Columns

Reheated Races

Stephen Henighan

When I was a graduate student in the early 199s, refugees fleeing the war in former Yugoslavia began to arrive in England. I told an acquaintance, who had grown up in Yugoslavia, that the guy sitting next to me in one of my classes was Bosnian. “I would call that a Yugoslav,” she replied. “If you’ve been driven out of your hometown for being a Muslim,” I suggested, “it may be understandable that you define yourself as a Bosnian, not as a Yugoslav.” In saying this, I did not mean to deny the tragedy of the disintegration of Yugoslav identity. From its shaky outlines in the post-WWI Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes—a title that omitted Bosnian Muslims, among other ethnicities—to its more uncompromising articulation in Marshal Tito’s socialist yet anti-Soviet Yugoslavia of the Cold War era, the Yugoslav idea represented an attempt, however authoritarian, creaky and flawed, to overcome interracial strife.

The ideology that blew Yugoslavia apart in the 199s, shattering a medium-sized country into what would eventually become seven small states, was that of racial difference. In Bosnia: A Short History, Noel Malcolm writes that most scholars believe the Serbs and Croats who settled the territory that became Bosnia when stable Slavic populations first settled in the region in the seventh century issued from the same stock. They spoke in ways that were sufficiently similar that until the 199s, Serbo-Croatian was regarded as a single language. Today speakers of Serbian, Croatian, and even Bosnian and Macedonian, assert their identities as separate languages that belong to different ethnicities. Little linguistic justification exists for such distinctions. The prevalence of people of shared ancestry who regard themselves as essentially different should make us question the concept of race. As a Jamaican-Canadian biologist said to me, “There are no species differences among human beings.”

Constructing new races by renaming languages is an old European habit. After the early Middle Ages, the Galician language, when spoken south of the Minho River, became known as Portuguese, and its southern speakers, by extension, became Portuguese. The Dutch and the Flemish are identified as different peoples, and the common language they speak goes by different names on opposite sides of the border, in order to prop up the precarious national identity of Belgium. By contrast, some people of similar appearance speak different languages. Between 1649 and 1652 some of my maternal ancestors joined the troops of their neighbour in East Anglia, Oliver Cromwell. They invaded Ireland and slaughtered Irish peasants; in response, my paternal ancestors, who were those peasants, took to the countryside of the west of Ireland to wage guerrilla warfare against the invaders. These two peoples, who spoke different languages, perceived each other as alien races; yet a basic DNA test assimilates my East Anglian and western Irish ancestries into the single category of “British Isles.”

The historian Donald R. Wright points out that European colonizers projected their nationalism onto Africa, parcelling people whose identities had been fluid and free of rigidly demarcated boundaries of territory or ethnicity into “tribes.” Europeans invented these ethnicities, dividing and conquering local populations and confining them to manageable administrative units, as they imposed their concepts of race and nation on Africa. Over time, some Africans absorbed this ideology. Speakers of the three most widely used Bantu languages in Angola—Ovimbundu, Kimbundu and Bakongo—have been encouraged by some of their leaders to see their linguistic differences as equivalent to immemorial ethnic fissures even though their languages are very closely related and the three communities assumed their present forms only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as a result of population transfers and intermarriage caused by European colonialism. As in Europe, some Africans see themselves as different even when they speak the same language. In Rwanda, the Hutu and the Tutsi, whose assertions of difference fuelled a genocide in 1994, both speak Kinyarwanda.

Early decolonizing movements took aim at the ideology of race. José Martí, a nineteenth-century Cuban poet and journalist, attacked race as a divisive fiction that would hobble independent nations. In his groundbreaking 1891 essay “Nuestra América” (“Our America”) Martí called for a Latin America in which, “There is no racial hatred because there are no races. Feeble thinkers… reheat races found in bookstores (recalientan las razas de librería, in the original) which the objective traveller and the sympathetic observer seeks in vain in Nature. The soul emanates, equal and eternal, from bodies that are diverse in form and colour.” José Vasconcelos, the Minister of Education of revolutionary Mexico in the 192s, wrote an influential book entitled The Cosmic Race, in which he posited that humanism and socialism would prevail when the world’s population had intermarried to the point of becoming a single race. While my Bosnian classmate might have reason to doubt this optimism, the writings of Martí and Vasconcelos suggest that South America, Central America and Mexico, as regions where the majority of the population is the result of racial mixing that has occurred in the last five hundred years, have historical experiences that may be useful to North America and Europe in our mixed-race futures.

In Africa, it is striking that most of the anti-colonialist movements that came to power in the racially mixed terrain of southern Africa—the African National Congress in South Africa, the MPLA in Angola, FRELIMO in Mozambique, SWAPO in Namibia—made multiracialism a central plank of their political ideologies. “Down with tribalism!” Samora Machel, the first president of Mozambique, would shout in his speeches repudiating the colonial legacy. During the Obama presidency in the United States, idealists spoke of a post-racial future, yet without addressing sufficiently the persistence of race-based oppression and violence. There can be no post-racialism without an end to racialization. As José Martí understood, inequality will always reheat the races found in bookstores. The recent collective trauma of coexisting with a United States president whose dominant creed was racism may cause us to underestimate the speed with which we are advancing towards a world defined by mixing, in which most identities will be complex and mingled, and each society’s challenge will be to create sufficient opportunity for all to prevent a resurgence of race.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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