This past spring, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. produced a four-episode series for PBS tracing the legacy of the slave trade in six Caribbean and Latin American countries. “Black in Latin America” is the book companion to the television series of the same title.
The reason for Gates’ journey is a startling fact: Of the roughly 11 million Africans who survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade, just 450,000 made it to the United States. The rest were dispersed throughout the region, and Gates, renowned for his African-American studies, wanted to know how their descendants live now.
More than an outline of the research featured in the series, Gates’ book is a thoughtful travelogue through Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Brazil.
It explores Black history in these six countries, which Gates visited in 2010, but it doesn’t linger in the past. Through music, cuisine, art, dance, politics, religion and language, Gates finds living links to Africa. He also finds the other legacy of the slave trade, a sometimes subtle but persistent racism despite pledges of multiculturalism.
Gates’ academic questions about race stem from conversations in cafes, hotels, museums, street parties, nightclubs, taxicabs — the casual places where anyone goes on vacation. “Black in Latin America” would be an interesting companion to any guidebook for the Caribbean and Latin America, as it reveals not just a hidden history but also an evolving sense of identity.