This July, René Picó and Charlene Klassen Endrizzi explore the cultural complexities of the Puerto Rican experience. Each book allows readers to uncover another layer of idiosyncrasies. We hope to reveal how Puerto Rico “is a human archipelago… self-assertive, puzzling and contradictory”
(Arturo Morales-Carrion, 1976).
Who is Arturo Schomburg?
This week, we take on Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library. Arturo Schomburg’s life reveals an Afro-Puerto Rican immigrant’s journey into the United States before the American annexation of Puerto Rico.
CHARLENE: I must thank Carole Boston Weatherford for introducing me to a little-known Latin trailblazer. The story of Schomburg’s life-long quest, focusing on rescuing and preserving African American texts on the verge of being discarded, enables readers to consider the importance of “correcting” the historical landscape for future generations.
RENÉ: Arturo’s passion for the almost discarded historical texts of Africans within Western culture helps us unravel humanity’s African connections. His Spanish fifth-grade teacher, portrayed through the book’s opening pages, triggers his insatiable hunt for knowledge when she tells Arturo, “Africa’s sons and daughters had no history, no heroes worth noting.”
CHARLENE: It is hard to read that sentence. Weatherford provides a hard look at turn-of-the-century teachers who lacked a cultural consciousness. I am puzzled by another aspect our author examines. I do not understand how Schomburg evolved from his Afro-Puerto Rican childhood into a spokesperson for the “American Negro” during Harlem’s Renaissance (Arturo Schomburg, 1923). Why do you think he appeared to forsake or dismiss his Puerto Rican heritage?
RENÉ: I wonder if various difficult experiences nudged him to focus on his African-American heritage. Cultural identity is a personal process. We emphasize or deemphasize aspects of our identities. To explore Arturo’s cultural identity, we must appreciate his background–the son of a German descendent from Puerto Rico and a freeborn African woman from Saint Croix. Once in the mainland, Arturo’s identity seems to evolve as he becomes acculturated. Upon his arrival, Schomburg sees himself as a fervent Puerto Rican, but he abruptly faces “ethnic assignation.” Despite his German last name, he looked African and therefore faced a higher level of discrimination.
I speculate these experiences motivated Arturo to identify himself more strongly as an African American. Right away, he connected ethnically and intellectually with the Black community in Harlem where he thrived. What is curious is the disenfranchisement from his native tongue, Spanish. He never taught Spanish to his children although he named several of his children using familiar Spanish names. He explicitly stated, “they were Americans.” Like many immigrants who came to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, Arturo went through this same self-inflicted Americanization process.
CHARLENE: I agree. During my childhood in the 60s, my parents chose not to speak German to my siblings and I but later rethought that choice and eventually required us to enroll in German classes during middle school. I assume they wanted to avoid any stigma associated with Nazi Germany.
Returning to Schomburg and his apparent disassociation with the Puerto Rican community, did your teachers introduce you to Schomburg or did you discuss him at home?
RENÉ: I never studied Schomburg or even heard about his contributions during my school years in Puerto Rico. I imagine many Puerto Ricans do not know el señor Schomburg. Now I know him as one of many famous Afro-Latin Americans you might recognize: Celia Cruz, Roberto Clemente, José Celso Barbosa, Julia de Burgos and, more recently, Gwen Ifill, Piri Thomas and Miriam Jiménez Román.
Schomburg: The Man Who Built A Library is an excellent introduction to the contributions of African-Latin Americans. His story is a relevant text for teachers who want to explore the contributions of Afro-Latin American people who made great strides in their communities and became part of the far-reaching American ethos.
CHARLENE: I appreciate illustrator Eric Velasquez’s thought-provoking images of well-known and easily overlooked icons with African roots (Phillis Wheatly, Paul Cuffee, John James Audubon…) to nudge our current racial conversations forward.
We close our first conversation with a few questions designed to inspire discussions with students. Do you think Arturo’s last name helps or hurts him? Do your looks identify you? How do you come to the realization of who you are? To which cultural group do you assign yourself?
We see the potential for inviting students to interview older relatives and explore questions about languages spoken, ethnic heritage and ancestors’ country of origin outside of the U.S. We hope Weatherford’s text inspires an Afro-Puerto Rican exploration of cultural complexities with your students.
Borinqueño = Puerto Rican
el = the
Señor = Mister
Title: Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library
Author: Carole Boston Weatherford
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Date Published: September 2017
This is the first installment of July’s issue of My Take/Your Take. Check back next week to see what books we’ve selected and to follow the conversation!