Historical Overview and Current Population Estimates Northern America
Since there has been no census category established for Afrodescendants in the U.S. and Canada, accurate population counts do not yet exist. African immigrants and their descendants are encouraged to register themselves under the racial/ethnic categories of African-Canadian, African-American or Black alongside Afrodescendants who also choose these categories. While scholars are well aware that a loss of national identity and the lingering effects of slavery differentiate Afrodescendants from African immigrants and their descendants, most governments have yet to acknowledge the distinction. It may be beneficial, in the future, for governments and NGOs to identify the differences in the quality of life of Afrodescendants and African immigrants and their children, with an eye toward analyzing the how the destruction of original identity has disadvantaged Afrodescendants specifically.
The first enslaved Africans are believed to have disembarked at Jamestown, Virginia (U.S.) in 16193, although some Black leaders have argued with that date, asserting that the first ship carrying slaves arrived in 1555, piloted by Sir John Hawkins. Until 1865, Africans in the U.S. were enslaved, tortured and denied even the most basic of human freedoms. In that year, slavery was abolished, only to be replaced with segregation laws that further denied the humanity of the freed slaves and their descendants. These laws were enforced by state mandate until 1954, when the United States Supreme Court outlawed the notion of ‘separate but equal,’ calling for integration of the nation’s public school systems. Despite the Court’s mandate, Afrodescendants in the United States have been—and still are—subjected to sub-human treatment by their own government and by the society that surrounds them. Researchers at the Tuskegee Institute note that between the years of 1882 and 1951, 3,437 Afrodescendants were lynched.4 In the U.S., hate crimes committed against Afrodescendants continue on, as illustrated in the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, the beating and dragging death of James Byrd by white supremacists in Texas in 1998, and the shooting death of Robert Spencer in 2001. The father of eight children, Spencer was murdered as he left a Lake County, Florida convenience store by a man whose admitted goal was to “take out” as many black people as he could.5 According to the 2005 U.S. Census, 38.4 million people in the United States or 12.9% of the total population identify as Black, African-American or Afrodescendant. Fifty-five percent of the current Afrodescendant population in the U.S. resides in the nation’s Southern region, where plantation slavery began and was the most entrenched. There are several instances in the United States of Afrodescendant groups who have remained on the land worked by their ancestors, among them the Gullahs of South Carolina and the Georgia Sea Islands. Today, groups like the Gullahs struggle to hold on to their land, which their respective states continue to encroach upon.
The Black Exodus to Canada initially occurred in three phases; it is estimated that over 35,000 fled north in search of respite. Fabbi notes that “the majority of early Black immigrants came as a result of three significant American historical events: the American Revolution (1775-1783), the War of 1812 (1812-1814), and the Underground Railway movement (1830-1865).”6 These migrations northward to freedom—combined with African immigration—have resulted in a current Canadian African/Afrodescendant population of 662, 200, representing just over 2% of Canada’s total population. Despite Canada’s historically significant role in the Underground Railroad as a place of safety for escaped slaves, many Afrodescendants in Canada today find that they face discriminatory circumstances and have been remanded to the outer levels of Canadian society.
Vinson states that between the years of 1521 and 1817, Mexico imported almost 200,000 Africans to be used as slaves. These blacks were forced to work in silver mines, the farming industry, and on tobacco and sugar plantations.8 Based upon data derived from the colonial period that places the percentage of Mexico’s African population somewhere between 10 and 12 per cent of the total, researchers estimate that about 9 million Mexicans could have significant African blood. The country’s political, business, social and cultural spheres, however, are dominated by the white descendants of Spanish conquistadors, while mixed-race, indigenous and black people generally are relegated to supporting roles in society.”9 Afrodescendants, also referred to as Afro-mestizos, reside mainly along Mexico’s coastline. Most Afrodescendant villages are located in remote regions, according to the African Diaspora Research Project of Michigan State University.
The Inter-American Development Bank estimates that approximately 150 million of Latin America’s 540 million people are of African ancestry.10 Great numbers of African slaves were imported into the area during the colonial period, the highest percentage of enslaved residing in Brazil.
Brazil currently is home to the largest Afrodescendant population in the Americas. Forty-five percent of Brazilians identify themselves as Black, while in Colombia Afrodescendants comprise 26% of the total population; Argentina, Guatemala, Peru and Uruguay have small Afrodescendant populations that are concentrated in specific geographic areas. Bolivia, Ecuador and Costa Rica, along with other nations, have only begun to include questions related to race on their censuses, which means that many Afrodescendants may have gone uncounted. The NGO, Minority Rights Group International, laments the lack of available data on Afrodescendants in their 2004 report, blaming a lack of communication between Afrodescendant groups and their respective governments for statistical oversights, along with the fact that Afrodescendants are only now—at this late date—being recognized as a group. This much-needed research, MRG claims, could be used to improve upon the lives and circumstances of Afrodescendants throughout the Western Hemisphere.
The descendants of enslaved Africans in Central and South America live in rural areas and along the coastline, though many are migrating to large cities looking for work. This is an enormous undertaking for most, as disproportionate numbers of Afrodescendants across Latin America suffer from a lack of transportation, infrastructure and utilities, and are regularly denied access to health care, receive inadequate education, struggle with high unemployment rates and earn low incomes that place them easily below poverty level. In many countries, Afrodescendants—also dubbed Afro-Ecuadorians, Afro-Latinos, Afro-Colombians, Quilombos, Garifunas, Afro-Peruvians and Black Seminoles—constitute the lowest rung on the quality of life ladder. The Inter-American Development Bank undertook a survey of Afrodescendants in Honduras, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela; the study’s results showed an astounding similarity in group member’s experiences, despite the divergence of nations.
In Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, Afrodescendants are the majority. Explorer Christopher Columbus first stumbled upon the island of Hispanola in 1492. Spanish colonial rule meant that between the period of 1492 and 1821, large numbers of African slaves were brought to the island, which has borne several names, among them Ayiti, Hispanola, Saint Domingue and finally—after the nation’s 1821 revolution—Haiti.
The island proved to be the most profitable in the region for its colonial holders, but for Africans and their descendants, Haiti was one of the most brutal places in the New World in terms of the slave trade and its resulting legacy. Library of Congress researchers claim that modern Haitian society—with its violence and conflict, poverty and rapidly declining quality of life—is a direct reflection of the nation’s slaveholding history.
“The mixture of races that eventually divided Haiti into a small, mainly mulatto elite and an impoverished black majority, began with the slavemasters’ concubinage of African women. Haiti’s slave population totaled at least 500,000, and perhaps as many as 700,000, by 1791. The slaveholding system in Saint-Domingue was particularly cruel and abusive, and few slaves (especially males) lived long enough to reproduce. The racially tinged conflicts that have marked Haitian history can be traced similarly to slavery,” a Library of Congress country study reports.11 Despite having expelled French colonial powers during a rebellion led by the formerly enslaved and proclaiming itself the first free Black republic in the West in 1804, Haiti has been unable to release itself from its legacy of slavery and violence. Black/mulatto conflict and human rights abuses are indeed common occurrences in the Haiti of today, which is 95% Afrodescendant.
The Dominican Republic provides us with a different take on Afrodescendants, in pointing out what the realities of life can be for those who choose to deny their slave heritage because of the perceived shame associated with it. Though the Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island of Hispanola—with the D.R. occupying over two-thirds of the island—the two nations are very different culturally, as well as economically. The D.R. maintains a Spanish-centered culture, and because of cultural differences refused to stay under Haiti’s rule after the Haitian Revolution occurred. The Dominican Republic emerged as a separate nation from Haiti in 1844 after many years of conflict, submitted to Spanish rule in 1861, then claimed final independence from colonial rule in 1865.
Eighty-four percent of Dominicans have African slave ancestry, though 73% of them self-identify as ‘mulatto’.12 These distinctions allow Dominicans to move more freely though society, while at the same time giving them an upper hand and feeling of superiority over Haitians, who are to this day exploited and abused as sugar laborers in the Dominican Republic. Choosing assimilation into the Western world over embracing its African heritage has proven a beneficial choice for this nation, which now claims one of the fastest growing economies in the Western Hemisphere.
Ada Ferrer, in her book Insurrgent Cuba: Race, Nation and Revolution, 1868-1898, states that in 1846, 36 % of the Cuban population were enslaved. Ferrer claims that more than 595,000 African slaves arrived on the island's shores during the last fifty years of the trade, which ended in 1886. Most of those enslaved worked on Cuba’s sugar plantations. Today, an estimated 62% of the nation’s 11,346,670 Cubans are of African ancestry. 13Afrodescendants in Cuba continue to face discrimination, despite Castro’s revolution, and the Cuban government’s attempts at wiping out discriminatory practices. Large numbers of Afro-Cubans have fled Cuba for the United States over the years seeking economic refuge, as Greenbaum notes in her work; she states that for most Afro-Cuban patriots, the vision of social justice in the new republic remained elusive.14 In Bermuda, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Antigua and many other Caribbean nations, the history, circumstances and quality of life for Afrodescendants are similar, if not virtually identical. The bulk of scholarship done in this area verifies this assertion.