Monday, August 18, 2014

Jason McGraw's "The Work of Recognition"

Jason McGraw is associate professor of history at Indiana University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Work of Recognition: Caribbean Colombia and the Postemancipation Struggle for Citizenship, and reported the following:
Page 99 represents something of a pause in the main action of my book, as well as a turning point in the story I tell about the consequences of slave emancipation in Colombia.

The skinny on my book is that emancipation in 1851-1852 led people to fundamentally reconsider the meanings and practices of citizenship. For the majority of the population, already free when the remaining slaves were liberated, the event heralded expansive new rights, civil equality, and a rethinking of hierarchies and prejudices. Many social relations seemed up for renegotiation, including those in marriage, the market economy, the Catholic church, and partisan politics. By putting emancipation to other (universalizing) uses, however, the freedom struggles of former slaves and their allies went unacknowledged. Moreover, by the 1880s, conservatives as well as many liberals and former abolitionists had cast their lot with order-and-morality to counter both legal equality and the continuing agitations of plebeian citizens.

Page 99 is the first page of chapter four, “The Lettered Republic.” The chapters that precede and follow it focus on labor, religious, and political struggles on the country’s Caribbean coast, whereas here the perspective is a “national” one of rarified literature and law that emanated from Bogotá, the country’s capital. It also brings the story to Candelario Obeso (1849-1884), a poet, civil servant, and one of only two men of African descent with a national reputation in nineteenth-century Colombia. (Roughly one-quarter of the country’s population was, and is, of African descent.) It was Obeso, through published critiques of the lettered republic’s exclusion of black men, who inspired me to write about citizenship as the problem of emancipation.

Page 99 begins with epigraphs that exemplify the larger story of race in the book. The first epigraph from Obeso presages what W.E.B. DuBois would call the double-consciousness of black people’s perception of themselves through white contempt. The second epigraph, also from Obeso, mocks the belief in racial whitening in the context of Latin American mestizaje (race mixing), which requires the demonization of blackness:
Because you see me the skin
The color of ink
Perhaps you believe that
My soul is also black?…
—Candelario Obeso, Cantos Populares de Mi Tierra [Popular Songs of My Land], 1877

All the others are sickly and of an ambiguous race. Their endeavor is to be white and pretty. For me, it is an honor to be black and my ugliness delights me. Human regeneration is in my race. Science has already said this.
—Candelario Obeso, Lecturas Para Ti [Readings for You], 1878
Page 99’s final epigraph is from a contemporary of Obeso who misinterprets the deceased poet’s critiques by accusing him of a life-long obsession with white women (for which there is no historical evidence):
Obeso was an Othello without a Desdemona who would love him.
—José María Rivas Groot, La Lira Nueva [The New Lyre], 1886
This final quote illuminates the turning point in the book, where the ruling class disavowal of Obeso’s demands for recognition stands as a metonym for the wider rejection of the democratic challenges it faced after emancipation.
Learn more about The Work of Recognition at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue