What make a person Black? Is it the color of their skin? Their culture? Their ancestry? Their ties to Africa?
Race, and racial identification, in the Americas is a tricky thing. Centuries after the slave trade, intermingling, and unwritten rules that labeled anyone with a drop of “black blood” as black, how we view race is tentative at best, and downright confusing at worst. So when I heard about a recent essay by a Dominican teen who decided to “come out” as black, I was intrigued.
In her article, Elaine Vilorio, a high school senior, says she decided to finally acknowledge her blackness after years of hemming and hawing around the issue.
I’m Black. After many years in the closet, after many years of breathing that stale air of self-denial, I can finally say this.
Growing up, I dreaded the question “What are you?” I always proudly answered that I was Hispanic. In fact, I made it a point to emphasize my Hispanicity simply because I knew what was coming next. “I’m Hispanic; I speak Spanish; my parents come from Dominican Republic. I’m Hispanic. And, just to clarify, I’m Hispanic.” To this, the other person confessed: “Oh… I thought you were Black. You definitely look Black.” The problem was I perceived the identification of “Hispanic” outside the realm of Blackness; but then, I wasn’t the only one. Take note that the other person in my scenario thought the same thing. Right after my declaration of Hispanicity, he/she stripped away the “Black” label with the phrases “I thought” and “You definitely look.”
Although many had “mistaken” her for being black, Vilorio says she was hesitant to embrace her blackness because she felt it would “erase” her Dominican heritage. She goes on to argue that many Latinos have sidestepped their blackness because they are “ashamed of their African ancestry” and are basically hiding behind the mantle of being Latino.
She continues: The conventional definition of “Black” completely leaves out Hispanics, and this is because the latter is ashamed of African ancestry. As a result of this shame, American society has excused Latinos from identifying themselves as Black or African American. I recently read Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Black in Latin America, and I’m amazed at what I learned. Eleven million Africans survived the Middle Passage and came to the Western Hemisphere. Out of this almost unfathomable number, only 450,000 Africans came to the United States. Gates expresses the significance of these numbers nicely: “The ‘real’ African American experience…unfolded in places south… of Texas, south of California, in the Caribbean islands and throughout Latin America.”  Why, then, has the stereotypical Hispanic comprised mostly European and Indigenous features? Where did the Black go? It was buried under unofficial segregation, under whitening campaigns of populations and national histories, under racism.
While I commend Vilorio for finding or embracing her roots (whatever this really means), her essay highlights the ridiculousness of racial constructs and further illustrates the fact that some, not even visibly brown/black folks, want to be considered black in America.
Vilorio’s essay reminded me of a passage in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel Americanah in which the main character, Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant, explains to other non-American blacks why they are now considered “black,” even though they may never have had to think of themselves as such before.
Ifemelu riffs: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t “black” in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes….Admit it–you say “I’m not black” only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. Don’t deny now. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you still say “Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad?” I don’t think so.”
Lately we’ve been having more and more conversations within our communities about who is and who is not black. Do biracial people count? Are Afro-Latinos really black? How about those with only a black grandparent? Should non-American blacks call themselves “African Americans”? Should African-Americans call themselves Africans?
The conversation can be downright exhausting. But when you think about it, it’s also a bit silly, isn’t it?