During my first semester at City College, on my way to school, I was approached by a middle-aged African-American man who was selling his books on ancient Black civilizations on the sidewalk. I was not interested in buying a book, but I stayed around to talk with him. We spoke about the Caribbean and its many connections to Africa. He was particularly interested in Africanisms – the cultural continuities of African cultures in the Black diaspora. In the midst of the conversation, he became keenly inquisitive about my racial and ethnic identity.
He was surprised to learn that I was a Dominican who identifies as Black. He subsequently stated that I should “remind” other Dominicans of their blackness and place in the diaspora. Unequipped to persuasively articulate the politics of racial self-identification which would explain why Dominicans as a collective do not identify as Black, I left the conversation hoping that in a different encounter I would fare better. Instances like this were not unusual and have pushed me to think critically about the complexities of race, blackness, and identity in the United States, Caribbean, and Latin America.
Growing up in a predominantly working-class West Indian community in the Bronx, I became hyperaware of what Paul Gilroy would call the “roots and routes” of cultural identities that sustain an imagined sense of a Black diasporic community. This is an approach that includes perspectives on shared cultural and historical experiences of the Black diaspora. The former speaks to a recovery of a lost African past, while the latter stresses the scores of similar but at times divergent histories of slavery, colonization, and shared racialized experiences that are emblematic of the diasporic Black experience.
In my community, ethno-cultural differences did not matter much in the face of anti-Black racism and a strong sense of racial solidarity held us afloat in times of increased surveillance and precarity. However, I learned that these sentiments did not always travel neatly across ethnic boundaries.
The operationalization of race in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean drastically differs from that of the “traditional” racial binary of the United States; leading Latinxs in the U.S to often contrasting and conflicting discourses around the politics of racial self-identification regardless of their skin color and phenotypic traits. Through my experience as an undergraduate student in Anthropology and Black Studies, I have been introduced to the debates on creolization, transnationalism, and globalization as well as the expansive historical contours of Afro-Latin America and the Caribbean. This has allowed me to explore and understand the processes that create contemporary Afro-descendants’ cultural and political understandings of community formation. For graduate school, I want to contribute and participate on conversations around culture and identity, through the theoretical lens of power, politics, and the state, particularly in the Dominican Republic.
During the late nineteenth and twentieth century, the Dominican Republic received large contingents of West Indian labor migrants, mostly from the Anglophone Caribbean, which were later incorporated into Dominican society. Pressured by the demands of the expanding foreign capital, mainly American sugar companies, the Dominican state reluctantly open its borders to waves of black Anglo-Caribbeans. These groups retained strong cultural traditions and distinct social norms that render them as a recognizable ethnic subgroup. Having mentioned this, my proposed graduate research will be an historical account of the evolving subjectivities of Dominicans of West Indian descent, known colloquially as Cocolos, who primarily live on the eastern side of the Island from their initial migration to the island to post-Trujillo. I am interested in examining how U.S imperialist projects, along with the projects of sugar capitalists, influence the Dominican state political and racial projects; how the growth of the modern sugar economy transformed the lives of those most vulnerable; and how these West Indian migrants transformed and became part of the social fabric of the island.
Perhaps my greatest weakness as a PhD candidate lies in my lack of formal training as an historian, and relative unfamiliarity with ethnographic methods. I have conducted undergraduate research with the aid of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. My research project preliminarily titled Afro Dominican American Identities and Narratives of Reclaiming and Transforming, attempts to explore the racial formation of Afro-Dominican Americans and their counter and co-narratives about what it means to be a “Black Dominican”. (Mention briefly some of the results of your study) During my time at City College, I have worked for the Dominican Studies Institute as an undergraduate research assistant researching and collecting data for projects that speak to the broad Dominican experience both in the U.S and the Dominican Republic.
Integral to my job was the Dominican Archives in the Dominican Library in which I would spend a substantive amount of time combing through archival materials. Here I glimpsed the many voices that go unheard and the stories that are untold; silenced by the pen of the historian. Each time I stepped in I came out with a new understanding of how Dominicans interpreted the world. It was this experience in the archives that cemented my desire pursue a PhD in History. One of my goals in seeking a PhD is to study the hidden black voices of Latin America and the Caribbean that deserve to be heard and expand our knowledge on the Black diasporic experience. The CUNY Graduate Center’s program in History offers the ideal intellectual environment to develop my research interests. The department’s commitment to Latin Americanist scholarship and its encouragement of interdisciplinary study fits exceptionally well with my research goals. I believe that my future research would greatly benefit from the mentorship of Herman Bennett, whose work on the history of the African diaspora, particularly in Latin America, around the malleable nature of racial identity and community formation, has been a valuable source of inspiration for my current project.
Laird W. Bergad would also prove to be an invaluable guidepost as I begin exploring how the plantation economies of Spanish Caribbean engendered the racial ambivalence of these societies. I am also eager to work with Bianca C. Williams from the Anthropology department. Williams’s work around diaspora, transnationalism, Black feminism offers a compelling vantage point to pursue questions around gender, migration, and cultural politics in my own research. Additionally, the ability to use the resources at Institute for Research on The African Diaspora in The Americas & The Caribbean (IRADAC) and The Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies (CLACLS) will further refine my Black diasporic analysis and connect me with an impressive network of scholars. With the guidance of the history department and the resources provided through the CUNY Graduate Center, I hope to lay the foundation for a successful academic career that not only will help me satisfy my intellectual hunger and afford me the ability to empower those that come from similar communities.