Teaching about Africans and their Descendants: Henry Louis Gates on Latin America

CLAH Newsletter, vol. 41, no. 1 (Spring 2005)

Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee Roundtable: Teaching about Africans and their Descendants: Henry Louis Gates on Latin America

On Friday, Jan. 7 the CLAH Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee held a roundtable discussion with six panelists and about seventeen audience members on a new documentary on Afro-Latin America that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has proposed to make for make as a coproduction of Thirteen/WNET in New York and Wall to Wall Productions. The documentary “Gates on Latin America” is to be filmed in four one-hour parts, with segments on Brazil, Haiti, Peru/Colombia/Venezuela, and Cuba/Jamaica. We asked the six panelists (Nicole von Germeten, Oregon State University; Ben Vinson III, Penn State University; Reid Andrews, University of Pittsburgh; Ileana M. Rodriguez Silva, University of Washington; Matt Childs, Florida State University; James Sweet, University of Wisconsin) to read a proposal for the series that Gates has presented to the Challenge Fund, and respond to the following questions:

1) How have you organized courses on this subject and what resources have you used?

2) How did students respond to the course?

3) Based upon your reading of Gates proposal, how do you think his proposed series would be useful in your class?

4) What additional accessories to the Gates video (e.g., online materials, training programs and/or workshops, print materials tailored to college students, primary sources, etc.) might make it more useful to your students? (Answers to this last question might help to shape PBS production of auxiliary materials for classroom use.)

As the panelists began to discuss the proposed documentary, it quickly became obvious that there were several problems with the design of the roundtable. No one in the audience had seen the Gates proposal, and hence did not know what they were critiquing. No one from the production company was in attendance, and it was not clear what would come of this feedback or whether comments from the discussion would be incorporated into the documentary. Finally, audience members had come eager to gain access to new pedagogical material to incorporate into the classroom, and it was unclear how discussing this proposal would fulfill that purpose.

Panelists applauded the effort to produce a documentary on Afro-Latin America as there is a dearth of good visual material on the subject. It appears that the documentary may be most useful for looking at core areas of the African diaspora in Latin America. Panelists compared this proposal to other documentaries and films such as Forgotten Roots, I Was Born a Black Woman, Cimarrones, Sugar Cane Ally, and “Mirrors of the heart: race and identity” in the Americas film series. Several recent good films engage issues of Afro Brazilian culture (Bus 174, City of God, etc.), but the panel warmly greeted the proposal of presenting good, historically grounded material on less examined events such as the Haitian slave revolt.

Based on a reading of the proposal, the panelists identified a series of potential problems with the documentary. The issue of perspective, presenting an homogenized view of fundamentally different cultures in Latin America, and reinforce impressions of victimization were some of the main concerns. While it is important to emphasize that there are Africans in Latin America, this proposal appears to import stereotypes and project assumptions from the U.S. on Latin America. Depicting places like Haiti as the location of bizarre religions and cultures only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes. Rather, it would be more useful to examine, Childs noted, how the Haitian revolution becomes a beacon for changing race relations. While these historians welcomed the historical dimensions to the series, von Germeten was concerned that it failed to present a sense of historical change over time or the role of historical agency. The third film in the series presented what struck this group of historians as a weird cultural grouping of Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela, which seemed to underline weaknesses in the historical framing of the documentary. How far would this film go beyond generalizations to examine important regional variations throughout Latin America? Would it successfully convey to a North American audience with bi-racial assumptions, Rodriguez questioned, the ambiguity, tension, complexity, and fluidity that are entailed in race relations in Latin America? As Andrews noted, “I happily leave it to the filmmakers to decide how to proceed. But I do urge them to correct the various errors of fact in the series: please feel free to contact me for a list-not long, but not short either-of such corrections.”

While this documentary might work for TV, the consensus was that, as currently proposed, it would have limited use in the classroom. Some suggested that it could be used as a foil to present stereotypes that could then be deconstructed in class discussions. But would it not be more useful to present a solid, historically grounded treatment instead? In the last several years, a lot of new written material on the African diaspora including some biographies and reconceptualizations of race have been published, and these insights should be incorporated into the documentary. Other concerns include how to deal with language barrier issues (subtitles or voice overs?), and how to get away from a presentist interpretation of race. Vinson noted that it might be most useful to treat this documentary as an artifact of the diaspora, and view it on those terms. Sweet noted that given Gates’ other efforts, this documentary would probably be visually stunning and in spite of its shortcomings, flaws, and factual errors it may be worth using primarily for those images.

In terms of ancillary materials, the panel wished for material that extended quite far beyond what the current proposal contains. A web site would be useful if it added primary sources and maps, and perhaps an electronic archive of papers and assignments on which other classes could draw. This could draw on databases of ship records and existing websites like The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record (http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/). Vinson urged that the technology be used creatively to create a forum so that discussion of the ideas in the documentary could be extended well beyond the classroom. Ideas included developing a system of virtual pen pals with the living diaspora, linking discussions between different university classrooms, presenting work from college classrooms to primary and secondary schools, and using the video to foster communication between Africans and Latinos in the United States. Vinson urged that we view a video like this as an opportunity. Because of his profile, more people would be drawn into it and as historians we should take advantage of the opening and exchanges to help shape views on race. In summary, the roundtable and audience were not sure what our purpose was in discussing this proposal and whether our reactions would be taken into account. It was unclear at which stage of production this documentary currently is. Parts of the proposal read as a script summary as if the series has already been filmed, while other notes refer to logistical aspects that imply that much more work remains to be done. Would Gates take our concerns under advisement, or is he simply looking for a historical stamp of approval in order to head off some of the criticism that his other work has faced? Audience members urged that the panelists’ comments be forwarded to Gates so that they can be incorporated into the documentary. The consensus was that a documentary on Afro-Latin America would be welcome addition to our teaching, but that we would like to have as useful and solid of a series as possible.

Marc Becker
Truman State University