I first learned that there were black people living in some place called other than the United States in the western hemisphere when I was a very little boy, and my father told me that when he was a boy about my age, he wanted to be an Episcopal priest, because he so admired his priest, a black man from someplace called Haiti. I knew that there were black people in Africa, of course, unfortunately because of movies such as Tarzan. And then, when I was 9-years-old in 1960, our fifth grade class studied “Current Affairs,” and we learned about the 17 African nations that gained their independence that year. I did my best to memorize the names of these countries and their leaders, though I wasn’t quite sure why I found these facts so very appealing.
But it wouldn’t be until I was an undergraduate at Yale, and was enrolled in my sophomore year, 1969, in Robert Farris Thompson’s art history class, “The Trans-Atlantic Tradition: From Africa to the Black Americas,” that I began to understand how “black” the New World really was. Professor Thompson used a methodology that he called the “tri-continental approach” — complete with three slide projectors — to trace visual leitmotifs that recurred among African, African American, and Afro-descended artistic traditions and artifacts in the Caribbean and Latin America, to show, a la Melville Herskovits, the retention of what he called “Africanisms” in the New World. So in a very real sense, I would have to say, my fascination with Afro-descendants in this hemisphere, south of the United States, began in 1969, in Professor Thompson’s very popular, and extremely entertaining and rich, art history lecture course. In addition, Sidney Mintz’s anthropology courses and his scholarly focus on the history of the role of sugar and plantation slavery in the Caribbean and Latin America also served to awaken my curiosity about another black world, a world south of our borders. And I owe so much of what I know about Pan-Africanism in the Old World and the New World to these two wise and generous professors.
But the full weight of the African presence in the Caribbean and Latin America didn’t hit me until I became familiar with “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database,” started by the great historian, David Eltis, and his colleagues. Between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million Africans survived the dreadful Middle Passage and landed as slaves in the New World. And here is where these statistics became riveting to me: of these 11.2 million Africans, according to Eltis and his colleagues, only 450,000 arrived in the United States.
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