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Beyond Tannenbaum

  • María Elena Díaz


After several decades of intellectual labor invested in the Tannenbaum debate—a long and exhausting controversy well summarized in the first part of Alejandro de la Fuente's article—I am wary at the prospect of opening a new round of this “many-headed-hydra” debate. Aside from the conceptual limitations of the (overly ambitious) thesis and the reins it can impose on fresh formulations of research agendas, there are other reasons why it may be wise to put Tannenbaum to rest. His thesis is burdened with a series of charged subtexts that surreptitiously make their way into the discussion and inflect the terms of the debate. Some of these subtexts carry long (and polemical) histories behind them that are difficult to obliterate.



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1. See Fuente, Alejandro de la, “Slave Law and Claims-Making in Cuba: The Tannenbaum Debate Revisited,” Law and History Review 22 (2004): 339–69.

2. For a succinct critical historical overview of multidisciplinary theoretical debates about race (and ethnicity) in Latin America including the latest trends, see Wade, Peter, Race and Ethnicity in Latin America (London: Pluto Press, 1997).

3. See Francisco Arango y Parreño, “Representación hecha a S.M. con motivo de la sublevación de esclavos en los dominios franceses …,” 1792; and “Memoria sobre la esclavitud en las colonias europeas y particularmente en las francesas …,” included in Arango's “Representación al Rey sobre extinción del tráfico de negros,” 1832. Both in Arango's Obras (Havana, 1952).

4. In his book Peace by Revolution: An Interpretation of Mexico (NY: Columbia University Press, 1933), Tannenbaum at times depicted the Spanish colonial experience with Native Americans along a similar (almost naively idealized) model: “The Indian was taken as a wife by the conqueror, their children given a place within the household…. A community, a church, a law, a body of rights—all were given to him largely because he was considered a human being possessed by a soul and capable of redemption….” He qualified this statement by adding that it was “men like Las Casas … [who] labored, fought and defended the Indian against the rapacity of the white man …” (36–37) at least introducing an element of contention into this story. The passage was quoted in Hanke's, LewisThe Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949), 176. Hanke's study, roughly contemporaneous to Tannenbaum's on slavery, developed more successfully the contentious dimension of the enactment and subsequent implementation of colonial legislation in relation to Native Americans while explicitly seeking to refute—or at least problematize—the old discourse of the Black Legend.

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Beyond Tannenbaum

  • María Elena Díaz


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