George A. Priestley, PhD Ten minute talk at Encuentros/Encounters Race Relations Institute, Fisk University 2003


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Prepared by the late Dr. George A. Priestley, founder of the Afrolatin@ Project and Director of Latin American Studies, C.U.N.Y.-Queens College for the “Encuentros-Encounters” dialogue. The first of a series of conversations between African-Americans and Latin Americans in Nashville, Tennessee, to foster stronger communication and eliminate tensions between the two communities. Fisk University, April 19, 2003.

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George A. Priestley, PhD Ten minute talk at Encuentros/Encounters Race Relations Institute, Fisk University 2003

  1. 1. Un gran saludo a mis compañeros y compañeras de Nashville: My sincerest thanks to the Race Relations Institute at Fisk, the Latin American Center at Vanderbilt and all other co-organizers for inviting me to share some personal experiences relative to our conversation on African-American and Latino relations. As someone who is one hundred percent black and one hundred percent Latino, I believe that I have some insights on the subject matter that Dr. Irma McClaurin has brought us here to discuss. The speakers who preceded me spoke eloquently about the recent and substantial arrival of Mexicans, Colombians, Central Americans and others to Tennessee. In other words they focused on the tensions caused by recently arrived Latinos to the state. Others spoke to the issue of stereotypes that African-Americans have of Latinos and vice-versa. Yet, another speaker focused on the harmony that exists amongst Latinos, whites and blacks, suggesting that there is no discrimination in Tennessee or at least in Nashville. All of the above descriptions, analyses and appreciations of the issues facing AfricanAmericans and Latinos are important starting points of this most exciting and necessary conversation, but we must enrich our perspectives by grounding our views in ethnohistory, global politics and economics. This perspective has proved useful to me in understanding issues of culture, race, and citizenship in the Republic of Panama. For example, as a second generation Panamanian of West Indian descent, I understand how the Latino emigrants feel in the midst of a country where English is the dominant 1
  2. 2. language; Protestantism, the dominant religion, and where race, color and ethnicity are important social markers of exclusion. As a black person, I have experienced racism and discrimination in the Republic of Panama and in the former segregated Canal Zone controlled by the United States for most of the 20th century. My immigrant grandparents and parents were Protestants, black and English-speakers in the Republic of Panama, a country that was predominantly Catholic, mestizo, and Spanish-speaking. Like other black folks in Latin America we were relegated to perform work that nobody else wanted. But unlike our black brothers who spoke Spanish and were Catholic, we were deemed “incompatible” with the Panamanian nation. Those who read us out of the nation seldom alluded to race; they said it was our status as unwanted immigrants and the labor competition that we posed for native Panamanians. Was any of this true? Yes, the issue was very complex. It was about recently arrived immigrants and about labor competition. But it was also one of race, culture and ethnicity. AfricanAmericans in Tennessee have to understand the immigrant experience to relate to Latinos, and the latter must examine his/her racial understandings, especially as it concerns black people, in order to enable better cultural and racial relations. In our ongoing conversation on Latino-African American issues, we must ask ourselves whether the issue is about Latino immigrants, cultural differences or race. I submit that it is about all three, and while African-Americans must strive to understand the dynamics of emigration and the plight of those moving to El Norte, the Latino/a immigrant will have to confront his/her notion about the racial paradigms that he/she brings to Nashville and 2
  3. 3. how these notions hinder or foster social, cultural, economic and political relations with African-Americans. Moreover, both groups should draw on the many models and historical instances of cooperation between African-Americans and Latinos rather than on the models of conflict, exacerbated by hysterical interpretations of the U.S. census and stereotypes designed to sell commodities that artificially separate peoples that have much in common. Lastly, but not least important, we must add elements of global politics, political economy and history into our conversation so as to make better sense of our local situation. We must inquire how global economic, cultural and political forces impact the rapidly changing demographics in Tennessee in order to understand how they affect each and everyone one of you. This methodology has served me well in understanding my own experience as an Afro-Panamanian. For example, many of you know that President Theodore Roosevelt boasted “I took the Canal…” but few of you may have asked what were the economic, political and strategic factors that led to the president’s decision. Few might have asked what lay behind the U.S. strategy to recruit over 50,000 West Indians over a ten year period (1904-1914) to build the Panama Canal rather than hire unskilled labor in other markets, such as the U.S. South, Spain, and China and so on. It is also important to inquire as to it impact that this massive emigration had on the sending countries in the West Indies and on Panama’s demographic profile, or how these cultural encounters affected race relations on the Isthmus. These are important questions in there own right, but to fully answer them it was 3
  4. 4. necessary for me to see how they related to the U.S. economic and strategic plans for constructing the Canal. I had to ask why was it necessary for the U.S. to subordinate Panama economically, politically and culturally, while institutionalizing a Jim Crow set of social relations in that 500sq.miles of territory that divided the nation, known historically as the Panama Canal Zone. Once these larger questions were posed, it was easier, although not less painful, to understand the dynamics of immigration, discrimination and exclusion faced by the more than 50,000 West Indians that traveled to Panama between 1904-1914 to “dig” the Panama Canal; to comprehend the how and why they were trapped in low paying jobs in the Canal Zone and super-exploited as immigrant workers; and as non-citizens of either Panama or the United States, excluded from meaningful participation in the decisionmaking process in the Canal Zone as well as in Panama. Finally, their racial and national exclusion intersected with racial discrimination in Panama and old-fashioned segregation in the Canal Zone, making them victims of two different racial systems; one based on the good old one- drop- rule imported from the United States and an equally perfidious Panamanian/Latin American racial paradigm based on so-called race mixture, what my colleague Alberto Barrow calls Crisol de Raza. In conclusion in order for us/you to obtain a fuller understanding of the issues affecting African American-Latino communities in the United States and particularly in Tennessee, it is necessary to ask similar questions, large ones and smaller ones, and seek to understand their interrelationship. We must also deploy an interdisciplinary perspective 4
  5. 5. (ethno-history, global politics and globalization) in our conversations, a heuristic device to help us unveil the larger political, economic and cultural dynamics at work in Tennessee that will inform our quest for greater solidarity between the two groups in spite of color, race, nationality or immigrant status. George Priestley, 19 April 2003 Prepared by the late Dr. George A. Priestley, founder of the Afrolatin@ Project and Director of Latin American Studies, C.U.N.Y.-Queens College for the “EncuentrosEncounters” dialogue. Fisk University, April 19 2003. © The Afrolatin@ Project. No reprints or republications without prior permission. 5