“Some of you might be familiar with the joke about Dominicans as those black people who don’t know or think they’re black,” Ramírez said to a group of Fordham students and staff in Lowenstein’s South Lounge. “My book Colonial Phantoms shows both why this has come to be and why there’s a problem that it’s the primary way in which Dominicans are discussed in various conversations with the U.S., the Caribbean, and beyond.”
Her talk, which took place during National Hispanic Heritage Month, was part of a Fordham lecture series about Hispanic Caribbean women writers who examine the intersection of race, gender, and imperialism in their work. The series is sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences; the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures; the Center on Race, Law, and Justice; the department of African and African American studies; the Latin American and Latinx Studies Institute; and the Comparative Literature program.
In a presentation that mixed music with academia, Ramírez spoke about her award-winning book, Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the 19th Century to the Present, published by New York University Press last year. The book details how decades of literature, music, and speech show Dominicans’ ambivalent relationship toward blackness, thanks to its unique racial history: Unlike many nations in the Americas and the Western World, the Dominican Republic, for centuries, had a majority mixed-race and black population that was free. For years, Dominicans have tried to distinguish themselves from the New World narratives that have “ghosted, misunderstood, or acknowledged them only as inferior others” through creative outlets, she said.
One example is the music video “El Tigeraso” by Maluca Mala, an Afro-Dominican artist born and raised in New York City. The song opens with Maluca Mala sitting in “a quintessential Dominican site—the hair salon,” said Ramírez. To many U.S. scholars, her decision to go to a salon to straighten her hair represents a Dominican’s denial of his or her blackness, said Ramírez. But when Maluca Mala leaves the salon, she keeps the rollers in her hair. In other words, she demonstrates “an ambivalent kind of black performance that is neither outright denial [of blackness] nor the kind of celebration we expect in the U.S.”
“She is neither wholeheartedly embracing Dominican women’s hair-straightening practices, rooted of course in the racist notion that black hair is bad, nor is she rejecting the practice of going to the salon by wearing her hair in natural curls. Instead, she stops the process midway,” Ramírez explained. “Her embrace of the rollers is a complicated embodiment of both African diasporic and diasporic Dominican subjectivity.”
In a Q&A session, Ramírez spoke about what motivated her to study the relationship between race and Dominicans.
“It might seem like the obvious answer is because I’m Dominican. But actually, my major in college was Japanese literature,” she said, to laughter from the audience. She was born in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, and raised in the Bronx. But it wasn’t until graduate school that she became fascinated by the history of her homeland and the Caribbean.
Sitting in the audience was Yuko Miki, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Fordham, a fellow Brown alumna who studies Brazilian history.
“I’m a historian of slavery, too,” Miki said to Ramírez. “How do you talk about blackness in the D.R. without imposing U.S. or even Haitian categories of blackness onto it?”
Ramírez urged her to feature different narratives of race, especially the ones that are often left in the dark: “The narrative of Dominicans as white nationalists and anti-black is the louder story. So kind of turning down the volume to hear the other stories, which include various forms of black pride,” Ramírez said.
A student in the audience asked Ramírez a more personal question: how can a person navigate their racial identity, especially for those from a country that experienced colonization.
“A question that I’ve asked myself my whole life—and also that I know a lot of other people ask—is with this type of history, how can we come to remedy or just find our own narratives and ways of identification?” the student asked.
Ramírez struggled to address the question. Ultimately, it was the student’s responsibility to find the answer—not another person’s, Ramírez implied.
“Maybe that’s the answer—that I’m writing against this idea that people with certain backgrounds whose ancestry has been subject to so many layered colonialisms, that … we are given some room to work through those histories without impositions—especially from different spaces of power—in how we define ourselves,” Ramírez said.