When I was about five-years-old, my father sat me and my nephew down and said, "in this house, we are Black." I remember being confused. It was evident that we were Black. It wasn't until I became older that I understood why he had said that.
My father, who had a high school diploma at a time when many Dominicans could not read or write, was a captain in the Dominican Navy, was well versed in technology, and an avid reader. He would get frustrated with people's ignorance.
You see, in the Dominican Republic (DR), where I was born and lived to the age of 10, people who were obvious descendants of Africans would call themselves anything but Black. They would call themselves “Indian,” “mestizos,” and even “mulato,” to hide their African heritage.
Throughout the history of the DR, being a Black, African descendent, meant that if you were female, the best job offering you might get was that of a domestic. As a Black man, you were expected to work in the sugar cane fields or some area of agriculture.
Even as Dominicans embraced the richness of their music, which is steeped in African rhythms, and the African tradition of call and response, they could not embrace the fullness of their African ancestry.
Las Castas was a pictorial chart depicting who the rulers were and who the workers were. It described the progeny of every combination of coupling they could imagine, and it gave all of the children specific names. One name was "yo no se lo que eres," ("I don't know what you are.") The "I don't know what you are" children were the offspring of mixed (blended) families, who descended from prior blended families. In other words, second-generation mixed-race children.
Europeans began enslaving Africans in 1509 when the first African workers were taken to the Dominican Republic to work as free laborers in the sugarcane plantations. More than 100 years before the first enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia, the Spaniards, the Dutch, and the French were extracting riches from the Caribbean islands. They used natives and enslaved laborers to mine and export gold, silver, and various precious and semi-precious stones and metals. They also exported food and cotton to enrich their European nations.
Africans, once brought to the Caribbean to work as unpaid laborers, were treated brutally. All of the laws were set against them. Europeans used violence to establish and maintain rule in their colonies. Enslaved men and women often died in their early twenties. Many committed suicide to escape their plight. They worked from sun up to sun down in the scorching sun. They were forced to abandon their language and stop their ways of worshiping. Black became synonymous with ugly, dependent, and violent. Black was not something to be proud of.
As a result, people wanted to disengage from their African identity. Being Black meant that you did not own your personhood, someone else did. Being Black was seen as an affront and the real reason the history was hidden from the populace. The trauma inflicted on the first generation was passed down to the next generation. The colonized and the enslaved lived under constant threat to their lives.
To ensure that everyone knew who the rulers were, the Spaniards established "Las Castas
," the caste system that would rule the human psyche for hundreds of years and would become the established norm for generations to come.
Because most people couldn't read or write, Las Castas was a pictorial chart depicting who the rulers were and who the workers were. It described the progeny of every combination of coupling they could imagine, and it gave all of the children specific names. One name was "yo no se lo que eres," ("I don't know what you are.") The "I don't know what you are" children were the offspring of mixed (blended) families, who descended from prior blended families. In other words, second-generation mixed-race children.
This is particularly true in Spanish speaking communities where words such as "morenito" and "negrita" are still prominent.
But most were given animal names, such as "wolf," or "mulato." Mulato comes from the word "mule." It carried a particular meaning: mules cannot reproduce. The message to the European men was, "if you mate with a woman outside of your race, that would be the end of your lineage." Any child born of that union, even if it was the firstborn male, could not inherit land or property. To ensure this outcome, the Spaniards institutionalized marriage as a union between two heterosexual Europeans who could produce children. Preferably at least one male, to keep the wealth in the family.
Children born to Europeans who were not legally married were considered illegitimate and could not inherit unless someone left them the wealth in a will, or declared them their child. Only the men had the legal right to do this. This also meant that anyone who was not born of two Europeans was considered illegitimate from birth, and had no fundamental rights under the law. These rules applied throughout the Caribbean and subsequently in the United States.
The marriage ban was still in place in the state of Virginia hundreds of years later when Mildred and Richard Loving, a White man and a Black woman, married in 1958. The Lovings were criminally charged under a Virginia statute that banned mixed-race marriages. They filed a lawsuit and in 1967 the Supreme Court ruled to overturn the mixed marriage ban, ruling it unconstitutional and a violation of the 14th amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
I came to America, the state of New York in particular, at a young age. We lived in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. However, it was always interesting to me that everyone thought I was African American, including Hispanic people, and assumed I didn’t speak Spanish. They were always quite shocked when they would make rude comments about my skin color or my looks and I would respond in Spanish.
Today, from Santo Domingo to St. Louis, Missouri, St. Louis, Senegal, and elsewhere, many still act out of that 500-year-old history, even though many are not aware of where the behavior stems. We still classify people by the color of their skin. Black people and people of color still speak about their family and community members in reference to skin coloration (who is darker and who is lighter). This is particularly true in Spanish speaking communities where words such as "morenito" and "negrita" are still prominent.
We refer to this color-coded classifications as colorism. Colorism affects everything from access to salary. Children as young as 3-years-old have already been racialized and can tell you who is deemed to be good, bad, pretty, or ugly by looking at White and Black dolls. Organizations have been found to pay light-skinned Blacks a higher salary than dark-skinned Blacks for doing the same job. If we are serious about racial healing and transformation, we will need a more objective look at our history, and a comprehensive understanding of our racial conditioning.
Phillips appears on POH Talk Radio, Thu, Aug 20, 8p. To call in, dial 516-531-9540 or go to the POH Talk Radio page
and click the "Current Show" to hear or to write a comment. It all starts Thursday, August 20, 2020.