This spring PBS aired a four-part series from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., called Black in Latin America. The series examines the influence of African descent on Latin America, and is the third part of what Gates calls a trilogy that mimics “the patterns of the triangle trade.” The trilogy began in 1999 with Wonders of the African World, and continued in 2004 with America Beyond the Color Line. The first series explored the relationship between Africa and the New World, the second reported on the lives of modern-day African Americans, and now Black in Latin America shows how the rich cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean are the products of Africa and Europe coming together. All four parts of Black in Latin America can now be watched online, courtesy of PBS. There is also a book, also titled Black in Latin America, written by Gates and forthcoming from NYU Press this summer.
On top of all that, Gates is also the co-editor, with David Bindman, of The Image of the Black in Western Art, a series that we recently resurrected in partnership with the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, which Gates directs. Last fall we published the first four books of what will ultimately be ten, and the fifth and sixth are due this fall. In the fifth book, which is actually Part 2 of Volume III, there is a chapter called “The South American Scene,” which illustrates much of the history covered by Gates in Black in Latin America.
The Image of the Black in Western Art documents representations of people of African descent throughout the history of Western art. Much of that representation begins with the slave trade. As Black in Latin America makes clear, the overwhelming majority of the African slaves brought to the new world were taken south of the United States. As Gates explained in an interview with PBS, of the 11.2 million Africans that are known to have survived the Middle Passage and landed in the New World, only 450,000 came to the United States. So, what Black in Latin America explores, and what The Image of the Black in Western Art documents, is this incredible history of the presence of people of African descent in South America and in the Caribbean.
In The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol III, Part 2, we see this, the first visual representation of an enslaved African in the Americas:
It comes from an anonymous and undated manuscript, the Histoire naturelle des Indes, written probably by a French traveler associated with Francis Drake’s voyages of the 1570s and ’80s. The image depicts African slaves in each step of the process of digging for gold, work that the Spanish colonists wouldn’t allow Indians to do for them, for fear that the indigenous people would understand the gold’s value and then attempt to force out the Spanish.
Of course, from the beginning of the colonization of Hispaniola, black slaves found ways to escape from their masters, often by fleeing to more remote areas and joining with Indian groups. They formed Maroon communities that were often autonomous, ruled by African custom, and feared by the settlers. The Image of the Black in Western Art presents a painting by Adrian Sanchez Galque from 1599 that depicts Francisco de Arobe, the ruler of one of these Maroon communities, aged fifty-six, and his two sons, Pedro, aged twenty-two, and Domingo, eighteen. It is the earliest signed and dated South American oil painting of blacks:
Part of the intent of Gates’ Black in Latin America project is to explore the different conceptions of race in the Atlantic world. Whereas in the United States we’ve historically seen blackness as a sort of one-to-one corollary to whiteness, governed by the infamous one-drop rule, Brazil has 136 kinds of blackness, Mexico has 16, and Haiti has 98. As Gates puts it: “Color categories are on steroids in Latin America.” One of the principles behind The Image of the Black in Western Art is that there’s no better way to understand the development and spread of these different conceptions of race than by examining the art produced along the way.