Skip to content


January 8, 2012

BOOK COMMENTS: African Roots and Latin American Variations

For years I have read widely if eclectically about African-American history, but I know embarrassing little about the larger topics of African history, the Atlantic slave trade and the African Diaspora. When I saw Black in Latin America by Henry Louis Gates at the local library last month, I decided to start remedying the problem. What Gates taught me was fascinating, and I was hooked. Following his references I have been exploring the topic. Here is what I have read. The books I read vary but are complimentary and often reenforce some basic ideas new to me. I decided to discuss them together.

We all know slavery existed elsewhere, but too often we think of it as a minor variation of slavery in the United States. How wrong we are. Ours is the minor variation of larger patterns. Out of the nearly 2 million slaves who survived the Middle Passage, fewer than 500 thousand landed in the British mainland colonies. Slavery everywhere meant demeaning drudgery, but other cultures offered more options for those of African descent to gain their freedom, achieve wealth, and hold positions of prestige and power. The USA divided people as black or white, discriminating against with those who had any African “blood”. Throughout Latin America, definitions were more numerous and flexible. Brazil alone had 134 racial categories and a person could “whiten” if one advanced socially. Africans faced hurdles everywhere, but their experiences varied more widely than I was aware. And did you know that some slaves arrived in Brazil already practicing an Angolan-Portuguese version of Roman Catholicism?

We can hardly understand African-American slavery without knowing this larger context, much less think coherently about race as it is lived and understood globally today. And besides the stories are fascinating. I recommend all the books highly, depending on how much time and energy a reader wants to expand. My access to books is limited and I can not claim these are the best on these topics. They are simply what I read and can recommend. All can change how you think.

Henry Louis Gates. Black in Latin America. 2011.
An enjoyable introduction to this topic with a focus on Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba. Written to accompany Gates’ TV series on the topic. Lots on music, language, and ritual. Gates is deeply committed to sharing the wonders of black history, and he does it well. As a novice I found his book was perfect place to start.




John Thornton. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. (Studies in Comparative World History). 1998.
A dense scholarly book full of details, surprising to me, about African history and what Africans contributed to the settlement of the western hemisphere. He forcefully rejects the idea that Europeans dominated Africans and thus “caused” the slave trade.

Sidney Mintz. Three ancient colonies : Caribbean themes and variations. 2010.
An eminent anthropologists reflecting on his research about Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. He focuses on plantation economies, building of slave cultures, and the context of European colonialism. Learned but very insightful and accessable.




Jane Landers and Barry Robinson, editors. Slaves, subjects, and subversives :blacks in colonial Latin America. 2006.slaves
Scholarly anthology analyzing Africans as slaves, the free subjects of the crown, and rebels against their bonds in the Iberian peninsula and throughout Latin America during the century before Africans arrived at Jamestown. Landers’ introduction presents a clear overview.




John D. Garrigus and Christopher Morris, editor. Assumed identities : the meanings of race in the Atlantic world. 2010.
Lectures, scholarly but directed at non-specialists. Essays discuss changing historical understanding of race and individuals whose stories straddle racial categories. My favorite was the article by Rebecca Scott about an African woman and her changing legal identity in the Caribbean and in New Orleans.



Jane Landers. Black society in Spanish Florida. 1999.
Scholarly work which discusses issues present in the other books in this group. Spanish Florida offered a different set of options from English colonies to the north making it an interesting variation in African-American history.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2012 10:43 pm

    What a wonderful list! I really enjoyed Gates’ TV series (which I watched via the PBS site! yay!), and I’ve been meaning to read more nonfiction about this. So all of these titles are going on to my wish list! I just got a book from the library called Night riders in Black folk history by Gladys-Marie Fry that sounds fascinating, although it’s focused on African American slavery in the US south.

    • January 9, 2012 6:21 pm

      Great. I didn’t see Gates’ series and am not sure how much new you’d find in his book. I’d suggest that Lander’s Spanish Florida might be a good next one for her. My blurb on it was weak, but her discussion of slavery in Spanish and English colonies, next to each other, is insightful.
      Night Riders sounds interesting. I know almost nothing about folklore. Keep me posted. I am not about to give up on African American history. It’s just that the international picture is new and exciting for me right now.

  2. January 25, 2012 11:27 am

    Great list of books, I hope to try a few of these. I’m sure they would be a great complement to the Real Help nonfiction reads!


  1. Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective, co-edited by Anne Curthoys and Marilyn Lake. | Me, you, and books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: