Arts + Culture

Profiles in the Diaspora: Re-thinking Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the Afro-Puerto Rican Father of the Global African Diaspora

In this weekend read we profile the father of black history Arturo Alfonso Schomburg and his Afro-Puerto Rican heritage.

Editor’s Note: In the inaugural edition of our Weekend Reading series, journalist David Pastor reviews new work on the legendary black scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg that helps reinstate his Puerto Rican identity.


NEW YORK CITY—Arturo Schomburg, namesake of the renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black History in Harlem, is said to have identified as an afro-borinqueño, a Puerto Rican of African descent. Yet there has been a delay in acknowledging this ethnic component of his racial identity—his legacy so closely tied to the Harlem Renaissance, black history and culture.

Even during his lifetime, there were misconceptions concerning Arturo Schomburg and his intersectional background, including assertions that he had forgotten his native tongue; lost his culture, his interest in Puerto Rico, etc. Later, conflicting, often simplified views on Schomburg emerged and characterized him almost exclusively as a black scholar whose Puerto Rican identity had seemingly diminished upon his integration into the African-American community.

In 1995, the Schomburg Center and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies made an early attempt to counter this fractured narrative with a symposium entitled, “Arturo Schomburg: From Santurce to Harlem.” More than two decades later, a more mainstream appreciation of Schomburg’s Puerto Rican background has emerged; setting the stage for Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Schomburg by Vanessa K. Valdés, the first book-length study that reaffirms the ‘Father of Black History,’ as Schomburg is known, as a Puerto Rican of mixed heritage (his father, German; his mother, a black migrant woman from St. Croix) who navigated his afro-latinidad deftly and reliably throughout his life as a scholar, collector, and translator.

One such example can be found in a letter written near the end of his life. Schomburg names Salvador Brau and José Julián Acosta as the two figures who first inspired him to pursue the study of black history and culture. Brau was a Puerto Rican journalist and writer. He would later be named the first official historian of Puerto Rico (and like Schomburg, he was an autodidact). In another letter, Schomburg cites Brau as one of the few examples of literature on Afro-Puerto Ricans included his collection at the time. Acosta was also a Puerto Rican journalist, as well as one of the founders of the Ateneo Puertorriqueño, a leading cultural institution on the island.

In addition to the influence of Acosta and Brau, three other 19th century Puerto Rican intellectuals and writers; Ramon Emeterio Betances, Lola Rodríguez de Tió, and Eugenio María de Hostos; can be viewed as establishing a tradition of diasporic thought and discourse, to which Schomburg belongs. Each of them also spent time in New York City and like the young Schomburg, participated in the independence movement.

Schomburg arrived in New York City as a 17-year old in 1891. Within a year, he was involved in several revolutionary clubs, including Club Borinquen, the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (which included a Puerto Rican section), and Las Dos Antillas. As a tabaquero and soon after, a member of a Masonic Lodge in Brooklyn founded by Afro-Cubans, Schomburg integrated himself into the working class and revolutionary exile movement of Cubans and Puerto Ricans in New York.

As a writer and scholar, Schomburg was committed to highlighting the global African diaspora, one that reflected his own experience and understanding. For example, Schomburg wrote an article published in The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP founded by W.E.B. DuBois, that provided English-speaking readers with a nuanced survey of current events in Cuba—specifically the struggle of Afro-Cubans. As a marginalized and repressed sector of the population, Schomburg attempted to connect the struggle of Afro-Cubans to that of the African-American struggle for equality.

Schomburg also wrote biographical sketches, including articles on Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés and Juan Francisco Manzano. Both were Cuban poets of African descent. Plácido was put to death following charges that he was the leader of a planned anti-slavery uprising. Juan Francisco Manzano is credited with writing the only surviving Spanish-language slave narrative from Latin America.

At the institutional level, Schomburg’s interest in the global black experience is reflected in the American Negro Society and the Negro Collection at the Library of Fisk University (now the Special Collections and Archives). The former presented research on the contributions of black people in other parts of the world, including writing on the slave trade in the Caribbean. The collection at Fisk University also had an international scope and provided a model for the creation of similar collections dedicated to the African diaspora.

There are also more implicit examples of Schomburg’s afro-latinidad. His name, for instance, changed from Arturo Alfonso to Arthur to A.A. and then back to Arturo Alfonso over the course of his life. Several of Schomburg’s eight children were also given Hispanic names. Valdés also argues that Schomburg’s very presence within various black and intellectual circles is often prioritized in the many roles he fulfilled—one such role being that of a translator, which utilized Schomburg’s knowledge of Spanish, English, and French.

Overall, one comes away with the impression of Schomburg’s afro-latinidad as a seemingly understated, but as Valdés shows, there are examples to be found throughout his life, a self-awareness expressed in the context of a global African diaspora and Schomburg’s undeniable appreciation of his latinidad.

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Courtesy of Cimarrón Productions

Cimarrón Is the Women-Led Film Production Company Empowering Afro-Colombians to Tell Their Own Stories

The "first Afro-Colombian film production company," is teaching filmmaking in Colombia's black communities in order to combat the lack of representation.

When filmmaker, activist, and cultural agent Heny Cuesta first started her career in Colombia, she noticed a severe lack of black creators in the industry. Cuesta, an Afro-Colombian originally from Cali, was the only Black woman in a room full of mestizo directors at a panel discussion at the International Film Festival in Cartagena de Indias (FICCI) in 2013.

"None of the filmmakers were black, but they were talking about ethnic content despite the fact that they didn't know the territory," says Cuesta. That scene shocked her, but it reflected the low number of movies directed by black directors in Colombia. In 2018, Colombia's film industry premiered 37 feature films and only one of them –Candelaria– was directed by a black director. It received many international awards.

The lack of blackness in Colombia's film industry goes far beyond studios, film festivals and production companies. Afro-Colombians make up almost 20 percent of the population but historically have had few opportunities to access education. Most black Colombians, who come from cities and towns along the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts, have been neglected and isolated due to a lack of infrastructure, as well as a lack of education and job opportunities.

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Photo courtesy of Chontudas.

This Black Hairstyle Collective Is Embracing the Beauty of Natural Hair in Colombia

Chontudas wants to strengthen natural hair knowledge among young black girls in Colombia.

In 2012, a champeta duo from Santa Marta, a Caribbean town in Colombia, dedicated their song "Pelo Malo" to all women that have a "bad," "weird" or "disorganized" hair. The song suggested that all these women have to use "liser" – a product to straighten their hair to make it look cool. The song neatly illustrates the stigma of wearing natural hair in Afro-Colombian communities. But these offensive categories don't represent the growing movement of Afro-Colombian women who are embracing their natural hair and all of its beautiful complexity.

During the American Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the 60s and 70s, there was a revolt in favor of wearing natural hair. The second wave of the natural hair movement has reached a global audience through social media and Colombia is not an exception. It's been five years since Mallé Beleño, an educator, and other black women created a hair collective called Chontudas—the name refers to a kind of palm tree whose presence evokes the hair of black women. The group was initially founded to discuss how to wear natural black hairstyles as well as to spread ancestral traditional hair knowledge.

This collective came to life as a Facebook group with 70 black women in 2014. Since then, it has become a place to share the experiences of making the transition to natural hair, and a place to showcase a more diverse standard of beauty as well as a place to trade hair care advice.

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6 Things We Learned About African Migration to Europe in 2019 From a New UN Report

UNDP representatives presented their "Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe" report last night at Okay Space. Here's what we found out.

Yesterday, Okay Space hosted a discussion between UN luminaries Ahunna Eziakonwa, Mohamed Yahya and OkayAfrica CEO, Abiola Oke about the new UNDP report, Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe. The report examines young Africans who are leaving their homes to make the dangerous journey to Europe for economic opportunities—not solely for asylum or to escape persecution. The evening was both enlightening and sobering, and the main findings may be a little different than what you might expect.

Immigration to Europe from Africa is roughly 90 percent lower than what it was in 2015.

In 2015, slightly over 1 million Africans left for Europe. In 2018, it was just over 100,000. However, the percentage of those who drown on the journey has increased. In 2015, it was 1.6 percent of that million, while it grew to 2 percent in 2018. Meaning just over 2,000 people died enroute in 2018 alone. It is a disturbing factor that, four years on, more people are dying proportionately than when the large migrations began.

Even though most of Africa is rural, most of the youth leaving the continent for economic reasons are from the urban areas.


85 percent of those who the report identified came from urban cities or towns, though only 45 percent of Africans overall live in those urban areas. This means that most of them are coming from regions with "relatively low levels of deprivation." Analysts believe the rapid urbanization of many African cities could be a contributing factor. Benin City, Nigeria, for instance, has urbanized 122 percent in only ten years. These cities cannot actually support the people—and their ambitions and talents—who live there. It plateaus and does not allow for further upward mobility.

Only 2 percent of those who left say knowing the dangers would have deterred them.

This means 98 percent would do it again, despite the knowledge of fatalities and difficulties in crossing. The appeal of elsewhere is greater than death. This realization is crucial for all nations to better comprehend the true elements belying migration, particularly for those that this report is concerned with. Of the 1,970 migrants from 39 African countries interviewed for the report, almost all of them are willing to face death for economic opportunities abroad than stay home. As most of the migrants had relatively comfortable lives at home, they are not migrating to flee death or persecution as with asylum seekers. This prompts great questions and led the report to look at the issue from four angles: home life in Africa, motivations for leaving, life in Europe, motivations for returning.

58 percent of those who left were employed or in school in their home country.

Not only that, in almost every demographic and country, those who left had a considerably higher amount of education than their peers. From Malu, those leaving had an average of five years of education, compared to one year with peers in their age group and two years for the national average. In Cameroon, those leaving had an average 12 years, their peers had seven and the national average of six. Even when broken down by gender, both men and women who leave have about nine years of education while the national average is five and three, respectively.

Though the average African family size is five, most of those who leave have an average family size of 10.

When asked, migrants said their main motivation to leave is to send money home. This information is important as it may impact the motivations for needing to leave. The report reasons that an increase in population may also be playing a role in the motivations to leave. It was also reported that those who go abroad and find work send an average 90 percent of their earnings to their families. Essentially, they are leaving existing jobs to live on 10 percent of their new wage, highlighting that working below minimum wage in Europe is more prosperous.

Though 70 percent of those in Europe said they wanted to stay permanently, those who were working were more likely to want to return to their home country.

Conversely, the majority of those who did want to stay in Europe were not earning anything, 64 percent of them, and 67 percent did not have a legal right to work. Over half of those who did want to return home had a legal right to work. Analysts reason that those who did want to stay would likely change their mind once they had an income. This correlation speaks to a significant relationship between work and migration permanence. It also underlines the claim that migration for this group is focused solely on economic results as opposed to social factors.


***

What was most striking about the event, however, was the strong feeling communicated in the space about exchanges between Africans regarding what needs to be done. The discussion did not only surround the facts and figures alone, but also the humanity behind understanding why people migrate. At one point, when addressing the crowd of various influential people on the continent and in the diaspora, Eziakonwa said "What are we missing here? What are we doing by leaving young Africans out of the development discussion? Our programs are clearly failing our African youth."

Later, Yahya responded to a question by stating there was certainly a cultural barrier in which Africans do not often address, listen to or respect the youth. "I can say by looking at you that no one in this room would be given a true say," he said. "This is clearly part of the issue." When asked what can be done by others, the response was to work to change the narrative, to focus on prosperity rather than charity and to provide better access and platforms for African youth to share their stories so that the idea of who migrants are shifts. And so we, as Africans, can better know ourselves.

Check out some photos from last night below with photos from Polly Irungu. Follow and share in the changing of that narrative via #ScalingFencesUNDP and #MyJourney.

Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu


Photo by Polly Irungu

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Anjel Boris, Question Mark, 2019, Acrylic and posca on canvas, 133 by 7cm. Image courtesy of Out Of Africa and @artxlagos

What You Need to Know About ArtXLagos 2019

We talked to artistic director of ArtXLagos, Tayo Ogunbiyi, about Lagos's unique art scene and what's to expect from West Africa's biggest art party.

OkayAfrica is a media partner of ArtXLagos 2019.

In three years, ArtXLagos has successfully established itself as West Africa's premier art fair, cementing its reputation as a center of culture for the entire region. Since its founding by Tokoni Peterside in 2016, the art fair has attracted exhibitors, art buyers and members of the West African art scene and beyond—providing a platform for both emerging and established artists and playing a notable role in the global art ecosystem.

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