Harlem, Slavery, and Mexico’s Radical Tradition in the 1930s

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 2:10 PM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Theodore Cohen, Lindenwood University
In the 1930s, the Mexican state turned to socialism to fulfill the goals of the 1910 Revolution. At the same time, and as an unexpected consequence, black culture became a symbol of post-revolutionary social justice. This paper examines the national ideologies and transnational dialogues that introduced blackness to Mexican state formation. Blackness was not deemed to be, as is typically implied by historians of post-revolutionary Mexico, irrelevant to exhortations of indigenous liberation or the everyday forms of state formation. Materialist constructions of race offered a marked departure from earlier cultural visions that had described African-descended peoples as insignificant or dangerous. Nonetheless, Marxist historians—like the xenophobic ethnographers who preceded them—embraced the nineteenth-century liberal scripts that sought to eradicate racial categories. They exclusively located African-descended peoples in the colonial period, thereby casting the shadow of black invisibility over contemporary society. The rehabilitation of blackness fell to cultural producers participating in the New Negro Movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Cutting their teeth on Harlem’s nightspots and downtown museums fascinated with ‘the primitive,’ these modernist artists, writers, and musicians returned to Mexico and integrated a transnational blackness into the cross-racial classist rhetoric of post-revolutionary socialism. I argue that, because blackness was thought to be socially invisible, it was symbolically more malleable than indigeneity. Nationalists constructed it without the fears of social conflict that had traditionally shaped indigenous relations with the state. As depicted in 1930s art, music, literature, and historical texts, slaves—especially Gaspar Yanga, the leader of the first free black community in the Americas—became Mexico's first revolutionary heroes. More broadly, the abolition of slavery and caste were recast as the first step in making a post-revolutionary socialist state that would soon achieve the aims of the Mexican Revolution.
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