By Carlito Rovira
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born on January 24, 1874 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. He was a Black Puerto Rican scholar, historian, author and activist, who devoted his entire life to compiling vast collections of writings and art documenting significant events in Black history.
When Schomburg was just 8 years old he was told by a school teacher that Black people had no history. This assertion naturally bothered him for a long time. But as he gradually grew older, Schomburg found the teacher’s claim to make absolutely no sense. That encounter became Schomburg’s motivation which led him to set out and prove wrong such racist notions.
African chattel slavery also touched upon Puerto Rico, which became the consequence of Spanish colonialism in both Africa and Latin America. In 1527 the first slave revolt in Puerto Rico was among the bloodiest in the Western Hemisphere.
Despite the numerous contributions Schomburg made to the preservation of Black-Latino history, like many others he was not immune to anti-Black discrimination. Throughout his entire life, Schomburg experienced blatant racism, sadly within the Puerto Rican community as well.
Colorism, as an extension of white supremacy, often permeated conversations about “Los prietos” (the dark ones), “Pelo bueno y pelo malo” (good hair and bad hair), and so on. As in the United States, the not-so-hidden practices of racism has also existed in Puerto Rico and all of Latin America.
Arturo Schomburg was instrumental in documenting the role of African people in the cultural development of the Puerto Rican nation. The psychic, spirituality, linguistics, diet, music and dance of Puerto Rico pointed to the contributions made by Africans. Schomburg proudly identified as an Afroborinqueño (Afro-Puerto Rican).
Harlem Renaissance & Puerto Rico’s independence struggle
Schomburg became a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He collaborated with famous individuals like Langston Hughes, Alain Leroy Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois and other pillars of that movement. The Harlem Renaissance succeeded in challenging the ideological facets of white supremacy through the literary, visual and performing arts. It was an exciting and enlightening period in history for the African diaspora, following the struggles to end the horrors of slavery.
Thanks to the powerful momentum inspired by Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Black people now had relative freedom to develop culturally, economically and politically in the surroundings of a white racist society. This was the setting in which Arturo Schomburg was able to make his contributions to Black history.
Before moving to New York City, at 17 years old, Schomburg was a leader in the secret Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico. This organization was created several years before Schomburg’s birth for launching the 1868 anti-slavery & pro-independence revolt known as El Grito De Lares. Although the attempt to rid Spanish colonialism failed, the Revolutionary Committee continued to exist clandestinely.
Throughout his life Schomburg remained a firm advocate for Puerto Rico’s independence. In fact, he was the founder of Las Dos Alas (The Two Wings), an organization in New York City devoted to the independence cause of Puerto Rico and Cuba. In 1895 Schomburg partook in a meeting with other freedom fighters like Manuel Besosa and Juan de Mata Terreforte at the Chimney Corner Hall to discuss and approve what became today’s official Puerto Rican Flag.
But as the 19th Century came to a close with the U.S. military invasion and occupation of both Cuba and Puerto Rico, these conditions caused the independence movement in both countries to enter a period of stagnation. As a result, Schomburg and other like-minded activists who resided outside of Cuba and Puerto Rico, began to re-vise their activities based on the change in the climate of imperialism.
Schomburg’s shift in central focus
As the persecution of Black people in the United States intensified, with the extension of Jim Crow laws, lynching and white racist riots presenting a dangerous and menacing setting, coupled by Schomburg’s childhood memory of a demeaning comment made to him by a school teacher, raised his commitment to the idea of affirming the validity and truth of Black history.
Ridiculing the racist fables about the origins and history of Black people became Schomburg’s central focus. His noble quest eventually proved the extent of white supremacy’s corruption and baseless reasoning for existing.
Once in New York City, and for the remainder of his life, Schomburg collected large amounts of materials relevant to the history of Africa and the African diaspora. His work unavoidably brought to light the falsehood of white historians who interpreted the history of human social development strictly from a European perspective, thus concealing what are the African people’s pivotal role in that process.
Although Arturo Schomburg never proclaimed to be a revolutionary, his academic achievements coupled with such fervent passion to preserve and protect the historic culture of the Diaspora shows otherwise. Long after his death, Schomburg’s accomplishments continue to shatter racist myths.
His devotion to raise Black history to its rightful grandeur contributed immensely to the ideological struggle against white supremacy, thus, adding to the majestic qualities of Black nationalism.
Moreover, Schomburg was a consistent leader of debunking the dangerous narratives of racial superiority that ushered in social Darwinism and Eugenics. These world perspectives were often used by capitalists to politically hinder and divide working class people.
The vast and beautiful collection of literature and art materials he compiled throughout his life are permanently housed at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center For Research of Black Culture, located at 515 Malcolm X Blvd, in Harlem, NYC.
Arturo Afonso Schomburg shall be remembered for his bold intellectual defiance and as a hero of the oppressed. His lifelong contributions has strengthen the legitimacy of Puerto Rico’s independence cause as well as the historical struggle for Black liberation. Schomburg’s’ life embodied the epitome of Black & Puerto Rican solidarity.