Demystifying Africa’s Absence in Venezuelan History and Culture

Venezuelans of African descent are practically invisible in Venezuela's history and culture. This invisibility is part of a larger tendency in Venezuelan culture to deny the existence of racism in Venezuela. Jesus Garcia, the director of the Afro-Venezuelan Network explains some of the origins of this invisibility.

Editor’s Note: This article is being posted here in connection with the recent visit of a TransAfrica Forum delegation to Venezuela. An interview with Jesús García, who is the director of the Afrio-Venezuelan Network, on the current situation of Venezuelans of African descent will follow soon.

In 1985, I made my first trip to the Republic of the Congo in search of information about Venezuela’s historical relationship with Central Africa. My purpose was to seek information to demystify the African, particularly the dominant Central African Bantu, presence in Venezuela in order to fill in the African absence in the construction of our national identity.[1] This was an important task since the official versions of Venezuelan history, akin to the histories of the rest of so-called Latin America, reduce Africa’s con­tributions mainly to drums and “witchcraft.” Many attribute what they consider the ir­rational behavior of Latin America’s leaders to their “magical sense of reality,” a legacy presumably inherited through the breast milk of the enslaved ayas negras, the Black “mammies” responsible for their socialization, “such that when they took power, they reproduced this magical concept of reality.[2]

From 1937 to the present, Arturo Uslar Pietri, the celebrated Venezuelan writer with the greatest influence on the white elite, has kept this official discourse alive in his writ­ings and his addresses to Venezuelan intellectuals concerning issues of modernity and the nation. Uslar Pietri’s premise is that “Blacks did not arrive” in Venezuela “with a culture that visibly affected the construction of our national identity.”[3] He asserts that “Blacks did not make a racial contribution beneficial to the nation. Our racial blend has not enabled us to transcend the original ingredients. In general terms, those members of what we might call the current Venezuelan race are as incapable of comprehending modern and dynamic concepts of work as were their ancestors. This means that if we cannot substan­tially modify the ethnic composition of our population, it will be virtually impossible to change the course of our history and to make our country a modern nation.”[4]

When I began to understand the nature of this hegemonic position in Venezuela’s his­torical discourse, a perspective imposed in compulsory school curricula, and became aware of how this point of view negatively affected Afro-Venezuelans, I felt obliged to deconstruct and reconstruct the discourse, or really the absence thereof, about the Africanity of Venezuela’s national formation. This meant that my version of Afro-­Venezuelan history would have to serve to combat both the racism expressed in school­books and the trauma of internalized racism for the Afro-Venezuelan community.

The words of my grandmothers, traditionalist elders born in the nineteenth century in San Jose de Barlovento, one of the Black communities in the subregion of Barlovento in the state of Miranda, offered me an alternative source of our history, one that con­tradicted that of my formal education. Their words inspired me—their stories, songs, and lyric poems. Our daily life outside of school also inspired me. I realized that our oral traditions had been banished from the classroom in the interest of creating a social science program that reproduced official versions of Venezuelan history that endorsed the stories of conquering Europeans. I also became aware of exactly how we, the “oth­ers,” were erased from the history, geography, music, and cultural curricula taught in the nation’s schools.

My first step was to investigate seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century documentary evidence in the national archives. I went to the same sources used by those who created and defended the official historical narratives.[5] My next task was to decode the declarations, the discourse, of runaway Africans-cimarrones/maroons, who had been captured and brutally tortured in their efforts to resist enslavement, making al­lowances, of course, for the demeaning and insulting tone of these sources.[6]

The data led me to classify cimarronaje/marooning as either passive or active. Passive marooning refers to those ways in which Africans and their descendants fought against their enslavement in colonial contexts by taking advantage of available institutional re­sources, such as the law and the Catholic church. Beginning in the middle of the eigh­teenth century, for example, enslaved people could, if they amassed adequate resources, purchase their own freedom, or even that of babies in the wombs of enslaved mothers; or they could “inherit” their freedom if their owners made such provisions in their wills.

Active marooning refers to enslaved people fighting directly against the system of slavery in order to reclaim their freedom at any cost. This active resistance to the dif­ferent modalities of colonial oppression by Africans and their descendants filled many archival files, which clearly indicated that active marooning signified a sustained poli­tics as well as a concept of anticolonial liberation. As such, the African contribution to the Venezuelan nation was both moral and political.

We find evidence of this moral and political activity in the archival documentation concerning Miguel Luango, for example, who headed a rebellion of enslaved people in Caracas in 1749. Luango, whose name refers to his Central African origins (Africans of­ten being named for their points of departure from the continent), demanded that the colonial authorities establish a non-racist government. Had this rebellion succeeded, ad­ministrative posts were to be assigned to Francisco Loango as lieutenant general, Manuel Loango as mayor, and Simón Loango as attorney general.[7]

Already beginning in 1552, with the rebellion headed by “El Negro” Miguel in the Buria Mountains, in the 1749 Kongo and Loango Rebellion in Caracas, and later in the 1795 uprising instigated by a Loango man called Cocofio and led by Jose Leonardo Chirinos, we see evidence for the construction of a specifically African idea of “inde­pendence” in Venezuela. This idea was distinct from what Francisco de Miranda, the “precursor of Venezuelan independence,” intended as the incipient nation’s moral and political imperative. Miranda preferred to capitulate to the Spanish Crown, rather than strike an alliance with the Black insurgents in the Barlovento valleys, for fear that Venezuela would become another Black maroon republic like Haiti, the nation where independence for the entire population was born in the Americas.[8]

Even Simón Bolivar, the “Liberator” of five South American nations—Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador—included abolition as part of his platform for national liberation in 1816.[9] But this was conditional freedom, and soon after the wars of independence had subsided, previously enslaved people were reenslaved. Provoked to indignation, they increased their marooning. Reneging on abolition during the inde­pendence era was consistent with the Eurocentric notions of Venezuela’s white creole “paladins of liberty,” who could not accept the insurgent and more complete ideal of liberty contributed by the African rebels whose quests for freedom had helped to destabilize and defeat the Spanish colonial regime.

Reconstructing this other history also meant elaborating strategies to demystify the erasure of the Africanity of Venezuela’s national formation, which remains one of my main preoccupations. This is a general problem in Latin American and Caribbean his­toriography. When Black insurrection erupted at the end of the eighteenth century, in was explained as the product of French revolutionary thinking, hence the cliché “Black Jacobins.” This idea, which is the focus of Marxist historian Federico Brito Figueroa’s book, El problema tierra y esclavos en la historia de Venezuela, is historically inaccurate.[10]

Long before the French decreed liberty, egalité, et fraternité, Africans imprisoned in cacao, sugarcane, and cotton fields in the Americas were already revolting against their exploitation. They rallied against oppression and exploitation based on skin color and social position and in favor of human redemption. This trend had been evident by the beginning of the seventeenth century with the Quilombo dos Palmares in Brazil and Yanga Rebellion leading to the palenque (maroon community) of San Lorenzo de los Negros, now known as Yanga, in Mexico. These initial rebellions that led to the creation of multiethnic free maroon communities were led by Central African Bantu-speaking people. The names of leaders like Zumbi of Palmares in Brazil, Yanga in Mexico, and the Loangos in Venezuela, bespeak their origins.

Rethinking history to demystify Africa’s political and moral contributions to the Americas, and pursuing this line of inquiry into both comparative marooning and the contributions to “the idea of independence” in the Americas by Africans and their de­scendants, is an important task. We must debunk the dishonest and inconsistent his­torical discourses that assume Eurocentric hegemonic authority and ignore and distort ­African contributions to the formation of the American nations. Unraveling hegemonic discourses of the “other”—discourses about descendants of Africans the world over—­has been and continues to be necessary.

If, as Marcus Garvey said, history is a tree with roots, a tree that falls when we disavow it, then culture is the body of a tree lush in leaves. According to the eminent Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop, historical factors are “the cultural cement that brings together the elements of a people’s existence, forming a oneness as a consequence of the sense of lived historical continuity that a collectivity shares.”[11] And another extraordinary African thinker, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, asserted that “Culture, despite what ever may be the ideological or idealistic characteristics of its manifestations, is therefore an essential element of history, like a flower that springs forth from a plant.”[12] The doubled term “history-culture” is indispensable when we sketch the process im­plicit in our reconceptualization of the Afro-Venezuelan and Venezuelan, in fact the American story.

The culture of Africans and their descendants in the Americas reflects a history of sur­vival, a survival that has been possible because of processes that have been, and continue to be both painful and triumphant. The problematic representational politics that disregard the body as a site of cultural expression force a rapprochement to not only what I characterize as a “culture of resistance,” but also to our own cultures of origin. In these we can find ways of reconceptualizing ourselves in a contemporary way that makes organic cultural sense, given our shared Bantu heritage.

The very language we use to describe our bodies’ life forces can be a key in recon­ceptualizing ourselves as African descendants. According to interviews I conducted with ngangas, traditional healers, in various regions of the Republic of the Congo, the body is constituted of four substantial elements: the nitu, or physical body, the menga, or blood the moyo, or eternal soul, and the mfumu kutu, or double or shadow soul in Kikongo, the language of the Kongo or Bakongo people.[13] The nitu is a kind of box in which ancestral spirits dwell. The menga, the motor principle of life whose vital center, the heart, is the seat of the soul, thus blood sacrifices play the role of liberating pow­erful forces during transcendent ceremonies. The moyo represents the principle of re­sistance to death, and the mfumu kutu is the principle of sensory perception and self-­consciousness that defines the continuity of the life and identity of the person.

The verb “to live” is translated by three terms: zinga, the continuity of life in the sense that the dead and unborn, not only the living, are part of the totality of human life; moyo, the spiritual aspect of all living beings; and kala bung, the physical life of the body. This conceptualization of the body and spirit, present among our Bantu ancestors who were transported to the Americas, was the basis of their understanding of their new lives and of their survival in their New World. We can interpret our cultures of resistance as reflecting and being products of these principles of resistance to death, which are still a part of our resistant worldview and behavior even if we have forgotten the words that define them and have to return to the source to recall them. These principles will con­tinue to guide us in the new millennium. In other words, intentions of denying the pro­found philosophical foundations of our behavior by trivializing them as “folklore,” as has been done by colonially minded “scholars,” has catalyzed our collective mfumu kutu into a dynamic stance of continual resistance.

This is why many Afro-Venezuelans have in recent years been implementing a process of self-reconceptualization, of stripping ourselves of concepts that Eurocentric social sci­entists have imposed on us and our realities, fraudulent foreign concepts that, lamenta­bly, still continue to plague us, and that we must identify and deconstruct when we sit down to write about our own communities. When we refer to accounts of African cul­ture in the Americas, we often have to contend with its “folklorization” by those who characterize our cultural productions as “folk music,” “religious folklore,” “folk arts,” and so forth—stereotypical and prejudiced conceptual terminologies that serve as road signs and tricks or traps in the colonial imaginary.

We need to develop a pedagogy of self-perception. Those of us who are musicians and/or members of African-derived religions, for example, must fight against efforts made to folklorize us. To fail to do so is to continue to view ourselves through borrowed eyes. African cultures in the Americas, rather than quaint but superficial folklore, are cul­tures of resistance based on African philosophical principles that we must rediscover, that persist and reshape themselves as time passes and as changes occur in our communities.

What do we mean by cultures of resistance? We mean a dynamic process in which orig­inal cultural elements are set in opposition to the pressure of colonial and post-colonial religious and governmental authorities’ attempts to “disappear” them. We deliberately imagine the possibility of cultural exchange in the Americas on an equal plane of mutual respect and tolerance, insisting upon the possibility of a reciprocal process of cultural transformation that guarantees the peaceful coexistence of both colonial European and African cultural traditions in contemporary social contexts.

The cornerstone of our ideas is that for the past five hundred years African history-culture has searched for ways to reproduce itself in the Americas, ways such as cimarronaje/marooning in quilombos, cumbes, and palenques, as well as in cabildos, cofradias and other alternative spaces of African-inspired religious celebration. Cumbes, quilombos, and palenques were the liberated spaces that the enslaved created in rebelling against the system of slavery, such as the Ocoyta Cumbe led by Guillermo Rivas during the end of the eighteenth century in Barlovento, Venezuela, and the still extant Palenque de San Basilio in Northern Colombia. These expressions of history-culture have created scenarios in which Bantu cultural codes, based on profound philosophical concepts have been (re)produced in music, dance, and religion, in relationship with other ethnic configurations emanating from Native American, Hispano-Arabic, and Anglo-Saxon cultures.

Bantu cultural (re)production in the Americas has maintained a distinct historico-cultural presence. Unable to maintain itself in its original state, it has gestated new creative processes. Its imaginary breathed in new air, and its original modes transformed themselves in the heat of new experiences. Out of this cultural reproduction came its own style of modernity, as manifest in music/dance such as Bantu-derived mambos rumbas, and cumbias, and in the use of Bantu words in everyday language in the European languages of the Americas, words such as bilongo, nganga, and cafunga,[14]Kikongo  terms used in hispanophone America. All of these syncretic elements mark the shifting of a modernity that emerges from a specific cultural root growing against the grain of a reductive, homogenizing, and heavy soil.

We can describe this modernity as a continuous process of cultural recycling for African, especially Bantu, cultures in the Americas that have struggled to minimize the cultural desolation imposed on them by forces that would have them become passive and uniform. In contemporary reality there are new palenques and quilombos, translated as militant practice that allows us to reappropriate our own self-perceptions. This new practice in the case of Venezuela includes festivals such as “Multicultural Day,” initially created for Afroamérica 92, and now celebrated every year in the heart of Barlovento.

As Venezuela celebrated the annual Dia de la Hispanidad (Hispanicity Day), com­memorated all over Hispanic America on October 12, 1992, in honor of the so-­called discovery of the Americas by Columbus, we created the Afroamerica 92 festival, celebrating Afro-Venezuelan culture. Within that event, we organized Multicultural Day on October 12 as a more honest meaning of the results of Colum­bus’s encounter. Out of Afroamerica 92 grew the Fundacion Afroamerica (Afroamer­ica Foundation), which began in 1993 with the support of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The foundation’s goal is to research the sub-Saharan African presence in Venezuela and the Caribbean. We publish the journal Afroamerica and have developed nine compact discs of Afro-­Venezuelan music as a part of the Memoria Musical de Orígen Africana en Venezuela (African Musical Memory in Venezuela) project.

The foundation has also published sixteen Cuadernos de historia regional (Regional History Notebooks) based on both historical research in regional and national archives and on the oral traditions of our communities. The notebooks are used in primary and middle schools in Barlovento, and we also organize educational seminars and workshops about this new conceptualization of our history for teachers and administrators. We are planning to extend this Barlovento educational model to fifteen other regions with 90 percent Afro-Venezuelan populations. We also produced a documentary, Salto al Atlan­tico, filmed in the Republic of the Congo and in Barlovento, in which Congolese and Afro-Venezuelans discovered and compared their common cultural ground.[15]

All of these new programs and activities reaffirm the experience of constructing our own modernity in our own image, a process that goes well beyond academia and comes closer to accurately representing our reality than do the “intermediaries” who pretend to speak for us.

Translation from Spanish: Lisa Sánchez González

[1] My first six-month field research trip in 1985 was the basis for my book La didspora kongo en Venezuela (Caracas: Fundacion Afroamerica and CONAC [Consejo Nacional de la Cultura de Venezuela], 1995).

[2] Arturo Uslar Pietri, “ldentidad nacional,” paper presented at a meeting of the Grupo Santa Lucia, August, 1983, p. 5.

[3] Arturo Uslar Pietri, 1983, as cited in Senta Essenfeld de Bruwer, La cara oculta del desarrollo (Caracas: Ediciones Monte Avila, 1987), 16.

[4] Arturo Uslar Pietri, El país necesita inmigración (Caracas: Boletín de la Cámara de Comer­cio de Caracas, February 1937), 1,235.

[5] Archivo General de la Nación, Seccidn Diversos, vol. 29, “Autos criminales contra varios ne­gros que se sublevaron en el Tuy contra los blancos,” 1749; Archivo General de la Nacidn, Seccidn Real CMula, vol. 1, “Asientos de negros,” 1675; Archivo General de la Nacidn, Seccidn Interior y Justicia, vol. 175, “Levantamientos de negros en Curiepe,” 1822.

[6] Jesus Garcia, A fiovenezuela: una vision desde adentro (Caracas: Editorial Fundacion Afroamerica, 1993), 2.

[7] Jesus Garcia, Africa en Venezuela (Caracas: Edicion de Lujo, 1990).

[8] Jesus Garcia, Barlovento: tiempo de cimarrones (San Jose de Barlovento: Editorial Lucas y Trina, 1990), 83.

[9] Simón Bolivar, Escritos fundamentales (Caracas: Biblioteca Bolivariana, 1966), 102.

[10] Federico Brito Figueroa, El problema tierra y esclavos en la historia de Venezuela (Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1982).

[11] Cheikh Anta Diop, De la identidad cultural africana (Paris: UNESCO, 1978), 65.

[12] Amilcar Cabral, Liberation national et culture (Praia, Cape Verde: Partido Africano da In-dependencia da Guiné e Cabo Verde, 1978 [1970]), 202.

[13] In the Bantu languages, the pluralizing prefix “ba” means people and is often left off.

[14] In the Republic of the Congo, bilonga is a medicine bundle. In Venezuela it refers to herbal medicine and is the name of a community known for its healers, and in Cuba it means witchcraft, or a charm used on someone. Nganga, which in the Republic of the Congo designates healer, is also the name of a Venezuelan community near Bilonga, also known for its healers. Hence these two Venezuelan toponyms are derived from African occupational activities. Cafunga in the Republic of the Congo is a style of food preparation involving wrapping in banana leaves especially chikuanga, balls of cassava flour steamed in the leaves. In Venezuela cafunga is a dessert of ripe bananas, coconut, brown sugar, and cloves, baked in banana leaves.

[15] Salto al Atántico, produced by the Organización Salto al Atldntico (Maria Eugenia Espararagoza and Jesus Garcia), Caracas, Venezuela, 1989.