Tracie Morris
Hemispheric Institute
3rd Annual Encuentro Lima, Peru
Seminar Course Project


Journal Essay: The Route of One African - American Encounter


The following text is constructed as a journal of my trip to Peru with the Hemispheric Institute and how it triggered ideas about race and culture that I recalled and experienced. It is divided into entry sections that utilize poetic and prosaic language. I refer to other notions that came to mind during my experiences, hence the footnotes. As I realize that the context for some of these ideas may be unfamiliar to others, I've included accessible web articles for further information.

The pictures attached were taken by me, or under my instruction, unless indicated.

To view images click here

Preface: Itinerary
The hyphen, visually, is an arrow. One of those "greater than/less than" symbols from elementary school math, the best way to remember what it means is to infer that it alludes to movement that it refers to something going somewhere. My hyphenation, African - American, has jettisoned between two continents, North America and Africa. The path is demarcated by connect-the-dots: Brooklyn, D.C., Atlanta, Savannah, Johannesburg, Accra, Dakar, Casablanca. That these journeys are voluntary is ironic considering the circumstances that gave me that name. Every trip is "on purpose", in the passenger seat instead of the cargo hold.

But sometimes that purpose is just as abstract as these things we play with, words. The places represent ideas, the "frontmen" of a long-playing show. Words are arrows, getting at the heart of the matter. But the space between the abstract and the real, the beating heart, the breathing, is where to live, where the air is. The gap between the bow, arrow and target is yet another space to live.

Living in these dash dot dash Morse code places, in geography, and our abstraction of it, is real. And so, there is Africa, there is America and there is the Americas." America with qualifications: not (real) America, "Latin America" (not to mention a space that doesn't even get the adjectified designation, "The Caribbean.") The separation between the two monikers is that gap between the hyphens and the names, the noun punctuated by noun. The theoretical is in the place names; the concrete is the route.

First, Go Back
The first time I had been in South America, I may as well have been in Harlem. "The City," Sao Paolo, as gray and big as midtown Manhattan with almost as many Dunkin' Doughnuts, Burger Kings (foods you do business with). Attending PUC (pronounced "Pooky") there, sitting in a room very much like 636, was uneventful but for what surrounded it: favelas and folks looking like me - or at least the me then, with the pre-dread natural, conspicuously "mulata," according to them, the southerners of Brazil. The one-drop rule1 meets spectral light analysis, the prism of DNA. If one saw who passed for "white" there, it makes sense. (I mean, someone has to be, right?) Then a flashback to collard greens and James Brown like the light that boots up on a modem: automatically prompting memory. I was amused by the query. Watch me. 2

Just like New York City, the further uptown you go, the Blacker it gets. I thought Rio was colored until I got to Bahia. And there, who cares? It's as Chocolate City as DC. If I didn't open my mouth, with that hair and face… well, they paid me no mind on the bus, I can say. 4

So, I knew there were some '"afros" in the house' down South, either in America or the Americas. But on this trip, I was trippin'. First and foremost on the "Indians."

The Idea of Ancestry 5
I did not got to Peru looking for my Grandmother, who had been buried two months shy of a dozen years ago. But there she was, in Lima, Paucatambo and Cusco. And if I'm considered "mulata" where Black people are in the minority, then what was she? The same color brown as the man who sold me flowers for my hat. Her hair braided the same way as the woman who sold me the hat. Her body the shape of the woman selling candy in Paucatambo (see photo #1). But my Grandma was from Waycross, Georgia, as distant from Peru and New York as it sounds, and due to genetic roulette, looking like only one side of her family. The side that favors me - and her husband - was a clear to her as a southern belle. In rural Georgia, back in the day, cute or not, pigeon-toed or no, wavy hair in "Indian braids" or Afro-cornrow, you were with us or you were kin to the Klan.6 Grandma moved north before the crucifixes could flare, and wasn't here that long before crossing paths with my dapper Grandpa (photo #2), resulting in my mother, then me.

What a sensation she was: not unheard of, but certainly a standout in Black Brooklyn, a.k.a. Bed Stuy. And I thought of her for that reason too, in the mountains of Peru. My hair, like hers, so long and unusual, it even stopped the two most unfazed of groupings, beauticians and children. How many times was she/I asked: "is it real? Is it yours? (Is it magic?) DNA double helix-head, in Spanish people are asking: "What's a dred?"

Stir it Up 7
I'm hoping it's just my hairstyle that's unique. Before we leave Lima there's a party at Susana Baca's 8 , a fire and a buffet, a feast. Her presence complicating the indio/blanco divisions we've been spoon-fed. ('Tiene Tumbao.')9 I would have danced with her longer if I known she'd be the only Afro-Peruviana I'd meet - in the flesh (pictures #3,4,5).

El Monte 10
Everybody knows mountains have secrets. This is the opposite of the ones we're familiar with: quilombos, maroon societies, hideaways along the Underground Railroad.11 In Paucatambo, lie the ghosts of things past. During the procession, of La Virgen de Carmen, there is a group, Quapaq Negro, which carries the giant resplendent statue. They represent Africans during slavery times who had to carry it as part of the manual labor. The job became so prestigious, that after slavery ended they continued to carry her. Now we have are the vestiges of their likeness, with chains, opening the ceremonies and lifting the Virgin, performing as dancers in formation in the cabildo. Because of the honor, the bourgeoisie are the only ones who get to wear blackface. I wonder if the prestige has anything to do with the absence of Black people in the town. Just goes to show what Maya Deren12 knew all along: one person's surrealism is another person's "old school." (See picture #6)

One thing the mask didn't cover was hair. And so, while the face wasn't news, with locks I became the tourist that was the tourist attraction: little kids behind me sneaking a tug, women asking if its real in that universally informed way we have of assessing coiffures. It was our close proximity, in the mountains, pushed together to make room for the masked performers, drawn together by wares offered and taken, that created the intimacy of a beauty shop, or a home where hair is braided: one sitting on the chair, the other at the knee.

It is this. A "touching" moment. I come to meet the rest of this hemisphere and meet my Grandmother's people. I visit as the ambassador of the world's first strand of hair. A curlicue wrapped around and indiocita's hand like a tilde, like the tail of the Qetchuan "Qs" before Columbus' misspellings. To play with words, you must be in the game and so I made better friends with whom I shared treasures. He had my grandma's kind of hair (see pictures 8A & 8B). How close can you get (picture 8C)?

Clearing Air
The best air is in the mountains, which is why you must go there for stones. The Incas knew this. The porous nature is the best of things: what you can feel as well as the invisible. The belly, which a mountain is, reveals things in a rumble. In Cusco the stones that breathe this air are shaped like a Puma. The cat waits with tight paws and clenched feet. The composition of the wall is flush because of its shaved fur, now the hair of the mountain is grass. I stay close to our tour guide, Ana because of the affection with which she touches the walls. She says the culture is pristine, but people have a way of getting together with things like time, space and race being minor details, especially if it looks like a good idea (see picture 2).

Sometimes what's a good idea for some, is a bad idea for others. Like when the mortarless buildings began to crumble. A mountain is nothing compared to a man with a gun and bad intentions. I asked Ana if she felt angry describing how the Spaniards ruined the mountains, the Puma, the people. She was cool. I'm thinking how did the invaders have time to ruin their lives and ours too?

In Machu Picchu the air was too thin for the thin-skinned. And it became clear to me in that crisp air how folks get put under mountains: one dropped rock at a time. I felt stuck in those isolated mountainous places watching people eat the dead. When the Sun and ancestry got to hot, today's lucky few run to their standbys: "Didn't you do sacrifice?" Yikes! No iced cappuccino lattes?" "Chop, chop, speed it up and get my bags, man!" The lack of civility is the tip of the frozen heart. The notion of superiority imbedded in a nation creates the notion of the ancients being born to serve. The sarcasm of the privileged class is the residue of the smoking gun.

I had to remove myself from the sucio de asociacion. All I could think of was "this was way too 'southern' for me.

Machu Picchu is there because the Spanish didn't find it. And therefore, couldn't build a cathedral on top of the buildings and roll the stones down hill. Up in the overwhelming air, the delicate breath plays on the grass. It is on the sunny side and the moon's side too. The sun is playing with me as the oxygen drops away. I lay down and accept its rays.

Alone, for a time, cradled by the mountain, Machu Picchu, the place of the women, the temple of the moon nearby , A mother's embrace feels somehow right, even if you're not born to her. Is one ever alone is a sacred place? If the Gods have, indeed left, (and who's to say they have?) the dead are still here. they're snuggling under rocks, waiting for some to leave, maybe wonder who this not-quite-stranger is. Being there with Ana, one of their children, (see picture #10) I felt embraced by this hemisphere, attached to the relatives of my Grandmother's dead.
Web Bibliography
(Re: "one drop rule")
(Re: racial divisions in Brazil)
(Re: the Ku Klux Klan)
(Re: Celia Cruz' "La Negra Tiene Tumbao")
(Additional biographical information on Celia Cruz)
(Re: Susana Baca) the Underground Railroad, quilombos and Maroon Societies)
(Re: Maya Deren)

1. This refers to a code applied during slavery times, and after in the United States regarding racial codes. You were considered Black if you had "one drop" of Black blood, even if the African ancestor is one out 32 of the person's lineage.
A non-sequitor, improvisational phrase often used by James Brown.
"Chocolate City" is a euphemism for Washington, DC, developed in the 1970s and referred to in the band Parliament/Funkadelic's song of the same title. The title refers to the city's overwhelming Black population in the US Capitol.
And why should they? The racial demarcations seemed to be less stringent in areas where blacks were the majority. For more comments on Brazil's racial hierarchy and policies see article in web bibliography.
Borrowed from the title of the same name by the poet Etheridge Knight. From the book, "The Essential Etheridge Knight" by Etheridge Knight, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986
Refers to the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group that emerged in the southern United States after slavery.
reference to a Bob Marley song by that title
The famous Afro-Peruvian singer. She had a party and concert at her home near Lima for participants of the Hemispheric Institute on July 13 2002.
Ref. to Afro-Cuban singer Celia Cruz' current hit, "La Negra Tiene Tumbao."
Borrowed from the title of a book f the same by Lydia Cabrera about African religious retention in Cuba. Ediciones Universal;; Reprint edition August 8, 1995
Reference to slave resistance in the Americas. Underground railroad is the term used for the secret paths and 'safe houses' the enslaved used to escape the part of the US south where formal slavery was in effect 9below the Mason/Dixon line). The other references are to those of societies of escaped slaves in other countries in the Caribbean and Brazil.
Experimental filmmaker. She did an important film on African religions in Haiti: Divine Horseman: Living Gods of Haiti
Referring to the southern US where segregation and racist attitudes, still exist in obvious ways. This comment is, of course, not limited to the southern US, but that is where slavery and segregation were most overtly displayed. My point here was not that I was segregated but that elitist attitudes contribute to the same problematic environment which enables racist presumptions whether it be of African-Americans or of Indigenous "Americans" past and present.
Ana Zamalloa, our tour guide, told us that recent research indicates that Machu Picchu was primarily a women's settlement. The majority of the graves contained women's remains as well as some men and children. It is considered to be one of the refuges or vacation homes for the King. The women were