Composing a book that examines how Africans have affected Latin America and the Caribbean might be considered an exercise in masochism, for both geographical area and timespan are huge. They force the author to be selective, which in turn almost assures criticism if some reviewer’s favored area, period, author, or theme is missed. The terminology, too, can provoke reproof, as it is open to different interpretations. Should “African impact” be limited to the cultural transfers that are presently identifiable in Latin America and the Caribbean? Should it focus on Africans’ primary role as slave labor and their consequent socioeconomic influence? Should it include postabolition influences? Or should it refer as broadly as possible to everything blacks have accomplished and affected in the Western Hemisphere since the discovery?
Darién Davis has chosen the last of these in his collection of readings, which seems designed to supplement and complement texts on slavery and race relations. He has written an introductory overview and a useful introduction to each chapter, as well as the one original article in the book, which examines black women and civil rights in Brazil. A chapter by Peter Wade on black music and cultural syncretism in Colombia also seems to be appearing in print for the first time. Davis concludes the book with a comprehensive, annotated bibliography of relevant books and articles and a list of films that deal with the issues he has raised.
The 15 chapters cover the entire five hundred years of African involvement in the hemisphere, beginning with Peter Gerhard’s study of a black conquistador in Mexico and ending with an examination of Cuba’s modern relations with African countries; the latter, according to Armando Entralgo and David González López, were rooted partly in Fidel Castro’s recognition of his country’s racial heritage. Most of the chapters focus on the postslavery era. They are especially strong in dealing with the ways Africans have mixed with and melded into the local population. Black Caribs, Ecuadorean frontier dwellers, Haitian religious practitioners, and Jamaican Rastafarians illustrate those processes.
Some chapters, such as Aimé Césaire’s discourse on colonialism and Abdias do Nascimento’s survey of Brazil’s diplomatic relations with Africa, say little directly about the African impact on the region. They do, however, provide examples of Davis’ broad interpretive approach, for they introduce two of the area’s black intellectuals whose influence has extended worldwide.
Thus, while it has grounds for criticism, a book that brings together writings by Reid Andrews, Michael Conniff, Esteban Montejo, José Luis González, Kenneth Ramchand, and others is certain to find a readership. Moreover, even with their shortcomings, the chapters force the reader to consider how the points raised by various authors might be applied to other contexts and regions. Any book that has this effect is to be welcomed.