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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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”.
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” is a political cartoon that first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1899, a year after the successful annexation of the Philippine islands, and is one of the many examples in which we can see how “blackness” is visually configured against the representation of the White Man. Here, America is depicted as Uncle Sam, who has the graceful ability of balancing four infant, black children - whom in turn are symbolic representations of America’s colonial subjects: Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii and the Philippines. The presence of Uncle Sam goes beyond the representation of America’s military might - when shown against his infantilised colonial subjects, depicted as black and with heavily exaggerated facial features typified of a black male, it sends an even more demeaning message that creates a justification for colonial subjugation: being represented as black and infantile immediately instils the idea of racial and social inferiority. There are many other examples of political cartoons, whether satirical or not, that configures the Filipino/a (and other American acquired colonies) as racially Black. In “School Begins” for example, “blackness” was used to create an image of America’s colonial subjects in need of the “White Man’s tutelage”; in the case for Filipino/as perceived as racially black, also points to the history of how Filipino education under colonial rule was largely based on the education provided to African Americans in the American South.
The historical narratives of the Philippine’s indigenous peoples and their presence in the country’s colonial past is pretty much an oversight in the contemporary celebration and preservation of their traditions and heritage. To the younger generations of these indigenous groups, the racial struggle of their ancestors might even be a history completely unbeknownst to them. It must be understood that racial grammar was an underlying factor that sought to demarcate and perpetuate the Filipino/as an inferior and submissive “Other”. It is therefore no surprise that the indigenous peoples of the Philippines, their way of life, manner of dress and bodily characteristics served as the perfect template to construct the Filipino/a as savage and uncivilised.
If science was a way to justify “objectivity” and “truth” via collected evidence, then it was certainly also utilised as a way to justify Philippine colonial subjugation. Evidence based on science was hardly a novel tool for colonial efforts - in the early years of Spanish Philippines, missionary accounts of the land’s natural resources, flora, fauna, the indigenous people and their way of life, accompanied with illustrations, were a requirement by the Spanish Court. These illustrations, simple as though they seem, should not be regarded at face-value (which has often been the case in the approach towards constructing a Philippine history), for the image of the native Filipino/a was configured in the eye of the coloniser, and far too often, strategically rendered to create the means for conquest. One of the most famous known to date is the Boxer Codex - a manuscript that includes the illustrations of the native peoples of the newly acquired Las Islas Filipinas and the larger expanse of Asia, Southeast Asia and the present-day Micronesia. Thus, many of the methods the Americans used to pursue their colonising agendas were an amplification of the Spanish colonial effort.
Philippines as a colonial subject was perceived slightly differently compared to America’s other colonies - its distance from the American mainland, as opposed to Cuba and Puerto Rico, and its considerably large population of non-Christian and animist ethnic groups that lived in the rural province added a bit of exotic curiosity to the country. American colonial administrator, Dean Conant Worcester, who spent a considerable amount of time in the Philippines, formulated an archive of ethnographic images of indigenous peoples. Not only did he manage to capture them with an essence of “curiosity”, his images heavily implied how the Filipino/a peoples were too backwards of a civilisation to be politically independent as a nation - hence further justifying the American colonial agenda in the guise of liberation and tutelage.
Images carry an incredible amount of influential power onto the viewer. Photography consists of captured moments suspended in time, and are carriers of visual information condensed onto single space. If you are a firm believer of the idiom “a picture says a thousand words”, it may be the case that they say a thousand words for the picture-taker as opposed to the subject it seeks to portray; thus when encountering colonial photography, one must be aware that the voice of the (colonial) subject is omitted and instead configured by the one behind the camera. Despite the criticisms that Worcester had faced from several anti-imperialist groups, his photography was still widely received by an American public who supported the colonial project. During the first half of the 20th century, world expositions had also prolifically occurred, and it is here that the static image of the Filipino/a as “historic”, savage and uncivilised was finally presented in the flesh for the American public, severely distanced from the Philippine reality, to scrutinise. The results of these historical occurrences have had some consequent effects on how many Filipino/as perceive the structure of Philippine society today and, if you are observant enough, are subconsciously perpetuated in our present attitudes, beliefs and colloquialisms.
As a last remark, let us end with David Fagen - an African American “Buffalo Soldier” deployed to the Philippines during the bloody Philippine-American war. He joined the Philippine revolutionary forces against the American imperialists and as a consequence of his treacherous act against the State, was labelled as a “deserter”. Whilst we can leave the genuine reasons why Fagen decided to commit such a treason up to historical speculation, it is believed that the Buffalo Soldier had felt some sort of akin to the Filipino/a natives subject to torture and execution by the American military. Realising that the American presence in the Philippines is no longer a means to liberate the country from the Spanish, but a territory that has been bought to take in for the State itself, Fagen’s choice to join the revolutionary army instantly becomes symbolic for both the Black and Filipino racial struggle. For the African American, it was an act against the government - against the wrongdoings that have been placed upon the Black Man in the past. For the Filipino/a, regardless of the effectiveness of the result, it was a moment in time where their struggles against violence - based on the conditions of “racial inferiority” - were deeply felt, where the slaughter of the Philippine natives was a reminder for the African American of the conditions of their own treatment back in their home country.
Whether we like it or not, histories between peoples are interconnected. Racial struggle exists in many different forms - but is still felt by communities who were once politically oppressed and racially marginalised under colonialist agendas. When it comes to understanding the historical convergence between the Black and Filipino/a identity, not many of us are aware that these relationships even exist. Filipino/as/x (however you prefer to be addressed) should care about Black History because of the structures of colonialism and formulations based on the concept of “blackness” that were utilised to construct our identities - identities that existed in the perception of the coloniser, the White Man’s gaze.
Understanding Black History matters to the Filipino/a today as our historical identity has been configured against the concept of “blackness”. Once we realise this fact, it suddenly becomes no surprise where the inherent prejudices within our own community originate, but it can also equally become a stimulation for change in the way we understand the intertwined histories and the politics of the marginalised.
Podcasts / Playlists
TV Shows / Documentaries
 Edward Colston’s memorial statue, a renowned benefactor of the city of Bristol and slave-trader, was one of the monuments that was publicly defaced and taken down from its pedestal. https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/gallery/removal-edward-colston-statue-bristol-4215124
 To understand more of Frantz Fanon’s works on the Black identity see, The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skins, White Masks.
 W.E.B Du Bois, The Soul of Black Folk, (Oxford [England]; New York : Oxford University Press, 2007).
 Rolando Sintos Coloma, “Destiny Has Thrown the Negro and the Filipino Under the Tutelage of America”: Race and Curriculum in the Age of Empire”, Curriculum Inquiry, (2009) https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-873X.2009.00454.x.
 Mark Rice, “Dean Worcester’s Photographs and American perception of the Philippines”, Education About Asia, (2011), https://fisherpub.sjfc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=amst_facpub.
 Walter Johnson, “The Largest Human Zoo in World History: Visiting the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Lapham’s Quarterly, 2020, https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/largest-human-zoo-world-history.
 “African American Internationalism and Solidarity with the Philippine Revolution”, Socialism and Democracy Online, (2011), http://sdonline.org/53/african-american-internationalism-and-solidarity-with-the-philippine-revolution/.