Salaysay Series: short essays exploring narratives in Philippine art, history, identity and cultural heritage.
For the first Salaysay Series post, and in commemoration of Black History Month (UK) and National Indigenous People’s Month (PH), Jessica Manuel explores the idea of how the Filipino/a identity was constructed on the concept of “blackness”. At the end of the essay are also resources shared by the committee, on how they better understood the Black community and their history.
Why Filipino/as/x should care about Black History: writings on “blackness” and constructing the Filipino/a identity
“In the colonies the truth stood naked, but the citizens of the mother country preferred it with clothes on: the native had to love them, something in the way mothers are loved.”
- Jean Paul Sartre, Preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
Dean Conant Worcester’s caption: “Three Negrito women with Winthrop, Leroy and Dr. Kneedler", 1901. Location: Bataan. Src: MIT, Visualising Cultures
In June 2020, the sudden death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, was captured on video and instantaneously disseminated across social media. The video, consisting of the uneasy sight of Floyd apprehended and held down by the neck by officer Chauvin’s knee, had stimulated an equally rapid uprising of riots and Black Lives Matter protests across the US and the rest of the world. Specifically in many parts across the UK, the mass awareness of anti-black racism had initiated unauthorised mass removals of 18th to 19th century commemorative statues, most of which were representing white-male figures with direct ties to colonial slavery. And whilst the death of Floyd and of other African Americans who followed a similar fate remains fresh in the memories of those who are not only close to them, but by many across the Black diaspora, here in the UK, the month of October is dedicated to the celebration of Black History - a month that commemorates the cultural achievements and contributions of individuals and communities who hail from African and Caribbean descent. In the Philippines, October is also officially proclaimed by Presidential decree as National Indigenous People’s Month, upon which the rights of indigenous peoples are highlighted and the preservation of indigenous communities and their traditions are advocated.
Although these two commemorative events, celebrated by two different groups of people, appear to be in no relation to each other, both these moments of remembrance and solidarity for the rights of the marginalized and oppressed, should be taken as an opportunity to educate others about the lesser known relationships between Black and Filipino histories. This is not to assume however, that Black and Filipino experiences are interchangeable with each other. Instead, it sheds light on the fact that the racial struggles of oppressed, former colonial subjects have manifested in different forms of serfdom, violence and social stratification based on the grounds of race throughout the course of history.
Re-visiting Fanon and Du Bois: the "nature of being black”
It is also important to understand that our generation lives an age where information is easily accessible and obscure historical narratives are no longer omitted from mainstream social consciousness. The postcolonial/decolonial examination of diaspora communities and subaltern cultures indicate that marginal identities continuously merge and collide, resulting in experiences and historical memory to be shared between peoples. Unfortunately, for many, ignorance is bliss, and at times a lack of empathy for each other’s racial struggle, or rather a lack of understanding, means that the interconnectedness of diasporic experiences are often forgotten.
To understand modern Black history, it’s useful to be well read about the Black writers who inspired the Negritude movement:
(left) Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist, modern philosopher and writer from French Martinique (right) W. E. B. Du Bois, American sociologist, civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist.
But given that this information is available to us - we can identify this interconnectedness. It provides us with an opportunity to be able to make comparisons between obscure narratives between peoples, and in this particular case, about Black and Filipino identities and their respective histories. Such comparisons consequently reveal that the Black and Filipino identity were both predicated on a concept of “blackness” informed by the White Man’s gaze - a concept borrowed from Frantz Fanon, one of the great Black writers of 20th century philosophy, whose breadth of works have been largely influential across a generation of Black activist movements and emerging postcolonial nation states throughout the 20th century. To Fanon “blackness” is synonymous with the “nature of being black” within a colonised and civilised society; as a consequence, inferiority is imposed on the Black Man only when made in relation to the White Man. Prior to Fanon, the “Colour Line” was an age old problem explored by yet another hailed Black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois; whilst it was originally a term used to describe the racial segregation that perpetuated throughout the United States’ post-abolition of slavery, Du Bois also re-imagines it in the reality of America’s civilising mission, stating it in his book, The Soul of Black Folk (1903), as the “relation of the darker to lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea”.
Configuring identities: Filipino/as as racially black and in need of the White Man’s tutelage
It is the very same concept of “blackness” and the demarcation of the “Colour Line” explored by Fanon and Du Bois, that are not just limited to understanding the Black identity, but are both equally useful when apprehending the historical configuration of the Filipino/a identity. The reality of America’s imperialist endeavours in the Philippines reveals that racist systemic structures formerly put in place by the European (Spanish) coloniser were perpetuated, if not severely amplified, for the purpose of political, territorial and economic gain. Hence, in order to justify the American colonial effort, “blackness” was used to configure, via word and image, the Filipino/a identity.
“Holding His End Up”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1899.
Naked and savage: The European coloniser often perceived “nakedness” as a sign of being “uncivilised”.