Colonial Afro-Latin America
By Larissa Brewer-García | Published on October 16, 2020
Born of nineteenth-century nationalist projects, colonial Latin American studies long focused on identifying proto-national subjects and aesthetics to help establish a historical lineage for Latin American national identities. Those projects were also deeply racialized insofar as they situated white creoles, and in some cases indigenous and mestizo peoples, as the founding contributors of Latin American nations. Due to racism and legacies of slavery, none of those nationalist projects included black men and women in meaningful ways and therefore the field of colonial Latin American studies, especially with regard to literary studies, largely ignored the participation of black men and women in the composition of colonial texts and cultural productions until the very end of the twentieth century.
In response to the dearth of studies about Africans and their contributions to the aesthetic traditions and early histories of Latin American societies, a focal point for my research has been to expand the study of primary texts about Africans and their descendants in colonial Latin America by locating forgotten, lost, or little known sources from which more stories about black men and women in the African diaspora in the Iberian empires can be told. To explore these stories, I take into consideration questions such as:
- who composed texts about black men and women in colonial Latin America?
- What roles did black men and women have in their composition? and
- what purposes did the composition of those texts serve?
My first book, published this summer as part of Cambridge University Press’s Afro-Latin America Series, emerged from such an effort. It examines writings produced with the participation of black intermediaries such as Angolan-born Andrés Sacabuche, an enslaved interpreter who helped the Jesuit order evangelize new arrivals from west central Africa in Cartagena de Indias from the 1620s through the 1650s, and his contemporary Lima-born Úrsula de Jesús a formerly enslaved black religious servant who narrated her spiritual visions of souls in purgatory from the Franciscan convent in Lima in the mid-seventeenth century. My examination of the texts they helped produce contends that even though colonial authorities increasingly used writing to instate social hierarchies that associated black men and women with purportedly unruly bodies that required strenuous labor and physical discipline to civilize, the efforts and abilities of black interpreters and religious intercessors in evangelical projects and certain religious settings reveal some important limits to those representations. In fact, portrayals of blackness translated by black men and women in evangelical settings often signify linguistic expertise, physical beauty, and spiritual integrity. The emphasis on beauty and virtue in these texts offers a counter-narrative to the more well-known account of the seventeenth-century as the period in which associations between blackness, slavery, and abject dispossession or barbarity solidified. In short, among other conclusions, the book underscores that there were competing archives of the past and interpretations of the present among colonial actors themselves. While today there are more colonial sources available to study the traditions and histories of lettered European and indigenous subjects, theirs are not the only stories referenced in surviving documents.
The initiative behind this project and my broader research agenda is not just an effort to be intellectually inclusive. It is tied to the political goal of contesting the differently structured racial inequalities across the Americas in the present. Understanding the genesis of those racial inequalities can be a means of establishing strategic equivalences between distinct categories for political purposes that do not ignore those categories’ regional and historical specificities. An example of what colonial Afro-Latin American studies can contribute to this kind of work is the invitation to examine in a single frame the distinct positionalities and loci of enunciation of indigenous and black interventions in colonial archives. Rather than focusing solely on a European-indigenous framework or a narrative of anti-blackness that flattens the web of hierarchies at play in the colonial period in Latin America into facile binaries of oppressors and oppressed, close readings of colonial texts teach us that the categories of Spanish, indio, mestizo, black, and mulato were developed in conversation with each other. Examining those conversations and the changing uses of those terms can provide us with nuanced language to imagine textured collectivities in the present that do not perpetuate exclusion in the effort of attaining however important political ends.
Colonial Latin American studies is at a moment of opportunity for this kind of scholarship. The evolution of the field since the 1980s has brought us here, first through the substitution of the concept of colonial literary analysis with “colonial discourse analysis,” then by the subsequent call to consider “semiosis analysis,” followed by performance studies and anthropological approaches to examining the different relationships between performances and the written word, and visual studies approaches to analyzing colonial cultural productions. Books like Joanne Rappaport’s and Tom Cummins’ Beyond the Lettered City from 2012 and Allison Bigelow’s Mining Language from 2020 demonstrate new directions in Latin American colonial studies that were made possible by looking beyond what used to count as objects and methods of analysis of colonial literacies and cultural traditions. In the wake of these interdisciplinary developments, colonial Latin American studies still has much more work to do to take into consideration the breadth and scope of black men’s and women’s engagements with colonial cultural productions.
In doing this work, we would do well to keep in mind the following questions to help us produce meaningful and responsible research that dialogues with our disciplines’ pasts and the urgency of our current political moment:
- As we continue to expand the canon to read new sources and consider new objects of analysis, will we abandon previously-considered canonical sources in the process?
- When we turn our critical gaze to the vast plurality of the cultural traditions of the early modern Atlantic colonial world, what metahistorical stories do we enable or occlude?
- What do we do with the weight of past historical traditions that colonial Latin American studies has supported?
I include these questions because addressing the needs of the moment in our scholarship requires more than just expanding our archives and methods of analysis in an additive fashion. We need to consider collectively what kinds of historically- and ethically-grounded reckoning and repair our research and teaching can do.
Finally, returning to the organizers’ prompt to think about the “radical potential of uncertainty for academic discourse,” I’m reminded of Derrida’s assertion that every future needs an archive. My hope is that being self-conscious about the questions stated above will encourage us to be attentive to the ways that creative engagements with the texts, images, objects, archives, and repertoires of the African diaspora in the Americas might teach us new things and help us imagine alternative futures that we have not yet anticipated.