The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatán

Posted in Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Monographs on 2012-12-24 03:39Z by Steven

The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatán

Stanford University Press
456 pages
39 tables, 4 figures, 13 illustrations, 11 maps.
Cloth ISBN: 9780804749831

Matthew Restall, Professor of Latin American History and Director of Latin American Studies
Pennsylvania State University

The Black Middle is the first full-length study of black African slaves and other people of African descent in the Spanish colonial province of Yucatán, which is today part of southern Mexico. The study is based on Spanish and Maya-language documents from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, found in a dozen different archives (mostly in Spain and Mexico). Restall’s goal is to discover what life was like for a people hitherto ignored by historians. He explores such topics as slavery and freedom, militia service and family life, bigamy and witchcraft, and the ways in which Afro-Yucatecáns (as he dubs them) interacted with Mayas and Spaniards. He concludes that in numerous ways, Afro-Yucatecans lived and worked in a middle space between—but closely connected to—Mayas and Spaniards. The book’s “black middle” thesis has profound implications for the study of Africans throughout the Americas.

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The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatán (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico on 2012-12-19 23:05Z by Steven

The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatán (review)

Enterprise & Society
Volume 13, Number 4, December 2012
pages 932-934

Jeremy Baskes, Professor of History
Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio

Visitors to modern day Yucatán encounter a region rich in indigenous culture; guidebooks extol the grandeur of ancient Maya kingdoms whose ruins still dot the countryside; local populations converse in Maya dialects, proof of Maya cultural survival, despite the centuries of conflict that began with the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors. As Matthew Restall shows in his book, however, these images entirely overlook the tremendous role played by people of African descent, who participated in the initial conquest and settlement of the peninsula and then represented a sizeable percentage of its population throughout the colonial era. Indeed, the number of Afro-Yucatecans equaled the combined total of Spaniards and mestizos throughout the centuries, and by 1700 represented about 10 percent of Yucatan’s total population.

Involuntary African migrants arrived to Yucatán from the colony’s beginning, but the region’s poverty precluded the use of wide-scale African slavery. As a result, slaves were few in number and greatly exceeded by free Afro-Yucatecáns. Furthermore, Mayas did the unskilled labor, often managed by the Afro-Yucatecán populations, both free and slave, one example of the “middle” role played by the colony’s “blacks.”

One of Restall’s central theses is that Yucatán was not a slave society but was a society with slaves, an all-important factor distinguishing the lives of Afro-Yucatecáns from, for example, the lives of blacks in the slave society of the American south. Restall goes to great lengths to argue that there existed no coherent ideology of racism in Yucatán, rather slaves were viewed as individuals, known by their names, welcomed into Catholic society, integrated into urban occupations, and allowed to marry and have children. Indeed, Restall shows that the line between slave and free was a narrow one, as slaveowners largely treated slaves no differently than they did free people of color, viewing them more as status symbols than labor to exploit. Emancipation in 1829 was not particularly controversial in Yucatán; slaves had long enjoyed high rates of manumission and were anyway greatly outnumbered by free Afro-Yucatecáns.

Afro-Yucatecáns were stationed solidly in the “middle” of the society, working for Spaniards as managers in rural and urban enterprises, and even becoming owners of middling level businesses, such as silversmiths, barbers, tailors, and shoemakers, often times after having first served as apprentices to Spaniards. Moving from apprentice to owner demonstrates Afro-Yucatecán social mobility, a process also often achieved in Yucatán by service in the Pardo militia. Afro-Yucatecán companies defended the colony from pirates and enemy naval attacks, earning prestige and income at the same time. In many ways, Restall shows that blacks were in the middle between Spaniards and Mayas.

Yucatecáns of African descent also lived in rural areas, especially in the “dome” of Yucatán, northwest of Campeche, a region Restall calls “the colored crescent.” In the countryside, Afro-Yucatecáns never formed their own segregated communities, but lived among the Mayas, growing corn and beans on milpas (small plots), becoming fully integrated into village life, marrying Maya spouses, and raising Maya-speaking, Afro-Maya children.

Miscegenation was constant and prevalent throughout the colony; mulattoes far out-numbered blacks, for example. Restall examines extensively the perception in Yucatán of mixed-race “castas,” concluding that casta categorization was largely ambiguous. An individual classified as mulatto at baptism might later be referred to as mestizo. In any event, such classifications were not too important since “calidad” (meaning, roughly, status) was determined by a host of traits with race being only one. Prejudice existed, Restall admits, but tended to be directed at individuals whose behavior was deemed dishonorable rather than at any ethnic group as a whole.

A fascinating section, albeit one less well integrated into the book, examines witchcraft, especially healing and love magic. Interestingly, Restall finds that Afro-Yucatecáns were no more likely to be accused of black magic than Spaniards. This revelation is important for several…

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Black Mexico: Race and Society from Colonial to Modern Times

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Mexico, Slavery, Social Science on 2011-12-05 00:14Z by Steven

Black Mexico: Race and Society from Colonial to Modern Times

University of New Mexico Press
296 pages
6 x 9 in, 21 halftones, 4 maps
paperback ISBN: 978-0-8263-4701-5

Edited by:

Ben Vinson III, Professor of history and Director of the Center for Africana Studies
Johns Hopkins University

Matthew Restall, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Director of Latin American Studies
Pennsylvania State University

The essays in this collection build upon a series of conversations and papers that resulted from “New Directions in North American Scholarship on Afro-Mexico,” a symposium conducted at Pennsylvania State University in 2004. The issues addressed include contested historiography, social and economic contributions of Afro-Mexicans, social construction of race and ethnic identity, forms of agency and resistance, and contemporary inquiry into ethnographic work on Afro-Mexican communities. Comprised of a core set of chapters that examine the colonial period and a shorter epilogue addressing the modern era, this volume allows the reader to explore ideas of racial representation from the sixteenth century into the twenty-first.


Joan Bristol, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia
Patrick Carroll, Texas A & M University, Corpus Christi
Andrew B. Fisher, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota
Nicole von Germeten, Oregon State University, Corvallis
Laura A. Lewis, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Jean-Philibert Mobwa Mobwa N’djoli, Congolese native living in Mexico City
Frank “Trey” Proctor III, Denison University, Granville, Ohio
Alva Moore Stevenson, University of California, Los Angeles
Bobby Vaughn, Notre Dame de Namur University, Belmont, California

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