Reactions to PBS Docu-series Black in Latin America

In a Q & A piece about the PBS documentary “Black in Latin America” Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explains that it was more difficult to drum up interest and support in developing this series than he had encountered in previous partnerships with PBS. No matter what one’s personal evaluation of the quality of the series or opinions about the man who spearheaded it, I think we should be extremely grateful that the topic has received a bigger spotlight than it ever has before. 

Given my interest (nee obsession?) with the topic I’m humbly offering my own reactions to the series.  I want to be sure to display my gratitude for the execution of this project by highlighting what was done well as well as offering constructive criticism or just observations about other directions that could have been taken.

The site from which an Afro-Mexican radio show is broadcast.

The basics covered in each episode fit with what I had learned over the years.  In perusing comments in reaction to the series (for example, here) it is clear that “Black in Latin America” was packed with information and ideas that were new to a significant portion of the viewership.  As an introductory tool, then, I would have to say that it is a nice start.      

Since I have spent some time learning and thinking about the African diaspora in Latin America I found myself wishing that the series had gone a little deeper. I realize that the series needs to be palatable to a diverse audience but I think there could have been ways to provide more nuance without creating a conceptual or content overload for viewers. 

Suggestions for “Black in America, Part Deux”

I couldn’t help but come up with a wish list for what I would’ve liked to have seen in the episodes on Hispaniola, Cuba, Brazil and Mexico & Peru. This list also serves as recommendations for any future extensions of this project.

On that note, obviously the first suggestion is that there be a Part II, a Part III, and more after that until we’ve covered each country!  Did you notice that not a single Central American country was included?  What about the Garifuna in countries like Guatemala and Honduras and the afroantillanos in Costa Rica and Panama?  I’m clearly biased, but I truly believe that the analytical opportunities are particuclarly ripe in Panama because it has two relatively large black ethnic groups (afroantillanos and negros coloniales, though some will say they are becoming less distinct over time). 

I know there’s an infinite list of what else the series could have explored and hard choices had to be made, but here’s the rest of my laundry list of recommendations for future documentary projects on Afro-Latin Americans:

  • PLEASE let the participants speak for themselves. Use subtitles instead of voiceovers.
  • Provide context for viewers by emphasizing that Afro-Latino populations are not only found in the countries profiled.  Spend some time talking about why Afro-Latino populations share or do not share certain characteristics.
  • Clearly define what “Latin America” is both geographically and conceptually.  There is nothing black-and-white about this and Haiti lies squarely in the gray area from my point of view.
  • Compare and contrast the concepts of race and nationality, how these interact with class distinctions, and their relationship to each other as understood in Latin America and the Caribbean versus the United States. It’s different and, like so many things with relationships, “it’s complicated.” (Whoa, all of a sudden I’m writing an essay prompt…)
  • I would LOVE to have seen the interviewer be (a) someone who could communicate with participants in their native languages and (b) effectually be less of an observer and more of a participant.  How much more could this project have been enriched with greater participation on the production side from bilingual, bicultural scholars who are experts on the region? *swoons*

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