Erasure: Whitening

“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth”

-George Orwell

Often times, when learning about the history of the Americas or even the world, the histories of black and brown people are deprioritized, delegitimized and ultimately erased from contemporary understandings of our yesteryears. The consistent erasure of black and brown people from history has a lot of implications for the African Diaspora. For example, many American children are taught that their histories began with slavery or that their ancestors were “savages” in need of civilizing. Black people, especially students, are disconnected from their historical legacy by virtue of textbooks and teachings that highlight white colonizers as historical protagonists and essentialize black people as slaves, subordinates and other common racial tropes. Not only are these messages frequent and prevailing, they don’t only stop in the textbooks. The messages are sprinkled in pop culture like television shows, music, political debates and even nationally sponsored art.  When I think about the ubiquitous presence of these false narratives, I am overwhelmed by the innumerable consequences, most notably, that black and brown people have limited access to positive representation.

Junot Diaz became a writer to combat this trend, he illustrates the phenomenon in this quote:

“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

This blog post is part of a series on erasure, it’s grounded in the messages of George Orwell, Junot Diaz and George Santayana. It aims to tell the story of a Caribbean icon, Juan Pablo Duarte. He was the chief ideological architect whose efforts led to the separation and liberation of the Dominican Republic from Haiti. Though his story exists the consciousness of many Latin Americans, it is absent from the minds of many of my contemporaries. Additionally, the monument to memorialize his contributions to history has come under a lot of  recent controversy in recent years as the country’s racial history comes under scrutiny with Gates’ Blacks in Latin America.

So, let’s dive in and get to know Sr. Duarte:

Juan Pablo Duarte was born in 1813 in modern day Dominican Republic. He is often referred to as “Padre de la patria” or “The Father of the Country.”

He was born to a Spanish father and a Dominican mother, a mulatto by Dominican standards. He was an excellent student and thus traveled the United States, London, Paris and Spain for his education. In the early 1830s, Duarte returned to the Dominican Republic. He was alarmed to find Haitian’s not only occupying the Dominican Republic, but also dominating in the space. There were many initiatives and insurgencies meant to take the country back from Haitian rule.

In the midst of the national struggle, he organized an underground society called “La Trinitaria” or The Trinity. It was a secret society that was established to end Haitian occupation. It included notable figures such as Francisco del Roasario Sanchez and Matías Ramón Mella. On January 16, 1844, The Trinity released their manifesto promoting Dominican independence and by February 27, 1844, the Dominican Republic declared its independence from Haiti. Though Duarte founded the organization (in his own home, at that), he was exiled around June of 1844 after losing the race for Presidency to military director General Pedro Santana. He died in 1876.

Now fast forwarding to the 21st century.

Henry Louis Gates, (a Harvard professor, literary critic, historian, filmmaker and public intellectual) launched a book and television series called “Blacks in Latin America.” The first episode explores Haiti and the Dominican Republic and examines the roots of the division between the two nations. It can be found here.

At around 14:00 minutes, Gates begins conversing with renowned anthropologist, Juan Rodriguez, on Dominican history about the development of a Dominican national identity. He purports that a distinct Dominican identity began to take its roots during Haitian occupation. He says, “Once they freed themselves from the Haitians, many Dominicans did their best to reject just about everything about them, their language, their culture and to some extent their color.”

One of the examples that Dr. Gates uses to demonstrate this point is a statue of Juan Pablo Duarte in the Dominican Republic. Based on the statue, Duarte had very prominent European features, his bust was even cast in marble rather than pigmented stone. When Gates assumes that all the founding heroes were white, Rodriguez corrects him by telling him that contrary to the European portrayal of Duarte, he was actually mulatto. Juan Rodriguez explains this phenomenon as a “tendency in the imagination of Dominican ruling elites who tend to “whitify” their heroes if their heroes are too black.” Ultimately, this means after Duarte passed away, Dominican officials were able to strategically create an image of what Duarte looked like. This imagery was more acceptable considering the racial animus towards Blacks especially Haitians that would continue through modern day.

This “whitening” of political heroes is not unique to the Dominican Republic but rather is a trend that has grasped Latin America among other areas by the throat. For example, Brazil and Cuba have participated in national policies called blanqueamiento or branqueamento. These nationally sponsored policies encouraged white people to migrate to these countries to “dilute the black race.” Latinos have become so distanced from their African ancestry, there is even a common axiom shared around Latinos about “the Black Grandma in the closet or being “black behind the ears.” It’s especially troubling for a country like the Dominican Republic where 90% of Dominicans are of African descent but the political history of the Dominican Republic helps scholars contextualize it. More and more as I was researching, I noticed a trend in several American countries of erasure through whitening in juxtaposition with anti-blackness through distancing: Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, etc.

You might be thinking… What do we do with is? What does this mean?

Now that we have new information to add to our historical lens, can we see how harmful erasure through whitening can be for African descended people?

How do we combat racial erasure and whitening of historical figures to promote  more inclusive narratives?

We keep doing research and asking questions. We go back to archives and search for primary sources because this is a race to claim our history and our heroes. If not for our sake, then for the sake of our future.

So, I end this with a cliché by George Santayana:

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes. Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it. Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.”


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