Henry Louis Gates Jr. Explores What It Means to Be 'Black in Latin America'

We recently spoke with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. about his new documentary series for PBS entitled Black in Latin America to find out what he discovered about the racial experience of Afro-Latinos in the region.

We wanted to know what compelled Prof. Gates to take his groundbreaking Black In series to Latin America and he admitted that he was ignorant of the diverse racial experiences across our countries and that it was something he wanted to explore. "It’s very difficult for African Americans to think outside of the racial binary opposition between black people and white people.  We’re constructed, and have been for almost 400 years, to think about race only in terms of either you’re black or you’re white," he told us.

The series kicks off tonight with an exploration of the contentious relationship between Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's first black nation, and the Dominican Republic, one of the oldest Spanish colonies in the New World. What he found was interesting and at times, very sad. "Unfortunately, there is a long history of both an anti-black feeling and an anti-Haitian feeling and those feelings have come together," points out Gates. "There are historical reasons for it. First, Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic between 1822 and 1844. And second, because of the difference in the history of slavery...there’s so much more racial mixing early on in the history of the Dominican Republic."

But the island of Hispaniola is not the only Latin American country struggling to come to terms with racial identity. As a matter of fact, more slaves from Africa were trafficked to Latin America than to the United States. "There were 11.2 million Africans who came to the New World in the slave trade and of that 11.2 million, only 450,000 came to the United States," Gates says. "The real Black Experience, in terms of numbers, is all throughout the Caribbean and Latin America." That means that there is a rich and extensive history of African culture all across Latin America that has been relatively ignored for hundreds of years!

So, why is it that so many Latinos refuse to identify as black, even if their skin is darker than Prof. Gates’? "The way people self-identify is very subjective and very cultural-specific and I don’t blame people.  I just feel sad that people think that black is ugly."

Watch the first installment of Black in Latin America tonight at 8 p.m. EST on PBS and visit the pbs.org for a wonderful set of resources chronicling the history and impact of blacks all across our countries!