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OAS Celebrates African Heritage in Americas

By Amber Ebanks

The Organization of American States (OAS) hosted a celebration of “Afro-Inspired Culture in the Americas” on Feb. 23 at the Hall of Americas in D.C., as part of a larger event commemorating Black History Month and the International Decade for People of African Descent.

The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent, citing the need to strengthen the economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights of people of African descent. As part of the endeavor, the OAS partnered with National Geographic to explore the history of African ancestry in the Americas.

“Our hemisphere — a heterogeneous mix of races, ethnicities, languages and customs — is masterfully colored by this unfettered tapestry of its denizens who hail from the Arctic tundra of northern Canada and Alaska, to the tropical rainforests of Central America, the pristine beaches of the Caribbean, down to the glacial lakes and endless Pampas of Argentina. However, we do not live in a utopia,” OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro told the audience.


OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro welcomes guests to a celebration of “Afro-Inspired Culture in the Americas” as part of a larger event commemorating Black History Month and the International Decade for People of African Descent. Photo: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS 

“Human rights and dignity are not always recognized,” he said. “There are the vulnerable, the marginalized and the disenfranchised. Unfortunately, in many of our countries these are persons of African descent whose mere existence in these Americas has been held hostage by hate, oppression, bigotry and racial intolerance. This is not acceptable. Yet, despite this history and amidst present day challenges, our societies have made great strides towards social inclusion for all.” 

Almagro went on to discuss the work the OAS has done to bring attention to the hardships faced by people of African descent, including the 2013 adoption of the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Intolerance, as well as the Inter-American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance, which was enacted after over seven years of intense negotiations. That agreement was the first legally binding instrument to condemn discrimination based on nationality, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, language, religion, cultural identity. 


Luís Alvarado, interim representative of Nicaragua to the OAS, left, and Nicaraguan Ambassador Francisco Obadiah Campbell view paintings as part of the exhibit “Afro Life and Culture in the Americas.” Photo: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS

“We must see ourselves as true citizens of the Americas, interconnected and interrelated,” said Almagro. “It is important to take stock of the many ways our cultural diversity is rooted in African culture and history”.

A former lawyer who served as Uruguay’s minister of foreign affairs, Almagro was elected to head the OAS in 2015 on a platform of “More Rights for More People.” At the February celebration, he described the numerous ways African culture and history has shaped the Americas, calling culture “the glue that bonds societies.”

“It is estimated that around 150 million people in the Americas identify themselves as being of African descent. To that end, in almost all of our countries, the richness of our food, the beauty in our arts, the rhythmic tones in our language and our inherent belief systems have a significant imprint of this African past,” he said.


The OAS Afro-inspired cultural celebration included performances of Afro-Garifuna jazz music, steel pan drums and the Congo dance. Photo: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS

He cited food such as Quimbombo (gumbo) and plantain, which was introduced by African slaves.

“Peruvian Anticuchos, a wildly popular street food made of seasoned, skewered grilled beef or chicken hearts, originated from African slaves forced to create their foods from the scraps they were fed,” he added. “Similarly, hacienda peasants in Mexico reimagined beef stomach — one of the few accessible sources of protein — by cooking it in a hominy stew called Menudo, now a classic Mexican dish.”


The OAS Afro-inspired cultural celebration included performances of Afro-Garifuna jazz music, steel pan drums and the Congo dance. Photo: Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS

On the music front, Almagro credited African traditions for creating genres such as samba, rumba and meringue. “Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most popular carnivals in the world, is a boisterous manifestation of African culture,” he said.

“Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most popular carnivals in the world, is a boisterous manifestation of African culture.”

Almagro said African influences can also be seen in the art world, from movements such as Cubism and Modernism to literature that examined the oppression of African slaves.

The event featured several speakers, including Demont Hussey of Jamaica, who spoke about the history of reggae music, and Von Martin of Trinidad and Tobago, who spoke about the history of the Trinitarian drum. James Lovell and Vincent Martinez of Belize performed Afro-Garifuna jazz music, along with presentations of the steel pan drums and the Congo dance.

Guests also viewed “Afro Life and Culture in the Americas,” an exhibition at the Marcus Garvey Cultural Hall that showed works of art from various countries including Haiti, Jamaica, Guyana and France.


Amber Ebanks is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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