African American Popular and Scholarly Interest in Central and South America, 1960 to 2005

Article excerpt

Due largely to the failure of schemes to establish "Negro colonies" in Latin American counties in the late nineteenth century and opening decades of the twentieth century, anti-black immigration policies, and the disquieting reports of respected, widely read black journalists like Robert S. Abbott, George Schuyler, and Ollie Stewart who toured the region and exposed its racism and poverty, by the 1960s the myth of a multiracial Shangri La somewhere south of border had been replaced by a more realistic assessment of conditions there. In July 1965, Ebony magazine, by far the most widely read African American monthly publication, featured the first of a lengthy two part series titled "Does Amalgamation Work in Brazil?" by its international editor, Era Bell Thompson, who spent two months in that country (part I, 27-41; part II, 33-42). Writing during the height of the civil rights movement in the U.S., she could not resist making comparisons and summed up her impressions of Brazil's finely delineated pigmentocracy thusly:

   Whether the bleaching properties of miscegenation
   will produce a beige or a cafe com leite nation,
   only time and genes will tell, but the desire is for
   and the trend is toward a white Brazil. The darker
   a man is the greater his problems (part 1, p. 29).

Thompson praised Brazilians for their "non-violent" nature, for having "abolished slavery without conflict" (part II, p. 42), for outlawing capital punishment and bullfighting; and she seemed genuinely flattered that the Brazilians she interviewed were sympathetic to the cause of racial equality in the U.S. in general and in particular their high regard for Martin Luther King Jr. who along with a contingent of black clerics had attended the Baptist World Alliance in Rio de Janeiro in June 1960.

But it was in the 1960s when a new crop of black scholars--not journalists like Bell, or entertainers like Duke Ellington who toured Mexico with his orchestra in 1968, or writers like Chester Himes who spent the winter of 1963 in a Mexican fishing village--earned the appellation "expert" on some topic pertaining to Central or South America. In 1963, Robert L. Jackson took his doctorate in Spanish literature at Ohio State University. Two years later he complained in the journal Hispania that literature researchers had overlooked Afro-Latino writers (p. 870-871). He did more than just complain, he set about rectifying this by devoting much of his energies to informing us of their achievements. Subsequent articles over the past thirty years have appeared in American Hispanist, Interamericana de Bibliografia, CLA Journal, Afro-Hispanic Review, Chasqui: Revista de Literatura Latinoamericana, College Language Association Journal, and Revista Iberoamericana. His books include The Black Image in the Latin American Literature (1976), Black Writers in Latin America (1979), The Afro-Spanish American Author: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism (1980), Black Literature and Humanism in Latin America (1988), Black Writers and the Hispanic Canon (1997), and Black Writers and Latin America: Cross-Cultural Affinities (1998).

Who could have guessed that a professional jazz saxophonist who once traveled in the bands of Woody Herman and Lionel Hampton would become the most important historian on the black experience in South America, even producing and directing a television series called "The Black Man in the Americas." In between band gigs Chicago-born Leslie B. Rout Jr. managed to earn a Ph.D. in Latin American diplomatic history at the University of Minnesota in 1966. Rout's personal reflections on the racial scene in Brazil as he experienced it living there as a musician in the 1960s, "Brazil: Study in Black, Brown, and Beige," was originally published in Negro Digest (1970) and has been reprinted in books. Like so many other black Americans who were initially enchanted with the vision of Brazil as a place of racial bliss, Rout determined its advantages were illusory and chose not to become a citizen there. …