In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Lorgia García Peña. Peña is Professor of Latinx Studies at Tufts University. Her book is Translating Blackness: Latinx Colonialities in Global Perspective.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Lorgia García Peña: We live in a moment of profound division and polarity even among groups that are concerned with social justice. It is hard for us to see at times how the exclusions and injustices of our society—sexism, xenophobia, antiblackness, ableism, homophobia—come from the same source, are interconnected in histories of colonialism and slavery. My book seeks to bridge some of those gaps by helping us think about migration, colonialism, and antiblackness through Latinidad, through the lives and experiences of people who identify as both Black and Latinx. Black Latinx people, as I show in the book, embody multiple forms of coloniality: The legacies of European colonialism and the continuous colonial presence of the United States in Latin America and the Caribbean; while also living as immigrants (or descendants on immigrants ) in the Global North. They embody overlapping diasporas. I offer Black Latinidad then as an epistemology—as a way of understanding and producing knowledge from the site of unbelonging in what Christina Sharpe calls the “unfinished project of emancipation.” “Unfinished” implies an opening: that which is not finished is still in the making. Black Latinidad is thus not just an embodied identity and a social construct but a point of entry and a set of methods that move us beyond homogeneous concepts of racial and citizenship exclusion. My analysis of Black Latinidad denaturalizes the nation as a site of belonging and invites us instead to learn from a productive detour away from and in contradiction to the colonial order that sustains national notions of citizenship and belonging. While these are lessons that can be deduced by reading archives in contradiction, against dominant versions of history and accepted hegemonic “truths,” this book asks new critical questions to theorize blackness in translation in ways that helps us think about the ways in which the past is connected to the present, the ways in which our current political moment is determined by legacies of colonialism that continue to shape our nations and institutions reproducing oppression and unbelonging. For example, in Chapter 4, I examine the history of Italian colonization of Eritrea at the beginning of the twentieth century. I look at the ways colonial violence led to the production of African woman as objects of consumption in the eyes of white Italians. That image, I show in the chapter, continues to shape today how Black Italian women exist in contemporary Italy.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
This book is born from my own experience as a Black Latina immigrant scholar living in constant vaivén (coming and going) between belonging and unbelonging. It emerges out of the necessity for what philosopher Jonathan Lear calls “radical hope”: the commitment to dream of the possibility that “from this disaster, something good will emerge. . . . The hope is held in the face of the recognition that, given the abyss, one cannot really know what survival means.” In the face of oppression and obliteration, hope and action for another way of being—for a future free from colonial exploitation—is indeed a radical act of possibility. In that sense, this book is a radical act of hope that contradicts impossibility and interrupts the colonial structures that have led us to live “in the wake” of slavery that erases the possibility of Black humanity in the streets and the archives. In very concrete terms, I hope this book helps us see that antiblackness transcends nations and therefore needs to be confronted as a global issue. That means that as we think about education and as we come up with strategies that might help us locally, we also take time to understand, for example, the place that we as minoritized people in the United States, occupy in the world and the responsibility we bear as citizens of an empire in relation to the Global South, to indigenous communities, and to immigrant communities in our nation. It is hard at times for us as US minoritized people to understand that two things can be true at the same time: that we can simultaneously be suffering at home due to racial capitalism and antiblackness and also be contributing to further exploitation of the Global South people via participation for example consumer practices that affect others or by contributing to the erasure of the multiplicity of Black experiences in our engagement with histories of Black oppression and liberation. Understanding our role in the world is critical for creating lasting changes and establishing connections beyond our local environment.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The biggest challenge for all of us who have received a western education is not the learning but the unlearning we must do. Most of what we learn from kindergarten to PhD is filtered through Eurocentric ideas of Knowledge and History that have purposefully silenced and erased the Global South majority, those of us who are not white. Within Black studies we are aware of this ill and our work has thus been to center Black stories and histories. However, in so doing, we—in the world—have continued to privilege and center a blackness as mediated through the United States. We learn that Black slavery in the Americas began in 1619 rather than in 1502; therefore erasing over a hundred years of the Middle Passage and in so doing, of our shared pain and struggles. We have learned to view Black success through icons like Obama and Oprah and Black resistance as embodied by men like Malcom X, and MLK. And while all of these are significant ways of understanding Black experiences and important histories we should continue to learn, they are just one part of a larger, transnational, multilingual history of the Black diaspora. So one hope for this book is that it can help us unlearn the singular way in which we understand blackness as a United States category and to learn “Black” as a plurality that transcends national identity. I was recently presenting on this work at an HBCU in the south and a student raised their hand to make a comment about Cardi B, which was not the center of the talk. They said that Cardi B was “not Black.” When I asked her to elaborate, the student commented on what she perceived as Cardi B’s foreignness to blackness by virtue of her Latinidad. I think about this example often as I try to bridge the gap that continues to produce Black and Latinx as two separate categories; a practice that both erroneously produces Latinidad as a race (it is not) and that erases Black Latinxs people. For us to understand and embrace Black plurality, it is also necessary to accept that in its transnational crossings, Black is also understood and, sometimes, named, differently. My hope is we can unlearn the silences so that we can succeed in actually listening across; translating blackness to bridge communities and co-create new forms of belonging beyond the nation-state.
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
I am moved and sustained by women of color feminisms across time and geographies. The philosophy of centering the self and from there theorizing “from the flesh” (as Anzaldua and Moraga invited us to do) shapes my methodology as well as my praxis. I am deeply committed to archival work that unsilences the past, to borrow from the great Trouillot and that allows us to imagine not just the past but a different future; one grounded on collectivity and radical care. My book, and all my work really, is deeply personal. I only write about things I care deeply about. So readers will often see and hear my personal voice, my connection to the histories I archive in the work. That has, at times, led to the critique of my work as not being “objective enough,” which is probably right. I am not striving for neutrality, but rather for sincerity. I take my readers seriously; I think of my reader as smart; therefore I do not try to fool them into thinking I do not have an opinion. I do, I have an agenda, which is to center blackness, to bring to the center of the page that which has been relegated to footnotes for generations. In that sense my work is more invested. That investment and the fuel that sustains it comes from Black feminists’ affirmations of life and joy in the face of devastation. So I am sustained and inspired by the works of multiple generations of Black and women of color feminists, including women like Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Linda Carty, Angela Davis, Barbara Ransby, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and I am also nourished and sustained by the critical interventions of Christina Sharpe, Jacque Alexander, Jessica Marie Johnson, Ochy Curiel and Juderkys Espinosa. I am also deeply grateful for the creative work and the communities of care that are held through the works of women like Josefina Baez and Dionne Brand. All that I learned from them continues to guide how I do the work I do in my writing and in the world.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
People should read Yomaira Figueroa’s Decolonizing Diasporas: Racial Mappings of Afro-Atlantic Literatures (2020) and Kaysha Corinealdi’s Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean World Making in the Twentieth Century (2022). Both of these books open up our world to re-thinking blackness beyond the common places and experiences that dominate current cultural and political conversations about blackness in the world. I engage Figueroa’s work in mine often to think about diasporas and movements across languages and space, to think about productive detours and translations beyond and to reimagine a world that is perhaps not post but definitively anti-colonial. I am excited to think with Corinealdi as I begin my new project on Global Blackness. Corinealdi’s book traces the multigenerational activism of Afro-Caribbean Panamanians as they forged diasporic communities in Panama and the United States throughout the twentieth century. I think that much like my work, hers is interested in intersections, in looking at histories to trace how transnational networks have been built across in order to combat white supremacy. I am very excited to continue to think with these two amazing scholars.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.