What Is the African Diaspora in a “Post-racial Society”? The Case of 19th- and 20th-Century Mexico

AHA Session 22
Conference on Latin American History 2
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Ben Vinson III, George Washington University
Raymond Craib, Cornell University

Session Abstract

How do we study Afro-Diasporic peoples and cultures in nations that have officially eliminated all racial categories? This session uses Mexico, a country that abolished caste identifiers and slavery in 1829, as a case study to investigate the role of state formation in the making of what is—and is not—the African Diaspora. Standard theories of diaspora are built on the premise that dispersed peoples feel excluded from their new host country, yearn for a return—real or symbolic—to their homeland, and maintain some form of racial consciousness that ties them to others across the diaspora. These definitions eschew the experiences of communities in and the racial configurations of a nation, like Mexico, where civil rights initiatives and political negotiations could not be based on race. Looking for this specific type of diasporic identification, scholars presume either that no African-descended peoples or communities would choose to accept the loss of their diasporic identity or that they would willingly accept assimilation under the implicit condition of no longer being diasporic. This assumption leaves silencing and erasure as the dominant paradigms for understanding any historical departure from our conceptions of diaspora. In Mexican history, this method has left the colonial period as the primary focus for the archival study of the African Diaspora. Post-independence Mexico has been cast aside.

The papers in this session analyze the multiple cultural, political, and spatial constructions of blackness in post-independence Mexico: when emancipation, not slavery, was the most common historical reference. They collectively nuance if not to deconstruct the paradigms of assimilation, silencing, and erasure that minimize Mexico’s place in the African Diaspora. They address three broadly defined but unexplored periods of Afro-Mexican history: the years of and immediately following the abolition of slavery and racial categories; the late-nineteenth century, when people could still trace their family ancestries back to slavery but once official racial categories had been exorcised for several decades; and the early-twentieth century, when blackness had been fully removed from state visions of the Mexican populace and the everyday negotiations of state formation. This session contends that the abolition of racial signifiers—the making of a so-called post-racial society—did not banish blackness from Mexico’s historical narrative, cultural cartography, or historical archives. More importantly, it argues that the politics of Mexican blackness cannot be reduced to a wholesale program of state-sponsored erasure. Instead, popular actors, cultural producers, and statesmen used culture, language, symbolism, and law to make and remake African-descended identities in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mexico.

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