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Contested Narratives: Charlottesville and the Caribbean in Perspective

By Kimberley McKinson, Post-Doctoral Research and Teaching Associate, University of Georgia

As I witnessed the horrific images of white supremacy and raw hate coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, a cacophony of emotions flooded me. I was angry, I was grieving and I was fearful.  Although these images were not unfamiliar, they seemed sorely misplaced, as if they had been plucked from the scrapbook of a bygone time and transferred to a present-day digital photo reel. There is no denying that these images are firm reminders – if ever we should forget or become lulled into a state of complacency – of the place and time in which we live.

In meditating on Charlottesville, my mind has traveled back to my early undergraduate forays into anthropology and ethnographic fieldwork in the Dominican Republic. My time spent in the Dominican Republic would mark a turning point for how I, a young black woman born and raised in Jamaica and studying in the United States, would come to grapple with race, color and history in both the Caribbean and the United States. Indeed, though no longer my field site, the Dominican Republic still resonates with me as I continue to track back and forth between the Caribbean and the US. The events that came to pass recently in Charlottesville may seem on first glance, distant from the Dominican Republic, however, I regard these two spaces as distant relatives.

One cannot begin to speak about Dominican identity without acknowledging the country’s geographical, historical and cultural proximity to Haiti – both the Haitian presence on the other side of the border as well as the presence of Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent within the Dominican nation space. The ties between these two countries, which share the island of Hispaniola, cannot be denied – it is in the blood. And yet, in the Dominican Republic, significant political and cultural attempts, sometimes violent, have long been made to negate Haiti and ultimately, the African ancestry of the nation. Indeed, for many Dominicans, to assert a sense of dominicanidad, that is, what it means to be Dominican, has come to mean rejecting the African culture which slavery brought to the island in favor of celebrating the country’s indigenous and European heritage defined by whiteness, Hispanic-ness and Catholicism. This is usually juxtaposed against the blackness, African-ness and Vodou culture of Haiti. Consequently, remembering particular founding figures and, moreover, memorializing certain periods of the Dominican Republic’s history continues to be a contentious and highly contested project.

The white supremacists, who were on shameful display in Charlottesville rallying in the name of maintaining the public presence of a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee, represent a segment of the American population very much committed, as are some in the Dominican Republic, to an a-historical approach to the telling of the story of the nation. Such an exclusionary telling is dependent on a revising of the record in order to detach slavery and black bodies from the historical events at hand. The very memorialization of Robert E. Lee and the Civil War is dependent on such brazen a-historicism. This approach to narrating the history of the US nation reminds us of the contested narratives that contribute to the making of the fabric of the nation and simultaneously, as was seen in Charlottesville, to its very un-doing. One could argue that Charlottesville is an example of what happens when that fabric unravels onto itself, worn thin from contestations and pressure over time. Indeed, if the past five years have taught us anything, it is that, we live in a moment when, across the breadth of the United States, this fabric has once again begun to fray in ways that it frayed decades ago.

Make no mistake; in these times in which we live, humanity must always be victorious. In the United States, as in the Dominican Republic, in the face of individuals and institutions that seek to peddle an a-historicism that serves to deny the true historicity of the nation by, at best, reinforcing silences in the archive and at worst, perpetuating moral ideologies that are dangerous to people of African descent, it must be clear to all, that there is no middle ground. Either one is for acknowledging and securing the humanity of all peoples or one is not. The counter-protestors in Charlottesville who risked their lives in order to denounce hate, white supremacy and fascism, remind us that the fight to charter the true historicity of the nation is and must always be a constant and sustained counter struggle. The idea of fighting for the recognition of the true historicity of the nation brings to mind Fanon’s language in The Wretched of the Earth, where he calls for a politics of living inside history as a way to participate in the fight, which explodes old colonial truths. Indeed, one can think of living inside history as the very means by which to explode it from within. For, it is by living inside history that we find our true liberation.

Find more resources about race on the AAA website at www.americananthro.org/understandingrace.