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Fuller explores African identity

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2009-08-24

Like most passionate scholarly pursuits, Regina Fuller’s Community of Scholars project – From Slavery to Exclusion: Comparisons of African identity in the Dominican Republic and Brazil – was borne out of a real life experience.

“It was here on the charming island of Hispaniola, shared by both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, that I experienced my first significant overt ‘racist’ experience,” says Fuller. “My first night in the Dominican Republic, my study abroad friends of color and I were denied entrance into a club that had already admitted our white counterparts. Dominicans themselves are an array of colors -- of light, mid, and dark complexions; I was hurt and did not understand how people who resembled me could discriminate against me like that.

“In my life experiences in the United States, racial discrimination came from people who did not look like me. Over the course of the semester, I learned that despite their mixed ancestry, contemporary Dominicans deny their African identity. My semester in the DR has led me to my current investigation of how people of African heritage view themselves and their identities in this island nation and Brazil. Like the DR, Brazil has a majority mixed population of three ancestries, European, Indigenous, and African; yet, it does not deny the black contribution to its culture.”

This fall, Fuller will travel to several different countries as Wofford’s Presidential International Scholar. Her Community of Scholars project will tie in with that research.

“Even though they are slightly different — this project focuses on African identity in two countries, whereas my Presidential Scholar project focuses on African dance and music throughout Latin America and Africa — they overlap more than I had anticipated. For example, in the DR, people may deny their African ancestry but if you look at bachata, a popular dance in the DR, you will see African elements, drumming and rolling of the hips. Music expresses all aspects of identity, the hidden and overt characteristics of a people.”

That was just one of the surprising findings for Fuller. What was the most surprising?

“One of the most unexpected was the United States’ influential role in perpetuating exclusionist racist policies in the Dominican Republic,” she says. “When the U.S. tried to annex the Dominican Republic during the 19th century, American advocates of annexation denied the presence of African descendants in the D.R. to quell the fear of slave holders in the South. It would have been illogical for the US to have admitted a territory of free black people while black people within its borders were not. Consequently, the U.S. helped to start the pattern of exclusion of people of darker skin colors in the DR that still permeates Dominican society today.”

Fuller never thought studying African heritage in two foreign countries would bring her back to slavery in America, but it did.

“Although the system of slavery is over, its legacy still lives in on in the Americas,” she says. “People of color have lower socio-economic and educational levels than their lighter counterparts and are discriminated against because of their darker complexions. To truly escape this legacy of slavery, we must move from exclusion to acceptance.”