Living Contra-Dictions: Exploring the Racial Ontology of Hispaniola/Kiskeya/Ayiti

Lorgia García-Peña, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and the Archives of Contradiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); 288 pages; ISBN 978-0822362623 (paperback)

• February 2019

The denationalization of Dominicans of Haitian descent within the Dominican Republic in 2013 and the subsequent human rights crisis that this state of civil death has caused frames recent works of critical scholarship on Dominican identity and black subjectivity.1 Earlier works by Euro-American scholars, such as David Howard’s 2001 Coloring the Nation: Race and Ethnicity in the Dominican Republic, often framed the Dominican government’s rhetoric and policies of anti-Haitianismo as indications of population-wide antiblack sentiments, exceptional and deplorable among a largely Afro-descendant population. They similarly positioned Dominican racial expressions as “other than black” in a pathological continuum of antiblackness, using terms such as negro-phobia and self-denial. While critical in bringing attention to antiblackness in the Dominican Republic, these texts failed to address the sociohistorical construction of these ideologies or the nuanced lived experience of their impacts.

Lorgia García-Peña’s ambitious text The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and the Archives of Contradiction is a watershed book that intervenes in this intellectual history of blackness in the Dominican Republic. It continues the efforts of Dominican academics who risked violence, political ostracism, and exile to produce writings that are positioned against the ideological grain of the Dominican intellectual and social elite.2 Unraveling the relationship between history, the literary, and the embodied, the author argues that “dictions”—stories, narratives, and texts repeated and reproduced so often that they carry the ether of “Truth” and “History” while replicating silences that obscure the lives of those marginalized and demonized in them—have produced Dominican separation from Haiti as an unnatural social and psychological border that is both an open wound and a powerful space of hybridization and communality. The author assiduously contextualizes, historicizes, and deconstructs the ideologies at the center of Dominican identity (namely, mestizaje, indigenism and anti-Haitianism) while inviting readers to dwell with the heinous forms of violence that have linked blackness to vulnerability and precarity in Hispaniola since its inception. With its theoretically rich readings of canonical, countercultural, and popular texts and its methodological invocation to read the contra-dictionsthe voices of protest that disrupt accepted narratives—inherent in the archives and counter-archives of dominicanidad, Borders reads like a clarion call for Dominican and American studies alike to be in the complexity of transnational, transhistorical black identity production.

García-Peña makes several important interventions in the study of the production of national identity in the Dominican Republic, as well as the production of latinidad in the United States. The author argues that Dominican anti-Haitianismo developed from global anti-Haitianism in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the United States moved to annex parts of the island. The US-DR-Haiti connection in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is centered as a crucial historical moment for the formation of hemispheric imperial relations, setting precedents for diplomatic relations for decades to come. Reading the writings of Juan Pablo Duarte, often lauded as the founder of the Dominican nation, García-Peña challenges the long-held assumption that the ideological seeds of Dominican independence were anti-Haitian and negrophobic. Independence was instead originally framed along lines of political, ideological, and economic difference, rather than cultural or ethnic ones (32). The narrative of mixed-race brotherhood that Duarte produced as founding texts of the multiracial Dominican Republic called for abolishing slavery and ending “the discrimination of human beings based on their color” (33). These narratives were later co-opted by the country’s elite, who reframed them as a revolutionary discourse grounded in Hispanism and mulataje that exalted Spanish culture while keeping the racial diversity of the island at bay (34). As analyzed by García Peña, Duarte’s creed makes the Dominican Republic among the earliest states with multiracial, multiethnic founding principles, something obscured in contemporary academic narratives of black denial.3

From this analysis of the co-optation of the original vision of the Dominican nation, The Borders of Dominicanidad presents further examples of the process by which the bordering of the island materialized from words to widely held cultural ideologies that have encouraged violent actions. In the process, the text pushes readers to consider the relationship between words; material objects of negation, such as locked gates, barbed wires, and, recently, identity documents; and the flesh-and-blood bodies that individually and collectively resist such practices of bordering in their daily actions. Through an emphasis on the performativity of the body, García-Peña considers whether, and how, it is possible for Afro-Dominicans to exist at home in the blackness of their bodies while they reside on the borderline of painful embodied memory (triggered by US occupation, genocide of Haitians and Dominico-Haitians, civil war, and the disorientation of diaspora) and the seductive hegemonic discourses that invite willful ignorance and forgetting of Afro-descendant ethnoracial heritage. Invoking the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernandez, Elizabeth Grosz, Diana Taylor, and M. Jacqui Alexander, García-Peña reads a variety of recent Dominican cultural texts, such as the works of Josefina Baez and Rita Indiana, that counter the fractured and anxious epistemologies of geo-racial bordering. In the process, she demonstrates that the impacts of the historical experiences of colonialism, imperialism, and racism in Hispaniola/Kiskeya/Ayiti have nested themselves in the body like a flock of cigua palmeras in a tall tree.4 The impressive and seamless scalar shifting that occurs in the text is—to borrow Fernando Ortiz’s term—a contrapuntal methodology that successfully decenters the violent, surreptitious naturalness of antiblack and anti-Haitian discourse in Hispaniola.

García-Peña’s analysis of the performativity of the racialized body and its consciousness avoids essentializing race by calling attention to the forces of economic and social power that enact race upon individuals to produce the disposable black bodies imperial and state structures need to function. For this reason, Garcia-Peña’s analysis is methodologically useful to analyze many contexts of ethnoracial othering and politicoeconomic bordering. For example, studies of latinidad and Afro-latinidad in the United States will benefit from the argument that US imperial violence reproduced antiblack ideologies in the Dominican Republic and Haiti during military interventions at the beginning of the twentieth century. This reinforced local understandings that Hispanicity (and eventually, latinidad in the US mainland) is not only separate from but also superior to blackness. As the violence of these interventions in Latin America produced large migrant and diasporic populations, García-Peña suggests that refugees and economic migrants may be considered “racexiled others” (186). Whether in the case of Dominico-Haitian rayano identity, Dominicans of Haitian descent identity, or Dominicanyork identity, transnational, bicultural, and biracial persons craft their embodied identities beyond the boundaries of the logics of their nation-states of both departure and arrival. Such a complex feat requires navigating a palimpsest of contradictions and reordering the ethnoracial logics of belonging in the societies of arrival and departure (172–73). This intervention is particularly important for debates about Afro-latinidad in the United States, since it can further the intellectual labor of critically thinking the material impacts of bringing together identities that have been historically—and violently—kept ideologically separate.

For those long accustomed to the linguistically expressive mobilization of black identity for political claims, the encounter with buried evidence in nineteenth-century archives, persistent Dominican silences around Afro-religiosity, and quiet refusal of state logics through body-centered practices illuminate the variety of agentic capacities that exist beyond the hegemony/resistance binary that mars analysis of the social politics of everyday life. More than a tour-de-force rewriting Dominican history, The Borders of Dominicanidad is a methodological handbook in times that require other tools of analysis. As our presumably postcolonial, liberal world quickly approaches the limits of discourse and “truth,” the silences, refusals, and quiet actions of “subaltern” subjects offer a powerful manual on the complexity of everyday survival and subversion.

 

Saudi Garcia is a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at New York University. As a filmmaker and racial justice facilitator living in New York City, her research is focused on the anthropology of health, healing, race, and science and technology in the Afro-Atlantic. Her dissertation research examines state formation, biomedical development, noncommunicable disease prevention, and holistic health in the Dominican Republic.

 

1 Among these texts are April Mayes and Kiran Jarayam, eds., Transnational Hispaniola: New Directions in Haitian and Dominican Studies (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018); Dixa Ramirez, Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the 19th Century to the Present (New York: New York University Press, 2018); Anne Eller, We Dream Together: Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); and Milagros Ricourt, The Dominican Racial Imaginary: Surveying the Landscape of Race and Nation in Hispaniola (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016).

Such scholars include Juan Bosch, Franklin J. Franco, Carlos Esteban Deive, Dagoberto Tejeda, Josefina Zaiter, and the poet Aida Cartagena Portalatín.

Scholars such as Ginetta Candelario, Silvio Torres-Saillant, Wendy Roth, and Dixa Ramírez have separately confronted academic and popular conceptions of Dominican black denial. Such ideas were also featured in, for example, a 2007 Miami Herald article titled “Black Denial” and in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Black in Latin America PBS episode about the Dominican Republic and Haiti. See Ginetta E. B. Candelario, Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity from Museums to Beauty Shops (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Silvio Torres-Saillant, Introduction to Dominican Blackness (1994; repr., New York: CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, 2010); Wendy Roth, Race Migrations: Latinos and the Cultural Transformation of Race (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Ramírez, Colonial Phantoms; Frances Roble, “Black Denial,” Miami Herald, 13 June 2007; and Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Haiti and the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided,” Black in Latin America, PBS, 12 April 2011.

4 My use of these various terms for the island opens pathways to reflect on the erasure of traditional indigenous names of this land in favor of Hispaniola—a more widely recognized, Hispanic term. Kiskeya means “Mother of all Lands” in the Taino language, while Ayiti means “mountainous land.”