Mercury Q&A: Darryl Wellington on the African American Experience in NM

Mercury Q&A: Darryl Wellington on the African American Experience in NM

Poet, author and social critic Darryl Wellington is a transplant from the Deep South living in Santa Fe.  He wrote a tremendously insightful article recently in the Santa Fe Reporter called “Black in Santa Fe: Small population, overlooked stories.”  The piece shone light on the history and experience of African Americans in New Mexico; too often ignored in the state’s tri-cultural historical narrative.  Wellington drew from anecdotes provided by current residents of Santa Fe, historical accounts, as well as analysis of the newly published anthology from UNM Press, African American History in New Mexico.  We’re delighted to have him on the Mercury to further that discussion. 


New Mexico Mercury: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to New Mexico?

Darryl Wellington: I am on the most basic level of self-description a writer; beyond that I have struggled for a decade or more to describe what I do. I have been alternately called a literary critic, an essayist-reviewer, a historian, an investigative journalist, a race relations facilitator, and a culture critic. There is a degree of truth to each designation. I am an African American Southerner whose background in Georgia and South Carolina has left me with plenty of opinions – strong or reasonable, depending on whether or not you agree with them – on the status of race relations in the South. My professional background begins with The Washington Post, and Crisis Magazine (the NAACP publication) where for years I routinely reviewed new books by black writers in the Diaspora. I do overall prefer to call myself a “culture critic” however – with the implication of someone who can wander anywhere, carrying his/her experiences, background, idiosyncrasies and intellectual interests with them like a valise. I have a substantial interest in poetry, for instance, which in its own way informs every article I write as much as the factual research involved.  I am happy to have earned my living writing magazine articles for about fifteen years. At a certain point I had written so much about the South (I had a long association with several political science journals such as Dissent which commissioned my commentary on Southern politics) that I felt a need for a change, my own exercise in cultural displacement.

Had you visited Santa Fe before moving?  What was your initial experience like from an African American perspective and had you done research on the state of race relations in NM and the availability of cultural resources?

I like the classic demarcation between a traveler and a tourist -- a traveler being in this case the one who brings his personal experience to interact with the radical mystery of the New Mexico environs, letting a direct encounter inform the blind spots, while the tourist chases a prefabricated ideal. Few people believe me, but I had never been to any Western state before I relocated here four and a half years ago. I was tired of the South, a friend in Santa Fe extended an invitation, an opportunity presented itself, and I leapt. I was vaguely aware of the small size of the African American population. And I should note I was very much of a mindset that I was moving to Santa Fe, the city, that is, and all its associations with wealth, art, art history, refinement and specialness. In that sense I was infected by the tourist mentality as well, prejudiced to believe that Santa Fe subsumed the deep complexities of New Mexico. I soon saw otherwise.

More specifically, and most immediately, I saw this: the present-day New Mexico “tri-cultural” community, more so than any other place I had lived before, was a minority-minority-minority community. I mean by that to say that while other places I’ve lived have been characterized by a majority-minority dialectic, here, very uniquely, all three ethnicities exhibited attitudes I at least associate with minority membership: a sense of having a case to plead, of receiving less than a fair share, of historical and psychological entrenchment.  They all seemed to me to feel wounded, while making a case for greater recognition – whether or not their sense of being a slighted minority was in every instance legitimate. New Mexico truly is a place with a unique history with the result that New Mexico has its own conversation going on. I actually conceived of writing an article about yet another New Mexico ethnicity (my own) within a few months of moving here. It took me four years to feel confident enough to throw own analysis into the conversation.

Your piece in the Santa Fe Reporter was incredibly enlightening to me, and I'm sure many native New Mexicans.  How would you describe your experience during the research, interviews and writing of that piece?

I really do believe that the process of exhuming and disseminating history can permanently alter perception. A person with limited knowledge of how cultures came to reside in a place --- the stories of the many who preceded her/him, or the parallels between her/his presence and historical  trajectories  -- has one perspective; that perspective can be totally transformed by historical knowledge. It’s true that you can cite examples where a historical awakening reaped negative results, but certainly in the United States a sense of history and lineage undergirds a sense of placeness. I feel more at home in New Mexico because of all that I learned about the history of blacks in New Mexico while writing the article. Whenever someone says to me – and many have – “I never knew any of this about New Mexico” “I never knew about Blackdom” they may mean to say “I never knew my story was preceded by legacies similar to my own.”  I know that to a certain extent that person’s frame of reference has been permanently impacted.

You note in the piece that the historical bias to the "tri-cultural" narrative in New Mexican history innately limits the remembrance of the black experience.  As you uncovered the generational stories of African Americans in New Mexico, and after living here for five years, how enmeshed do you feel this mythology is with modern New Mexico consciousness? 

Let me address this particularly in the context of Santa Fe, the tourist mecca of New Mexico. Santa Fe is both a place characterized by colorful individualism, taste, artistic intelligence, and a place steeped in a tourist mythology which has hampered the development of a community ethos. A good example of this would be the annual Fiesta – so oddly “politically incorrect” for such a liberal and progressive city. But a “tourist trap” traps both locals and visitors: a tourist narrative proposes fixed identities: it literally freezes time. I had the fortunate experience early on of attending a lecture – alas, I can’t remember the lecturer’s name or the title of his book, but he posed fascinating and absolute questions about historical narratives in a place so focused beneath the tourist gaze. He concentrated on a photographic chronology – showing in detail how images of New Mexicans became reified, how documentation led to stereotyping. And in the end he asked, with all seriousness “Is it possible for authentic cultural histories to survive, much less thrive in contemporary Santa Fe? Or has a made-to-order tourist-centric narrative ended that possibility?” I believe that the script for the annual Fiesta – for example – will eventually change.  Social pressures, and the passage of time will inevitably force the script to be revisited and renegotiated. It will happen. It will be fascinating to watch Santa Fe deal with that change. There is a parallel between New Mexico and its path toward agency and identity, an identity without stereotyping, that is, and the black American struggle with a history that has been perverted by minstrelsy and popular entertainment. I think the positive response to the article is proof that many New Mexicans now suspect that the “tri-cultural state” has a good deal to potentially learn from its black Americans.

This institutionalized historical shunning, especially in Santa Fe, seems part of a tradition of manufacturing a cultural narrative that's a good sell, quite literally.  It plays into an exotic foreign land that is accessible as a tourist, and locally enforced for the benefit of a tidy story and good cash flow.  How important was the release of African American History In New Mexico, as well as efforts like yours in the Reporter, in recapturing that history?  How does that cultural identity and legacy best elbow its way at the table?
I like your expression that black history in New Mexico will have to “elbow its way at the table” which aptly expresses the situation. I congratulate the editors, and all the essayists in African American History In New Mexico. It is a fine volume, although a somewhat loose collection of essays which should be followed up by another book which goes further in proposing an overarching historical schema, and a sense of how black history in New Mexico is not a loose tangle of flashes; it is a story; and all stories have a meaning. The Office of African American Affairs is still an under-appreciated accomplishment, and its uniqueness reveals a great deal about how race matters have been arbitrated in New Mexico in contrast to other states. Furthermore in the field of historical studies you will often find that an old subject needs an occasional shot in the arm; a new perspective which throws a slant on the old paradigms, and releases the field of study from frigid truisms.  There will simply be something missing until New Mexico acknowledges its persistent black presence. The construction of black identity is too seminal to the social contract of the United States to be ignored – anywhere. Initially, several of my black interview subjects were hesitant to speak, literally feeling they lacked a vocabulary to address the subject.  There is a way to talk about it – and as the black New Mexicans I interviewed discovered, once you begin speaking, the more there is to say.

In many ways the African American experience has not only been lost in New Mexico, but seems like a very important missing chapter in the post slavery African American diaspora.  The blending of cultures here appears to have been a relief from the rigid racial constructs of the South but at the same time, small numbers equaled little political power and representation.  Is that the draw and the repellent for some African Americans living in New Mexico now?  Does it represent a bit of a "clean slate", as mentioned in your piece, for some, while causing others to flee due to no overwhelming cultural presence?

I think that each of your questions has provided its own answer. I think that you have described my thesis in a nutshell. Yes, for some there is a sense of relief; for others isolation. This relates to conflicting feelings over the very concept of “community”   -- which is similar to the concept of family; for some family is a source of strength, nourishment, identity; for others (no matter how much concern you may have for familial relations) a straightjacket, a limitation, a stage which can be surpassed.  I suppose that Albuquerque is more representative of the fight to sustain black identity despite the odds, to leverage political agency, often by forming coalitions with progressive Hispanic movements, while Santa Fe “the City Different” is more representative of the search for individual liberation.  I don’t think I gave enough space in the article to the number of black Santa Feans who said the City Different was there first place they had ever lived where they weren’t routinely harassed by the police, targeted for small racial insults, etc. Assuming that this has given them “a clean slate” what happens next?  But the blurring of black and Western identity in a place without intense racial community scrutiny has reaped fascinating (or odd) results elsewhere in New Mexico. For example, of the three black state legislators currently in office in New Mexico, one is a Democrat, the other two are Republican. I suspect New Mexico may be the only state in the Union with twice as many black Republican as Democratic state legislators.

There is still another reason why the black presence in New Mexico has national import. You often here talk in the national media of the 21st century population statistics creating a minority-majority nation characterized by a “black-brown coalition.” – which has been tried in New Mexico with varying degrees of success. New Mexico may be a place to look at to examine the real difficulties and potential pitfalls behind such a coalition.

In New Mexico, there's a historic tension and debate between those who emphasize a "pure" Spanish lineage and those more Chicano oriented thinkers who emphasize the "mestizo" mixed blood and culture of the Spanish and Native.  Do you see parallels in the race identity politics in different African American communities?

There should always be a debate. There is no single definition of the black experience. In fact, I have always said the any ethic or cultural identity is defined by the intensity of a conversation over it. Is there a parallel within African American experience(s) for the debate you have described above? Probably. There is an aspect of the black oasis in Santa Fe, I mean, its psychology, and its internal conflicts which call to mind the Charles Chestnutt story “The Wife of His Youth.” I don’t know if you know this story. It’s about a light-skinned black community which goes out of its way to avoid an association with race issues, or racial protest, all the issues which bedevil the black masses, and the story shows both how this little island of blacks enjoys its exclusiveness and suffers guilty feelings. I have been asked whether the black Santa Fe oasis is “post-racial” My own opinion is that the answer isn’t that simple. I think that throughout New Mexico history blacks have intermingled with the Spanish, the Native Americans, and the characteristic tropes of the West -- “independence” “reinvention” -- in ways that reimagine race. I don’t think that project is mere escapism; the social experiment by the name of Blackdom for example was more romantic than escapist – an enterprise which Henry Boyer only believed could happen in a place with a relatively “clean slate” 

Are you aware of any courses in the state university system that deal directly with the African American experience in New Mexico?

There is a tiny Africana studies program at UNM. It opened its doors in 1970, in the wake of student protest for a black studies program. The program is considered by many to have been a civil rights victory. In 1970, the program was a forerunner. There is chagrin, however, that it remains a small program at UNM – although today largely thanks to Henry Louis Gates universities all over American have whole black studies departments. I don’t know the work of the few professors in the program, or how directly focused it is on New Mexico. I am not sure that any of the current professors in the program are represented in African American History in New Mexico – which is odd – but I would love to know more about their work.

As noted in your piece, the African American experience in different cities in New Mexico is quite different.  Are there any current statewide efforts that bring together festivities of African American culture in different locales? 

The Office of African American Affairs recognizes this point, and has recently begun to host town hall meetings outside of the Albuquerque area. I think it would be a fine idea to have a conference on black identity in New Mexico which included participants statewide. There hasn’t been such a conference -- less focused on building and supporting an agenda (like an NAACP meeting) than on the presentation of papers and free-floating interpretative analysis.

How would you sum up your experience so far in New Mexico?

Varied. Special. Unique. Intriguing.  Let me offer a story about my life in the peculiar minority-minority-minority city of Santa Fe -- and it is offered with the feeling that  Santa Fe is not a place riddled with racial strife, but it has its issues, like any place in America. During my four years here I have heard whites make thinly veiled comments “dissing” the Hispanic community. I have had Hispanics tell me they had lingering resentments against the Anglo and Native American community. I have had Native Americans tell me they distrusted Anglos too.  What did I think, they seemed to ask. Yes, I told all three I disapproved of racism. The only comparable experience I have had would be living in France and having both the French and Arabs give “their side of the story.” It is an experience of foreignness – while living in the United States. How should I interpret this? First of all it’s fascinating that all three felt comfortable telling their “secret thoughts” to me. Why? Is it simply because there are too few blacks about to count? To feel they needed to watch their biases? Or is it also an unconscious recognition that black identity is seminal to any understanding of racism, in other words that blacks “know all about it” and so they had to seek my opinion? Aren’t they also saying that black identity is like the wild card in the deck, and if that is so today hasn’t it often been a hidden card (like the Joker, covert, but powerful) in New Mexico history? Questions like this intrigue me. I am still looking for the answers. But I do know that that there is a need for the continued black presence in New Mexico to be memorialized.


Further Resources:

Blackdom documentary produced by ¡COLORES!

African American History in New Mexico

The History of Blacks in Albuquerque

This piece was written by:

Benito Aragon's photo

Benito Aragon

Benito Aragon is co-founder of New Mexico Mercury and was born and raised in Albuquerque's North Valley. He received his B.A. in cultural anthropology from the University of New Mexico and Master's in mass communication with a specialization in documentary film production from the University of Florida. He co-produced the award winning documentary, Seasoned Veteran: Journey of a Winter Soldier about Scott Camil, which was added to the DVD release of the film Wintersoldier.

Contact Benito Aragon

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