Minority Politics in Latin America
22 March 2012
If It Ain’t White, It Ain’t Right
When evaluating the immortality of slavery, people oftentimes emphasize the abhorrent, physical abuse endured by Afro-Descendants, and diminish the pernicious, psychological effects they suffered. Chief among the psychological effects manifested from slavery are notions of self-hatred and self-denial. Tragically, Blacks were forced, through centuries of conditioning, to believe, accept, and demand their slave master’s mandate that blackness innately implied inferiority. In Juan Francisco Manzano’s Autobiography of a Slave, Manzano explores these themes through his personal experience as a Cuban Creole mulatto slave. In an arduous fight for freedom, Manzano is raised to believe that the only way to liberation is through a rejection of his Black identity and an acceptance of his White identity. The ideas of self-hatred and denial raise intriguing questions. Is it possible for Black people to achieve real liberation, i.e. substantive democracy and citizenship, through the denial of their Black identity? What kind of liberation is achieved through the acceptance of the idea that part of one’s identity is inherently inferior? This paper suggests that true psychological liberation, substantive democracy, and citizenship cannot be achieved through such a process, and that any system that requires such self-denial and self-hatred serves to reinforce or justify the racist system from which Blacks seek to escape.
Identity development occurs during one’s childhood. From an early age, children are told who they are and how they relate to others in the world. During the era of slavery, Afro-descendant children were taught that the only way to salvation, both immediately and in the future, was through a sacrifice of their African roots. Perhaps the most vivid recent example of this occurred in the award-winning film “The Help” in which a Black maid tells a young White child “You are smart. You are kind. You are important.” During slavery, Black children were given no such messages. Part of the message Black children were taught was that their blackness was in some way responsible for their slavery. In discussing the common desire for Afro-descendant’s to escape their African heritage, Ivan A. Schulman writes in the introduction, “To make the leap to the “master” culture was not an uncommon aspiration in the nineteenth century: Among people of color there existed the general wish to whiten one’s descendants insofar as possible, and distance themselves as much as possible from slavery” (Manzano, 11). Through this desire, Blacks sacrificed their own self worth in favor of their domineering White oppressors. As a young boy, Manzano too yearned to identify with the controlling white culture he inhabited. While discussing his relationship with Dona Joaquina, one of the many women who raised him, he writes, “She would dress me, comb my hair, and take care that I did not mix with the other black children” (Manzano, 55). Dona Joaquina’s insistence to separate Manzano from his Black heritage is credited to the caste system present among slaves in Cuba. Under this system, pure Black slaves were in opposition to Mulattos. Since Mulattos by definition had at least some White blood, they conjectured that they were superior to their full-blood Black counterparts, and therefore justified in trying to escape their Black identity. Consequently, the caste system served as the primary force that caused Manzano to run away from his plantation. As a result of having his family members and friends detached from his life, Manzano found it paramount to escape his present situation as a Mulatto slave amongst full-blood, Afro-descendant slaves, he writes, “I saw myself at El Molino, without parents or even relatives, and, in a word, a mulatto among blacks” (Manzano, 133). This passage highlights one result of the denial of Black identity,...