Who decides what and who is Black enough? What does Black mean? Black is a racial identifier, but some people use Black refer to the African American culture… what makes my Black different from yours, is it language? Some of us speak Spanish, some speak French, others Patois or Portuguese, among others. That is the beauty of the African diaspora.

“Dominicans know they’re Black, I don’t know why they deny it so much. I mean, look at your hair. Youmust be Black.” This and statements of similar sentiment have followed me my entire life. For years, I felt forced to identify with the Blackness that everyone else saw, but the self-loathing-filled lens I was using to view myself did not allow me to do that. I spent most of my life proclaiming that I was not Black because I was Dominican. Now, I recognize that I am Black because I am Dominican. This process of decolonizing my identity has allowed me to identify as AfroDominican.  Now, I am now confronted with, “You’re not really Black.”

Yo soy AfroDominicana.

“Are you mixed? Oh, you’re Dominican, so that makes you Hispanic, right?” Time and again, I find myself having to explain what it means to be Dominican. The language spoken should not be a factor used to undermine the Blackness of an individual or groups of people. I have had the fact that I speak Spanish used as an excuse to undermine my identity. According to Bartolome De Las Casas, the last indigenous person in the Dominican Republic died in 1512, so that leaves me with hundreds of years of the interracial mixing of African slaves and Spanish colonizers. To delegitimize my identity is to delegitimize the experience of my enslaved ancestors who worked hard and fought harder to finally receive freedom from enslavement. To be AfroDominicana is to acknowledge the past that goes unspoken and unrecognized, the past showcased in the texture of my hair, the language I speak, the food I eat, and the music I dance to.

[…]

To be AfroDominican is not to discredit the mixture, but to bring all of the ancestries together while giving credit to the ancestry that dominates phenotypically. In the Dominican Republic and in the United States, Dominicans who have accepted this label have received a great deal of backlash, ranging from ridicule to violence. My identity has been delegitimized in countless ways by family members and “friends” because in their eyes, I am not Black enough to identify as Afro-anything because my skin is too light and my curls are too loose.

Who decides what and who is Black enough? What does Black mean? Black is a racial identifier, but some people use Black refer to the African American culture. This is one of the many reasons why Dominican identity is so difficult to define. Those on the island are told Blackness is equivalent to Haitian identity. Dominicans in the United States are told Blackness is equivalent to African Americans. Since the French colonization of Saint Domingue, the differentiation between the Dominican Republic and Haiti has strongly been based on who is “blacker than.” In an attempt to keep Dominican youth from identifying with their African ancestry, textbooks only showcase Blackness through caricatures, with a strong emphasis placed on indigenous roots. This is why Dominicans tend to identify with colors using “indio” or Indian. This confusion is one that is difficult to navigate for individuals in the Dominican Republic who are being fed Westernized notions of beauty and of what it means to be successful. Powerhouses like Sammy Sosa have turned to bleaching their skin because money equals White and White equals good.

The Dominican Republic has a long history of mejorando la raza. There have been entire movements like the Hispanidad movement, which had the primary focus of wiping out the “pure” Blackness that existed on the island. “Pure” Black meant Haitian. Dominicans were encouraged to marry white or marry light because there was a strong belief that the whiter the nation, the more prosperous it would become. These movements lead to events like the Perejil Massacre of 1937, a massacre of thousands of Haitians and darker-skinned Dominicans along the Dominican-Haitian border. The repression of all things Black in the Dominican Republic has bred the self-loathing that people like the Dominican dictator Rafael L. Trujillo felt.

In order to grow, we need to help one another learn more about ourselves, our people, and the issues that plague our identities. If De Las Casas was right, then I have an extremely small percentage of indigenous ancestry, which leaves me with one question: what makes my Black different from yours, is it language? Some of us speak Spanish, some speak French, others Patois or Portuguese, among others. That is the beauty of the African diaspora. The African diaspora has aided in the creation of various art forms that have been adapted locally, including Bachata and Dancehall. So, instead of questioning what makes someone Black enough, let’s embrace our differences to showcase the wide span of the African diaspora. We are all struggling to decolonize our bodies, so why not take this journey together?

Yo soy AfroDominicana. I refuse to let you tell me otherwise.

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Afro-Dominican History

In 1503, with the conquest and colonization of the island, the Spanish began to import large numbers of African slaves to replace the native labor, greatly reduced by wars, brutal working conditions and epidemics. About 80 or 90% of the native population died in the first century of the conquest. Meanwhile between 1492 and 1870 some 30,000 Africans were imported to the current Dominican territory to be devoted to sugar.

In 1503, arrived the first African slaves to the Española Island, mostly to the present Dominican Republic, since Spain had largely neglected the west of the island. This first slaves were Black “Ladinos”, i.e. born in Spain and Christianized and arrived as servants for the home of the island´s Spanish elite.

However, the number of slaves imported to the island was already sufficient for developed rebellions and escapes to the mountains by themselves. The rebels Africans lived with the indigenous in shelters away from urban centers. Even so, in 1510, were imported to the island others 250 Ladino slaves and in 1511, arrived others 5.000 African slaves to the shores of the island. In addition, with the establishment of the world’s first sugar mill on the Española island in 1516, the importation of African slaves greatly increased.

The slaves brought to Santo Domingo came from various parts of Africa and therefore belonged to different cultures. Although in the early days the slaves were Ladino, as traffic and intensified trade and colonial authorities demanded more slave labor for plantations and other housekeeping, were allowed introduction of black “bozales”, i.e. slaves imported directly from Africa. In 1522 took place on the island, the first major slave rebellion, rebellion led by 20 Muslims of Wolof origin, originating from Senegal, in an ingenio (sugar factory) of east of Santo Domingo island Many of the insurgents fled to the mountains and established what would become the first autonomous community African Maroon in America.

However, after the success of this revolt, slave revolts continued to emerge. So, emerged some leaders of African slaves, although already baptized by the Spanish, as is the case of Juan Vaquero, Diego de Guzmán and Diego del Campo. His rebellion led many slaves to flee their oppressors and establish many communities in the South West, North and East of the island, causing the first arrival of slaves, but free, in the current Haiti (remember that although this part of the island was also Spanish until 1697, when it was sold to France, had no Spanish people living in it).

This caused some concern among slaveholders and contributed to the Spanish emigration to other places. Thus, although sugarcane increased profitability in the island, the number of imported slaves who fled into it, continued to rise, mixing with Taíno indigenous of these regions. So, in 1530, Maroon bands already were considered dangerous to the Spanish colonists, so they had to carry large armed groups to travel outside the plantations and leaving the large part of the center and north of the island, very mountainous regions, where the Maroons lived (it was so, until 1654 with the conquest of Jamaica by Corsairs of British Admiral William Penn and general Robert Venables).

However, due to the discovery of precious metals in South America, the Spanish abandoned their migration to the island of Santo Domingo to emigrate to South America and Mexico in order to get rich, for they did not find much wealth in Santo Domingo. Thus, also abandoned the slave trade, that is, they stopped exporting slaves to the island. This led to the collapse of the colony in poverty. Anyway, during those years, slaves were forced to build a cathedral that in time became the most oldest in America. They build their monastery, first hospital and the Alcázar de Colón. In the 1540s, the Spanish authorities ordered the African slaves building a wall to defend the city from attacks by pirates who ravaged the islands. They also built the Puerta de las Lamentaciones (in Spanish: Gate of Mercy).

After 1700, with the arrival of new Spanish colonists, African slaves imported was renovated. In both plantations and isolated villages of runaways from east of the island, the population began to focus more on livestock and the importance of racial caste division was reduced, so that began to develop a mix between the Spanish colonists, African slaves and the natives of this part from Santo Domingo. This domain mixing together the social, cultural and economic European element will form the basis of national identity of Dominicans. It is estimated that the population of the colony in 1777 was 400,000, of which 100,000 were Europeans and Criollos, 60,000 African, 100.000 mestizo s, 60,000 Zambos and 100,000 mulatto.

At the end of the eighteenth century, arrived also to Spanish Santo Domingo, fugitive slaves from the French colony of the western part of the island, usually composed of black fugitives, escaped from the rigors of their masters, and that fed the Spanish colony since the time initial establishment of the French on the island. These slaves came directly from Africa, and in some cases they even form communities such as San Lorenzo de Los Mina, who is now district or sector of the city of Santo Domingo. Also, coming slaves from other parts of the West Indies, especially from the Lesser Antilles, dominated by French, English, Dutch, etc.

In 1801 Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture, who had occupied the east of Santo Domingo, abolished slavery in the place, as had happened in the west of the island, freeing about 40,000 slaves, and prompting most people who formed the elite of that part of the island flee to Cuba and Puerto Rico. However, when the Spanish recovered it, Spanish Santo Domingo re-established slavery in 1809.[8] During those years, the French governor Ferrand imported a second group of Haitian slaves, brought by in order to use them in founding the Puerto Napoleon (Samana), French colonial enclave. There was no running for the defeat of the French.

The abolition of the slavery was made in 1822, during the Haitian occupation of the Dominican territory, started in February, 1822. Between 1824, began to arrived African American freed people to Santo Domingo, benefiting from the favorable pro-African immigration policy of Haitian president Jean Pierre Boyer since 1822. This settlers were established in Puerto Plata Province and the Samaná Peninsula —then under Haitian administration. They were called Samaná Americans. Later, in 1844, two Afro Dominicans, Francisco del Rosario Sánchez and Matías Ramón Mella, freed the country alongside with Juan Pablo Duarte, of Haitian domain.

More late, between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was developed a traffic black workers from the British West Indies in the first third of this century to work in the sugar plantations of the east of the island, and whose descendants are known today with the name of Cocolos.

After, many Haitian people began to settle in the Dominican Republic, a migration that has continued until today.

Origins

The Atlantic slave trade involved nearly all of Africa’s west coast inhabitants to be forcibly taken to the new world. Most Dominican slaves tended to come from mostly the Kongo people of West-Central Africa (present-day Angola, Republic of Congo, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), along with the Igbo (originating from west from Nigeria), Yoruba, Akan and Mandinka tribes.

Others African ethnic groups arrived to Spanish Santo Domingo during the slavery´s period were: Wolof (imported from Senegal), Aja (also called Ararás in Santo Domingo and imported from Dahomey, current Benin), Ambundu (from the Kingdom of Ndongo, in north Angola), Bran (originating from Brong-Ahafo Region, west from Ghana), Fulbe, Kalabari (originating from slave port from Calabar, in Nigeria), Terranova (slaves bought probably in Porto-Novo, Benin), Zape (originating from Sierra Leone), Bambara and Biafada (this latter was originating from Guinea-Bissau) people.

The Wolof were imported to Spanish Santo Domingo from Senegal in the first half of the sixteenth century, until the import of this ethnic group was prohibited after his rebellion in 1522. Many of the slaves were also Ajas, usually taken in Whydah, Benin. The Ajas arrived in Santo Domingo, were well known for having made religious brotherhoods, integrated exclusively for them, as the call San Cosme and San Damian.

Protests Continue Against Dominican Republic Court Ruling

“Ay Bobo!” chanted the colorfully dressed singer of Kalunga, invoking the traditional call to the gods of indigenous Taíno Indians of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

Immigrants from both sides of that divided island – Haiti and the Dominican Republic – were gathered in an auditorium November 15 to protest a court ruling in the Dominican Republic that denies citizenship to anyone born after 1929 who does not have at least one parent of “Dominican blood,” effectively stripping more than 200,000 people of Haitian descent of their citizenship, as well as others who have lived as Dominican citizens for decades. The change has stirred political anger, prompting members of the band Kalunga to urge immigrants from both countries to unite in opposing it.

“If we can’t bring the island together politically, let’s do it culturally,” said members of the band, made up of Haitian and Dominican musicians. “This decision has been used to incite a backward, prehistoric nationalism,” said Estela Vazquez, a Dominican immigrant and executive vice president of the local 1199 Service Employees International Union, which sponsored the rally that drew over 100 people from both communities.

Artists painted murals depicting Haitian faces and clenched fists on large Dominican flags. In English, Spanish and Creole, firebrand keynote speakers expressed anger at what they saw as institutional racism by Santo Domingo’s ruling elite. At one point, everyone was asked to hold hands in a show of solidarity. Leaders of each community embraced each other tightly.

Since the September 23 ruling by the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court, there have been weekly protests across New York, some outside the Dominican consulate in Times Square, and some in community centers in Brooklyn and Washington Heights.

The ruling has also sparked international criticism, heightening tensions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in a relationship already fraught with historical acrimony. CARICOM, a Caribbean regional organization, and Amnesty International have demanded a retraction of the court order.

And in New York, home to more than 120,000 Haitians and 600,000 Dominicans, according to the 2012 American Community Survey, the ruling has reverberated heavily, strengthening ties and fostering unity between two peoples often separated by geography, language and history.

“The decision has brought us closer, because we’re both immigrants,” said Vazquez. “We as diasporas [sic] have the power to condemn this decision.”

For Haitian-Americans, the court ruling appears racially motivated.

“There is no issue bigger in the Haitian community than this,” said Ricot Dupuy, 50, station manager at the widely followed Radio Soleil D’Haiti in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. “There are racist and extremist elements in the D.R.” Radio Soleil’s daily programming, Dupuy added, has been dominated by the Dominican court ruling.

“This is an attack on human rights,” said Councilman Mathieu Eugene, the first Haitian-American elected to the City Council. Local, state, and federal channels, Eugene said, are being exploited to see what can be done to help pressure Santo Domingo into nullifying the order.

The tense relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is steeped in a history of colonialism and the racial divisions it produced. The divisions date back to the 16th century, when Spain colonized the eastern side of Hispaniola, opening the doors to European migration, while France transformed its holdings on the island into one of the largest slave plantation colonies in the Americas.

Centuries later, Haitians migrated to their neighbor, seeking extremely low-wage jobs as cane cutters in the country’s profitable sugar industry. There, they became targets of policies such as dictator Rafael Trujillo’s “Blanquismo,” or “whitening” policy; on his order an estimated 20,000 Haitians were slaughtered in October 1937.

Though Trujillo’s racist policies were later denounced, Dominican courts in recent years have upheld actions that barred Haitians born in the Dominican Republic from holding citizenship there.

One such ruling came two weeks after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, killing an estimated quarter million people. While the Dominican Republic opened its border to Haitians fleeing the earthquake zone, it passed a law saying that any Haitians born in Dominican Republic after that date would not be granted Dominican citizenship.

The September court ruling essentially makes that rule retroactive to anyone born after 1929.

Haitians have loudly protested, as have some in New York’s Dominican community. But opinions there are divided, said Moises Perez, a Dominican activist in New York and former head of Alianza Dominicana, a cultural institution in Washington Heights.

“There’s a group that thinks that this was done deliberately against the Haitians,” said Perez, “and another side that rejects these notions and thinks of it as a correction in Dominican law that was long overdue.”

“The Haitian and Dominican communities don’t have an enormous amount of relationships here,” Perez added. But, with the controversial court ruling and its vast implications, he said, there now exists “a greater affinity for Haitian immigrants.”

The strengthening of ties between the diaspora communities is not unexpected, said Myriam J. A. Chancy, a Haitian scholar at the University of Cincinnati.

Once they relocate to the United States, Dominicans are “treated as people of color” in their new home, said Chancy. “They come here and become Afro-Dominican, and that changes who you create solidarity with.”

At the rally last month against the Dominican court decision, the newfound bond between New York’s Haitians and Dominicans inspired a camaraderie often lost back home.

“Our fight is long but our course is right,” said the opening speaker, a Dominican-American. “We are commonly human.”

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