To most North American sensibilities, anything south of the U.S.-Mexico border is usually associated as Mexican and usually associated with brown-skinned people. In truth, Central and South America compose vast parts of the land past that border, and the racial politics are complex. Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) by George Reid Andrews is a telling of the history that is sure to invite deeper studies into South America’s cultural anthropology.
Uruguay has an unusual history. Racially white as a country essentially through colonial extermination of indigenous people, Uruguay imported one of the most massive populations of African slaves on the hemisphere. With the abolition of slavery, it became apparent that Uruguay’s various forms of government, from dictatorship to social democracy, was unable to upend disparities. Just as important to the discussion, ideas of white superiority and Black inferiority lingered and, it could be said, justified and gave ballast to inequality. Freed Blacks struggled under a system in which, decades later, they continually ran into white discrimination and Black accommodation of racism. Blackness in the White Nation tells the story of Afro-Uruguayans’ quest for racial justice and the country’s continued contemplations toward egalitarianism.
For students of history, the book is dotted with important moments in post-colonial South America. Intercontinental solidarity, Afro-Uruguayan pioneers like Ricardo Zavalla and the newspaper La Vanguardia, are profiled. The influence of organizing, whether through militant protest or in dual institutions such as the umbrella organization Mundo Afro, in shaping the Black experience in Uruguay is undeniable. Richly illustrated, Blackness in the White Nation is sure to enlighten readers about a rarely shared history. That story, from the standpoint of an oppressed people’s advancement from slavery to citizenship, presents the South American experience in a new light.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the movements and the contemporary history of Uruguay is the utilization of popular culture, particularly music and dance in the form of tango and candombe, as a vehicle for social change. Performers like the late Rosa Luna used their positions as entertainers in the largely Afro-Uruguayan artform of candombe to promote anti-racism. However, the author argues, many of these campaigns had a reverse effect. Candombe, he says, reinforced discrimination by centering on perceptions of Blacks in Uruguay as primitive or musical, Such ideas, he writes, were directly or indirectly supported by all races for various reasons. The project of candombe as racial ambassador supported gender stereotypes of women of color especially. By permitting whites to partake in a culture of Blackness that is mostly separate in Uruguay, while still maintaining white privilege, the hope for racial equality remained then and still today elusive.
Reading Blackness in the White Nation, it is hard not to consider parallels. In the United States, people often talk as if Black artforms like hip-hop have the potential to break down racial barriers. What this often means is white comfort in exploring non-white cultures, as opposed to non-whites having broad access to power. Nevertheless, when it counts, Black disenfranchisement remains persistent, a deep reflection of rooted white resistance. In Uruguay, it is evident that the descendants of African slaves continue to contend for leadership of the country. However, when full equal opportunity will be realized is an unresolved question.
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