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:

  1. who com­posed texts about black men and women in colonial Latin America?
  2. What roles did black men and women have in their com­po­sition? and
  3. 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.