With Black History Month coming to an end, I got to thinking more and more about my own blackness and how often it is questioned. Challenged even.
Everything from my being asked overtly offensive questions like, "What makes you think you're Black?" to the subtle ways that popular television often pits "Latinas" and "Black Girls" against one another as if we cannot be one in the same. It's upsetting.
Even now, when we are seeing an increase of Afro-Latinx representation out there, it somehow still confuses and/or surprises folks. So, I'm hoping to clear some of this up, once and for all:
Latina is not the new Black. We've been here… AND… we've been Black!
To better understand this position, there are a few things we should discuss upfront.
First, Latinidad is not a race.
It is an ethnicity, a pan-ethnicity at that. This means that it is an umbrella under which other ethnic groups are lumped together (some of whom don't have much more in common with one another than who their colonizer was… but that's a point I'll come back to later). In the United States, at least for the purpose of Census identification, Latinos can identify as ethnically Latino, but are still required to choose a race. In fact, the U.S. Census website clearly states that, "People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race."
The racial categories that they offer for choice are as follows: White; Black or African American; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.
So, why choose Black, you ask?
Well, it might help you to understand that I am 38 years of age, born in 1980. So, just think, two years after my birth, the nation dealt with the complicated race questions raised by Susie Guillory Phipps, a self-identified White woman who was told that she was Black because she had 3/32 Negro blood and, well, we know how the U.S. feels about that one-drop rule! In fact, the New York Times article that chronicled the conundrum explained that "the state has traced her geneology back 222 years, to a black slave named Margarita, Mrs. Phipps's great-great-great-great grandmother. The great-great-great-great grandfather was a white planter named John Gregoire Guillory. Louisiana law since 1970 has held that if a person has one thirty-second 'Negro blood,' the person is black. Before 1970, 'a trace' of Negro ancestry made a person black in the eyes of the state."
And, since race tends not to be looked at as state-specific, you can imagine that the same ideology extends across the nation. So, given the mix of European, African, and indigenous blood that makes up Latinos, one might say that the nation chose for me.
Still, if that combined with a picture of my very dark complected Puerto Rican grandmother wasn't enough to give me some clue as to where I came from, I ran my DNA and got the following breakdown: 5% Middle Eastern, 10% Native American, 26% European/Caucasian, 28% Iberian (a descendant of what they once considered Southern Spain and Northern Africa), and 31% African. That means that approximately one-third of my personage is of African descent, far outweighing the Phipps rule.
It's so logically my truth, that I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I didn't always know it.
I mean, let's face it, growing up in NY public schools in the 1980s meant that "people of color" were mentioned almost exclusively in talks of the Civil Rights Movement, MLK, and Jim Crow. There was no mention of Latinos, the African diaspora, or slaughtered indigenous populations. The whole year was largely about European "discoveries" and "Conquistadors," until February came. Then it was Black History, which was basically made synonymous with African American history, with little explanation of who that included, for a short month (with a winter recess in the middle).
Looking back now at pictures of the Jim Crow era, I'm reminded that the signs most often divided the country into "White" and "Colored" or "White" and anyone else. So, I guess it was always pretty clear where we fell. But given how infrequently Latinos were encouraged to embrace their Blackness, I felt almost like I had no right to claim that as my history. So I struggled.
It makes sense when you think of the complicated racial confusion faced by the people of this pan-ethnic group.
Even our description is Eurocentric as illustrated by the creation of the Spanish-influenced "Hispanic" category in the 1970s and now the popular use of the Italian-influenced term "Latino." And, if the verbiage isn't enough to leave you stumped, the category itself encompasses groups from dozens of different countries made up of many different types of people and few scholars can even agree on an exhaustive list of who and where. As previously mentioned, we are united mostly by the fact that we were all, at one time, colonized by Spain. This gives us a common language and the African/Indigenous/Spanish trifecta that has come to define us (though to a differing degree depending on the region).
Isn't that interesting and unique, when you think about it?
Consider Jamaicans and Haitians for a minute. Jamaicans were colonized by the British but we would probably never lump them with the Welsh or the Irish simply because they were all at one time colonies of England, anymore than we would lump Haitians in with French Indonesians, because they once "belonged" to France. Yet, somehow, it made sense for Latinos to be lumped together under the umbrella of who colonized our islands and countries. I'm not complaining about it, but it is certainly curious, don't you think?
Add to that the complexity of my parents, in particular, being from Puerto Rico. PR is a commonwealth, as are Kentucky, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. However, in exchange for a few tax breaks, Puerto Rico was kept from the right to vote for president and is not considered a state but its people are citizens. Okay, I admit that this is a bit of an oversimplification, but you have to admit that this whole thing is also just a bit of a mess. Puerto Ricans are Americans with African ancestry but not African Americans? Right, because we speak Spanish so we are Latinos which somehow makes more sense. Got it (sarcasm).
Now please, don't get me wrong. Just because I know that race and ethnicity are somewhat messy, socially constructed labels do not mean that I don't wear each of mine with pride. I am so very proud of being a Latina in the same way that I am proud to be a woman while fully recognizing that gender is another messy, socially constructed label with many limitations that don't make a lot of sense. I embrace them all because there is a pride that comes from the culture and triumphs of the groups through which we identify. And the hormones and genes that we carry and share and the legacy and unity of strength with which they infuse me.
I just refuse to subscribe to the idea that my claiming my Blackness is somehow synonymous with my denouncing my Latinidad.
I will feel free to celebrate every aspect of me in all of its glory. I am a spiritual and creative manifestation of God, incarnated as a strong, Black Latina, a Nuyorican woman proud of every piece of who she is and what she brings.
*Article originally published on Life Coach Dr. Dee
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