Theorizing Race in the Americas: Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos by Juliet Hooker

Hooker, Juliet. 2017. Theorizing Race in the Americas: Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos. New York: Oxford University Press. 276 pages; $42.29 hardcover.

Theorizing Race in the Americas: Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos by Juliet Hooker

Juliet Hooker’s Theorizing Race in the Americas maps an alternative intellectual genealogy of race theory by juxtaposing the writings of Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos. Her hemispheric approach dislocates these figures from the national frameworks from which they have been studied and reveals how their ideas about race were developed dialogically and in relation to the “other” America. Hooker mobilizes juxtaposition as a methodological alternative to the trappings of comparison. Comparison, she contends, frequently functions as a tool for ranking or as an additive model that ends up reinscribing the Eurocentrism of political theory. Moreover, as she states, these four thinkers often deployed comparison as a trope that enabled romanticized views or creative misreadings of the “other” America. In contrast, Hooker proposes juxtaposition “as a historical-interpretive approach” that is attentive to the geopolitics of knowledge and that aims to situate the resonances and/or discontinuities between philosophical traditions (13).

The first part, “Ambas Américas,” concentrates on Douglass’ and Sarmiento’s works during the 19th century. Chapter one frames Douglass as a thinker who developed a fugitive democratic ethos. By analyzing his contradictory position on Black emigration and US expansionism to the Caribbean and Central America, Hooker underscores the transnational dimensions of his work. The chapter clarifies that while his position on black emigration to Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Mosquito Kingdom was shaped by discourses of Anglo-Saxon superiority, it was also founded on Douglas’ vision of alternative political spaces of black self-government. Similarly, his support of Santo Domingo’s annexation after the abolition of slavery was influenced by the notion that non-white immigration had the potential to transform the US into a multiracial polity. Thus, while Sarmiento posited European immigration as a solution to caudillismo and barbarism, Douglass formulated a “cosmopolitan notion of multiracial democracy grounded on the idea of a universal human right to migration and the Americas as a multiracial space.” (51) For him, the Caribbean and Latin America functioned as alternative political models of racial egalitarianism, an interpretation of the “other” America that illustrates the shortcomings of comparison.

In Chapter two, Hooker argues that rather than framing Sarmiento as an author solely concerned with the Europeanization of Latin America, it would be more productive to read him as a thinker preoccupied with political problems in the hemisphere. That is, his “ideas about race were shaped in foundational ways by comparisons to the United States and concerns about hemispheric power relations” (108). Hooker shows that as Sarmiento turned away from Europe, the US emerged as a political model and threat. His ideas transformed from a concern with civilization and barbarism (articulated through the logic of geographical pro-determinism) in Facundo to an emphasis on democracy, republicanism, and issues of power relations between the US and Latin America. Hooker sees him as a pioneer who tried to establish a transnational dialogue between ambas Américas. However, his race ideology is unequivocally anti-indigenous. He promoted education as a panacea to racial issues and, unlike Douglass, did not see slavery as a major problem to democracy.

The second part, “Mestizo Futurisms,” juxtaposes Du Bois and Vasconcelos as thinkers who theorized racial mixture as futurity during the first half of the 20th century (at the height of the modern Eugenics movement). Rather than interpreting Du Bois as an essentialist of black identity, Hooker examines works like Darkwater, Dark Princess, and Dusk of Dawn through the lens of Afro-futurism and reads them within the context of US anti-miscegenation laws and segregation (134). Building on Lourdes Martinez-Echazábal’s conceptualization of mulatto fictions, Hooker contends that Du Bois portrayals of interracial intimacy and mixture provide us with ways to envision post-colonial futures. These works also reflect his concerns with creative forms of black internationalism. However, Du Bois’ forms of speculative mestizo futurism refuse racial amalgamation as a utopian post-racial future (135).

The last chapter traces Vasconcelos’ intellectual progression from his uncritical embracement of mestizofilia to a more radical critique of global white supremacy found in his untranslated works, such as Bolivarismo y Monroísmo. While Vasconcelos’mestizaje problematically erased colonial sexual violence and occluded Latin American racism, Hooker contextualizes his proposition as a challenge to the scientific racism of his time, which codified race-mixed peoples as inferior (155). She contends that despite all its shortcomings, The Cosmic Race is part of a Latin American intellectual tradition against US imperialism that through the practice of comparison against US racial segregation and prohibitions against miscegenation problematically positioned Latin America as a “more advanced” region. This chapter also examines how Vasconcelos’ theory has been mobilized by Chicanxs, particularly Gloria Anzaldúa. She recognizes that Anzaldúa’s queering of mestizaje offers possibilities for a mestizo futurism that challenges heteronormativity and the gender politics of mestizaje (191). However, for Hooker, Anzaldúa replicates some of the problems found in the Vasconcelian narrative of harmonious racial mixing, pointing to a necessary critique of the romanticization of indigeneity and “the racial politics of US latinidad itself” (193).

One of the most valuable aspects of this book is Hooker’s close and generative reading of sources that have not been central to the study of these authors’ oeuvre: journalistic pieces, letters, fiction and, in Vasconcelos’ case, his books that have not been translated to English. Fundamental to her analysis are the tensions, problems, and contradictions in these writers’ theorizations of race and difference as they tried to grapple with the various strands of scientific racism of their time. By juxtaposing them as hemispheric thinkers, Hooker’s work offers rich and nuanced insights into how ideologies of race informed these writers’ visions of racial democracies and their positions on US expansionism and/or immigration in the hemisphere. Her selection of texts challenges what counts as legitimate sources for complex political analysis and theory. In Theorizing Race in the Americas, these authors emerge as capacious theorists of race that continue to have relevance for those engaging in decolonial projects that do not gesture to the post-racial as a possible present nor future.


Gretel H. Vera-Rosas is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Broadly speaking, her areas of teaching and research interests include: theories of motherhood, visual studies, critical race theory, gender and queer studies, critical Latino/Latin American studies, immigration, and critical security studies.

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