I am not African : Afro-Descendants in Dominican Republic

In #SoulJourney

It will be difficult for many Dominicans to deny their African ancestry outside of their country because by most standards, especially in North America and Europe, many of them look and are considered ‘Black.’ Many Dominicans possess phonotypical features ascribed to ‘Blacks’ such as darker complexions and curly hair. However, the notion of ‘Blackness’ in North America varies vastly from that in the Dominican Republic (DR).  While many North American adhere to the ‘one drop rule’, in which people who to have ‘one drop’ of African blood is considered to be ‘Black,’ in the DR, the term ‘Black’ or the notion of being African is rarely mentioned, let alone accepted as part of an individual’s makeup. Many Dominicans refer to themselves as ‘Indian,’ despite being of African, Awarwak and Spanish ancestry  and categorize themselves in terms of the various colour hues; “oscuro” for the darkest skinned, “canela” for those of medium hue, and “claro” for those with the lightest complexions. These categories also correlates with their established social hierarchy, with those possessing lighter hues situated at the top. However, the term ‘black; is rarely ever used unless it relates to ‘outsiders’ such as their Haitian counterparts.

As a person who is proud of her African ancestry, I could not help but react with disappointment at the dominant mentality espoused by many Dominicans. To me, a denial of one’s ancestry and roots is the ultimate manifestation of self hate.  However, as with most issues relating to race and culture of colonized people, everything must first be placed within its historical context in order for one to gain an understanding of the rationale behind why people in the DR do not identify themselves with their African roots.

The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti and the two nations have always had a precarious relationship. Haiti gained it’s distinction as the first Black led Republic in 1804 after slaves led a successful revolt against the French. This also resulted in Haiti’s succession over the entire island, which resulted in it having rule over its then predominantly Hispanic Dominican Republic for 22 years. The Spanish colonized the DR and after they gained victory over the Haitians in 1844, they have made it a point to identify solely with their former Spanish colonizers. Since then, most political rulers have embarked on policies that have a direct bias against Haitians, who for most people in the DR were the ultimate manifestation of ‘blackness.’

Although it has been argued that upward to 90 percent of the DR exhibit features attributed to ‘Blacks’, leaders of the nation, the most famous of being former President Trujillo (who ruled from 1930 – 1961), fostered a culture of hate against Haitians and by extension Blacks (it should be noted that despite his efforts to conceal it, Trujillo’s maternal grandmother was a Black Haitian). Haitians and Blacks were positioned as being economically, culturally and socially inferior and as a result, most people sought to identify with their European colonizers. Colonization and its discourse fostered a heightened sense of the ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’ mentality whereby whose complexions appeared closer to the Spanish colonizers were deemed to be superior. Additionally, the implementation and continuation of an obvious deportation policy bias targeting Haitians in the DR demonstrates that this mentality still permeates the very fabric to Dominican society.

The issue surrounding the denyail of African roots in the DR was summed up very well by a young Dominican man who noted that “There was a sense of ‘deculturación’ among the African slaves of Hispaniola….an attempt to erase any vestiges of African culture from the Dominican Republic. We were, in some way, brainwashed and we’ve become westernized.” Despite this noted ‘brainwash,’ many Dominicans are forced to evaluate their identity when they leave their country and relocate to other countries in North America and Europe. In these new environments, many of them face almost the same level of discrimination as their other Black/African counterparts and are forced to assume the position of ‘outsider.’ In many ways, they are forces to embrace their ‘Africaness’ as a means to attaining a sense of belonging and community.

In recent years, many Dominicans have embarked on a campaign to foster an embrace of their African roots.  There has been a rise and development of Black pride organizations such as Black Woman’s Identity and many intellectuals have been lobbying for the incorporation of African roots, history and culture within Dominican society. While this movement continues to face a lot of challenges, many remain hopeful that one day Dominicans will embrace their African roots and ancestry with deserved pride.

I am not African : Afro-Descendants in Dominican Republic

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  • Gerald Alexander Lopez Castell

    I am Dominican as well from San Francisco de Macoris. I can say i agree for the most part with this article but there are some very important points missed. First and foremost we are not more westernized then other Afro-descendants its actually quite the reverse, we are probably one of the countries with the highest African retention in the carribean and new world. Right behind Brazil, Cuba and Haiti. Specially as a whole we are for example more culturally African then Jamaicans who are more christianized and westernized. Every other county only has pockets of African retention, such as the Palenqueros and Pacific people of Colombia.

    The Term indio does not mean arawak at all, and is not really associated with it, its more equivalent to the term Browning in Jamaica which is just a term for Brown, that is how it is used in d.r and has been for sometime. In fact i have a direct lineage on my paternal grandmother’s family that has as strong native surival, culturally, spirirtually and even from some studies i did on my family , genetically. Yet they clearly say on that side of my family, that they have a line that is “De gente de raza india” which they distinguish from “color indio” which simple means brown. You can also equate the term wtih redbone which in the u.s is associated with like skinned Igbo Africans and natives, (And Igbo africans where almost non-existent in D.R) very few in comparison to the Guinean/Sierra Leonean/Congolese/Ghananian ones.

    Also Real Africans never embraced African-ness, because Africans saw themselves as their ethnic group, and this only. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t unity, eventually unity arose as a victor and many ethnic groups joined. But for the most parts Africans respect their ethnic boundaries, the same way Europeans distinguish Germans from the English, etc. There was even strong quarrels, distrust and fights between these ethnic groups. Therei s numerous accounts of Africans fighting each other in the Americas based on old-world tribal differences. Africans who are not westernized dont identify with the mass continent (Africa) but with their immediate reality (their ethnic group). And this has been preserved in D.R to some point with our brotherhoods (Cofradias) and our Palo drums, as well as our strong inclination to judging someone based on theier surname “Tu ere de lo Martinez, bueno esa gente son cabeza caliente, etc” This is very common in Africa.

    Also theres one really big detail which is that we had such a Large Run-away slave (Maroon) population as well as such as large Free Black population that this changed things quite a bit. In Dominican society when Africans became free they stopped being “negro” (Black) and they transformed into “Morenos”. Which means Free Black, a term with a bit more respect because Before being Black meant being a color, or an object (Property) While now Being a Moreno means being associated with an actual ethnic group/nation (The moors) as thats the root word of moreno. WIthi this i dont say we are moors, there where some historically but that is not our Major makeup by any means, just that Moreno comes from this term. And if you listen to Dominican music, or walk down any Domincian street you will notice we call each other Moreno quite often, atleast people my hue and darker. I get both Indio and Moreno, depending on how much color i have. So in D.R we have adopted a more Humane name for each other then most of hte Americas who use the term “black”. Largely due to our nature as Free/Maroon Africans in the island.

    I would also say that i do agree strongly that we DEVALUE our African-ness, its a shame how people see Africa and its ethnic groups as sort of miniscule, much due to the strong doses of Eurocentrism in our society, but this is not unique to us, i see the same prejiduce torwards African-ness all across the diaspora at almost equal levels, just in different ways. So Dominicans might assocaited a darker hue’d person as negative, but yet Play Palo which is directly derrived from Congolese-Ghananian and other African traditions, and get moutned with African spirtis. While in the U.S you may have folks who love their color and maybe even well versed on the African contient but woudl crindge at the sound of Drums or even more at the non-christian practices that we have in D.R which are directly African. For the most part in D.R i am verye happy there is a conciousness movement that has started and this will lead the way for us to value our African-nes and connect the teremendous amoutn of cultural/spiritual survival with its African homeland. Our mother is Africa, not spain.

    Oh and Trujllo’s grandmother was indeed Haitian, as was Balaguer’s. She was though a light skinned Haitian “Mulata” from the Elite in Haiti, so in D.R she wouldn’t have faced any prejiduces due to “looking haitian”. Balaguer on the other hand descends from a dark skinned Haitian grandmother.

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