
But Altagracia was not having that. She hustled her way to New York City—carrying 20 years of “regime” in her veins.
In 1804 Haiti became the first colony to gain its independence, but independence came at a heavy price. The French repeatedly fought to retake the island, and ultimately forced the Haitian government to agree to a 150 million franc indemnity for the loss of lands and goods. The new Haitian government spread the ideals of freedom from slavery and tyranny. They aided South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar in his efforts to free Colombia and Venezuela from the Spaniards. When the Dominican Republic, which was then the Spanish colony Santo Domingo, defeated Spanish colonialists in a revolt in 1821 they sought to unite the island under Haitian rule. For two decades, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were one country, Spanish Haiti, but the economic yoke around Haiti’s neck made sustained unification impossible. In 1844, in response to extreme taxation, Dominicans rebelled against the Haitians and established the Dominican Republic. You know the old saying; no good deed goes unpunished.
Since that time, Haiti has struggled through some form of crushing international debt, economic stagnation, or government corruption. During Trujillo’s rule all these different layers of history, colonialism, racism, mass violence and death, corruption, and Haiti’s perpetual economic hardships cemented a hate/hate relationship between the two countries.
As a child of Dominican immigrants I can say that my grandmother’s people are suffering from serious ignorance. A kind of Stockholm syndrome, the psychological phenomenon that occurs when a victim, having been captured, abused, traumatized or beaten by a captor, begins to sympathize and empathize with that captor, exists within the Dominican Republic. They empathize; sympathize even, with casta, and the legacy of black hatred Trujillo left for them. Recently, the Dominican Republic’s constitutional court passed a law stripping thousands of Dominicans born of one or more Haitian parents of their citizenship.
The spirit of the law seems to be geared towards deporting illegal Haitian immigrants, however, the fact is that for many born in poor rural and urban areas, documenting births, deaths and when and where their ancestors entered the country is shaky at best. Poverty and fear of deportation makes it difficult for Dominico-Haitians to prove their status. The situation, too, is exacerbated by mob violence. Dominicans are roaming villages and cities grabbing Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans, brutalizing them. There has been at least one confirmed lynching. Bill Fletcher Jr. recently discussed this issue on The Global African. He noted that advocates of Dominico-Haitians are concerned because “it appears that the mechanism to identify possible deportees will be based off physical appearance. Specifically, dark skinned individuals.”
I’ve read articles expressing outrage over what has been dubbed La Sentencia. Social media is buzzing with links, videos, and heated conversations. I also know that the United States has been conducting similar deportations. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that the Dominican constitutional court took their cue from us. Illegal immigrants and their children, children born and raised in America, have been deported back to their parents’ country of origin. Some of these children don’t even speak the language, usually Spanish. But the US government sent them packing—no questions asked, despite being United States citizens. In 2013, more than 72,000 illegal immigrants with American-born children were deported.
It used to be that if you were an illegal immigrant and your child was born in this country, you were given legal residency, and you were given a green card. It appears this is no longer the case.
In his essay, “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” James Baldwin explored differences between American children of African diasporan descent and their colonial cousins; Antiguans, Martiniquais, and St Lucians, to name but three groups. Perhaps the most critical peculiarity Baldwin observed was the African American disconnect from a black nation, the loss of black hegemony, and the resulting psychological trauma.
“The African before him has endured privation, injustice, medieval cruelty; but the African has not yet endured the utter alienation of himself from his people and his past…and he has not, all his life long, ached for acceptance in a culture which pronounced straight hair and white skin the only acceptable beauty.”
Isn’t this a derivative of the Haitian/Dominican struggle? Haiti is strongly tethered to its past, to its identity as a nation comprised of children from Africa, while the Dominican Republic is trying to be anything but. The Dominican idea of identity and beauty and acceptance is rooted in Eurocentric ideas of beauty.
My grandmother, our extended family, and Dominicans I know have taught me that changing hearts and minds is difficult work. It takes time, but it also requires revelatory experiences, and forging new memories that can smooth the scar tissue of old traumas. Unfortunately, Haitians and their Dominican-born children don’t have that kind of time. My individual effort at accepting my blackness, my history, and my attempt to build a way forward isn’t helping them. America, and the Civil Rights movement have taught me that I have options.
I can exercise my political power by writing a petition asking the President of the United States to pressure the Dominican government to ensure that the rights of Dominicans born of Haitian descent are protected. And that Haitians facing legal deportation are not butchered or beaten in the streets. This petition should demand that our President threaten to cut off aid and issue sanctions if the Dominican Republic does not comply.
I can reach out to my local and state representatives and ask them to support the petition. I can use my social media presence and challenge friends, family, and celebrities to put their names behind it.
I can tell my story. If you’re white, take what you’ve learned from this essay and put your privilege to work. I don’t mean that disrespectfully. If you’re like me, Dominican American, and you love your Dominican grandmother or mother, even though they talk that shit you can’t wrap your head around, seek the knowledge and then educate them, whether they like it or not. Start the process of figuring out how the Dominican American experience can help island Dominicans get their lives together. Start the conversations that can actively inform the Afro-Latino experience and the Afro-Caribbean identity. How does the Afro-Latino/Caribbean experience in America mirror the African American experience for you? We need to talk about this. Maybe these conversations will help all Dominicans to be more like our Haitian brothers and sisters, proud to walk black and beautiful under the sun.
Here’s some hard shit for people to deal with, especially Latinos. I love bachata, salsa, merengue, rice, and beans. I grew up watching annual reruns of Roots, every episode of Diff’rent Strokes, dancing along with Michael Jackson, rapping Public Enemy’s lyrics, and I rocked a Gumby and a high-top fade during the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. Neither one of these loves was or is mutually exclusive of the other. Growing up I identified with—and still do—black culture: arts, music, fashion, everything, because that’s what we looked like, what we are, not African American, but black. This is not to say that there’s some formulaic definition of blackness, or what Amiri Baraka called “a static cultural essence to blacks.” There is not. Neither is blackness that marketable, sellable product or anger Claudia Rankine criticizes Hennessy Youngman for pushing. She writes in Citizen: An American Lyric:
On the bridge between this sellable anger and “the artist”
resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video
doesn’t address this type of anger: the anger built up
through experience and the quotidian struggles against
dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply
because of skin color.
God forbid blackness should ever be described as Rachel Dolezal. Instead, I think of Aimé Césaire’s Negritude and “…the awareness of being black, the simple acknowledgment of a fact which implies the acceptance of it, a taking charge of one’s destiny as a black man [person], of one’s history and culture.” We must take Negritude beyond the borders of literary movements and make “taking charge” part of our very fabric.
In high school, I rarely got along with the Dominicans that had just arrived to America. They watched me suspiciously, my slang, and my easygoing nature with black, white, gay, and straight kids. The fact that my best friend was black, and that the rest of my crew was a mix of African American, Cuban, Colombian, Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Ecuadorian, was a big bone of contention for the new arrivals. Something about the way I carried myself troubled my paisanos and there was no going back. I was labeled a fake Dominican on multiple occasions, and I relished the role of outcast. My motto: Fuck your racist bullshit. You don’t even know your history.
Perhaps they didn’t understand that America thrusts black or white upon you quickly, and you have to decide, you have to know who and what you are. Life in the Dominican Republic had been too culturally ignorant and insular. Meanwhile in America, some Eurocentric or Castilian Latinos pass for white, but Afro-Latinos are either self-hating or catching hell or both, or just plain confused about who they are. Most of the Dominicans I know have a recognizable African lineage, but too many are quick to claim Latin American status as opposed to Afro-Caribbean identity. But let’s be honest, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Haiti aren’t in South or Central America—they’re in the Caribbean. We need to re-examine our historical cultural selves. I agree that race is a construct, but identity is a necessity.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]