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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

Corinne Duboin
Claudine Raynaud

Theorizing Diaspora, Blackness and Post-Raciality

Peregrinations of ‘Blackness’ and Race across Time and Space: The Impulse of Mitigation

Michael A. Gomez


While there are differences between the societies of the Persian Gulf and Morocco, there are even greater divergences between those societies and those of the Americas, especially the Dominican Republic. And yet, notwithstanding cultural chasms between such spaces, they tend to become more symmetrical with respect to race; that is, and to be more precise, the experiences and statuses of African-descended populations within these societies are far more similar to one another than dissimilar. Certain historical events can be identified, particularly in Morocco and the Dominican Republic, that help explain these experiences and statuses, constituting the mechanisms by which these conditions came into existence. But even so, it is striking that historical particularity nonetheless issues into recognizably comparable circumstances, for which a rumination into the broader meaning and pattern of diaspora among African-descended communities is offered.

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1Persian Gulf societies, as well as that of Morocco, could not be more divergent from those of places like the Dominican Republic. The former are overwhelmingly Muslim, with varying forms of Islamic practice, whereas the Dominican Republic is predominately Christian, at least officially, with other faiths in the minority. The antecedents of the former reach back to a long and extensive history that includes the birth of Islam as a religion, which in its emergence did not replace all cultural and social formations that preceded it, often building upon them instead, such that in many ways cultures in North Africa and the central Islamic lands reflect considerable historicity, if not antiquity; whereas islands in the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic, are relatively new in comparison, having in most cases seen either the virtual elimination or absorption of native Taino (Awarak) populations by European and African arrivals who replaced them. Indeed, islands like the Dominican Republic represent the dawn of new ways of capital formation and accumulation, and represent initial sites of a modernity in its infancy. The Dominican Republic would become a very different place from the Middle East, re-founded for very different purposes, and would undergo quite divergent experiences as the emblematic beginning of a New World.

2And yet, for all of its obvious differences from the Old World, and especially that sector wholly submitted to Islam, there are striking similarities with the New World in matters of social formation and stratification. More specifically, in contexts in which demographic pluralism characterized both Muslim and Spanish-claimed colonial societies, such that the constituent elements of both came from various parts of the world, it is a curiosity, at the very least, that insofar as the African marker of identity is concerned, the ways in which these societies responded to and managed that marker are much more symmetrical than asymmetrical. That is, it would appear that there developed a perspective in at least some Persian Gulf societies, as well as in Morocco and the Dominican Republic, by which African ancestry came to be viewed as disfiguring and disabling, therefore requiring remedies of one sort or another. For societies in which the African profile was and continues to be so pervasive as to be distinguishing; that is, so many individuals share in that profile that they either form a plurality or come very close to it—mechanisms of neutralization were enacted, most principal among them the denial or discounting of African ancestry, which in the case of the Dominican Republic was replaced by the adoption of a fiction, representing a wholesale rejection of any association with Africa. This therefore suggests that as the African profile travels, so have strategies for its mitigation and disavowal. Why this would be the case in conditions so unlike and disparate both culturally and spatially is a matter of considerable intrigue; what follows is by no means an exhaustive inquiry into the matter, but rather an interrogative meditation offering tentative hypotheses.

3To be sure, not all Persian Gulf societies are the same. To one extreme is Iran in the north and east, characterized by shi’a Islam and a demography dominated by Persians who trace their ancestry to Indo-European speakers entering the plateau at some point during the second millennium BCE. Then there is the kingdom of Bahrain on the western edge of the Persian Gulf, where most of the nationals are shi’a under the al-Khalifa ruling dynasty (which is sunni), but also where over 50 percent of the population is from South Asia or elsewhere. Though an arguably considerable amount of the population in Bahrain appears to have African ancestry, neither Bahrain nor Iran forms part of the analysis here. And in the interest of space, neither does this discussion include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Kuwait, where again the presence of African elements, especially in Saudi Arabia, is unmistakable. Rather, limiting the scope of the analysis to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman as the conjunctive basis of comparison with Morocco and the Dominican Republic allows for a more precise approximation of the problem, keeping in mind that while these three share certain features with much of the rest of the Persian Gulf so as to be partially representative, they are also sufficiently unique that it would be a misreading of conditions to argue they are fully emblematic of the region. In addition, it should be recognized that there are also appreciable differences between the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman.

  • 1 See for example, Toledano, As If Silent and Absent, 2007; Hunwick and Powell, The African Diaspora, (...)

4Perhaps the problem begins with the imprecision of ‘Arabness’, and understanding who in fact is an ‘Arab’. With respect to the Saudi Arabian peninsula, it makes perfect sense to consider those born in the peninsula and of an Arab heritage to be considered Arab. However, there is a challenge to such a rendering in that it does not always conform to the historical reality, especially following the expansion of Islam from the seventh through the thirteenth centuries, when what is now called the Middle East, stretching from Egypt to Syria to Iraq and arguably Iran, constituted one of the most advanced civilizations on the planet, attracting populations from Asia and Europe, but also Africa. Indeed, commercial activity in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf antedates the rise of Islam by millennia, such that East Africans were both plying the oceans as seafarers and merchants as well as captives for eventual sale into slavery in the Muslim world (Gomez 2004). With respect to slavery, the central Islamic lands were equal opportunity employers, receiving and absorbing subject persons from Asia and Europe in such numbers that together they outnumbered captives from Africa well into the eighteenth century, when the dynamics underwent dramatic change (cf. Campbell 2003; Alpers et al. 2013). The data would suggest that women and girls constituted the majority of those imported as captives into the central Islamic lands, where they were exploited as domestic servants as well as sexual partners. The same was true of Africans, among whom females from the Horn were preferred over those from regions further south, the so-called ‘Zanj’ or East Africans, many of whom actually originated in the interior of East Africa as opposed to those who would come to be known as the Swahili. Males were also recruited, perhaps most famously those who labored in what is now Kuwait and southern Iraq, working the salt mines near Basra while clearing the marshlands for such agricultural projects as sugar cane cultivation. They would experience a level of such misery that they would unleash the so-called Revolt of the Zanj in the second half of the ninth century, possibly the second-largest slave revolt in the history of the African diaspora, as it involved as many as a half million insurrectionists (Popovic 1999). But males were also used to form servile armies and were garrisoned according to ‘race’ in places like Egypt.1 Elite military formations from the Russian step were therefore positioned to exert enormous influence over the governance of the state, as was the case with the Mamluks in Egypt and the Janissaries in the Ottoman Empire.

5As a whole, the slave trade through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, linking to the Persian Gulf, continued well into the twentieth century, growing increasingly dependent on East African captives while the numbers from Asia and Europe went into decline. The British colonial presence in the twentieth century provided an opportunity for enslaved Africans to seek their redemption through colonial courts that declared the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, though they would have a very difficult time implementing the policy.

6In every instance of the recognition of paternity on the part of Arab males, the children followed the status and inherited the identity of the father, often with little stigma attached. The record includes a number of luminaries extending from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa, in almost all instances males, whose background included mothers from East or West Africa. But given the custom of privileging patrilineal descent, such backgrounds were all but erased, such that the progeny of an Arab male and a female of any other background was considered Arab. As such, Arab identity was processual and expansive, with enormous flexibility and elasticity. From one perspective, it could be considered as highly generous as it can accommodate any range of combinations so long as paternity is established as Arab; but from a different optic, it can be construed as chauvinistic at the very least, even ‘racist’. Whatever the interpretation, there is no gainsaying that one of the consequences is that of erasure, a kind of Arab version of blanqueamiento in Spanish-speaking America and branqueamento in the lusophone counterpart (Butler 1998). Seemingly related policies in Brazil and Argentina are more transparently driven by racial considerations and were adopted as policies of the state, whereas although one could argue that ‘racism’ or ethnocentricity was in operation in the central Islamic lands, it is more difficult to establish that such sentiments informed the absorption of progeny into ‘Arabness’, or that the custom was in any way an attempt to negate undesirable elements. Indeed, in what would become the West, where children of enslaved mothers inherited their status, it would be difficult to approximate the position of white people, or in fact to become white, except through an exchange of DNA that could eventually produce a person phenotypically sufficiently approximate, a process that could take generations, as opposed to the immediate acceptance of multiethnic children in Muslim societies.

7Furthermore, in Muslim societies it was not simply a matter of being Arab, but also of becoming part of a community that produced the Prophet and the early caliphate, while participating in a culture in whose language the Qur’an was produced. That is, God Himself had spoken in Arabic, elevating the language to the highest level of prestige, while communicating His message through the medium of an Arab. In a slaveholding Arab Muslim society, therefore, it would have been a challenge to see any advantage to maintaining a non-Arab identity, while there was every incentive to embrace Arabness.

8Of course, not every African imported into the central Islamic lands, and whose progeny continued to survive through generations, became Arabs, as a number reproduced themselves through endogamous marriage and relationships. The tradition of pearl diving in such places as Bahrain, an occupation that goes back centuries, featured males of African descent, along with so-called Baluchis from what is now western Pakistan, who passed down their skills inter-generationally (Mirzai 2013). It is therefore the case that in the societies of the Persian Gulf, local populations can distinguish between the various communities, whereas from an outside perspective it is far more challenging to do so…

9which is one of the points of this inquiry, that these populations are phenotypically similar and difficult to differentiate. That is to say that in a place like Doha or Abu Dhabi, the Qataris or Emiratis (of the latter) are often brown-skinned people who, if dressed as westerners in a place like the United States, would be easily mistaken as African American. This is not to say that they are not Arabs, as they are, but whether owing to infusions of African blood via the slave trades, or simply representing a shared gene pool with Africa that antedates Islam, the self-perception and self-projection of the majority of Qataris and Emiratis, for example, is that they are simply and only Arabs. Thus, a society of people of color, in all probability closely related to or influenced by African gene pools, in which there is a failure to recognize any such relationship.

10The advantages of Arabness and the idiosyncrasies of Arab culture are arguably sufficient to explain this tendency, but the probability is that there are additional explanations owing to the legacy of slavery that also inform the perspective. Indeed, in a number of Arabic-speaking societies the term abd, which properly translated simply means ‘slave’ or ‘servant’, is used exclusively to refer to non-Arab black people, even if they have no known servile association or pedigree. The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that the reflexive relationship between blackness and servitude means that both are infused with pejorative significance. There are therefore both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors involved in the appropriation of Arab identity, with the pull of advantage possibly constituting a greater consideration than the push of African stigma. Even so, Arabness trumps brownness in this context, even though the latter is everywhere demonstrable. It is therefore a form of forgetting, of negation of a more complex reality.

11The case of Morocco provides an interesting test for such a hypothesis, where the autochthonous population prior to the rise of Islam was itself in myriad condition. By its very location, midway between the West African Sahel and the Mediterranean Sea, it has always seen the ingression of populations over millennia from multiple directions, but arguably especially from the south, where the desiccation of what is now the Sahara desert began between 4,000 and 3,200 BCE, leading to the movement of populations in directions that included the north (Abun-Nasr 1987). These populations therefore underwent any number of admixtures, with variations in phenotype and culture, but were nonetheless in all instances African. This would change with the arrival of Islam in the middle of the seventh century in the form of conquering Arab armies, and by the first decade of the eighth century the whole of North Africa or al-Maghrib was under Arab Muslim control. Arab conquest of the region was followed by significant eleventh-century migrations of Arab Bedouins in the form of the Banu Hilal, the Banu Sulaym, and the Banu Hassan, with the first and the latter having lived in Yemen. Though some Arab Bedouins would maintain their distance from local populations, there were plenty of Arab soldiers from the initial conquest as well as subsequent Bedouin migrants who intermarried with the local populations, facilitating the process of both Islamization and Arabization.

12Accounts of military activity on the part of conquering Arab armies moving south into what is now Mauritania and southern Morocco refer to encountering a number of ‘black’ communities who were subsequently forced to relocate further south. This underscores the fact that the Sahel is a region of multiplicity, variation, and ethnic pluralism, where blackness had long been an established and regular feature. Military conquest, along with the rise of the transsaharan slave trade, introduced a new and transforming dynamic into the social and cultural equation. It would appear that ‘blacks’ or the Sudan were the big losers under these new conditions.

13The indigenous populations of the Maghrib, usually referred to as ‘Berbers’ by outsiders, call themselves Imazighen (s. Amazigh), who speak a series of languages collectively called Tamazight. The root word mazigh has several possible meanings, among which are ‘free person’, ‘noble person’, and ‘defender’. It is entirely possible that the meaning of mazigh changed over time, its association with the condition of freedom becoming more important with the unfolding of the transsaharan trade. Likewise, the concept of the haratin may have also acquired meaning with the progression of enslaving activities. Possibly derived from the Berber term ahardan or ‘dark color’, a number of scholars argue that the haratin were in fact the original inhabitants of southern Morocco, or at least the majority, and the evidence would suggest that the term was in use long before the arrival of the Arabs. It is also maintained by some scholars that the term refers to ‘freed blacks’, as opposed to enslaved ones, and suggests an ongoing relationship of clientage with the ‘noble’ Imazighen. None of this makes sense, or at least as much sense, however, unless placed within a context of slaving, and what is not clear is whether the word haratin prior to the Arab conquest carried any pejorative connotations. It is possible, arguably likely, that it was merely a descriptive term whose meaning was transformed as black populations in southern Morocco and Mauritania were increasingly targeted for slaving.

14In any event, the overriding point is that with the advent of Arabs and Islam in North Africa an entirely new social dynamic was introduced. The same advantages of Arabness that obtained in the Persian Gulf would have been true of the Maghrib as well, so that there would have been incentive to embrace an Arab persona at the expense of its Berber alternative. The children of mixed relationships between Arab fathers and Berber mothers could opt for the former, a tendency that would have been encouraged even more by the enormous prestige of sherifian heritage; that is, the claim of descent from the Prophet himself.

15Notwithstanding the advantages of and pressures to embrace Arabness, the context of social re-invention in North Africa was different from that of the Persian Gulf, the veritable home of the Arab. In North Africa there actually developed a contestation of power along ethnic lines, so that while a majority of Berbers converted to Islam relatively quickly, they did not accept Arab political suzerainty, and as Islamized Berbers, fought to assert their own interests. The result was a series of Berber dynasties and the unification of North Africa for the first time, albeit fleeting, beginning with the Almoravids of the eleventh century. Berber rule would extend into parts of Iberia, and would constitute part of the longue durée of the Muslim presence there from 711 to 1492, some 800 years. Even so, the slow, steady march of Arabness appears to have been inexorable both within Moroccan society but especially among its elite, as by the middle of the sixteenth century (1554) the Saadians, a sherifian dynasty, established control, only to be replaced in 1660 by yet another sherifian dynasty, the Alawites, who reign to the present day.

16It stands to reason therefore that whatever the nature of relations between lighter- and darker-skinned communities in Mauritania and Morocco prior to the eighth century, those relations were necessarily impacted by the intensification of slaving, whose very process requires an a priori determination as to who could and could not be enslaved. The answer should have turned for the most part on the relationship to Islam, with Muslims being exempt from enslavement, but in practice it was adjudicated according to categories of pigmentation, with those of darker hue being far more vulnerable than others. This is very much a simplification as it pertains to the long history of North Africa, but as El Hamel’s research demonstrates, a critical juncture was reached during the reign of Mawlay Isma’il (reigned 1672 to 1727) who, in need of an army exclusively loyal to him, declared that all blacks in Morocco were to be enslaved, notwithstanding the irony that he himself was the son of an enslaved black woman (El Hamel 2014). Targeting formerly enslaved persons of dark complexion whose families had been freed for generations, the haratin, Mawlay Isma’il’s decree set off a series of debates within Moroccan society over questions of what it means to be Muslim, and whether his action was in fact legal. Whatever the position taken, the effect of Mawlay Isma’il’s policy was catastrophic for so-called black Moroccans, because the policy made a fast association between skin color and servitude, thereby making the former a disabling condition. Slavery would be repressed with the establishment of the French in Morocco, but servile conditions would continue well into the twentieth century, and though officially abolished, yet obtain in places like Mauritania, Niger, and Mali.

  • 2 See Eickelman, Moroccan Islam, 1981; Eickelman, Knowledge and Power, 1992; Eickelman, Muslim Travel (...)

17As a consequence of the introduction of specific changes into Moroccan society over time—the Arab conquest in the seventh century, the invasion or migration of Arab Bedouin communities in the eleventh, the intensification of the transsaharan slave trade throughout this period, and the racializing, stigmatizing policies of Mawlay Isma’il in the eighteenth century—the condition of blackness in Morocco became progressively worse, while the corresponding circumstance of Arabness grew increasingly more desirable. Stated differently, these changes were neither natural progressions nor predictable, but issued out of a specific series of changes peculiar to Morocco. As a consequence, and for reasons similar to yet different from the Persian Gulf, we are left with a situation in which a number of Moroccans, many of whom are of subsaharan African descent while most are undeniably of African descent as Berbers, view themselves as neither Africans nor Berbers, but as Arabs.2 That is, in a society in which the African profile, in the form of either Berber or subsaharan identity or both, is unmistakably ubiquitous in many parts of the society, such relationships are either repressed or altogether denied owing to dynamics of stigma and privilege, the origins of which can be identified as historical phenomena. Once again, as was the case in the Persian Gulf, myth and ascription prove far more powerful than objective, scientific reality.

18Of course, there are in a number of North African and Persian Gulf societies smaller communities of descendants of subsaharan Africans who, for a variety of reasons, embrace that identity and pursue cultures celebrating or at least acknowledging such ties. The Gnawa of Morocco are probably the most visible due to their music, but the continuation of bori and related practices of spirit possession speak to the enduring power and attraction of these activities (Lewis et al. 1991). Not all of those who participate in bori claim subsaharan ancestry, which makes the practice all the more appealing, as one need not necessarily surrender a preferred social position.

19Turning from the Old World to the New, there are certain features of social signification associated with what the West calls ‘race’ that seem to be rather persistent, but at the same time there are new variables that require attention in order to more comprehensively understand the equation. To begin, while slave trades and slavery obtained in both the Americas and the Muslim world, the latter was characterized for most of its existence by a receptivity to any and all who qualified for servitude, such that until the eighteenth century the majority of the enslaved were from Asia and Europe, with Africans in the minority. In contrast, the Americas saw a relatively swift resolution of the question of who should be enslaved by adopting, more or less universally, a highly racialized paradigm by which enslavement came to be the almost exclusive preserve of Africans and their descendants, with some exceptions insofar as indigenous communities were concerned. As such, enslavement in the Americas was a racialized project, so much so that slavery was the major conduit through which race was popularly conceived and commonly experienced. Stated another way, without slavery, the concept of race may well have evolved in the Americas, but it would have been a very different formulation, as such categories usually serve the purpose of facilitating and reifying power and privilege, as opposed to emerging out of some organic interaction at the level of the peasantry. That is, race both rationalizes and interprets social disequilibria in the interests of the few, and as a mechanism of social engineering has few rivals. This assessment has implications that will be considered in the conclusion, but in contrast to the central Islamic lands, where the critical question concerned membership in the community of believers, and where inclusion encouraged the mediation of all other differences, in the Americas the primary objective was the accumulation of wealth, which necessarily required both exploitative and exclusionary practices, among which race was salient, and to which slavery was transfixed. The presumption, therefore, was that a ‘black’ person was a slave, a verity so engrained that it could only be called into question with the addition of the qualifier ‘free’, and even then the notion of a ‘free black’ was both highly unstable and subject to routine scrutiny.

20And so it was that in the case of what becomes the Dominican Republic, the institution of slavery was critical in shaping the collective perspective. However, it was far from the only filter through which Dominican identity as it is known today was shaped, and in fact, the contours of slavery in the Dominican Republic differed from those in other places, especially neighboring Saint Domingue. Though an early site of slavery, the DR never quite developed as a major producer of sugar cane, as planters moved to the American mainland when it became accessible in the latter part of the sixteenth century (cf. Moya Pons, 1995; Betances, 1995). Struggles between the Spanish, French and English during the first third of the seventeenth century cut a wide swath of destruction in the island, and commerce was only revived at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Though the DR never became a major producer of sugar, producing tobacco and beef and hides instead (and primarily for Saint Domingue), by 1790 it was overwhelmingly of African descent, when out of a population of 125,000, some 60,000 were enslaved, while another 25,000 were freed persons, totaling nearly 70 percent.

21The relative abandonment of the DR by wealthy planters in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries certainly forced or allowed the remaining peasantry to fend for themselves, and in the process create bonds across racial categories. But the re-emergence of trade and the renewal of the slave trade to the island in the eighteenth century reinforced its deep and pervasive African profile. That process was interrupted by the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804, and from that point forward the DR’s relationship with Haiti seems to have become the greatest determinant in shaping Dominican attitudes toward race. The Spanish would replace the French in controlling the DR from 1809 to 1821, at which point the island would be unified under Haitian control until 1844. Viewed as an ‘occupation’ by many, the period of unification would be used by elites to impress upon Dominicans the vastness of their differences with Haitians, differences that were not simply cultural but racial as well. The ensuing period would see Dominican independence in the form of two declared republics, ending with significant instability in the form of revolt intermittent with presidencies of short duration, culminating in the U.S. protectorate of 1905, followed by its occupation of the DR from 1916 to 1924.

  • 3 For example, see Turtis, A World Destroyed, A Nation Imposed, 2002; Roorda, The Dictator Next Door, (...)

22As was true of Cuba, the period of yanqui occupation introduced the American model of Jim Crow into the consciousness of Dominicans, which could have only reinforced a rejection of blackness heretofore fast associated with Haitian identity. This process was embedded even more deeply and extensively under Rafael Trujillo, who between 1927 and 1961 installed a dictatorship that saw his personal wealth enriched beyond measure.3 But more importantly for our purposes, Trujillo launched a campaign of ‘Dominicanising’ the frontier with Haiti, possibly out of fear that his political adversaries were supported by Haiti, and that the border region with Haiti was the likely site of any resistance to his reign. In 1937, Trujillo ordered the massacre of as many as 35,000 Haitians under the pretext that they supported his enemies. It clearly was not a good time to be Haitian in the DR.

23It can therefore be argued that Dominican attitudes toward race were shaped, at least partially, by several seminal events: the establishment of slavery at the beginning of the sixteenth century followed by its reinvigoration in the eighteenth; the disaffection with the newly-created black republic of Haiti at the beginning of the nineteenth century followed by the extension of its political control over the entire island for more than two decades; the introduction of yanquis and Jim Crow at the beginning of the twentieth century; and the racist policies of Trujillo for a third of the twentieth century that followed. These developments are not the only considerations, but they help to explain Dominican perspectives on race. And while these perspectives have never been uniform, so that even during the period of unification there is evidence of a number of Dominicans who supported unification, or at least did not necessarily view Haitian control as evil or counterproductive, a prevailing notion emerged that ‘Dominicanness’ and ‘Africanness’ are antagonistic and mutually exclusive. The claim by many Dominicans, often of the darkest hue, that they are ‘indios’ is a striking example of contemporary mythmaking; to insist upon such a self-categorization in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are, in the vast majority, African descended, a powerful example of denial. The Dominican perspective or set of perspectives on race therefore operates not only in abstractive mode, but also in a very conscious fashion with respect to self-fashioning. In considering the ‘other’, they discount the fact that they also are the ‘other’.

24While some Dominicans are indeed indios, the percentage would be quite small, as the estimates suggest that within 50 years of Columbus’s landing in Hispaniola, some 98 percentage of the native Taino population had perished from the introduction of a new disease environment (cf. Gomez 2004; Wolf 2010). On the other hand, a number of estimates suggest that as much as 90 percent of the Dominican population is African-descended, in sharp contrast to the census data, which state that 82 percent of Dominicans are indios, as opposed to only 4.3 to 11 percent who are black (cf. Simmons 2009; Loveman 2014). The census is premised on self-identification, and is a powerful indication of the perception of blackness in the island.

25Given the Dominican Republic’s relatively unique historical development vis-à-vis islands like Haiti or Jamaica or others in the Antilles, where matters of race can be far more straightforward, it is entirely acceptable to argue that it represents an anomaly in the racialization of the Americas. But it is an anomaly of process as opposed to effect, as the effect is no different than elsewhere in the Americas, where blackness is universally a condition of decided disadvantage, a condition to be overcome. For many in the DR, it would appear, the solution has been a total investment in disavowal, a strategy that tracks along that of ‘passing’ for white in various societies, except that for the latter the strategy is dependent upon phenotypical approximation as well as the erasure of personal histories. For the dark-skinned Dominican, the former is not available, requiring wholesale invention of the latter. But as with societies in the Persian Gulf and Morocco, with the Dominican Republic we are back to a far-reaching process, a veritable social pact, by which a substantial if not major part of the society denies an African ancestry that is unmistakable, a mechanism by which science and objective reality are entirely subverted.

26As there is no evidence of substantive communication between the societies of the Persian Gulf and Morocco and that of the Dominican Republic, nor any indication that either was observing social developments in the other, the reasons for the convergence in the embrace of fictive kinship and identity in such societies are not at all obvious. As has been demonstrated, social formation in each of these societies has been unique and peculiar to each, such that the specific reasons for the rejection of Africanness in favor of some other identity are not the same. And yet, the net effect in these societies has been similar. How to explain this?

27No doubt, the overall context of slavery, and the winnowing process of who qualified for enslavement over time contribute considerably to the rejection of Africanness in these societies. But of course, many other societies were subjected to the same circumstances, and did not reject the African profile, and in many instances wholeheartedly embraced it. These latter cases, however, such as Brazil’s Bahia or Haiti or parts of Cuba, arguably differ from either Morocco or the DR in that the latter two underwent an extreme depreciation of Africanness following periods of formal enslavement, with Trujillo’s policies in the DR in the twentieth century and Mawlay Isma’il’s in the eighteenth in Morocco, which in the latter case re-enslaved black Moroccans. This, in turn, intimated to the larger populations that blackness or Africanness was a condition of enduring vulnerability, subject to slavery and summary execution, a circumstance of being wholly unrelated to decisions and comportment made at either the individual or collective level, such that association with an alternative community or status, namely that of ‘indio’ or Arab, was highly desirable. In the case of Morocco and the Persian Gulf there is greater evidence for an actual biological relationship, and the issue for these societies is not necessarily one of creating fictive ties, but in disregarding others; whereas in the case of the DR, the imagination would appear to be far more engaged.

28But it is also instructive that in the case of both the DR and Morocco, elitist intervention played a critical role. In both, it was policies introduced by powerful figures—Trujillo and Mawlay Isma’il—that had enormous impact, and such underscores by extension the degree to which social stratification is captive to the interests of elites, who manage and manipulate relations of power and privilege through control of narrative forms and material incentive to reinforce both division and re-articulation in ways that disrupt potential solidarities while creating new and artificial ones commensurate with the interests of the few. In the case of the DR, for example, relations along the frontier with Haiti were purposely targeted, not because tensions already existed but precisely because they did not, such that Haitians and Dominicans were living in conditions of harmony and cooperation to an extent that threatened Trujillo. Similarly, the decision to enslave a previously freed population in Morocco could only have been carried out by royal fiat backed by military power, as these communities had assimilated into Moroccan society and had come to be accepted as Moroccans by many.

29Notwithstanding the foregoing discussion of the role of elite discourse and power in the formation of subject populations, it remains both a curiosity and concern that for all of the differences and permutations between societies, in nearly every instance ‘blackness’ has traveled a similar circuitry, ending up in very similar places, an observation that begs for a more intense retrospection. This somewhat troubling aspect of the black experience, universally conceived, suggests that the permutations of social formation specific to time and space may only be the conduits through which a much more sweeping and enduring conviction about blackness, oceanic in dimension, merely passes through. That is, the invidious connotation concerning the African may well have been operative on Arabian soil long before the time of the Prophet, as the imagery of the African there is either that of the powerful but at times adversarial Abyssinian Empire, or that of a slave, with the subsequent introduction of slaves from Asia and Europe failing to alter this earlier perspective. If such was the optic in relative late antiquity, it was only further refined in the lands of Iberia, where conflict with Muslims included subsaharan Africans among the latter, and where Portuguese and Spanish rejection of all things black, African, and Muslim became critical to the ideological struggle to preserve the interests of ruling elites there. Such a rejection of blackness and its equation with evil would necessarily be imported into the New World, finding expression throughout, including what would become the Dominican Republic.

30But even in such spaces as the United States and the English-speaking Caribbean, one can still hear in instances the claims of the obviously African-descended to Native American ancestry; sometimes it is made in addition to an embrace of Africanness, at other times to the latter’s exclusion. To be sure, some are indeed (at least partially) of Native American descent, but even so, a political calculation is also often present, such that the right to acknowledge the fullness of one’s background is often pitted against a desire to escape from aspects of that background. The former is an entirely healthy impulse, while the latter clearly raises questions with respect to the state of one’s mental health, as would be true of the commonly-held perspective in the DR. This is to say that the question of ‘identity’ is often adjudicated within local contexts of privilege and penury, and is deployed as a strategic mechanism and as leverage in pursuit of the former and against the latter.

31But when the context is broadened, different sorts of calculations are undertaken, and it is within the comparative framework of diaspora that divergent claims can be made. An expanded imaginary allows for a more comprehensive and informed reflection, so that it is not surprising that as individuals of African descent in Morocco, in the Persian Gulf, and in the Dominican Republic come into more frequent contact with persons of similar heritage but from beyond the local milieu, all begin to reconsider their circumstances in light of like experiences. And so it is that often, though not solely as a consequence of living in the United States (and especially New York City), younger generations of Dominicans, while continuing to assert their Dominicanidad, also begin to recognize that they are indeed afro-descendientes. This is a growing trend, especially among the college-educated. The process raises fascinating questions as to the relative and unstable nature of ‘identity’, its ability to transition and even transcend, and its overall relationship to ‘truth’, as identity tends to shift relative to spatial and/or temporal particularities. As such, inconsistency is not necessarily contradiction, but it remains unclear as to whether there can be more than one ‘truth’ in operation at any given time. As such, the realignment of identity may be part and parcel of what may be considered post-modernity, which is a discussion for another day.


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1 See for example, Toledano, As If Silent and Absent, 2007; Hunwick and Powell, The African Diaspora, 2002; Hunwick, African Slaves in the Mediterranean World’ 1993.

2 See Eickelman, Moroccan Islam, 1981; Eickelman, Knowledge and Power, 1992; Eickelman, Muslim Travellers, 1990; Hammoudi, Master and Disciple, 1997; Benachir, Esclavage, diaspora africaine, 2012; Delafosse, Les Relations du Maroc, n.d.; Haseeb, The Arabs and Africa, 2012; Lebel, Les Voyageurs français, 1936; Brown, Color in North Africa, 1967; Meyers, Class, Ethnicity, and Slavery, 1997; Abu-Lughod, Rabat, Urban Apartheid, 2014; Weitzman, Maghrib in the New Century, 2007; Rosen, The Culture of Islam, 2004.

3 For example, see Turtis, A World Destroyed, A Nation Imposed, 2002; Roorda, The Dictator Next Door, 2004; Capdevila, La Dictature de Trujillo, 1998; Danticat, The Farming of Bones, 2013; Vega, Trujillo y Haiti, 1995.


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