Race, as we all know, simply does not exist. However, as we also know, many tend to act as if it does and discriminate against others based on what is perceived to be their “race.” This persistent prejudicial treatment tends to have real, long-lasting psychological and physical effects on those thus abused. This encourages the affected to band together for mutual benefit.
When did all of this begin? Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant confronted this question head-on December 5, 2012 when he presented the Seventeenth Annual Dr. Donald H. Smith Distinguished Lecture at Bernard M. Baruch College.
Something new happened after 1492, he eloquently pointed out. Whereas before conquerors seized lands and peoples, they did not set about very systematically denigrating and dehumanizing the conquered. Soon after 1492 the concept of race, and a caste system based on race, reinforced by multi-faceted ideologies, was spawned. Dr. Torres-Saillant went on to chart the genesis of these development on the island of Hispanola and how it spread throughout the Americas and across the globe.
For 90 minutes the large audience sat rapt as the professor ranged far and wide over the intertwined histories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic and their impact on the political development of the United States from 1791 up until the present. He focused on how the jaundiced prism of race has profoundly shaped the perceptions of the peoples of the three nations.
Afterwards there was spirited give-and-take in the question-and-answer session. Interestingly, one offhand comment made by the good doctor dominated the discussion. He said, in passing, that there was a torrent of criticism by African Americans at the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nino Simone in an upcoming biopic. Many claimed that she was “too light” to play the part. However, he pointed to several examples of Black actors not being the same complexion as the characters they portrayed, and no such uproar was ever heard.
Several of the questioners insisted, nonetheless, that the criticism of Saldana as Simone was justified. They said the film would be a teaching tool in the future, that it would negatively affect Black children’s psyche, that the criticism of Saldana had nothing to do with her being a Latina; it was simply that her complexion was wrong. Yes, one young lady said, there was not much ado about Blacks who were “not the right color” for the character they portrayed, but the examples Dr. Saillant cited were all males. The question of complexion is more central to the perception of Black women as opposed to men, she said. Dr. Saillant responded, “Don’t all films involve a ‘suspension of disbelief,’ so why does it not extend to the shade of the actors?”
By the way, in Dreamgirls didn’t Beyonce play the Diana Ross character? Were there any objections? But there has, in fact, been a pattern of Latina’s being cast as the love interest of Black men. (Art imitating life, or art pushing life in a certain direction?) However, even if they had cast a woman who looked just like Nina Simone, and sang like her too, would not Hollywood, in keeping with its usual pattern, still denigrate and distort her meaning and memory. At any rate isn’t arguing about who should or should not star in a Hollywood film, akin to bickering over which label to put on a bottle of poison?
Some in the audience may have perceived Dr. Saillant’s comment as that of a Latino criticizing the Black community. I doubt that was the case. I saw him as making an observation not as a Latino, not as an Afro-Latino, not as a Dominican, or a whatever, but as a human being observing the divisive, counter-productive dead-ends that adhering to the artificial, poisonous construct of race will bring us to. The point I believe Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant was trying to make, throughout the entire talk, was how can we rise above the boxes others have put us into? Yes, something new did happen after 1492. But are we doomed to forever live under its spell? Or will we one day chart our own course and again see each other as equals under the sun, as we did long ago before the notorious Spanish admiral set sail?
(Arthur Lewin, www.AfricaUnlimited.com)