My Skin Is Black, My Name Is Latino (AfroLatinidad As a Layered Blackness)

A younger me during one of my last visits to the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, Dominican Republic

I love jumping into cabs in Washington Heights for two reasons: the driver is almost always Dominican (as in Dominican Republic) and the driver is almost always surprised I can speak Spanish. He can have similar facial features, see the waves in my curly hair, and listen to the same music I have on my smartphone. It never matters. The second question is, “Wait, you’re Dominican? What barrio is your mom from?” I tell them the barrio and the cross-streets, and they get vexed. We exchange pleasantries, barbs about the way our music used to be, and elongated vowels before they finally drop me off at my destination.

Something about my blackness wouldn’t allow them to embrace theirs.

I’m not a fan of this thing we call nations, but, since we’re on the subject this week, there are a few days more critical to my personal understanding of “nation” than July 4th, 1776. On this date, a small but important island just south of the United States of America was under French and Spanish imperial rule. The indigenous peoples of this island called it Quisqueya, but the imperialists had any number of names for it: West India (#ThanksColumbus), La Navidad, La Española, Saint-Domingue. This island would fragment the idea of independence for its descendants, but not the way USA did.

I generally don’t celebrate July 4th because it had nothing to do with my independence.

In January 1st, 1804, the enslaved Black people of Ayiti (Haiti) fought for freedom from imperial rule, specifically from the French. In February 27th, 1844, on the eastern side of the island known as Quisqueya, dissidents of Haitian rule formed the Dominican Republic. Even though the Dominican Republic succumbed to Spanish colonial rule again until 1865 (and were occupied by Americans on two occasions in the 20th century), Dominicans still celebrate February 27th as its day of independence. It’s curious that the only country to go back to colonial rule would celebrate its split from the most important enslaved rebellion in the millennium, which only contributes to the simplistic idea that Dominicans hate their blackness.

While that’s happening, America is fighting its own civil war. In the process, the people on the right side of history eliminated slavery — except as a form of punishment for crimes — in June 19th, 1865, also known as Juneteenth. For African-Americans, this signals the first major step to making July 4th correct de facto and de jure. Multiple rebellions happened in America between 1776 and 1865. Emancipation doesn’t stem from the hearts and good will of oppressors, but through the spiritual and physical fights that needed to happen for America to do right by these human beings.

In each of these cases (Haiti, Dominican Republic, and the United States), rulers saw themselves needing to create hierarchies based on pseudoscience to maintain their power. It’s one thing to speak to cultural and biological difference, and it’s quite another to deeply entrench phenotype and pigmentation to social and economic class. The latter proved devastating the world over. For these three countries, these structures have become so embedded in our institutions that we hold steadfast to them as a matter of fact, not as a permeable set of ideas worth resisting.

Thus, my blackness was never in question. My skin, lips, and hair would never allow it. The meaning of my blackness has been called into question.

I rather not be a spokesperson for the Dominican-Haitian-American experience a) because I don’t speak Spanish well, b) I don’t speak Haitian-Creole at all and c) I don’t feel much patriotism for a country that doesn’t grant me full protections under its own laws. But, because this is the country that gave me access to language that explained my blackness, I ought to pull together these seemingly divergent ideas and perhaps weave them into the fullest understanding I have about myself.

Society writ-large has expectations for what a marginalized-hyphenated-American should look like, and those of us with racial hyphens sometimes embrace these archetypes for comfort. Those of us with hyphens don’t often get or give ourselves the opportunity to celebrate our cultures without defining them by our oppressions, especially if the hyphens don’t neatly fit into the larger definitions of white in America.

The idea of joy and love as expressed by marginalized cultures gets lost in America. It also stands to reason that many of us who are labeled first- or second-generation Latinx often carry a racial or cultural schema that differs from America, so it’s odd trying to explain someone’s racial understanding to someone who holds steadfast to theirs. For example, the stereotype is that Dominicans hate Black people, but that ignores the plethora of Black Dominicans who’ve offered pockets of resistance all over the island. To some, it also diminishes blackness to an imperial concept where we can only imagine this experience in the context of the United States and not in the dozens of other countries where, yes, we exist.

But I couldn’t unearth all of that without understanding the African-American struggle right here. And, because I didn’t have the language until college, I didn’t open my mouth. Yet, I was Black before I even got to speak my peace. Even before I understood the word “nigger,” I heard “negro” in Spanish. I got it even before I understood what I was getting. Still negro.

Growing up, it was easy to feel resentful for not having a solid grounding in a racial experience. I never saw The Color Purple nor Purple Rain in full. I didn’t learn the Black National Anthem until college and I only felt the awe of meeting Bobby Seale after meeting him. I was activated under the Student African-American Society, but I felt like I was still taking Blackness 101 while my friends, who had this knowledge handed down to them, were on Blackness 399, if such a course existed.

These and other Black American touchstones were foreign to me, but my experience was even more foreign to them.

It took Felipe Luciano, former leader of The Young Lords, to pull me into fully embracing blackness as an approach to the world. He would lecture us about the way he saw connected struggles throughout the Americas. Considering that 95% of enslaved Africans landed somewhere other than the United States, it also became important to school ourselves on this international blackness. I’d point to tempo in our merengue and how it sounds like the music out of Ghana. I’d point to Celia Cruz, Johnny Ventura, and Roberto Clemente and ask them to see how they compared to Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, and Jackie Robinson, respectively. How can we ignore Pele’s ginga style of fútbol play while celebrating NYC streetballers’ influence on the game of basketball? Soon, I came to learn the full name of the renown black public library in Harlem.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, named for the Puerto Rican researcher and archivist who contributed the first collections to this New York Public Library. We share a birthday, and that usually pushes my friends’ thinking beyond these borders.

What helped me most of all in my understanding of Blackness is the lens of emancipation as an avenue for full human rights. If our identities and cultures don’t help us toward the path to liberation, whatever that means to us, then why embrace it at all? Who got independence on a nation’s declared independence day? What were the conditions? Who decided? Who died, how many, and for whom? How many tiers of citizenship, intentional or otherwise, were created as a result? What is the cost of freedoms here to those abroad?

Are we truly free? Someday, we will be.

Until then, we need to be alright with people individually and collectively understanding their place in this country. The outside world finds ways to tell us where we belong, but there’s a part of us that suggests we can push those boundaries to resist. This expansion allows us to bring together the various versions of who we are and what we do. We can keep calling it Blackness because that understanding is almost as old as human history is.

Those of us who call ourselves AfroLatino/a/x don’t do it for the express purpose of getting farther away from what makes us. If anything, we’re saying that we carried this DNA over generations and over multiple bodies of water and land to arrive into this space here. We were black over “there” and black over “here,” in America.

We can move away from thinking ourselves in percentages and more as whole beings formed from a conglomeration of different genetic and cultural material.

We are not emancipated institutionally yet, but we share these stories in hopes that future generations can make truth a part of their central identities, that they may look in the mirror and see themselves as fully worthy of their humanity, and that they can make restitution with the shackles of our fore-families. We all spoke a different tongue that was forced upon us, but we point within and without towards justice and equity for all.

Oh, and I’m gonna keep shocking these cab drivers. My revolution is personal, and it starts with the tip I might offer the people around me.