Pedro R. Rivera (HIST/Black Studies) received an A.A. in Liberal Arts from Hostos Community College in 2002. He also graduated Magna Cum Laude from The City College of New York in 2005 and was awarded the History Department's Cromwell Award. He went on to complete his PhD in History at Howard University and is now Assistant Professor in Latin American history in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Savannah State University. His dissertation, entitled "Carlos Cooks and Garveyism: Bridging Two Eras of Black Nationalism," which he is currently revising for publication, is a biographical narrative examining the life, times, and work of a Dominican-born Pan-African organizer who promoted the ideas of Marcus Garvey in Harlem in the period between the New Negro and Black Power movements. We had a fascinating conversation about the intellectual trajectory that took him there, its significance for the Dominican community, and vice versa.
Professor Rivera was born in Puerto Plata and raised there, with yearly trips to El Seibo. Visits to extended family in the surrounding areas (he notes that in Dominican culture, "There's no such thing as a half-brother or a distant uncle") were a formative influence on him. "Almost every summer I travelled back and forth through long stretches of the Dominican territory, from the North to the East, cruising through some parts of the South." He came to New York in 1994, at the age of 16. The experience of living in the US opened Rivera's eyes to a different dimension of blackness— the concepts of building community based on skin color and using identity in a political way. While he emphasizes that he and his family and friends in the DR considered themselves black, and alludes in passing to the rich catalog of Dominican folk and popular songs (among the latter, he cites a song by Los Hermanos Rosarios) praising blackness, e.g., in a loved one, as well as the folk wisdom concerning the health benefits of black skin, Rivera notes that coming to America enriched his understanding of the political implications of embracing black identity. "I knew that I was black before I came here, but it was in the United States that I realized that you can change society using your identity in a very particular way because that is the history of this particular context. I discovered the uses of my blackness as I discovered Malcolm X and then Carlos Cooks. I had to realize my own personal journey within that." The journey eventually led Professor Rivera to the study of the African diaspora and migrations as part of an effort to place Dominican history within the context of that diaspora, but began with him studying computer programming at LaGuardia Community College.
"I remember that there was this giant picture of Malcolm X right in the middle of the lobby when you come into LaGuardia Community College." About a month before Rivera dropped out of LaGuardia, the iconic picture of Malcolm X with his index finger raised made Rivera "decide to go to the library and find out who this guy with the glasses is." The Autobiography of Malcolm X provided a deep source of inspiration. "I wanted to do something related to what this guy was talking about. His life… is a life of transformations… His honesty was contagious, the ruthlessness of the truth that he spoke, no matter who it hurt, even if it cost him his life... I completely fell in love with that."
While becoming energized by the story of what became the Black Power movement, Rivera was deeply conscious also of his own Caribbean identity. "I always realized that in addition to my partaking of this African diaspora identity, I felt Dominican at the same time. As a Latino, I wanted to see what Malcolm X said about Latin America." He remembers the exact passage in Rosemari Mealy's book Fidel and Malcolm X: Memories of a Meeting that set the course of his research: Mealy's assertion that the Pan-Africanism of Malcolm X's late period was inspired by a Dominican Garveyite named Carlos Cooks. "I was electrified like a Christmas tree," Rivera recalls. Soon afterward, he enrolled at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, after which he switched to the City of College of New York. "I was on a mission," he says. Encounters with thinkers such as Venus Green, Gerardo Renique, David Johnson, and Leonard Jeffries further stimulated his interest in using knowledge to fight oppression.
When Dr. Rivera graduated from CCNY, SUNY Stony Brook offered him a scholarship, but he waited to see if he had been admitted to Howard University as hoped. Watching a documentary on the African Burial Ground project and Howard's role in it had made a powerful impression on him. In the end, he got into Howard with full funding.
Throughout his academic work so far, Rivera has sought to share with others the liberating effect of embracing one's African past. "From Hostos to CCNY to Howard, all I had on my mind was Malcolm X and Carlos Cooks. I wanted, because of my newfound ideas of how to use my identity, to open the eyes of people in my community to how they can use that identity. That is part of my whole agenda."
A Pan-African unity that crosses national boundaries, formed through a shared past of oppression, is one of the most important lessons to be drawn from the work of Marcus Garvey and Carlos Cooks, Rivera states. "The Dominican Republic is formed and transformed by immigrants of African descent… It is 'one of the most Caribbean countries of the Caribbean,' to use the phrase of one historian. We have many reasons to feel part of the entire region without giving up our Dominican-ness. The illusion of nationalism is very powerful. But we share a destiny with Haiti and we are also African-Americans in some ways. So we are part of this great community." The life of Carlos Cooks, whose parents came from St. Martin to the Dominican Republic, and who spent much of his life living in Harlem, where he preached the doctrine of "Back to Africa"—in a more literal sense than originally used by Garvey himself, Rivera notes—embodies this truth. Cooks, Rivera underscores, "was never affected by micro-nationalist demons." For Garvey, as well, the principle, based in historical fact, that "ultimately, we are all Africans" was crucial. "One of the reasons the Black Star Line [the shipping line incorporated by Garvey] existed was not to carry people back to Africa but to connect them in a commercial network" extending from Liberia to Costa Rica and Jamaica; the project thus joined together two threads in Garvey's philosophy: racial solidarity and self-determination. Rivera cites Garvey's idea of rewarding black women for wearing their natural hair with pride as another important notion that was ahead of its time.
In addition to developing his dissertation into a book, Professor Rivera is currently working on the topic of the mulatto racial category in the Dominican Republic. He sees this as part of a larger project of showing a more complete picture of the Dominican legacy, overcoming stereotypes and caricatures in order to affirm Dominicans' right to create their own identity and their pride in having historically done just that.