The Many Experiences of Being Black in the Wider World

In her new book, Lorgia García Peña tells the complicated story of Blackness, from the Dominican Republic and the U.S. to Italy

In her new book, Translating Blackness: Latinx Colonialities in Global Perspective, Lorgia García Peña takes readers to many unexpected places. One of them is modern-day Italy, where she tracks the lives of Black Dominican women migrants and follows the struggles of their children as they seek to belong in Italian society.

That’s just one of the many examples she brings up to highlight different perspectives necessary for understanding the many forms of belonging and non-belonging that Black people face worldwide.

García Peña, professor and chair of the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora at Tufts, says that “at the heart of the book is a concern with the way in which xenophobia, anti-Blackness, and colonialism interact to produce categories of exclusion, and how people who experience this intersecting violence find ways to fight back to belong, to create multiple forms of community that sustain them.”

She also focuses on how colonial histories shape the ways Black Latinx migrants and their descendants “understand and translate race and national identity in the diaspora,” as well as how “translations of Blackness intersect with the experiences of immigration, colonialism, diaspora, and ethnicity in the context of globalized anti-Blackness.”

At the book’s launch event at Tufts in the fall, Robin D.G. Kelley, Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at UCLA, called Translating Blackness “a monumental achievement.”

Book cover for Translating Blackness

García Peña is also the author of The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction and Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color.

Tufts Now spoke with García Peña to learn more about the book, her work seeking to understand the complexities of global Blackness, and how she believes it is important to highlight the voices to people who often are overlooked in historical archives.

Tufts Now: Why did you write this book, and what do you hope readers will take away from it?

Lorgia García Peña: I wrote this book because there is an urgent need for a conversation about Blackness that takes us out of the common places; of how we tend to think about being Black in the United States.

I’m from the Dominican Republic, a country that’s 89% Black. The U.S. and the Dominican Republic have common histories of slavery and emancipation, but they look very different. Dominicans have experienced multiple forms of colonialisms, U.S. imperialism, and then eventually migration. Those are different from the experience of U.S. Black Americans.

I’ve been in the middle of conversations for a while about working on race transnationally. And for me, this is what it looks like—opening up opportunities to think about the ways other people across the globe are experiencing the cost of anti-Blackness, the cost of the perdurance of colonialism, and the afterlife of slavery.

At the publication event in the fall at Tufts, panelist and critical theorist SA Symthe said of your book, “I hope this ushers in a new way of talking about Blackness.” Is that one of your goals?

One of my goals is to invite people to talk about Blackness as plural.

I’m hoping that I can facilitate a dialogue across languages and sites and in translation. And by translation, I don’t mean simply Italian and Spanish to English and vice versa. It’s about cultural meanings, and thinking about the ways in which terms might not mean the same thing, but some experiences and hopes are shared. How do we make sense of those shared hopes and experiences while also making room for the differences?

In this book, you’re giving voice to people who do not normally end up in the historical record—often Black Dominican women. Why is that important?

I’m a big fan of passing the mic. I spend a lot of time in traditional archives, looking for those voices that have been purposely hidden or silenced.

And at the same time, I try to create an archive that has not yet been given space in the written world. In many ways, some of the documents and cultural products I engage in the book are traditional archival documents but read in contradiction, most of the documents though, are not traditional.

I love reading them together—a letter from a U.S. senator in a traditional archive in dialogue with a painting or a novel or a scene that happened at a café. I’m interested in taking both of these ways of understanding history and reading them as the same, rather than inscribing more value to that which can be documented in a traditional archive.

“You can be dealing with the cost of racism and oppression in the United States as a person of color, a Black person, as a Latinx person, and also be a person who lives in an empire, which carries certain privileges and power, particularly outside of the United States.”

Professor Lorgia García Peña

I was particularly struck by the chapter about Black Dominican leader Gregorio Luperón and Frederick Douglass, the American antislavery activist. Douglass went to the Dominican Republic in 1870 at the behest of President Ulysses Grant to investigate if the U.S. should annex the country, as some in Congress were promoting, and was sympathetic to the idea. They both have experienced racist oppression and are godfathers of the same young Dominican-American woman. But they have very different ideas on how to right the wrongs they see.

These two men, who are seen in their respective national context as abolitionists and liberators, are in fact very similar. They were both descendants of enslaved people. They were both fighting for emancipation in their countries, and were very much believers in republicanism—they thought that the way forward for Black people was liberation and citizenship.

They both very much want a color-blind citizenship. But they’re coming at it from very different places.

SA Smythe and Lorgia García Peña, with the book Translating Blackness between them.

“I hope this ushers in a new way of talking about Blackness,” said SA Smythe, left, with Lorgia García Peña, at the Translating Blackness book launch at Tufts. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Luperón is fighting for freedom and citizenship for Black Dominicans on a small island that’s also dealing with the emergence of U.S. imperialism in the 19th century—he fought against the proposed U.S. annexation of the Dominican Republic that began in 1869. He’s unable to understand what Douglass was trying to do, coming to the Dominican Republic at the behest of the U.S. government. All Luperón sees is that Americans are coming, wanting to take over his land.

It’s like he and Douglass are both trying to do the same thing, but they’re wrapped in their own national projects and unable to think about transnational rights for Black people. What I’m trying to do is get them to see each other, if you will, through my writing and imagining. To me, this is a profound moment of misunderstanding that shapes what continues to be a mistranslation of Black Latinidad in the United States.

You focus in the book on the experience of migrant Black Dominicans in Italy. How did you come to that topic?

I had a life before academia—I was a journalist in the Dominican Republic, and among other things covered national disasters. One of the sites I went to in 2000 was a small town on the Haiti-DR border.

I’d never been to that part of the island. What shocked me the most was that there were virtually no women in town. There were a lot of girls and men, but not women. I asked around—where are the women? And someone said, they’re in Italy. That was odd to me.

Most people had not heard of a Dominican migration to Italy. The majority of conversations around Dominican migration at the time, in the early 2000s, were around migration to the U.S.

I started to do research to follow that trail, and I ended up publishing some pieces in the newspaper that I worked at—but it stayed with me for two decades. Around 2006, when I was in graduate school, I went to Italy, did some research, and got to meet some of the Dominican women community organizers there.

Who were these women?

A lot of these women had been young activists at the national Dominican university, were in conflict with the government, and migrated then. Some also had migrated to serve Italian women newly entering the workforce, who were hiring Black women to stay at home with their children.

Over the years their experience changed radically, as they married and had children in Italy, and they thought more intentionally about questions of citizenship and belonging for their children. Those young Black Italians were being denied citizenship based on legislation in Italy that limits the citizenship rights of children where only one parent is Italian.

What makes Italy an interesting case study of Blackness?

Italy is representative of what is happening in the world now. It is a new immigrant-receiving nation, beginning at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. Boats arrive there from places like Libya, and even if they have no intention of staying in Italy, a lot of people end up staying there.

There is also a sort of national amnesia in Italy around colonialism. Unlike countries like France or Spain, which have had to grapple for a long time with the legacies of colonial expansion in the Americas, Italy kind of gets a pass, despite the colonies it had in Africa. That’s partly because of when that colonial history happened, which was right before the Second World War—we were not paying attention to what Italy was doing in Eritrea, for example.

You tell a story in the book about sitting at the café in Milan and having an African street vendor come up and tell you that being Black speaking in English is better than being Black speaking in Italian. Can you talk about those perceived hierarchies?

One of the most complicated arguments of the book is the fact that two things can be true at the same time.

You can be dealing with the cost of racism and oppression in the United States as a person of color, a Black person, as a Latinx person, and also be a person who lives in an empire, which carries certain privileges and power, particularly outside of the United States.

We are a cultural empire. The majority of movies that people watch in the world come from Hollywood. Most of the music that people listen to comes from the U.S. It is in many ways the dominant culture of the world, and it is in English.

That means that the dominant way of understanding Black citizenship is also through those icons. When people think about Black resistance and Black power, they think about Angela Davis, about MLK, or Malcolm X. When people think about powerful Black symbols in the world, they think about Obama, Michael Jordan, and Oprah. There is a cultural capital that is carried outside of the United States, and that is recognized by Black people outside the United States as power.

Because of that, I believe that we as U.S.-based scholars have a responsibility to translate to the world and from the world how our experiences and other people’s experiences intersect, but also understand that it’s very easy to contribute to silencing other ways of understanding Blackness when we write from a U.S. perspective.

It is a dominant, hegemonic way of understanding Blackness, which does not take away from the fact that Black people can still die at the hands of the police officers in the United States. It’s a “both and” situation. Both things are true.

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