Diasporic Blackness The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

by Vanessa K. Valdes

Diasporic Blackness The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Author Vanessa K Vald s Isbn 9781438465135 File size 19MB Year 2017 Pages 190 Language English File format PDF Category Biography Examines the life of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg through the lens of both Blackness and latinidad A Black Puerto Rican born scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg 1874 1938 was a well known collector and archivist whose personal library was the basis of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library He was also an autodidact who matc

Publisher :

Author : Vanessa K. Valdes

ISBN : 9781438465135

Year : 2017

Language: English

File Size : 19MB

Category : Biography



The Life and Times of


Vanessa K. Valdés

Cover photograph by James Latimer Allen, ca. 1920s
Book design by Steve Kress
Published by State University of New York Press, Albany
© 2017 State University of New York
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Printed in the United States of America
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever
without written permission. No part of this book may be stored in a retrieval
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For information, contact State University of New York Press, Albany, NY
Production, Ryan Morris
Marketing, Fran Keneston
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Valdés, Vanessa Kimberly, author.
Title: Diasporic blackness : the life and times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg /
Vanessa K. Valdés.
Description: Albany, NY : State University of New York Press, [2017] | Includes
bibliographical references.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016031412 (print) | LCCN 2017000321 (ebook) | ISBN
9781438465135 (hardcover : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781438465159 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Schomburg, Arthur Alfonso, 1874-1938. | African American
historians—Biography. | Historians—United States—Biography. | African
American book collectors—Biography. | Book collectors—Biography. | Puerto
Ricans—United States—Biography. | African Americans—Relations with
Hispanic Americans. | African Americans—Intellectual life—20th century. |
African Americans—Race identity. | Puerto Ricans—Ethnic identity. |
Caribbean Area—Intellectual life—20th century.
Classification: LCC E185.97.S36 V35 2017 (print) | LCC E185.97.S36 (ebook)
| DDC 002.075092 [B]—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016031412
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Arturo Alfonso Schomburg,
Robert Valdés Jr.,
and all men like them,
men who make more of themselves
than their circumstances dictate
and who defy categorization







The Silence and the Meaning of It All



“Patria y Libertad”: Schomburg and Puerto Rico



The Diasporic Race Man as Institution Builder



Afro-Latinx Chronicles: Schomburg’s Writings



“Witness for the Future”: Schomburg and His



“Furtive as He Looks”: The Visual Representation
of Schomburg



The Dynamics of Afro-Latinx Subjectivity











Portrait of Arthur A. Schomburg, as he appears in Negro:
An Anthology (1934)



Arthur A. Schomburg, ca. 1896, age twenty-two



Arthur A. Schomburg, writer, “Is Hayti Decadent?”
Unique Advertiser 4 (1904), age thirty



Arthur A. Schomburg, noted bibliophile



Arthur A. Schomburg, in Masonic attire, age approximately forty



Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, age four, San Juan, Puerto
Rico, 1878



Studio portrait of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg and his
sister Delores (Lola) Díaz, circa. 1905, age thirty-one



Portrait of Arthur A. Schomburg from his United States
passport, issued in 1926, age fifty-two



Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, late in life




I THANK GOD for the completion of this project, as well as all of His accompanying angels and saints. To my ancestors and orishas who accompany me, love
me and protect me, and who guide all of my projects, I offer my highest praise
and gratitude. To my parents, Iris Delia y Robert, who inspire me, always, and to
my Madrina and best friend, Gina Bonilla, infinite thanks for your love and patience
with me. Thank you to Leroy Martin Bess, Mercedes Robles, Ana Martinez, and
Iya Dawn Amma McKen for all of your love and support through the years.
To the City College of New York, I thank you for the sabbatical year that
allowed me to complete this project; I thank my friends, loved ones, and colleagues
who understood and respected this much-needed time away.
I thank Doris Cintrón, interim dean of the Humanities and Arts Division of
The City College of New York, for her support of this manuscript and its needed
images; Moe Liu D’Albero, director of budget and operations in the Humanities
and Arts Division of The City College of New York, and Thomas Lisanti, manager
of Permissions and Reproduction Services of the New York Public Library. I thank
Leo Peralta of the Humanities and Arts division for his technical assistance.
To Mary Yearwood, curator of the Photography and Print Division of the
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, thank you for your time and
for guiding me in the joys of archival research. To her staff, including Michael
Mery, Anthony Toussaint, and Linden Anderson for your assistance over the
months as well.
To Steven G. Fullwood, curator of the Manuscripts and Rare Books Division
of the Schomburg Center, thank you for your support and assistance from our
first conversation.
To Chantel Clark, curator of Special Collections of the John Hope and Aurelia
E. Franklin Library of Fisk University and inheritor of Schomburg’s collection




there, thank you for your candor about the nature of the archive, as well as your
support of this project.
To the following scholars, whose work inspired me and carried this project
to completion, my immeasurable gratitude: Elinor Des Verney Sinnette, Flor
Piñeiro de Rivera, Lisa Sánchez González, Miriam Jiménez Román, Juan Flores,
Antonio López, Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, Camara Dia Holloway, Nicole Fleetwood,
Shawn Michelle Smith, Mark Anthony Neal, Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo, Ileana M.
Rodríguez-Silva, Jossianna Arroyo, Virginia Sánchez Korrol, Edna Acosta-Belén,
Nancy Raquel Mirabal, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Lorrin Thomas, Silvio Torres-Saillant,
Kevin Meeham, William Luis, Michelle Ann Stephens, Amy Kaplan, Hazel V.
Carby, Victoria Núñez and Victoria Ortiz.
To Beth Bouloukos, thank you for your support of this project, and to the
anonymous readers of this manuscript who offered insightful suggestions that
demonstrated their support of this study. I thank Rafael Chaiken for his assistance
with the digital files of the photographs included here. I thank Ryan Morris, Senior
Production Editor, Alan V. Hewat, copyeditor, and Fran Keneston, Director of
Marketing and Publicity, for their contributions to the production of this book.
I wish to acknowledge the following archives, without which the completion
of this study would not have been possible: the Schomburg Center for Research
in Black Culture of the New York Public Library; Yale University Library Manuscripts
and Archives; Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library; the
Center for Puerto Rican Studies / el Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños (Centro)
of Hunter College and the City University of New York; and the Special Collections
of the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library of Fisk University.
To the Dark Room Collective, whose intellectual exchange and humor has
motivated me to push further and deeper, thank you.
A los pueblos de Vega Baja y Manatí, Puerto Rico: desde ahí vienen mis antepasados y ahí todavía puedo encontrar miembros de las familias Valdés y Colón;
ofrezco este estudio humildemente. Luz a todos ustedes que andan conmigo,
acompañándome en este camino, y a todos sus descendientes. Pido su bendición.
To the Nuyorican community, thank you for your inspiration, always.
To children of the diaspora, speaking in tongues distinct from those spoken
by our ancestors, living in spaces unimagined by our predecessors, thriving in
ways inconceivable to them.
Thank you to the students of the City College of New York, past and present,
who motivate me on a daily basis.
Support for this project was provided by a PSC-CUNY Award, jointly funded
by the Professional Staff Congress and the City University of New York.



The portrait of Arturo Schomburg, as he appears in Negro: An Anthology
(1934), edited by Nancy Cunard, is from the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare
Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York
Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. All of the other portraits
are from images found in the Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center
for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and
Tilden Foundations.

The Silence and the Meaning of It All

Imagine a boy living in the city of his birth and not knowing who was the most
noted native painter! It is true the fact was recorded on a marble tablet duly
inscribed and placed on the wall of a building where it could easily be read.
However, the inhabitants of San Juan knew but little of the man thus honored.
The white Spaniards who knew, spoke not of the man’s antecedents. A conspiracy of silence had been handed down through many decades and like a
veil covered the canvases of this talented Puerto Rican. Today we understand
the silence and know the meaning of it all.
—Arthur Schomburg, “José Campeche 1752–1809”

PUBLISHED IN 1934 in Mission Fields at Home, a journal published by the
Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Arthur Schomburg (as his name appeared then)
provides for his audience perhaps one of the earliest sketches about black Puerto
Rican painter José Campeche written in English. With the subtitle “A Puerto Rican
Negro Painter,” Schomburg explicitly reveals that for him, there was no contradiction between national identification and race; one could be both Puerto Rican
and black, as Campeche was, as he himself was. Schomburg exemplifies and fully
inhabits a subjectivity that today has come to be identified as Afro-Latino, a man
who is simultaneously of African and Hispanic heritage.1 An analysis of Schomburg’s
life should not establish his as the exclusive Afro-Latinx experience to the exclusion of other lived experiences, particularly when considering those of women
who shared his racial and ethnic heritage. Such an examination, however, is useful
in attempting to understand the complexities of populations of African descent
who arrive in the United States speaking the Spanish language, taking into consideration the specificities of historical context. Within this first paragraph of the
chronicle that would introduce this eighteenth-century painter for many in his



 Diaspor ic Bl ackness

audience, Schomburg makes a distinction in race, highlighting how “white
Spaniards” deliberately concealed Campeche’s African heritage, all the while celebrating his accomplishments. Schomburg’s employment of the descriptor “white”
acts not simply as a modification of the noun “Spaniard” but also as an act of
emphasis: here he conveys to his audience that whiteness and white supremacy
could be found on the Iberian peninsula and its former colonies. White supremacist thought is one that is invested in the maintenance of power for those who
believe themselves to be of strictly European descent, irrespective of the fiction
of homogenous whiteness on the European continent, and involves, among other
actions, a deliberate absenting of achievements and accomplishments done by
those deemed as “Other.” Within the context of the Americas, the descendants of
Africans, whether their progenitors had been enslaved or free, have been the
primary targets of such systematic erasure. Hence, Schomburg’s assertion, “Today
we understand the silence and know the meaning of it all.”2 His response to the
methodical expurgation of all evidence of black achievement was to gather documentation to the contrary, scouring bookstores for discarded texts written by
and about men and women of African heritage, writing about such triumphs in
brief newspaper and magazine articles as well as in essays shared within research
societies and in published bibliographies, speaking publicly about such deeds,
organizing lectures and exhibitions, and assembling the cultural products of these
populations (pamphlets, books, art, music, and the like), crossing national and
linguistic boundaries to include texts printed not only in English language but
also others, such as French and Spanish.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is an innovative and pioneering figure of earlytwentieth-century New York City, as a book collector and archivist; well known
for those activities, he was also an autodidact, a prominent Freemason, a writer,
and an institution builder. While many are aware that there is a library named
after him in Harlem, they often have no idea about the man himself. They pause
when learning that he was a black man, born and reared primarily in the Hispanic
Caribbean, with some time during his adolescence spent in the Danish West Indies.
Outside of specialists, most are unaware of his years-long involvement with the
cause of Antillean liberation in the late nineteenth century, an activity that brought
him in close contact with prominent Cuban and Puerto Rican intellectuals such
as José Martí and Eugenio María de Hostos. Later, his collection served as an
invaluable resource for such important scholars and writers as W. E. B.
Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Alain L. Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale
Hurston, Langston Hughes, Eric Walrond, and Claude McKay, particularly during
the years that encompassed the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement.

Introduction  3

Himself the child to which he made reference in the Campeche sketch,
Schomburg was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1874, one year after the abolition of slavery in the Spanish colony, to parents of Puerto Rican, German, and
Danish West Indian heritage.3 He migrated to New York City in 1891 at the age
of seventeen, almost immediately becoming involved with the liberation cause of
the Antillean colonies, joining the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (Cuban
Revolutionary Party), as well as co-founding Las Dos Antillas (The Two Antilles)
in 1892. Both groups disbanded after the conclusion of the Spanish-American
War in 1898, with the United States annexing Puerto Rico and establishing a military government in its new protectorate of Cuba (which gained self-rule four
years later, in 1902). While active in the fight for the independence of these Spanish
colonies, Schomburg was also initiated into the Prince Hall Masons, eventually
rising to become the Grand Secretary of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of the State
of New York in 1918. In 1911, he co-founded and served as secretary-treasurer
of the Negro Society for Historical Research, an organization formed with the
explicit mission of combating contemporary racial prejudice by finding documents attesting to the breadth of knowledge of Africans and their descendants in
the United States. From 1920 until 1928, he served as president of the American
Negro Academy of Washington D.C., an organization founded in 1897 and whose
previous presidents included W. E. B. Du Bois. This institution, the “first major
Black American learned society,”4 was committed to the collection and dissemination of overlooked historical texts demonstrating the intellect of men of the
African Diaspora. All of these organizations grappled explicitly with definitions
of blackness, masculinity, citizenship, and nation; he engaged with these multiple
discourses throughout his life, and his interpretation of said notions offers an
assessment of Afro-Latinx subjectivity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries in the United States and its commonwealth, Puerto Rico, and in so doing,
sheds light on current formulations of this subjectivity in the present historical
moment. This study explores not only Schomburg’s thoughts on these subjects,
as per his writings, but also his responses, as per his collecting, assembling, writing,
and speaking, to the cultural milieu in which he lived. All of these activities are
grounded in his identity as a man of African descent from a Spanish-speaking
country, as an Afro-Latino.
Following the purchase of his private collection in 1926 by the Carnegie
Corporation for the New York Public Library for $10,000, Schomburg used some
of the funds to travel to Europe for several months, recovering documents from
one of Spain’s most prominent archives, the Archivo de las Indias, among others,
and revealing the presence of men and women of African descent in the


 Diasporic Blackness

Spanish-speaking Americas and the Iberian peninsula prior to the English establishment of Jamestown in 1619. He also salvaged the life stories of African-descended
scholars, writers, artists, and church officials living in the sixteenth, seventeenth,
and eighteenth centuries in the Americas and in Europe. In subsequent years, he
continued to play an active role in the growth and direction of his collection as
the chairman of the committee charged to oversee its management; he also persisted in donating books, prints, and other works, often without compensation
for those contributions. From 1931 to 1932, he served as curator of the Negro
Collection of the library at Fisk University, then as now one of the leading historically black colleges in the country. In Nashville, Tennessee, he worked alongside
groundbreaking sociologists Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier, men
whose studies continue to be cited as foundational in the disciplines of African
American studies and sociology as a whole. There at Fisk he established a collection that replicated what he had accomplished in New York by incorporating works
about blacks both here in the United States as well as throughout the Americas
and Europe. He returned to New York in 1932, serving as curator of his own collection within the 135th Street Branch Library (which would later become the
Schomburg Center) until his death in 1938.
Throughout his life, in all of the circles in which he traveled, Schomburg
remained Afro-Latino; that is, he actively thought of himself as such, as a black
man born in Puerto Rico. He actively laid claim to the richness of the histories
and cultures of the Spanish-speaking world. We see this in the books he collected,
the articles he wrote, and the translations he provided from Spanish to English
and vice versa. While this subject position has existed for millennia, dating back
to peoples of African descent migrating to and living on the Iberian Peninsula, it
has only attracted scholarly attention in the Western Hemisphere in the last few
decades, influenced to a great extent by the U.S. civil rights movement. Schomburg
not only took pride in his African heritage, in his blackness; more to the point,
he took pleasure in it, reveled in it. Racial pride is characteristic of the first decades
of the twentieth century: in the United States the aftermath of an aborted
Reconstruction left hundreds of thousands of men and women fleeing the South,
leaving behind the domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, and moving to the
industrial North and Midwest in search for employment opportunities. In an era
dominated by a politics of respectability, whereby an individual’s personal comportment was thought to be a reflection of the larger group, Schomburg ascended
the social ladder within the English-speaking black communities of New York
City, becoming a much-admired figure. He achieved this primarily through his
involvement with the Freemasons. He was initiated in 1892 in a lodge in Brooklyn

Introduction  5

that was predominantly Afro-Cuban named Sol de Cuba and affiliated with the
Prince Hall Masons; more than twenty years later, he and his brothers petitioned
that the lodge change the name to Prince Hall Lodge No. 38, reflecting the
demographic shift in lodge membership.5 Again, Schomburg did not abandon
his heritage, taking it upon himself to translate official documents of the once monolingual Spanish lodge for his English-speaking brothers. He therefore served as a
link for his fraternal organization, a conduit through which distinct contingencies
learned about each other. This is a role that repeated in other realms of his life.
This study is long in the making. As a young woman growing up in New York
City, I learned of the existence of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black
Culture as a place to find research with everything having to deal with the global
black experience. In college I learned that Mr. Schomburg was Puerto Rican; this
was a critical moment, occurring in the same span of time when I began questioning how my family had conceived of itself as simply Puerto Rican. In spite of the
variety in skin tones of relatives, including within my immediate family, there were
no qualifiers to a national identification with this island in the Caribbean. Schomburg’s
migration would be emblematic of that larger one which would occur primarily in
the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as hundreds of thousands would descend on the isle
of Manhattan, as well as cities of the Northeast, rarely returning to the land of their
birth. (The current historical moment is seeing a similar migratory wave to the
mainland from the island, as tens of thousands leave Puerto Rico annually due to
economic constraints, many of them moving to Florida.) Schomburg’s negotiation
first with the small Spanish-speaking communities in the greater New York City
area and shortly thereafter with the larger African diasporic communities coming
from the West Indies and the U.S. South meant a continuing engagement with how
he defined himself. As readers, we can chart this process with how he names himself,
as he goes from “Arturo Alfonso Schomburg” to “Arthur Schomburg” to “A. A.
Schomburg,” then returning to the name of his birth in his final years.
Seemingly lost when we speak about Schomburg are the many lives he lived,
the many incarnations of this one life; instead, scholars often focus on one sole
aspect: bibliophile and archivist of the Harlem Renaissance, friend to some of the
most illustrious members of this artistic movement. Interestingly, this represents
only a fraction of his existence. For the first third, he lived for the most part on a
Spanish colony and then migrated to the metropolis on the mainland that was
one of the centers of the independence movement to liberate that island (the other
being Tampa, Florida). In the next two-thirds, he ascended the social ladder by
becoming deeply involved with prominent institutions of the African American
community, namely the Freemasons, as well as several of the historical societies


 Diasporic Blackness

tasked with recovering a negated history of black excellence. In addition, he successfully established and curated not one but two collections of thousands of volumes
of books, pamphlets, and art, both of which serve as a testament to the diversity of
the global black experience. Again, in his public life, his African heritage is unquestioned; his Spanish-speaking heritage, for the most part, is overlooked and ignored.6
There is but one full-length study about Schomburg’s life: Elinor Des Verney
Sinnette’s Arthur Alfonso Schomburg: Black Bibliophile and Collector (1989); this
analysis references Dr. Sinnette as Schomburg’s biographer. In addition to this
groundbreaking work, literary critic Lisa Sánchez González has written an article
about Schomburg, naming him a “Transamerican Intellectual,” as well as has dedicated a chapter to him in her 2001 study Boricua Literature: A Literary History of
the Puerto Rican Diaspora, where she compares him to his contemporary and
fellow Puerto Rican William Carlos Williams. Finally, historian Jesse
Hoffnung-Garskof has written two indispensable articles about the historical times
in which Schomburg lived in his “The Migrations of Arturo Schomburg: On Being
Antillano, Negro, and Puerto Rican in New York 1891–1938” (2001) and “The
World of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg” (2010).
Diasporic Blackness complements these works by examining to a greater degree
each phase of Schomburg’s life, from Puerto Rican revolutionary to institution
builder, from writer to collector and archivist. In addition, this work analyzes
Schomburg’s portraits to take into consideration how his visual representation is
also a field in which he demonstrates resistance to dominant narratives about
blackness and about black men specifically.
Scholars over the years have debated his identity, often choosing to dissect it
so as to make sense of his interest in black history. Though everyone in his lifetime knew he had been born in Puerto Rico, and had been raised there, with some
time spent during his adolescence in St. Croix, people simply did not know how
to relate this to his later interests. There exists a story that as a child, either a schoolmate or a teacher commented in a classroom setting that black people had no
history; this censure of an entire race of people sparked a lifelong mission to disprove this statement.7 For some, emphasizing his years in the islands of St. Croix
and St. Thomas and indeed his family’s connection to these islands allows them
to make sense of his passion for black history, given the history of migration from
the West Indian islands to the United States.8 Winston James argues this point,
first in his 1996 article “Afro-Puerto Rican Radicalism in the United States:
Reflections on the Political Trajectories of Arturo Schomburg and Jesús Colón,”
and later in his 1998 book Holding aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism
in Early Twentieth-Century America. After a comparative historical overview of

Introduction  7

the Hispanic Caribbean, James writes that Schomburg was exceptional as a “Puerto
Rican black nationalist,” for the following reasons: his mother was a foreigner, a
“black migrant worker from St. Croix”; his paternal line, with which he apparently had no connection, had “strong northern European, Iberian roots”; that he
was reared in the Virgin Islands with maternal relatives; and that he was, unlike
the majority of the Puerto Rican community, Episcopalian rather than Roman
Catholic.9 For James, then, Schomburg’s profile meant that he had a natural affinity for the African American community. In addition, there is the sense that a
common language, English, more easily facilitated relationships, as did a common
racial component. He overlooks Schomburg’s deep connections to Puerto Rico;
for this reason, the history of peoples of African descent on that island, official
discourses regarding blackness there, and Schomburg’s substantial involvement
with the Antillean independence efforts of the late nineteenth century are the
subject of the first chapter of this study.
When writing or talking about peoples of African descent in the Western
Hemisphere, often the Spanish-speaking countries are left out of the equation. In
the aftermath of the U.S. civil rights movement, academics in the United States
began to produce scholarly works about Afro-Hispanic literature, history, and
culture, recovering and promoting the cultural production of writers from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.10 This study does not emphasize his
time spent in what were the Danish West Indian islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix,
nor does it examine a Caribbean subjectivity, though his undoubtedly is.11 Rather,
it accentuates his afrolatinidad specifically because in all of his activities—as a book
collector, writer, and translator—he always highlights the Hispanic (i.e.
Spanish-speaking) world, including Spain, the Hispanic Caribbean, and Central
and South America.

In an essay offering his reflections on the multiplicities of identity, Silvio
Torres-Saillant observes: “People of mixed ancestries seem to encounter the most
difficulty since regimes of racial identity have often depended on the rule of homogeneity, the presumption that we have one root, not many, that, counterintuitive
as it may sound, to claim more than one origin is to be less.”12 In the case of Arturo
Schomburg, contemporaries and, indeed, scholars who have written after his death
demonstrate an untenable apprehension when addressing him. One can attribute
this anxiety not only to his biological origins but also to his unique standing within

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