U.S. Blacks' Perceptions, Experiences, and Scholarship regarding Central and South America - 1822 to 1959

Article excerpt

Abstract

Instances of U.S. Black Americans having direct contact with the inhabitants of Central and South America, whose majority populations are not Black, can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. Slaves and freemen were aware of the possibility of a better life in these regions and a few found their way there to experience trials, disappointments, and successes. From the late 1800s well into the twentieth century the view held by Black Americans, in the main, was unrealistic and optimistic in terms of what these regions offered vis-à-vis the United States. Due largely to sobering reports of racism by visiting Black journalists and celebrities, and because of discriminatory anti-Black immigration policies, the long-held perception of tolerant, racially benign societies south of the border changed precipitously over the first half of the twentieth century.

Introduction

Historically, the West Indies, with its large African descended population, the influence of mass media, and the direct intervention of the United States (U.S.) government, has been the often-cited region of the Western Hemisphere when discussions occur that associate people of African descent with those of Latin American ancestry (Davis, 1995; Fontaine, 1980; London, 1980; Oakley, 2001). Primarily, the awareness persons (i.e., Black Americans born in the United States and of African descent) have had over the past two centuries of Latin America (including Central and South America from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego) and their resulting perceptions and attitudes are based largely on their first-hand experiences and research. The testimony of ordinary Black citizens has added to widespread popular notions about the significance of race in these regions (Anonymous, 1832; Fleming, 1978; Hellwig, 1992; Neal, 1950; Tyler & Murphy, 1974). Impressions formed by Black journalists (e.g., Robert S. Abbott, Ollie Stewart, Joel A. Rogers, and George Schuyler) and academicians (e.g., E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Locke, and Irene Diggs) after visiting Central and South America exposed and helped to explain the intricacies of "race problems" that were crucial to changing general perceptions of many (Diggs, 1953; Frazier, 1942; Hellwig, 1992; Locke, 1944; Ottley, 1955; Schuyler, 1949).

Theoretically, when individuals experience race problems their perceptions change. For example, Carrillo's (2006) report about Afro-Latino leaders attending a conference to discuss racism and how it impacts Blacks in Latin America suggests that racial problems shape perceptions. Similarly, the continuing discussions about the impact of affirmative action on Black Americans provide information for shaping perceptions (Donahoo, 2006). Over the years Black Americans have experienced negative living conditions in the U.S., and following freedom from slavery many looked to Central and South America for a welcomed reprieve. My research has examined the intricacies of their migration to-and living conditions in-those regions. Moreover, I have explored the views and experiences of individuals as they moved from the U.S. to Central and South America. Overall, my specific goals were to examine the public opinions of U.S. Black Americans about residing in Central and South America and those governmental policies and racial incidents that persuaded Blacks to abandon their earlier notions of a harmonious racial landscape there (e.g., Fernandes 1969; Meade & Pirio, 1988; Vincent, 1997); and also to show the record of Black Americans' interest in and research about those regions.

Early Contacts: Laying the Groundwork, 1822-1900

The social, political, and artistic achievements of persons of African descent who inhabited Latin America (i.e., Afro-Latinos) have enjoyed growing attention from scholars and other professionals since the late 1960s (Minority Rights Group, 1995; Roman & Flores, 2003; Whitten & Torres, 1998; Vinson, 2006). Additionally, attention has been given to the evolving contours of Black American opinion and personal experiences in Central and South America that exceed physical and cultural ties to Afro-Latinos. …