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Los blancos, morenos,/Cobrizos, cruzados/Marchando serenos,/Unidos i osados,
La Patria salvemos/De viles tiranos/Y al mundo mostremos/Que somos hermanos.
- Juan Pablo Duarte
Dominican society is the cradle of blackness in the Americas. The island of Hispaniola or Santo Domingo, which Dominicans share with Haitians, served as port of entry to the first African slaves to set foot on Spain's newly conquered territories following Christopher Columbus's eventful transatlantic voyage in 1492. Nine years into the conquest of what thenceforward became known as the New World, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella appointed Fray Nicolas de Ovando governor of Santo Domingo, authorizing him to bring "black slaves" to their colony (Saco, 1974: 164). Marking the start of the black experience in the western hemisphere, the arrival of Ovando's fleet in July 1502 ushered in a social and demographic history that would lead in the course of five centuries to the overwhelming presence of people of African descent in the Dominican Republic today.(1) Blacks and mulattos make up nearly 90 percent of the contemporary Dominican population. Yet, no other country in the hemisphere exhibits greater indeterminacy regarding the population's sense of racial identity. To the bewilderment of outside observers, Afro-Dominicans have traditionally failed to flaunt their blackness as a collective banner to advance economic, cultural, or political causes. Some commentators would contend, in effect, that Dominicans have, for the most part, denied their blackness. Faced with the population's tolerance of official claims asserting the moral and intellectual superiority of Caucasians by white supremacist ideologues, analysts of racial identity in Dominican society have often imputed to Dominicans heavy doses of "backwardness," "ignorance," or "confusion" regarding their race and ethnicity (Fennema and Loewenthal, 1989: 209; Sagas, 1993). I would like to invite reflection on the complexity of racial thinking and racial discourse among Dominicans with the purpose of urging the adoption of discrete paradigms in attempts to explicate the place of black consciousness in Dominican society and culture.
BLACKNESS AND THE DOMINICAN STATE
A large part of the problem of racial identity among Dominicans stems from the fact that from its inception their country had to negotiate the racial paradigms of their North American and European overseers. The Dominican Republic came into being as a sovereign state on February 27, 1844, when the political leaders of eastern Hispaniola proclaimed their juridical separation from the Republic of Haiti, putting an end to 22 years of unification under a black-controlled government with its seat in Port-au-Prince. The Haitian leadership originally resisted the idea of relinquishing authority over the whole island and made successive attempts to regain the eastern territory, which resulted in sporadic armed clashes between Haitian and Dominican forces until 1855. As the newly created Caribbean republic sought to insert itself into an economic order dominated by Western powers, among which "the racial imagination" had long since taken a firm hold, the race of Dominicans quickly became an issue of concern (Torres-Saillant, 1993: 33-37). In December 1844, near the end of President John Tyler's administration, U.S. Secretary of State John C. Calhoun spoke of the need for the fledgling Dominican state to receive formal recognition from the United States, France, and Spain to prevent "the further spread of negro influence in the West Indies" (Welles, 1966: 76). As would many other American statesmen and journalists throughout the nineteenth century, Calhoun conceived of Dominicans as other than black.
When in 1845 American Agent John Hogan arrived in Santo Domingo with the mandate of assessing the country for an eventual recognition of its independence, he sided with Dominicans in their conflicts with Haitians and therefore soon became concerned over the predominance of people of African descent in the country. Directing himself to the Dominican Minister of Foreign Relations Tomas Bobadilla, Hogan wondered whether "the presence in the Republic of so large a proportion of the coloured race" would weaken the government's efforts to fend off Haitian aggression. Bobadilla assuaged his fears by replying "that among the Dominicans preoccupations regarding color have never held much sway" and that even former "slaves have fought and would again fight against the Haitians" on account of the oppressiveness of the latter's former regime (Welles, 1966: 77-78). In a dispatch addressed to U.S. Secretary of State John M. Clayton, dated October 24, 1849, American Commissioner in Santo Domingo Jonathan E. Green reported that Haitian violence had given "force and universality to the feeling in favor of the whites in the Dominican Republic" to the point that a black "when taunted with his color" could conceivably remark, "I am black, but white black" (cited in Welles, 1966: 103-104).
Nineteenth-century foreign observers of the Dominican scene had ample occasion to note the reluctance of Dominicans to flaunt their black identity, but they themselves remained ambivalent about the racial and ethnic characteristics of the new republic's population. One thinks, for instance, of the genealogy of Dominican political leaders published by the New York Evening Post on September 2, 1854, with the intention of frustrating Secretary of State William Marcy's plan to secure the granting of official U.S. recognition to the Dominican Republic. The Evening Post highlighted the blackness of Dominicans to spark antipathy against them in public opinion sectors of the United States, but a book published six years later by a writer seeking the opposite result undertook to underestimate the black element of the Dominican population - representing the Dominican people as "made up of Spaniards, Spanish Creoles and some Africans and people of color" (Courtney, 1860: 132).
Two strains appear to stand out in the observations of Americans commenting on racial matters in the Dominican Republic at the time. One is the sense that "no austere prejudice against color prevails" in the country, as one author put it, or, in the words of another, that "distinction of color, in social life, is entirely unknown" (Santo Domingo, 1863: 10; Keim, 1870: 168). The other strain is the insistence on magnifying the white component of the Dominican population. Thus, the U.S. Senate Commission of Inquiry who went to the Dominican Republic in early 1871 to assess whether the country was ripe for annexation to the U.S. territory found people there to be "generally of mixed blood," with the great majority being "neither pure black nor pure white" but showing areas inhabited by "considerable numbers of pure white" people and noting that "generally in the mixed race the white blood predominates" (Report, 1871: 13). Even in the twentieth century, during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, one could find U.S. voices attesting to the presumed whiteness of Dominicans. One contended unambiguously that the inhabitants of the small Caribbean republic "with very few exceptions" were white, citing racial hostility, that is, "the refusal of the white Dominican to be governed by the black Haitian," as the cause of the partition of Hispaniola into two countries (Hancock, 1905: 50). In the same vein, an anonymous writer asserted that "white blood preponderates" in the Dominican Republic by contrast to neighboring Haiti, where "the black race is in complete ascendancy ("Romance," 1995 : 18-19).
Given the foregoing series of fluctuating pronouncements on Dominicans and race, the mixed testimony in the late 1920s of yet another American commentator, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary Sumner Welles, should come as no surprise. While asserting that "race discrimination in the Dominican Republic is unknown," he deemed it "one of the most noteworthy peculiarities of the Dominican people that among all shades, there is a universal desire that the black be obliterated by the white. The stimulation of white immigration has become a general demand," and an interest in curtailing or regulating black immigration carried "similar force" (Welles, 1966: 909). Welles described what proponents of structural causes for attitudes about race would characterize as a contradiction, since his scenario insinuates that negrophobia can exist independent of racial oppression. I would like to take this baffling …