by Dianna Tejada
“Dominicans know they’re Black, I don’t know why they deny it so much. I mean, look at your hair. You must be Black”. This and statements of similar sentiment have followed me my entire life. For years, I felt forced to identify with the Blackness that everyone else saw, but the self-loathing filled lens I was using to view myself did not allow me to do that. I spent most of my life proclaiming that I was not Black because I was Dominican. Now, I recognize that I am Black because I am Dominican. This process of decolonizing my identity has allowed me to identify as AfroDominican. I am now confronted with, “you’re not really Black.”
Yo soy AfroDominicana.
“Are you mixed? Oh, you’re Dominican, so that makes you Hispanic, right”? Time and again, I find myself having to explain what it means to be Dominican. The language spoken should not be a factor used to undermine the Blackness of an individual or groups of people. I have had the fact that I speak Spanish used as an excuse to undermine my identity. According to Bartolome De Las Casas, the last indigenous person in the Dominican Republic died in 1512, so that leaves us with hundreds of years of the interracial mixing of African slaves and Spanish colonizers. To delegitimize my identity, is to delegitimize the experience of my enslaved ancestors who worked hard and fought harder to finally receive freedom from enslavement. To be AfroDominicana is to acknowledge the past that goes unspoken and unrecognized. A past showcased in the texture of my hair, language I speak, food I eat, and music I dance to.
Dominican identity is like sancocho, a flavorful stew comprised of tubers, vegetables, spices, and meats. Sancocho is one of the national dishes of the Dominican Republic and has been able to bring the most dysfunctional of families together to embrace a food created out of need during the country’s enslaved past. Most Dominican families, including my own, showcase the spectrum that is Dominican identity with the variation of skin tones, hair textures, eye colors, and facial features- while having the same parents. This adds to the sancocho because no matter what you add or how you mix it, the overall taste remains the same while taking bites of different parts of it, creates a completely different experience.
The label AfroDominicana works like the sancocho because it works as an adhesive- bringing different ancestries together. It binds and accounts for the variation in identities that encompass the Dominican Republic. To be AfroDominican is not to discredit the mixture, but instead to bring all of the ancestries together while giving credit to the ancestry that dominates phenotypically. In the Dominican Republic and in the United States, Dominicans who have accepted this label have received a great deal of backlash ranging from ridicule to violence. My identity has been delegitimized in countless ways by family members and ‘friends’ because in their eyes, I am not Black enough to identify as Afro-anything because my skin is too light and my curls are too loose.
Who decides what and who is Black enough? What does Black mean? Black is a racial identifier, but some people use to Black refer to the African American culture. This is one of the many reasons why Dominican identity is so difficult to define because those on the island are being told that Blackness is equivalent to Haitian identity and Dominicans in the United States are being told that Blackness is equivalent with African Americans. Since the French colonization of Saint Domingue, the differentiation between the Dominican Republic and Haiti has strongly been based on who is “black than”. In attempts to keep Dominican youth from identifying with their African ancestry, textbooks only showcase Blackness through caricatures and their is a strong praise for indigenous roots. This is why Dominicans tend to identify with colors using “indio” or Indian. This confusion is one that is difficult to navigate for individuals in the Dominican Republic who are being fed Westernized notions of beauty and of what it means to be successful. Powerhouses like Sammy Sosa have turned to bleaching their skin because money equals White and White equals good.
The Dominican Republic has a long history of mejorando la raza. There have been entire movements like the Hispanidad movement, that had the primary focus on wiping out as much of the ‘pure’ Blackness which existed on the island. By ‘pure’ Black, they meant Haitian. Dominicans were encouraged to marry white or marry light because there was a strong belief that the whiter the nation, the more prosperous it would become. These kinds of movements lead to events like the Perejil Massacre of 1937 which resulted in the massacre of thousands of Haitians and darker skinned Dominicans along the Dominican-Haitian border. The repression of all things Black in the Dominican Republic has bred the self-loathing that people like the Dominican dictator Rafael L. Trujillo felt.
In order to grow, we need to help one another learn more about ourselves, our people, and the issues that plague our identities. Departments like Africana Studies allow us to explore these topics academically while learning more about ourselves and our histories. If De Las Casas was right, then I have an extremely small percentage of indigenous ancestry which leaves me with one question, what makes my Black different from yours- language? Some of us speak Spanish, some speak French, Patois, Portuguese, and so on. That is the beauty of the African Diaspora. The African Diaspora has aided in the creation of various art forms with local adaptations like Bachata and Dancehall. So, instead of questioning what makes someone Black enough, let’s embrace our differences to showcase the wide span of the African diaspora. We are all struggling to decolonize our bodies, so why not take this journey together?
Yo soy AfroDominicana and I refuse to let you tell me otherwise.
Dianna Tejada is a student at Mount Holyoke College majoring in Africana Studies and double minoring in Journalism and Cogntive Neuroscience.