- Interview by
- Anakwa Dwamena
Popular culture has an Afro-Latinx problem. It was on full display earlier this year, when the hosts of the popular show, “The Breakfast Club,” wrestled against their limited imaginations of who and what it means to be of African heritage, in a conversation with the singer and reality TV star Amara La Negra. Naturally, the long historical baggage that comes with the identity marker of blackness has meant that in different times and different places individuals — Ana Livia Cordero, Celia Cruz, Machado de Assis and Sammy Sosa, for instance — have left us with different conceptions of the experience of being Afro-Latinx. Increased global migration of people and faster movement of media (and images) from all corners of the globe have provoked new conversations.
The Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute, on New York’s East 125th St has, since its founding in 1976, sought to “document and present the creative genius of African Diaspora cultures.” Early on, in 1981, it hosted the first ever global convening of academics, spiritual leaders and practitioners of Yoruba sacred traditions at the Orisha Tradition World Conference in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. It repeated the event in Brazil in 1983 and New York City in 1986. Various eminent artists have come through its doors, including the above mentioned Amara’s mentor Celia Cruz, and the recently deceased South African trumpeter, Hugh Masekela. Today, it continues to use art exhibitions, educational programs, performances, and workshops and conferences, and a conjuncture of the aesthetics, politics and activism of current social movements to push “the boundaries on how we think of the global African Diaspora, past, present, and future.”
I spoke to Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, the founder and outgoing executive director for the CCCADI about the center, the community it serves, and if the work has changed giving the growing demographic of people of African descent, and the urgency of activism in the community today. Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
You’ve been head of the center for a long time. How have things changed if at all?
As people of Africa and African descent we do what we do because we are who we are and we love it. And one of those ways [to do that] was building the center. I felt that there wasn’t an institution that united our experiences. Instead, there were the silos that have developed because of colonialism and neocolonialism. The thinking, and seeing yourself as part of a particular group and excluding other experiences is something that had to be addressed and that was why I created the center. I felt that our experiences were one: like the branches of a tree, which might be different, but the root is still the root. We had to understand that as a people if we were going to liberate our minds and our bodies. The center, has been like a university for many of us who have worked there and who have walked through it because it’s been a learning process for us all in bridging our cultures. And I think the center will always continue to grow as the communities it serves continue to grow, create, invent and have things to celebrate and things to challenge and address.
Have any of the factors that made you find it necessary to create the center in the first place changed?
We are still facing those obstacles because remember we are here as products of transatlantic enslavement. And we’ve had to create these things to maintain a presence when the attempts were to erase us or kill us. So a new enslavement, if you will, is the private prison system we see daily in the news. There is also the increased level of overt racism — because it didn’t go away, it has just become more overt again. Meanwhile there are more of us in position to challenge these differently and address them in different ways. And we keep chipping away at that attempt to erase our experience. I think since I started the center, people are using and developing more programs, activities and writing focused on the diaspora. We have been influential in that, as have others before us — Katherine Dunham, back to DuBois. This is why I say it’s a building process.
Doing this from our own lenses is very important because now we not only talk about our connection to Africa but we also talk to our connection to the Caribbean, Latin America, Central America, North America and everywhere we are now. And that is powerful. That, within this nation, is a numerical power. And that’s why you have this administration talking about building walls that you know would be ineffective, but it is signaling to people of color as targets.
We will be the numerical majority soon and therefore our responsibility now is to say how do we unite that through our culture through our art through our narrative to change policy, to change systems that seek to continue oppressing us.
How has the physical community itself — the Caribbean and African Diaspora community in the area — changed? I am thinking about gentrification for one, but also the fact that more people have migrated from these areas in the last decade.
It has transformed the narrative. If you couple us with other people of color from the Asian community, the Native American community — Latinos range from native people to African people to European as well — with all these people of color you have numerical potentiality in terms of influencing the conditions of our people. Because of the numerical shift, now we have another conversation. What do you do with this? You don’t want it to be what South Africa was. A numerical majority of people of color controlled by a small white population and right now that’s what we have. We have to have the awareness, knowledge, and intentionality of understanding our majority position and how to utilize that to challenge white supremacist structures and so on.
We do this through art, remember that art and artists are visionaries. So that through exhibitions, through our writing through the scholars we bring in, through the community leaders and traditional leaders we bring that is a changing of the narrative. Because remember our people are brought up in these systems that teach them to disregard themselves and not know about themselves. So you’ll have a person of African descent saying, “well the founding fathers of this country,” and you know I have to remind people your daddy wasn’t there, and your grand daddy wasn’t there, your great grand daddy wasn’t there. Whose father are you talking about? Because the lack of awareness is the lack of consciousness. Visually you have to show that that wasn’t the case. We know that mythology has been defined as history.
To the point about gentrification, we are being ejected globally. And that’s not a mistake. It is not only a New York phenomenon, it is a global phenomena, and the center has done exhibitions and workshops around gentrification and displacement that have occurred in some of our historic lands. We have to understand how the economics in this country are destroying everybody. Critical is what we see happening in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands because this government is not helping those islands recover, when they could go anywhere in the world and build the whole society and the whole community. People in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are still without light, communication and water. And these are citizens. The same thing happened in Houston and Katrina before. So you see the same pattern. Lack of attention matters because of the people’s economic and racial constructs. So we have to be very cognizant that we are dealing with both racial and economic situations. Making those connections is important because I think people think it’s only here, but we have to make the connection with what’s happening to us locally as well as internationally.
How has the center’s engagement with continental Africa changed?
I was just in Ghana this summer, where I helped a friend put together an interfaith panel as part of Panafest, to show the diversity created as a result of our being everywhere. But you go into a cab and hear Christian songs, go into any place and see a plaster white Christ. And I’m not trying to offend anybody, I’m just saying what I know. I was like “Oh my God don’t you understand he came from the Middle East, at least he had a tan.” So this is the disconnect I am talking about, that a lot of people have taken the philosophy and narrative of the people who oppressed you. Because that was what was imposed, and our stories were not present. And you need to make these analyses and that has to be the role of the center. We are not telling you don’t believe what you believe in, but we’re telling you this is how things happened. So make a choice based on knowledge don’t make your choice based on ignorance.
There has been a rise in the interest of young people, often from the continent, curious about the religious traditions from the continent. What do you make of that?
So when I was teaching a course at Hunter on African religions I was surprised that so many young people from the continent were in the class, and it very clear that they were not learning about their traditions at home. I just got back from Cuba, where I initiated in ’81 when it was basically against the law (in quotes) to be initiated because Cuba was trying to be atheist.
But now, you see young people dressed in gorgeous white clothes and their beads, proudly showing their heritage. And I was telling people that I must understand this more. The government tried to suppress it and it has blossomed in ways that are astronomical, visually astronomical so that in and of itself is interesting. I think that young people, as they seek information about themselves, come across the reality that there is something not right with what they have learned and this is good.
What would you say have been the major lessons you have learnt from work at the center?
We have to continue doing the work. There’s so much that we haven’t even yet looked at and understood in terms of our survival — in terms of our thriving, in terms of the creative ways that people have used to protect our heritage and tradition, and the power of people to safeguard our heritage and our practices — more research, more talking to elders. We often depend too much on the written word because of what this system teaches you, yet most of the elders do not write. They memorize the rituals so if you want an understanding you have to go talk to people. And most of all people are not going to start talking to you until they have assurances that you’re going to respect the knowledge, that you’re not going to divulge what shouldn’t be divulged, and when you do divulge you do it respectfully. You know you don’t google it. You have to sort of dedicate the time and have the patience to allow that process to take place.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the diaspora community today?
I think the biggest challenge for people is to understand still that we are result of 500 years of enslavement. And that the process of education has been one to erase us. And it can erase you intellectually and convince you that you don’t exist. So it doesn’t matter the color you are phenotypically, you don’t see yourself. And the challenge is for us to see ourselves as rooted in one experience. Because historical colonial reality dispersed us globally, we need to use that globalization that we represent, that being everywhere that we represent, and— here’s where technology is critical — either through technology, either through actually talking, through Skyping, whatever, to make connections that empower and design a future for us not as the ones on the margins but as people essential to wherever we are.