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Blackening European Modernities/Dis-covering An(Other) Europe: Toward a Genealogy of Afro-Hispanic Difference

Agustin Lao-Montes





Arguably, modern racial discourse is a historical product that came out of the convergence of empire-building, the rise of world capitalism, and the corresponding civilizational and legal modes of classification/stratification that emerged in the long sixteenth century (1450-1650) at the Iberian Peninsula in its relation first with the Mediterranean and then with the Atlantic worlds. Proto-racial processes such as the search for “blood purity” and for the “whitening” of Islamic “Moors” and “Zephardic” Jews, informed early modern racial discourses (e.g., those that created racial categories such as “Indian” and “Black”) in the context of the invention and conquest of the Americas and the establishment of the institution of chattel slavery as cornerstones of Atlantic capitalism, and of the rise of the West as a dominant geo-historical configuration of power and knowledge. As is well known by historians, plantation slavery was began by the Spaniards and Portuguese circa 1450s in the Canary and Medeiro Islands, before the so-called discovery in 1492.

That not only facilitated the early modern slave trade in the paces that came to be known as the Caribbean and Mexico, but also meant the inclusion of people of African descent in Columbus’ voyages as well as the existence of a small community of Africans and Afro-descendants in late medieval/early modern Spain. An important example of Afro-Hispanic difference in early modernity is Juan Latino, an African born who became an outstanding grammarian and poet at Spain in the early 1500s. In spite of his achievement of what Jose Piedra calls “literary whiteness” because of his intellectual mastery of both Castilian and Latin, he manifestly expressed a Black identity. In the early 20th Century, when building the first archive of the global African diaspora, Afro-Puerto Rican Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, considered the original documents of Juan Latino among the most precious documents on the role and significance of African peoples in the modern world. In fact, Schomburg’s project of highlighting Afro-Hispanics as crucial to the African diaspora, to the history of Europe, and to modernity itself, it is still not only unfinished but seriously underestimated in our conceptions and mappings of Africanity, of Europe, and of the nature of the modern.

In this paper and presentation I will trace, in broad strokes, a genealogy of the character and significance of Afro-Hispanic difference for the formations and transformations of modern geo-historical categories (e.g., Europe and its internal and external borders, the Americas), and ethno-racial discourses. The focus will be on the specificity of Afro-Hispanic difference at two different moments, on the one hand the long sixteenth century and paying particular attention to the case of Juan Latino, and on the other hand the current debate on “race” and racism in contemporary Spain. The discussion on Afro-Hispanics in early modern Spain is intended to raise several questions about the way we conceptualize Europe, the west, and the modern world. Some of the questions to be explored will be: How tracing a genealogy of modernity (or of the modern/colonial capitalist world-system) to the organization of the Atlantic system in the long sixteenth century challenges hegemonic ideas of European civilization based on Western Europe (as exemplified by Hegel’s teleological concepts of Germany as “the heart of Europe” and “the West” as the culmination of history), and how this challenging means rethinking Europe through its own internal differences and external determinants? In the same vein, how Afro-Hispanic difference unsettles dominant ideas of Hispanicity and of the cultures of empire in early modernity? To what extent can we think of the very coining of the concept of Europe and of its existence as an onto-historical entity without referring to its relationality with Africa, with Afro-diasporic subjects, and with American selves who are subjected to the modern logic of colonial difference?

The second part of the paper will analyze racial discourses and the multiple expressions of racism in contemporary Spain. This inquiry will pursue a search for continuities and ruptures in the racial imaginaries of the Spanish empire as expressed in the forms of racialization and of racist exclusion in today’s Spain. After its formal dismantling in the aftermath of the 1898 Spanish-Cuban-American-Filipino War, the Spanish empire was reconfigured as a civilizational/linguistic community by means of the ideology of Hispanicity. The celebration of Columbus Day as “el dia de la raza” in all the “Hispanic World” (throughout Latin America, Spain, and the United States) is a clear example of this racial ideology. The enduring transatlantic ties between Spain and Spanish America were manifest in the celebrative discourse of discovery promoted both by the Spanish and by Latin American governments during 1992, but also by the growing investments of Spanish transnational capital in Hispanic America, and by the mass migration from the Hispanic Caribbean and South America to Spain. Given this migratory wave from the former colonies, and in the context the integration of Spain into the European Union, there had been an increase of xenophobic racism in the country. One of the peculiarities of the new wave of racism on contemporary Spain is a resurgence of anti-moor/anti-arab racist discourse.

Within the complex matrix of multiple racisms in today’s Spain, research had shown that the most aggressive and hostile forms of racial violence (both symbolic and physical) are against immigrants of North African and Arab origin and descent. Arguably, this is related to deep historical definitions of the Spanish self in relation to a lost empire that was born in opposition to its “Moor” and “Zephardic” others in the long sixteenth century. For instance, even though immigrants form the Dominican Republic tend have darker skin than North Africans, research shows that perceived linguistic and cultural kinship, relatively ease the forms of racist exclusion and racial violence that they experience in today’s Spain. This raises fundamental questions about the character of racial discourse and racist cultures, as well as about the very definitions of Africanity and Blackness. In Spain itself, a redefinition of its own sense of self, against the hegemonic imperial self and through historic forms of alterity such as the Afro-Hispanic, could represent a healthy and healing critical challenge that could move its racial politics and policy against and beyond the logic of fortress Europe. The very idea of Europe could be deconstructed and reconstructed by its internal borders and mediations of difference. That’s the main purpose of our genealogy (in the Foucaldian sense of gazing the past to transform the present) of Afro-Hispanic difference.

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