The Work of Recognition: Caribbean Colombia and the Postemancipation Struggle for Citizenship, written by Jason McGraw

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Jason McGraw, The Work of Recognition: Caribbean Colombia and the Postemancipation Struggle for Citizenship. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. xiii + 328 pp. (Paper US$ 34.95)

This fascinating book by historian Jason McGraw has at its heart the argument that Afro-Colombians were central to the development of citizenship in Colombia between the 1840s and the 1920s. Even when they were being deliberately marginalized by the state or by racist elites and intellectuals, he suggests, their agency was always present in demarcating what it meant to be a citizen, or to be excluded from citizenship. The geographical focus on Caribbean Colombia and its interaction with the central government in Bogotá produces an insightful analytical distance between national politics and regional agency. One of the book’s great achievements is to create a sense in which Bogotá and the machinations of its legislators feel at once far away and at the same time intimately connected to local processes in the Caribbean. Workers, mayors, and writers in the Caribbean certainly felt marginalized within a nation of theoretically-equal citizens, but they also cared deeply about what came from Bogotá and felt that they had the ability to influence national processes and decisions.

McGraw has immersed himself in archives and libraries in Bogotá, Barranquilla, and Cartagena, and the depth of research and sensitivity to the variety of sources is truly impressive. The longue durée approach works well, demonstrating how the hopes and expectations that fed into and rose out of the abolition of slavery in the 1850s were able to flourish into citizenship, and were then systematically closed down and delimited by the conservative regimes of the 1880s and 1890s. (1885 was the “nadir of citizenship” [p. 163].)

Colombia’s abolition took place on a different scale and in a different pattern from many other areas. McGraw argues that as “the last people in bondage were liberated into populations of free majorities of color, and where plantations did not define the system of production” (p. 224), we need to consider different paths through emancipation that were taken across the Americas. Certainly, he suggests, the boatmen (bogas) of the Magdalena River occupied uniquely privileged spaces within the nation, despite the almost routine antipathy, stereotyping, and discrimination to which they were subjected from the traveling elites who had no option but to use their labor and services, under conditions and at the pace that were chosen by the boatmen. The country bears its scars, and avails itself of the various opportunities opened up by emancipation, in ways that until now have been too complex for all but a few of us to understand. McGraw’s book now enables us to disentangle histories of exclusion and violence from those of citizenship and independence.

Colombian elites pursued different strategies for defining citizenship and educating citizens. As befitted a country run by elites who were concerned as much with grammar as they were with politics,1 the Colombian State promoted the ideals of erudition and literacy among its people. Compared to other Latin American countries confronting a postemancipation future at the beginning of the twentieth century, Colombians rather neglected physical education and the cult of physical exercise and sport. Nevertheless, as McGraw shows, the intellectual elites remained anxious about the presence and activity of Afro-Colombian poets and writers, whose work was repeatedly sidelined and allowed to drift into the anonymity of posterity until rescued by subsequent scholar-activists. His analysis of the life and work of Candelario Obeso is particularly persuasive. Citing Obeso’s Cantos populares de mi tierra (1877), McGraw demonstrates the “ease with which the lettered republic withstood vocalized protest”:

That deep down the doveIs equal to the hen …All that, white man, I will know,But I will stay the same:For all the disappointments that I receiveI will always be who I am.p. 123

The Work of Recognition shows clearly the uniqueness of the Colombian case and explains why postemancipation Colombia followed a different path from Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba. At the moment of formal abolition in the mid-nineteenth century the number of enslaved people was comparatively low, having been relatively small to begin with and then progressively undermined by slave flight, resistance, free womb laws, and forced slave conscription into the armies of the war of independence and subsequent civil wars. The gesture of formal abolition, therefore, was an enactment of the direction the liberal rulers of the moment wanted their country to take, as much as it was a far-reaching policy. In the years after the end of this study, Colombians came to embrace the concept of mestizaje as central to what it could mean to be a Colombian. The book features a provocative epilogue situating the period 1840–1920 within contemporary debates about race and nation in Colombia. It demonstrates just how heavily the weight of history continues to hang upon the present in Caribbean Colombia with all its “unintended exclusions, violent reactions and shattering reversals” (p. 231). I strongly recommend this book to any scholar interested in the process of abolition, its agents, and its consequences worldwide.

See Malcolm Deas, 1993, Del poder y la gramática: Y otros ensayos sobre historia, política y literatura colombiana (Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores).

1

See Malcolm Deas, 1993, Del poder y la gramática: Y otros ensayos sobre historia, política y literatura colombiana (Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores).

References

1

See Malcolm Deas, 1993, Del poder y la gramática: Y otros ensayos sobre historia, política y literatura colombiana (Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores).

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