MIAMI — On a street in a seaside city in Brazil, four men describe themselves to Henry Louis Gates Jr. as Black. Flabbergasted, the Harvard scholar insists they compare their skin tones with his.
In a jumble, their forearms form a mocha spectrum. Oh, the men say: We’re all Black, but we’re all different colors.
Others in the marketplace describe Gates, who is Black and renowned for his African-American studies scholarship, with a variety of terms for someone of mixed race — more of an indication of his social status as a U.S. college professor than of his skin color.
“Here, my color is in the eye of the beholder,” Gates says, narrating over a scene filmed last year for his new PBS series, “Black in Latin America.” The first of four episodes filmed in six Caribbean and Latin American countries begins airing Tuesday. A book expanding on Gates’ research for the series is set for publication in July.
Throughout the series, Gates finds himself in conversations about race that don’t really happen in the U.S., where the slavery-era “one-drop” concept is still widely accepted.
The idea for the series stems from a surprising number: Of the roughly 11 million Africans who survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade, only about 450,000 came to the U.S. Approximately 5 million slaves went to Brazil alone, and roughly 700,000 went to Mexico and Peru. And they all brought their music and religion with them.
“We thought the prime Black experience in the New World was in America. It wasn’t,” says Gates. “By the numbers alone, the prime experience was south of our borders. I wanted to unveil this world to the American people.”
Gates’ journey begins in Haiti and the Dominic an Republic, which share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola but have little else in common.
In Haiti, Gates focused on the country’s history as the world’s first Black republic, born in 1804 from a slave rebellion, rather than on its stigma as the disaster-prone, poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Notably, independence day in the neighboring Dominican Republic marks the Spanish-speaking country’s independence from Haiti, instead of Spain. On the streets of its capital, Santo Domingo, an anthropologist describes himself to Gates with a word that developed to highlight American Indian instead of African ancestry. Dominicans couldn’t consider themselves Black, he tells Gates, because the Blacks in his country are Haitian.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, which prides itself on being a multiracial society where segregation was never institutionalized, Gates heard around 130 commonly used words to describe varying degrees of skin color. For Black Americans, Gates said, using similar terms would indicate some shame about being Black.
“For most of us, race is Black and White, there’s nothing in between. But it’s more complicated than that,” he says.
New U.S. census figures are revealing how complicated and surprising conversations about race can be. For example, the number of Puerto Ricans identifying themselves solely as Black or American Indian jumped about 50 percent in the past 10 years, suggesting a shift in how residents of the racially mixed U.S. territory see themselves.
Gates is no stranger to the complications of race. He was arrested at his Cambridge, Mass., home in 2009 by a White police officer investigating a possible burglary. Gates alleged he was the victim of racial profiling.
The charges were dropped, but the conflict sparked a national debate on race relations, and President Barack Obama invited both Gates and the officer to the White House for a “beer summit.”
In Brazil, many people interviewed for the series knew about the arrest, but they didn’t necessarily connect it to his skin color, says Ricardo Pollack, one of the series’ producers and director of the episodes filmed in Brazil, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
“People saw him as educated and upper-middle class. Very few would call him Black,” because that would have indicated a lower social class, says Pollack. “He loved it. It’s a very visceral way of showing that race is coded in different ways.”
For all the variety of ways to describe skin color throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, Gates did not find color blindness.
A beachside magazine stand in Brazil only shows White, blond women on the covers. Each of the countries he visited at some point sought European immigrants to “Whiten” the population — except for Haiti, but even there, light-skinned people rose to the top of society.
“In each of these countries, the poorest people were the people with the kinkiest hair, the thickest lips and the darkest skin,” Gates says. “That is sad.”