On Behalf of Our Continuum
What informs the poetry of Bonafide Rojas?
If we pay attention only to his Now, our range of measurement would go no further than to place his work within the context of immediate trends. Hip Hop. Rap. Spoken Word. Graffiti Art. But these phenomena did not come upon the earth self-created. There’s the historic implication here that cannot be missed or dismissed. A continuum to which he and those immediate trends belong. And it’s right there in his work, in those numerous shout-out allusions to which he gives due props —Pedro Albizu Campos, Jimi Hendrix, Lolita Lebron, Ernesto Che Guevara, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jean Michel Basquiat, e.e. cummings, Julia de Burgos, Pablo Neruda, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Ernesto Cardenal, Jose Marti, Pedro Pietri, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, B. B. King, John Lee Hooker, Camus, Coltrane, Garcia Marquez, Ginsberg, Picasso, Shakespeare & Chango. What to do with that? With them? With his sense of roots?
How do we account for a Puerto Rican Rojas born and bred in the Bronx? Is his family a community of migrants or transplants? That is to ask, with what degree of self-initiated choice does a Puerto Rican family move from Guanica to New York City? Migrant speaks more to personal choices made. Transplant speaks more to a set of existing conditions imposed from without. The difference between the two speaks to the degrees to which conditions dictate choices made. Finally, what exactly is a Puerto Rican, or even an American, for that matter?
There’s a history here we should not ignore, a context that helps to explain the thought process working to shape a line, a poem, another book contributing to a specific collective stream of thought and contemplation. Consider…
…Back in 1493, Christopher Columbus brought to the island of Quisqueya Bohio Ayiti (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) 17 ships, 1500 passengers, sufficient numbers of cotton and sugar cane seedlets, cows, pigs and hound dogs. This second European voyage into the Caribbean marks the beginning of chattel slavery in the Americas and the creation of the hemisphere’s first cop (note that cop has long been a constant metaphor in the urban/urbane poetry of African and Latino Americans).
The goods they brought tell us something about intent —pigs and cows for raising meat; cotton and sugar cane for mass production and export. The assortment of immigrants is also informative — colonists, administrators, commercialists, mercenaries and a solid number of European slaves and servants brought directly from Spain —Moors (Muslim and otherwise), Jews, Christians too tolerant to be counted on (i.e., the true targets of a Spanish Inquisition), and a caste of working poor, including captured West Africans shipped and sold by the Portuguese who, since 1450, had been competing in Europe against a theretofore exclusive Muslim slave trade that itself dates back to 800 AD.
But most telling are the hound dogs themselves. They speak of the underlying intent to enslave the Amerindians who had first greeted them, to import Africans along with an initial European caste into the Caribbean as supplemental to an indigenous labor force, and to safeguard against runaways (a la Nina Simone’s lyrics: “hound dogs on my trail…”). Thus, the first cop in the Americas was a bounty hunter. Thus, the first Rainbow Coalition, as we understand the category, comprising those who refused and resisted against the imposition, giving rise to Maroon settlements, guerilla war and buccaneering.
Six European nations (Spain, Portugal, England, France, The Netherlands, Denmark) separately invaded, conquered and established competing settler colonies dependent on slavery throughout the Americas. In the same breath of moment, tens of thousands of those who were the objects of slavery did what they could to fight back. In short, what began in 1493 became hallmark to the hemispheric social struggle against slavery and colonialism, those two underlying pillars of American history hemispherically written in blood and guts and voice.
Witness the North American Revolution of 1776, declaring war against colonizers along with the claim that commercial and business interests can govern themselves without the benefit of monarch or priest. Tax cheats and smugglers constitutionalizing their greed and thievery. Those remarkable documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, while professing on behalf of natural citizenship, the inalienable rights of men, did not mean to include other than white Anglo-Saxon Protestant businessmen (WASPs), thus keeping chattel slavery relatively intact in the new United States for another 90 years.
Witness the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), initiated by Maroons, enjoined by slaves and eventually a freedmen caste, taking on and defeating the three major powers of that day (France, Spain, England), and establishing the first republic in the Americas to immediately outlaw slavery.
Beginning with Mexico in 1809, and by 1824, one by one, each of the Spanish colonies in Central and South America had followed the Haitian model. No more chattel. No more colonies. Between 1834 and 1840, each of the British colonies had been forced by the slaves themselves (particularly behind large scale Maroon wars in Guiana and slave insurrections in Jamaica) to abolish slavery in order to keep the empire intact. The French followed suit in 1848, the Dutch in 1861, and finally the United States in 1865, but only after a bloody civil war.
Between 1884 and 1888, the last bastions of this chattel system had been finally eliminated in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Brazil. Within this revolutionary epoch (1791-1888), the British, having understood the inevitable, began to supplant its Atlantic Slave Trade by gradually increasing the numbers of indentured servants shipped from Central and Eastern Asia and sold (or contracted) into Caribbean basin countries straight through into the 1920s.
Meanwhile, by 1898, the U.S. government, under the control of its own major corporations, had established both an internal and external frame for neoslavery. Inside the United States, this neoslavery manifested in juridical manipulation of existing laws, vis a vis, fugitive slave laws built into the Constitution, the Dred Scott Decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson, etc. Thus, racial discrimination and segregation, extralegal imprisonment, sharecropping systems, urban and industrial exploitation of the working poor, disfranchisement, public lynchings, police brutality and semi-sanctioned race riots became the modes of operation for an imposed second class noncitizenship status upon the children of the formerly enslaved.
Outside of the U.S., it took the form of international corporate expansion —usurping the Cuban and Filipino revolutions (1895-98), invading and recolonizing a virtually sovereign Puerto Rico, overthrowing, intervening or collaborating against practically every other sovereign nation in the hemisphere, including Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Panama, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, etc. Here, then, the underlying practical application of a U.S. foreign policy dictated by a corporate destiny manifesting itself. With the exception of Castro’s Cuba, the rest of the Americas has since remained dominated by U.S.-based corporations in true neocolonialist fashion, as the continued colonization of Puerto Rico remains the clearest symbol of a northern agenda (witness Vieques).
While this form of neoslavery dominates both the political and economic spheres of human activity, it has never been able to totally dominate the cultural sphere. From the viewpoint and interests of the children of the enslaved, if there were such a phenomenon as an American BC and AD, it would be the year 1888.
Before 1888, the concern of the dispossessed was freedom. Emancipation. Liberation. Sovereignty. It began with the first runaways who established independent strongholds as Maroons or as Buccaneers, raiding both plantation and sea lane. It soared with small and large scaled slave insurrections, as well as with individual acts of sabotage, burning crops just harvested or poisoning food just served. This ultimate and basic concern embedded itself within and without the dominant culture, as Africans and Amerindians moved to preserve something of themselves, their culture, into the culture and even into the belief systems of those who had enslaved them. As with Santeria and Voodoo, the hemisphere’s oppressed communities insistently worked their Mojo in the cultural sphere of self-expression to thus affectuate the social arena, creating and preserving their own mythology as essential to human struggle. Freedom Songs, Praise and Work Songs, folklore, coded Blues and coded Spirituals, Mambo, Samba, Plena, Bomba. And so not only the veil of a double consciousness (a la W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk), but as well two separate and concurrent streams of valued expression, of thought and action, of those spiritual guideposts that affirm a political perspective and give credence to the potential for economic development. One such stream, what is called the mainstream, has ever been corporately controlled, i.e., the dictatorship of white over Black. The other, what is often viewed as a parallel sidestream, thrives and thrusts forward on its own terms despite the limitations often imposed from without, i.e., that which is “indigenous” to the given community.
Thus, out of a movement against slavery and colonialism comes the substance of a Culture of Resistance, along with and practically beside a corresponding Literature of Resistance, establishing its own canon and from the viewpoint of the oppressed. And this literature is much older than now. For when European nations began to export printing presses into their colonies (circa 1730, among the British; since 1750 in the Spanish and French Caribbean), it was not just colonists or sympathizers who published their tracts, poems, novels, treatises, speeches, newspapers and journals. Freed folk and slaves also learned to read, write, propagate against tyranny and slavery, stoking the fires of outcry and outburst —rallies, conferences, conventions, conspiracies, uprisings, liberation movements, marronage, guerilla war —all of it taking place throughout the Americas in a massive, rippling effort to “tear this building down,” a la the spiritual, If I Had’a My Way.
Once chattel slavery ends, the coded agenda changes from freedom to access, full and equal access to all things human.
Since 1888, straight through to tomorrow, the children and grandchildren of the formerly enslaved now begin to expand upon their own social construct. That Culture of Resistance is now a Culture of Affirmation, a Renaissance of self-definition, with each subsequent generation adding onto the particular cosmology. And this must be understood from the viewpoint that it is hemispheric, even while the two most impactive groupings are quantitatively those who speak Spanish and English, and that the mixtures and blends we all comprise in whatever degrees have triple roots, stemming as they do from Amerindian, African and European cultures.
In this process of self-definition, we have had to learn that our perspective is as much inherited as it is what each generation itself shapes as further contribution. We inherit not only a capacity to do and a compulsion to defend ourselves through each of our own particular root, but as well the social conditions that come with class/caste imposition as well as the political baggage rooted in the contentions between those six European powers that had imposed themselves upon the rest of us (English, Spanish, French, etal) —not only a desire to reclaim and aspire, but the pitfalls of provincial thought that harness our prejudices as well (note the ‘tudes and contentions between Haitians and Dominicans, between British West Indians and Spanish Antilleans, between North and South Americans—each of which is an outgrowth of white supremacy). Right alongside this psychotic baggage, however, there arise Race Men, Negritudists, Hispanophiles, communalists, cultural and revolutionary nationalists —all of them giving form to Art and Artist, and more precisely to the Cultural Workers among us —those who consciously help to forge a people’s self-esteem (or, as poet Zizwe Ngafua would have it, “the one[s] who [see] what most have forgotten how to see…”) in every arena of self-expression —literature, art, music, dance, philosophy, fashion.
Thus, the basis for a renaissance manifesting since 1888, in which the descendants of a Chatteled America learn to define themselves. Thus, Ragtime, the Blues, Gospel, Swing, Merengue, Calypso, Ska, Salsa, Reggae, Funk & Fusion, Free Jazz, BeBop, CuBop, Doo Wop, Hip Hop, the birth of the Cool —the spirit of intellect giving voice to its own voice. Thus, unionism, socialism, communism, anarchism, Garveyism, Pan-Africanism, nationalism, and a straight up claim to sovereignty standing against continued imperialism. Thus, a National Negro Renaissance in the U.S., Negrismo in Cuba, diepalismo and criollismo in P.R. and D.R., Reggae and Dub out of Jamaica and into the rest of the Caribbean, the Black Arts and Nuyorican Poetry movements out of New York City and unto the planet.
Hip Hop, Rap and Spoken Word are but the more current manifestations of that engagement, in the same manner that Funk has one root in the Blues and the other in BeBop, like Break Dancing, rooted in an African martial art, is capoeira revisited, as the thrust towards affirmation provides its own outlet even among the untutored.
Now read Bonafide. A new Nuyorican Poet who, unlike many of the Spoken Worders grasping for the glitter and the glimmer of a momentary spotlight, has actually read and studied something that goes beyond the existential present. (Research the names he drops, and you’ll see it, paying homage to the continuum of social struggle.)
Philosophically, he embraces his Amerindian and African self, the principle of concentric circles (No Beginning, No End), one American whole, exploring and exposing us to his own reflection upon a condition older than his years. With this first book, clearly he demonstrates the potential of our current crop of cultural workers in search of substance. Here, the personal is as political as the risks many dare not take, as each poem presented here testifies to the dual function of art —exploring the individual particular and cajoling the community from which it hails to weigh the possibility that we can indeed reshape our own respective destinies.
Louis Reyes Rivera
June 2, 2003