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Advisory Board Member Paula Lezama publishes book chapter and speaks at conference on Decolonization

This past Monday, February 25th, I had the opportunity to be a participant and a discussant at the Conference entitled, “Decolonization in Thought & Practice: Europe and the Americas Otherwise.” The conference organized by the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC), at the University of South Florida (USF). Among others, indigenous and Afrodescendant leaders from Colombia and Brazil arrived to share and discuss the colonial legacies that continue to subjugate them and their active struggles to overcome them. Many of the topics were in tandem with the focus of Universal Write Publications (UWP), which seeks to amplify the voice of Africa, the African Diaspora and perhaps all those at the margins, still subjugated by colonialism and the ‘Coloniality of Power.’ (Quijano and Ennis 2000). Hence, interest in sharing some of the key points discussed at the Conference as an Advisor to UWP.

The morning session started with a presentation by ISLAC Director, Bernd Reiter, and one of his latest book entitled, Constructing the Pluriverse, which was a collaborative effort by actors and voices committed to go beyond western ideals criticism into providing a from-the-margins lens to understand life and progress (Reiter 2018). Precisely, said collaboration brought the idea of the conference, and particularly of the presenters invited. Followed by a presentation by John Anton Sanchez on the topic of the ‘Black subject’ and its colonial origin, evolution and current conditions. John Anton identifies as a radical conquest, the epistemological deconstruction of the ‘Black subject’ (La cuestion negra) carried out by the thinkers and militants of the Afrodescendant movement. In the head of Caribbean, North and Latin American thinkers such as: W.E.B Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Aimé Cessaire, Franz Fanón, Manuel Zapata Olivella, René Deprestre, Jean Pierre Marc, hasta Stuar Hall, Lewis Gordon, Paul Gilroy, Jesus Chucho García and Agustín Lao Montes. Accordingly, the movement from Blacks to Afrodescendants represents a movement towards the recognition of the complex realities of African descendants in the region, and what is more important, a vision of complexity that is being defined and recreated by Afrodescendants themselves. Finally, Manuela Boatcă presentation dealt with the contradictions of the Europe of the 21st century vs. the Caribbean Europe that stays behind the colonial mask. The disjunction between the Europe as the peak of the western civilization located and contained within specific boundaries not only of geopolitical nature but also of moral nature, and the Europe that maintains strong colonial ties with other latitudes. According to Manuela, the Creole Europe must receive the attention it deserves or in her words, we must rethink Europe from the Caribbean.

The afternoon session had a different flavor as the harsh realities of Afrodescendants and Indigenous communities in the southern cone were shared directly by those experiencing them. Voices from the margin, which echoes are crossing boundaries and reaching far outside their colonially imposed borders. Margarita Villafaña, a leader of the Arhuaco nation, born in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta – Colombia, shared the struggles of her people to remain in their territories since colonial times all through the Republican era and the modern nation state. Over five hundred years of resistance and struggles for physical and cultural survival. Following Kandya Obezo, who spoke of the reality of dual exclusion of San Basilio de Palenque from the nation state as well as the Afrodescendant political movement in Colombia. In Colombia, runaway slaves created free villages or towns. These were known as Palenques in Spanish, Quilombos in Portuguese, and Maroon villages in English. San Basilio de Palenque was founded in 1600 under the leadership of Benkos Bioho, presumably an enslaved West African prince. Unlike other Maroon, Quilombos or Cimarron villages, the Spaniards never conquered San Basilio and the descendants of the original runaway slaves are still there. However, despite such a history of resilience and continuous fight for ethnical survival, the people in San Basilio is not only fighting the exclusion imposed by the nation state, but also the exclusionary participatory practices in place within the Afrocolombian political movement. Somewhat the colonized has become a middle range colonizer.

After the experiences of Colombia, the panel yield the floor to the indigenous peoples from Brazil. Carlos Xukuru, from the Xucuru Kariri Nation in Brazil, shared the deeper epistemological and empirical meaning of the practice of ‘Retomadas’ within his indigenous communities. As an act of civil disobedience against the national state, Retomar, intends to regain control over an unjustly stolen territory and prohibited traditional practices. However, this regaining of control does not produce a mere physical strategy seeking to reestablish territorial control. On the contrary, it goes beyond the physical; towards reestablishing the spiritual relations with the territory and its inhabitants, which includes all sentient beings. It means to regain control of the social imaginary constructed by the idea of a common trajectory, which begins in the life prior to the contact with the “white man” and leads to the re-elaborations to maintain the idea of the common in the post-contact era. Thus, Retomadas articulates the collective memory, assembling autochthonous ways of knowing that in-turn provide the basis for reimagining indigenous survival in the 21st century. Finally, Taquari Pataxó, from the Pataxó nation, spoke of universities as the site locus of the reproduction of the colonial system, therefore, the site locus of the struggle for decolonization of being and doing. While colonization resulted in indigenous genocide, current educational practices constitute an indigenous epistemicide. There is not only invisibility and misrepresentation of indigenous realities, and a lack of access to higher education by indigenous peoples, but also a complete disregard for their ancestral practices and ways of knowing as legitimate forms of knowledge production. Thus, the questions remains whether or not Universities can become sites of emancipation or will continue to be the colonizer reproduction site.

Finally, a co-edited book entitled, Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America by Routledge, 2018, was launched with one of the editors in attendance as well as three of the chapters’ authors.  The book provides a wide range of perspectives on Black politics in the region with a regional coverage that includes Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti and more. In the editor’s words, ‘It investigates the fluid intersection of social power and racial politics and their impact on the region’s histories, politics, identities and cultures.” (Dixon and Johnson 2018). My contribution to the book speaks to the reality of Afro-Latin Americans via-a-vis the Millennium/Sustainable Development Goals (M/SDGs). “One of the most salient MDGs structural failures was its silence regarding pervasive racial and ethnic-based social, political and economic inequalities.” (Lezama 2018). These inequalities were silent truths on the mend by one-size fits-all anti-poverty measures. However, by 2015, it was clear that the MDGs were unreachable. Not only there were 168 million people below the poverty threshold, from which 78 million were in conditions of extreme poverty in 2014 across Latin America, but also it was clear that those left behind at the intersections were by large the region’s non-white population. The global development agenda (M/SDGs) continues to reify of the myth of racial democracies, where race-based exclusion is commonly reduced to class-based disparities. Thus, by obscuring the harsh reality of racial and ethnic disparities within the language of poverty reduction and economic growth, the M/SDGs have become an obstacle in the fight for racial and ethnic justice.

 

All in all and much to the dismay of many, these realities of exclusion and marginalization are common to indigenous and Afrodescendant communities across the globe, but particularly in the ‘developed’ nations, including, and perhaps more insidiously, the United States. The nation of “freedom for all” is also the place where everything and everyone that deviates from the ‘White male heteronarmalcy’ is by default pushed to the margins. Yet, the current political protocol allows for denial of these realities with incumbent’s tantrums. This was the case of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who stated in relation to the UN report of poverty and human rights in the United States, “It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America.”[1] A prime of example of incumbent’s tantrums.

However, official data supports that indeed the current administration is living in denial about the reality of its most vulnerable population. Not only that, but official data also exposes the fact that the current administration is willing to go to extreme measures such as to pull out the country from the United Nations Human Rights Convention in order to support its own outrageously false claims. For instance, the United Nations Report claimed, “In September 2017, more than one in every eight Americans were living in poverty (40 million, equal to 12.7% of the population). And almost half of those (18.5 million) were living in deep poverty, with reported family income below one-half of the poverty threshold.” Yet, the report failed to mention that while the national poverty rate was 12.7, the same rate for whites (not Hispanic) was 11.0% and that of Blacks was 22.0% (Fontenot, Semega, and Kollar 2018), and that of American Indians and Alaska Natives was 25.4% (Wilson 2018). Nonetheless, just before pulling the United States out of UN convention on Human Rights due the report, the aforementioned representative of the Trump cabinet said, “The special rapporteur wasted the UN’s time and resources, deflecting attention from the world’s worst human rights abusers and focusing instead on the wealthiest and freest country in the world.”[2]

Furthermore, while the current government pulls the US out of the Paris agreement on climate change[3] and the United Nations convention on human rights. Native Americans, such as Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux, continue to fight against the North Dakota Pipeline more than a year after Trump granted its permit discarding the indigenous tribe’s objections. The residents of Flint, Michigan will have to deal with the long lasting impact of its local government contempt for the health impact of their cost-saving strategy that resulted in the consumption of contaminated water. Simultaneously, Black Lives Matters continues to confront mainstream backlash against their social justice agenda. All-the-while, since its launch in 2013, Anisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Tony Robinson, Stephon Clark, Antwon Rose, and most recently Jemel Roberson, by the way, the ‘good guy with gun,’ have lost their lives to unrelenting police violence and societal bias.

Indigenous communities and Afrodescendants across borders throughout the western hemisphere shared complex realities of exclusion and marginalization. Equally important is to mention that governments in all sides of the political spectrum continue to pay lip service to the human rights commitments to fight against structural racism that continues to marginalize them. Yet additionally, it is of critical importance to mention the resilience and the persistence of these communities in their fight for justice and equality. Five hundred years of colonization, over two hundred years of slavery, destruction and subjugation have not extinguish their will to fight for justice. Even when all odds are against them, Africans, the African Diaspora and indigenous communities fight for justice persist.

 

References

Lezama. 2018. “The Millennium Development Goals/Sustainable Development Goals and Afro-Descendants in the Americas: An (Un)Intended Trap.” in Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America. Edited by Kwame Dixon and Ollie Johnson. Routledge.

Dixon, David Kwame and Ollie Johnson. 2018. Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America: 1st Edition (Paperback) – Routledge. First. Routledge.

Fontenot, Kayla, Jessica Semega, and Melissa Kollar. 2018. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017. United States Census Bureau.

Quijano, Anibal and Michael Ennis. 2000. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America.” Neplanta: Views from the South 1(3):49.

Reiter, Bernd, ed. 2018. Constructing the Pluriverse: The Geopolitics of Knowledge. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wilson, Valerie. 2018. “Digging into the 2017 ACS: Improved Income Growth for Native Americans, but Lots of Variation in the Pace of Recovery for Different Asian Ethnic Groups.” Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved March 7, 2019 (https://www.epi.org/blog/digging-into-2017-acs-income-native-americans-asians/).

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/21/nikki-haley-un-poverty-report-misleading-politically-motivated

[2] Ibid

[3] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/planetpolicy/2018/06/01/one-year-since-trumps-withdrawal-from-the-paris-climate-agreement/

 

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