Juan Nicolas Tineo PhD, during the launch of his book in Barcelona. Photo Credit: African Press Club
By Chiogor Constance Ikokwu
I met Juan Nicolas Tineo at the launch of his book Temporario in Barcelona about two months ago. Originally from Dominican Republic, Juan has lived in the USA for more than 10 years. We immediately started an interesting conversation about the construction of identities in the Caribbean that opened the door to highly informative but disconcerting information, at least for me.
Juan spoke about his doctoral thesis, which centered on the constant tension between Haiti and his home country Dominican Republic. The testy relations stemmed largely from a frosty history, which saw Dominican Republic as part of Haiti until the country became independent in 1844. Juan goes on to tell me that while he was growing up, there was a lot of myth between the two countries. Different myths generated fears that Haiti will invade Dominican Republic at any time. Consequently, Dominicans did everything possible to reject their blackness in so far as it was related to Haiti.
Identity is a big issue in Dominican Republic, he says. For instance, I would be considered an Indio Oscuro (dark skinned) and he, Juan, is Indio Claro (light skinned). Generally, discrimination based on colour against Haitians has been on for centuries. Dominicans tend to claim superiority based on colour (lighter skin), in spite of the fact that 90 percent of the Dominican population is black or mulatto, according to Dominican scholar and author Silvio Torres-Saillant.
Juan encapsulated the situation in this text: “Dominican culture encourages upward mobility and a dominant culture based on the erroneous belief in the superiority of the Hispanic, to the point that successive governments through history have developed practices to present Haitians as persons to be shunned.”
The most interesting aspect of his research for me is the Dominican Diaspora. It explains how Dominicans in the Diaspora, specifically the USA, began to embrace their African origins. Why? One of the reasons is that they were facing discrimination in that country too. In the USA, the one-drop rule applies. This means that biracial children are classified as black, even if they’re as light skinned as Prince Harry’s wife Meghan Markle, (born of a white father and black mother). It may not be entirely wrong to say that in terms of classification, the USA sees Dominicans the same way Dominicans see Haitians.
This realization perhaps came as a shock to the Dominican Diaspora, I would imagine. This state of things triggered a quest to embrace their African ancestry. According to Juan, “It may be said that the writers of the diaspora allude to their African heritage because it was in the United States that they discovered their true racial identities. It is because of this that their literary works, far from erasing Africa, praise their African roots.
“The texts analyzed here show that the diaspora challenges that position (Hispanic superiority) and the way Dominicans reject their blackness. Lastly, the diaspora perceives Haitians in the Dominican Republic as immigrants facing the same discriminatory obstacles that Dominican immigrants face in the United States.”
Wow, this is deep! I learnt something new. While Juan finds these results “upsetting and embarrassing”, I find it very eye-opening. I must commend Juan for this piece of work. It’s truly enriching. I understand that it’s difficult to capture a 10-year research in two pages, but I hope that it gives my readers a general picture of what the issues are.
I’m sure it’s much more complex. However, there are three points that I would like to make. First, it’s obvious that African peoples were reduced to just a colour for centuries, and the association of blackness with hunger, poverty and, disease has been wonderfully successful. The perpetuation of that single story continues largely unchallenged in international media.
The history of slavery and colonialism also did great damage to African peoples across the world. What I try to emphasize though, is that African history precedes slavery and colonialism. We do have a great history, which has been buried, such that much of what we’re taught in history classes is related only to slavery and colonialism.
Secondly, the world worships money and prosperity. Nobody wants to be associated with anything that is not considered successful. Think in the smallest unit – everyone wants to be friends with a successful person. The minute one’s wealth or status diminishes, so-called friends, run as fast as Usain Bolt.
If any African country was a world power, we probably won’t be having this conversation today. Let’s examine the rise of China for a minute. Twenty to thirty years ago, millions of people in China were poor (some still are). With planning and focus, they’ve managed to turn the corner gradually. Now, the world reckons with China. On this note, I would say to African leaders, wake up! I know our situation is more complicated given colonialism, imperialism, unjust trading systems, etc. Nevertheless, leaders need to fight to improve the lives of their citizens.
Thirdly, I strongly believe that Empires or civilisations rise and fall. Today’s world powers were not in that position yesterday. It all started in Africa. One of the greatest civilisation in the world in Egypt was African.
We’re all humans and should treat one another with respect and dignity. Do have a great week everyone. Let me know your thoughts on the issue of colour. Enjoy!