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The Appearance and Disappearance of Moors in Spain: What Color Were They?

Tiffany Ruby Patterson





Racial discourse in the modern world turns on color and so much of our understanding of earlier periods is filtered through a modern notion of color and race. Confronting Europe and Africa in the centuries prior to the Atlantic slave trade presents particular difficulties if that encounter is understood solely within the framework of a “modern” racial discourse. Yet to understand this discourse, we must telescope back to that earlier period in which Africans and Europeans confronted each other before the Atlantic slave trade, during a moment of conquest. We must begin with the Iberian peninsula and the creation of the first and only “black” state in Europe, as well as the point of departure for the Atlantic slave trade. Here Africans, Europeans, Jews, and Arabs fashioned a complicated world out of conquest, imperial control, and economic and military power. Here too, notions of difference based on color, religion, ethnicity, culture and civilization evolved over a period of eight centuries until the expulsion of Moors, Jews, and Arabs and some of their progeny.

What was left at the end of the fifteenth century was the residue of a Moorish presence in the material culture, the bitter taste of racist rage, and the beginning of a carefully crafted effort to erase the memory of Moorish Spain. That effort began with a search for a “purity of blood” through a whitening of “Moors” and “Zephardic” Jews at the moment of another conquest, that of the Americas, and beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade. To unravel a piece of this thick and complicated history, I want to explore in my paper and presentation the simple question of color and the meaning of blackness in early modern Spain. Today’s immigration of Moroccans, Nigerians, and Senegalese into Spain raises the old question of blackness in Spain and its meaning. This history has much to teach us.

As a starting point for a historical investigation of a “blackened” Europe, we must begin, then, by asking who were the Moors and what did they look like? What color were they? More to the point, what did blackness mean in Moorish Spain? What was the vocabulary of color and how did it change after the fifteenth century? How did the Moors view themselves? What do the primary sources, limited as they are, have to say about the African presence in Spain? There was a time when the historical imagination included the Moors. At what point did the Moors disappear from the imagination of Europe and what was it replaced with? What are the implications of the fact that the Moors were expelled from Spain at the precise moment that Spain embarked on the African slave trade in the Atlantic and an overseas empire? What are the implications of this erased presence for the origins of modern racial discourse?

Many secondary writers today are cagey about who the Moors were, leaving them shrouded by Arabs and Muslims. However, an earlier group of scholars from an older tradition of Afro centricity asked just these questions. J.A. Rogers and John Jackson for example brought forward the Africanity of these Muslim invaders insisting on their blackness and their importance in the creation of Spain and its culture. More recently, St. Clair Drake, Ivan Van Sertima, and Jan Carew have sifted through archives and museums for traces of these Moors and their “black and colored” European descendents. They have examined the racial polyglot of early Europe and raised questions regarding blackness and difference. Others, such as Richard Fletcher, have acknowledged the importance of the African majority but have not probed the meaning of blackness. Much work remains to be done on this early period to uncover the shape and texture of a Spanish culture flavored by a large population of Africans.

We know for example that at the time of the invasion in 711, Arabs led the army but the rank and file was Berber. Nearly 150,000 to 200,000 Berber tribesmen settled in Southern Spain. The evidence suggests that many brought their wives, children, slaves and clients. However many others took wives, slaves, and clients from the indigenous population thereby creating, over several centuries, mixed groups of “Moors.” We know too, that the Arabs never used the word Moor but instead referred to the masses of North Africans as Berbers, even those who were not black. The Oxford English dictionary describes moors as a people who are black or very dark and in many contexts the word is synonymous with “Negro.” The word Moor will signify “black” in several European languages in the early modern period. In one essential source, the Cantigas of Santa Maria, written by Alphonso X (1254-1286), the Moors are represented as black. This period is significant for it was the period of the Almoravid invasion, which brought thousands of new Africans into the Iberian peninsula. The images of Africans are varied with many being very positive. Yet the tensions between Arabs and Moors and Europeans flared again and again, tensions that suggests differences based on “race and color” and social position. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to understand this early period as a carbon copy of the system of color-caste that would eventually develop in the New World diapsora. What needs to be explain by beginning with early modern Spain is the intense racism toward blackness and black people in Spain, a racism that manifests itself today as hordes of new immigrants from both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa invade Spain seeking economic relief and a new citizenship. There they encounter the legacy of color and blackness with all of their hidden meanings.

My interest in color as a constituent element of race in Spain is part of a larger project about the shifting structures of color in the Atlantic world particularly the Caribbean and the United States. Spain is a predecessor to these New World structures.

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