Undoing Our Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Colonial Wounds
Written by: Dorothy Bell Ferrer
Before we dive into the issues affecting the Dominican Republic and Haiti, judge each other, and turn our noses up to this issue, we need to understand the depths of this issue past “Dominicans hating themselves” or “Haiti being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” We need to understand that the racial and social problems that affect one island, one that used to be united under indigenous love and peace, is suffering from something that comes from a bloody war, both literally and figuratively. Because, you see, even though I proudly identify as black or Afroindigena, European blood still runs strong through my veins, like water in a faucet that you can’t turn off. It’s the strength with which European colonialism tainted our Afroindigenous selves and society that is the problem. Haiti comes from the Taino word, Ayiti which means “land of the high mountains.” A Haitian is a person of the land of the high mountains, but what’s a Dominican?
The name Dominican Republic carries some of that problematic colonial strength. A name matters. What you answer to matters. The word that reminds you of yourself the most matters. When we say “Dominican Republic,” what we are subconsciously paying homage to is La Iglesia y Convento de la Recoleta Dominica, which comes from an order of the Catholic Church in Europe. That means colonialism. Dominicans didn’t choose this. When a Dominican says “Soy dominicano,” they think of the merengue and bachata rhythms that play in the air. They think of where they grew up or where their parents or grandparents grew up. The laughs, the memories, the late night bochinche with neighbors, the con-con, the word vaina… that’s Dominican. Even the subtle way that Dominicans celebrate their culture through the two words, “soy dominicano,” presents itself as evidence of a problem that needs to be fixed in the Dominican Republic and all throughout the diaspora.
The Spanish, who colonized the Dominican Republic and split the country from Haiti for obvious racial reasons on February 27, 1844, are entirely responsible for naming Dominicans the way that they have. Dominicans didn’t decide to be called a word that (historically) paid homage to colonization but this word is there. The wound is carried every time one of us gives birth to a child and tells the child that he or she is Dominican. But we can heal from this. We first get to the roots and we recognize ourselves for what it truly is. For me, it was a matter of blood and understanding what my blood meant to me. I used to ceremoniously deny my European heritage as I proudly called myself negra, black or Afroindigena. I don’t readily claim it or wear it as armor on my shoulders (and I probably never will) but as a part of my own personal healing process, I came to terms with what all of my blood meant for me, even the European blood. I came to terms with having European heritage that came from colonialism by recognizing that my African blood didn’t mean slavery and my Taino/indigenous blood didn’t mean genocide. That was the definition of my colonial European heritage. My Afroindigenous blood means community, victory, and survival. We were colonized to believe that colonial European blood meant salvation but for me, it carries no meaning and a pain that I can be released from while celebrating who I am in the present: an Afroindigenous woman. Antihaitianismo is both racist and the wrong type of nationalism that some Dominicans were born into. It is a war against blood, against ancestral ties, against our true selves but the Dominican Republic isn’t the only country with an anti-black problem. Every single country in the Western Hemisphere was built on a foundation of anti-blackness and white supremacy. Both of the aforementioned are constantly perpetuated in our societies even by the very people that it hurts to the core. To rid our societies of anti-blackness we can’t look at the issues regarding the Dominican Republic and Haiti as the only feasible problem throughout the diaspora and we certainly will never fix the issue from the popular “finger pointing anti Dominican” point of view.
The purpose of anyone’s stance against Antihaitianismo and/or anti-blackness in the Dominican Republic shouldn’t be one that encourages people to stop traveling to the Dominican Republic or that classifies all Dominicans as self-hating problematic people, if it is to be one that is successful in ridding Dominican society from a problem that exists throughout the entire western hemisphere. Rather, the purpose should include common sense, love, and revolution. The family living in squalor raising chickens that they sell to vendors in Santo Domingo that are used to cook the dinner of ritzy tourists don’t deserve to be economically damaged because the Dominican Republic’s racist and corrupt government mistreats Haitians living in the country. If we were to promote economic sanctions on the Dominican Republic, we would have to do the same to every other country that has an anti-black problem, including all parts of the United States. It is counterrevolutionary to harm an entire people based on the system they are forced to adhere to and a history that they did not write. However on the other hand, it is the responsibility of Dominicans (and Haitians and others) to write a better story for both Haitians and Dominicans.
How do we write a better story? We stop adhering to the fact that “some Dominicans just don’t understand.” We explain, educate, and find ways that Dominicans and Haitians are connected. We advocate for the removal of the United States government influence in the Dominican Republic. We stop scapegoating the problem to Trujillo. Most Dominicans hated Trujillo anyway. We stop making excuses for antihatianismo by claiming that it isn’t racist. Perhaps there is political and economic reasoning behind the Dominican Republic’s government “strengthening its borders” against the Haitians but remember that the border didn’t exist until Spaniards made it so because they didn’t want to be mandated by Blacks in Haiti which they considered to be inferior.
It’s true, Haitians and Dominicans carry the same blackness, the same African roots but not every Dominican identifies as black. I remember when my friend from San Pedro de Marcoris asked me “why does everyone call us black? Para mi tu seria’ india con grifa.” I laughed and told her “Dicen que somos negras, because we are.” I grew up in the United States and always saw myself as black. Everybody called me Prieta with smiles on their faces. I was always “la ma’ morena” everywhere I went. Unlike this friend, identifying as black was never something foreign for me but owning that blackness has taken me time. Owning my negrura means looking at it, not something randomly forced onto me rather as a gift. This path has been healing for me and I walk on it at my own pace. I took this ownership because I wanted to feel good about being “la ma’ morena.” I wanted to have the same smile all the abuelitas in the neighborhood had when they called me “Prieta” or “Negri.” I do now, and I wish for the same smile for every other black person in our community where blackness is looked as a curse, but I realize that a Dominican directamente de San Pedro de Marcoris who looks identical to me, down to the roots of our hair that ni el peine ma’ grande could get through, may never identify herself the way that I do and that’s ok. We didn’t have the same experiences and we build understandings of our personal selves at our own pace.
Our personal paths are where the work starts. The work does not lie in blaming this person or that person, this country or that country. The work lies within ourselves. One day we will heal ourselves of all forms of anti-blackness like antihaitianismo, from the sentiments we might carry about Haitians, to the way we scrunch our upper lips to natural black hair. Haiti and the Dominican Republic may never become one unified country but one day we will recognize each other as one., Before that happens, we have to recognize the problems in our societies as they are. We have to rid ourselves of excuses. We have to be careful about what make each other take responsibility for.We have to learn to celebrate each other as branches growing from the same tree. Before this problem can be fixed, non Haitian and non-Dominicans have to be careful not to perpetuate anti-Dominican garbage or pretend that anti-blackness doesn’t exist in their own communities as well. Healing ourselves throughout the diaspora from colonial and slave trade wounds is difficult but it can be done. We deserve this healing. We deserve this movement and as a person who believes in the greatness of our people, I speak into existence that we will heal.
Dorothy Bell Ferrer is an Afrolatina (Boricua/ Dominicana) cultural activist who has lived her life in Cleveland, Ohio exploring and learning about who she is. She is currently in her junior year working on a B.S. in political science with a concentration in international relations, Latin American studies and Spanish language. In her free time she enjoys writing, dancing, learning, developing her knowledge of the African Diaspora and talking to people about their experiences.
Note: Author’s views are her own.