Amara, Cardi and Black Dominicanidad in the United States

In January of 2018, both Amara la Negra and Cardi B.’s names have been buzzing on social media for different reasons. The experiences of these two women, who identify racially as Black and ethnically as Dominican, serve to illustrate the subtle, nuanced complexities of race in the 21st century and in a transnational context.

 Amara La Negra by  Ojos Nebulosos  (2017)

Amara La Negra by Ojos Nebulosos (2017)

Amara was featured in a recent clip from Love and Hip Hop Miami where she is seen debating a music producer about her experience and identity as a person who’s of the African diaspora.[1] The internet supported Amara for claiming her blackness proudly in front of an overtly sexist white Latino man. Overnight, social media was ablaze with Amara fever, and it became clear that people had a lot to say about her appearance. She was accused of wearing blackface, accusations that centered around her hair and her skin tone.

Cardi B. released a 90s hip hop inspired video with Bruno Mars, an artist at the center of concerns about the appropriation of African American culture. In a recent article on the issue, a writer cited her as garnering the kind of success that lighter skinned Black women are afforded to the detriment of darker skinned black women.

On the one hand, Amara has been questioned for appearing “too dark” and wearing “fake” hair. On the other, Cardi B. has been challenged for being too light vis-à-vis her African American peers in the music industry.

Accusations of this sort against Amara have floated around as rumors for years. And It is important to question the structure of privilege that will place both Cardi B. and Bruno Mars into positions of prominence, garnering success in relation to their darker skinned African American and Afro-Latinx peers. However, while the answer to addressing colorism is clear to me (consistently dedicate resources to the dark skinned, working class women who are systematically denied access), the path that I want to travel veers off these two lines and addresses what we understand “blackness” to be. Ultimately, we cannot stray far off the mark of colorism’s hierarchies because it continues to structure the ways that resources are allocated and lives organized. However, I’m allowing myself space to make other points in order to better understand Cardi B. and Amara’s positionalities as Dominican women living in the transnational context of the D.R.-U.S. relationship.

The thoughts and the questions that rise up in me when considering the recent public conversation about these artists are: “What are the aspects that construct the contemporary experience of blackness in the Americas?” and “What would it mean to center Amara and Cardi’s Dominicanidad in conversations about their racial authenticity in relationship to their African American peers?”

When talking and thinking about race, one of the most elusive concepts, multiple realities must be balanced. Skin color, hair texture and other physical features mark difference that gets framed as “racial” Given that anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity pervade the modern world, across nations and spaces, these factors will significantly (and differently) impact life outcomes of Black and Indigenous peoples. Within Black diaspora communities, class status, practices (everything from aesthetic practices like art, music and dance to healing practices) and the network of relationships and shared values that Black people develop in response to historical circumstances and imposed structures (like structural racism) and as a result of contact with each other work alongside these markers of difference to create the social contexts where “race” is understood and experienced. Prominent among the structures that craft Black experiences are racism and colorism, which work alongside classism, misogyny and other structures of privilege to pattern experience.

For Dominicans like Cardi B. and Amara who live between the racial system of Latin America and the U.S., status, practices and relationships have become significant, alongside physical features, in defining a racial identity. I say practices, thinking of the ways that styles of clothing, ways of speaking and embodying “Blackness” have become key markers of how we understand “Blackness.” Contact refers to the ways that extended contact between, for example, African American and Dominican people in Cardi B’s New York City, has precipitated new identities for young Dominicans like her that have yet to be unpacked (but that I’ll explore here). Relationship is another significant aspect that aligns the two factors mentioned: How we understand our own racial identity is never an individual experience. Instead, we form politicized visions of our racial identity when we learn from and with others who also endure racism’s effects. Or who perpetuate them. Contract, Relationships and Practices lean upon each other: The practices that make up racial identity are deeply tied to the relationships we have to the people in our circles. At the same time, racism, shapes whom we can actually be in close relationship with due to unaddressed housing segregation and classism in the U.S.

 Cardi B in Bodak Yellow

Cardi B in Bodak Yellow

Put simply, Cardi B.’s blackness is a unique combination of two things: First, her experience as a low-income, lighter skinned Dominican woman in countries highly invested in colorism. Second, her experience in proximity to African Americans, experiences which I suggest have crafted a unique way of being afro-descendant and Dominican that are different from being African American and different from being Black Dominican in the D.R. Yet the two are deeply intertwined.

The first factor means that contending with her light skinned privilege is fully part of her experience as a black person, as it should be for all people of African descent in the Americas who have mixed heritages. In other words, contending with her whiteness vis-à-vis her blackness are also part of the work of Cardi B’s (and by extension all Dominican Americans) afro-descendant should be experiencing. Such contention comes with an acknowledgement of the whitening privilege of our practices: Our abilities to speak English, our U.S. passport and the fact that Dominicanyorks can pay in dollars when we travel to the D.R. It also means not erasing indigeneity in the desire to claim blackness, while being wary of the way the Dominican state has systematically used indigeneity to erase blackness. This, in sum, is a fine balancing act.

The second points to the fact that an entire generation of Dominican-Americans like Belcalys has grown up in the urban communities of New York. Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. While tensions remained when African American, Puerto Rican and Dominicans kids mingled, Dominican youth largely adapted to the environment in which they were being raised, adopting hip hop culture and mixing and mingling it with their own regueatton, dembow and more recently “Spanish Trap.” Dominicanyork culture flourished from this proximity to African American peers, and while it’s largely been male-dominated and represented, Cardi B. is the closest thing to its female example for a mass popular audience. To be Dominicanyork means to hold the privileges of gringolandia (English, passport, dollars) yet to also be considered criminal and less legitimate by being associated to African- Americans. This is all happening while more traditional Dominicans continue to systematically deny Afro-Dominicans and Dominican Haitians the right to life, to their cultural practices and heritages.

 Amara La Negra by  Ojos Nebulosos  (2017)

Amara La Negra by Ojos Nebulosos (2017)

Afro-Dominican. Dominicanyork. African-American. Here are multiple ways to be an afro-descendant person in the worlds that Cardi B and Amara move through. And yet the conversation is not focused on these blended identities, how complex and interesting they are. Instead, the conversation about Cardi B revolved around “beef” between her and her African American peers.

By the contemporary conversations, one might think that the relationships between Dominicans and African Americans have always been problematic. Yet the connections are much deeper than most people can understand. As the historian Anne Eller found, in the early 19 th century, as Haiti and the D.R. were the only free black and mulatto Republics in the Western Hemisphere, African Americans regularly fled to the Dominican Republic to establish communities away from U.S. racism. When the U.S. Marines invaded the Dominican Republic, they installed a system of brutal Jim Crow law, much like African Americans experienced in the United States. If the U.S. African American community was a nation, its closest neighbors would be the people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

While the freedom dreams from the 19 th century Caribbean and the forms of resistance to Jim Crow Dominicans enacted have largely been extinguished by a brutal regime of state-sponsored white supremacy and anti-blackness in the 20 th century, today’s debates about Cardi B and Amara’s blackness in relation to their Dominicanidad and to their standing vis-a- vis African Americans would lead us to believe that the places where these two artists come from, and the places where they have been able to establish success, are less related than they actually are. The Black people of the U.S. and those of the D.R. have historically been in relationship in ways that we are just now beginning to understand, with the discovery that the first free black person from the island of Hispaniola, Jan Rodriguez, arrived in New York City in the 1600s and a black Dominican man flew as a Tuskegee Airman.

Women in the D.R. are actively imagining and practicing a world where their blacknessis not questioned as an entry point into their Dominicanidad by wearing their hair natural. In the U.S., they’re forging selves between their Dominicanness, their relative blackness, indigeneity and whiteness, and their status living in an anti-black, anti- immigrant country. Amara lives within this transnational context, a context hardly acknowledged as she emerged in English-language media over the past few weeks. When Amara first burst onto the scene with her single “Ay” in 2012, Amara’s blackness was simply not legible as signs of gendered empowerment. Some have speculated that if Amara had not rocked her Afro-Latina heritage, which in her case really is her Dominicanidad, the conversations about her body would not have been nearly as pronounced.

 

"Women in the D.R. are actively imagining and practicing a world where their blackness is not questioned as an entry point into their Dominicanidad."

 

The debates about Amara’s body, the authenticity of her hair and skin tone are futile and disrespectful. They obscure the symbols of a blackness in her aesthetic that are also incredibly, inherently Dominican and Caribbean. Watching Amara’s body of work without centering on her physical body exclusively brings into view a complex performance. Amara uses the stereotypes associated with Black women in the Americas: Mammie/domestic help and oversexualized Jezebel. She does this frequently and has established herself as an artist through this practice. With, through and despite this, the elements of her videos make quintessential reference to Dominican blackness: Looking closely, her first single contains a gaga band and carnival diablos cojuelos, both symbols of (safe) carnivalesque blackness in the Spanish Caribbean. She regularly mocks Dominican white womanhood, claiming “Te afecto bonita” in the equivalent of a Dominican valley girl accent in “Asi” and sleeping with the male partner of a lighter skinned Dominican woman in “Se Que Soy.” How Amara and her team play with the signs of Dominican and Caribbean blackness in their videos is much more interesting than wondering whether her hair is real or not. How these aspects of her aesthetic will remain visible in her move towards mainstream Latinx commercial success in the U.S. will be interesting to move the conversation on Dominicanidad and blackness to a new space.

Amara and Cardi B. remain interesting to me as a Afro-descendant Dominican immigrant woman because I understand that both are highly dangerous for the investment in whiteness and class-status that has shaped my country of origin. Despite all the ways that celebrities, and pop culture in general, can be “problematic,” Cardi B.’s rise to fame, her chapiadora aesthetics and her hood feminism is a complete threat to the status quo in the D.R. that has consistently pushed people like her and her family to the margins. Watching Amara be taken up my mainstream U.S. society has similarly brought feelings of joy and curiosity in me, as I see a new model for representing Blackness and Dominicanidad becoming more mainstream, one that is not as depoliticized as someone like Zoe Saldaña, who held that space in popular culture until recently.

 Cardi B at the BET Awards

Cardi B at the BET Awards

My excitement, as with anything, is always marked by my awareness that we should not hinge our hopes for black liberation on Cardi B. or Amara (nor on Beyoncé, Jay Z or Oprah, or…). In contemporary circles of Afro-Latinidad, social justice and “wokeness,” there's a lot of pressure to perform the mirage of a perfect “woke” figure. The claims to this reality are made complex by the fact that our pop culture figures often serve as scapegoats for a broader audience that, due to the way that media consumption has replaced deepened interactions, uses these figures and their struggles to keep us from doing our own complex work and being our own inspiring figures challenging anti-  blackness in all its forms.

In a year that has brought us deeply regressive policies and a near return to pre-Civil Rights United States, we are looking for sheroes like Cardi B and Amara to cheer on and ride hard for. The general comments about both “cultural appropriation” and “Blackface” that inspired me to write this article are indicative of a desire for authenticity that betrays a greater anxiety and need to protect a blackness that is deeply under siege. Policing the bounds of this blackness in U.S. pop culture means resorting to forms of gatekeeping that keep us from understanding the systemic forms of resource inequality that keep the people who create the cultural material in question—working class people of African descent who claim connections to the U.S. mainland or the Latin American region—from living dignified lives. Questioning appropriation by centering on the assumed perpetrators while refraining ourselves from asking “Whose culture counts as Black culture? Why is black culture being treated as a limited resource? Who instituted such thinking in the first place?” fails to move the conversation in the direction of equity.

 


[1] I refrain from using the terms Afro-Latinx because it is a broad categorical term that does not allow us to get into the specificity of the experiences of individuals, specificities which are often connected to specific local histories and national trajectories. The term Afro-Latinx, moreover, deserves further unpacking for its origins. For now, it serves to say that both Amara and Cardi B. are women who live with the effects of the forms of systemic racism and lack of imagination that have plagued the world for centuries, though they live with these effects very differently due to the intersections of their class, location, nationality privileges, etc.