Introduction to The African Experience in Spanish America by Leslie Rout, Markus Wiener Publishers; New Ed. (July 2003)
Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores, Introduction to The African Experience in Spanish America by Leslie Rout, Markus Wiener Publishers; New Ed. (July 2003).
There’s much to be said for a pioneering book that continues to hold a prominent place in any bibliography of its field. Leslie Rout’s The African Experience in Spanish America is just such a book. Written a full generation before African diaspora studies came to develop into the rich intellectual area we recognize today, Rout’s book can be credited as one of its founding efforts, and as such it stands today as a classic text. This “comprehensive primer,” as the author calls it, remains the only general history on the people of African descent in the Spanish-speaking nations of the hemisphere.
Rout engagingly presents the broad historical contours of the slave trade, exposes the many rationalizations developed to justify that inhuman practice, and portrays the concrete social experience of enslavement. Expressions of resistance and rebellion on the part of slaves and freed men and women receive considerable attention, as does their status under Spanish colonial rule, the crucial participation of Afro-Latin Americans in the wars of independence, and a region-by-region account of their varied treatment in the new-found republics of the 19th century. The vivid descriptions of the system of castas and of the diverse maroon cultures are especially memorable.
Of course since Rout’s ambitious undertaking substantial scholarly and political work has occurred which would help to elaborate upon and lend greater precision to some of his findings. Indeed, in the intervening years Rout and his contemporaries inspired and trained a cadre of scholars who went on to do their own regional studies on the black experience in Latin America and the Caribbean. More knowledgeable readers today will take issue with the book’s anachronistic racial terminology and some times inaccurate demographic data. Many of these limitations are of course attributable to the even more limited scholarly knowledge available to the author at the time he was preparing his book. Furthermore, many of these supposedly outdated terms are still in popular use, and for a range of reasons outlined by Rout himself, the enumeration of Africa’s sons and daughters in the Americas can never be considered fully reliable.
Yet this book is more than a history book. Rout had clearly political concerns, no doubt prompted by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that rocked the very foundations of U.S. society. Beyond presenting a compendium of the historical record, he sought to understand the grounding and the evolution of a system of racial stratification that typically and infamously continues to rely on the denial or minimization of the existence of racism. Rout was careful to position himself as a “black North American,” perhaps a necessary proviso considering the widely held belief in the inability of “outsiders” to comprehend the particular racial dynamics in Latin America and the Caribbean. This cultural exceptionalism, sustained and promoted in both North and South America, still pervades much of the discourse, and has been imported into the discussion of Latinos in the U.S. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, the so-called Tannenbaum thesis and its many advocates, addressed specifically by Rout in 1976, continue to hold sway.
Thus, in addition to its unsurpassed value as an accessible historical introduction, The African Experience in Spanish America also constitutes an early engagement with the nagging theoretical debate over the colliding and conspiring meanings of race and blackness throughout the hemisphere. The shifting racial contradictions traced by Rout, and the long and complex history of Spanish-speaking black folk, have in our own time come home to roost within the U.S. itself, as the demographic explosion of Latinos has included millions of Afro-Latinos and made pressingly crucial an understanding of the relation between Latinos and African Americans. At the same time, the latest stage in the history recounted in this book has involved the growth of an international Afro-Latino political movement, the organization and mobilization by blacks in Latin America and the Caribbean aimed at reversing the ages-old invisibility and untold injustices purveyed against this huge portion of humanity. The various Black Congresses of the Americas in recent decades, the important role of international NGO’s, and the delegation of self-described Afro-Latinos at the historic 2001 United Nations conference in Durban, South Africa, make the “future of the Afro-Latino,” the title of Rout’s closing chapter, a matter of some urgency on the world agenda. For the historical background to this new dimension of global politics and diaspora studies, Leslie Rout’s The African Experience in Spanish America is still the place to turn.