Born in Santiago, Silvio Torres-Saillant is Professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, where he headed the Latino-Latin American Studies Program until 2009, held the post of William P. Tolley Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities from 2009 to 2011, and served as Director of the Humanities Council from 2012 to 2014. During academic year 2005-2006 he was the Wilbur Marvin Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. Dr. Torres-Saillant is the founding director of the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute at The City College of New York.
A renowned and prolific scholar in Caribbean Studies, Latino Studies, and intellectual history, Torres-Saillant has published widely, including such works as: An Intellectual History of the Caribbean (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), Caribbean Poetics (Cambridge University Press, 1997; Peepal Tree Press 2013), The Challenges of Public Higher Education in the Hispanic Caribbean (Markus Wiener, 2004 [co-edited]), and El retorno de las yolas (Manati & La Trinitaria, 1999).
A senior editor for The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States and associate editor of Latino Studies, Torres-Saillant formerly sat on the Board of Directors of the New York Council for the Humanities and edited the New World Studies Series at the University of Virginia Press. He continues to serve on the University of Houston's Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project. Dr. Torres-Saillant holds a B.A. from Brooklyn College, and an M.A. as well as a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University.
After warning me that he could spare only half an hour, he generously indulged me in a conversation nearly twice that length.
"I did not start out as a Dominican Studies scholar," Dr. Torres-Saillant tells me. "I did not train to become a specialist in Dominican Studies. My training was in literature. I got a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communications with Minors in Comparative Literature, English, Spanish, and Latin. I received my degree in 1979. My large number of language and literature credits qualified me for admission to the Comparative Literature Department at NYU. Prior to landing in graduate school, I completed an intensive eleven-week summer course in Ancient Greek, offered by the Latin/Greek Institute, a program still thriving at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The course gave you the equivalent of three years in either Latin or Ancient Greek. A Brooklyn College Presidential Scholarship that I had received thanks to the support of my Latin teacher Ethyle Wolfe enabled me to take the course. I was then primarily interested in the study of European literatures across the board, and my courses covered subjects such as Modern European Literature, the Baroque in Europe, Renaissance Literature, Arthurian Romance, and a seminar on the Philoctetes of Sophocles.
"I discovered the Caribbean because the department allowed us to take a couple of courses in other academic units." The first time Torres-Saillant encountered the Dominican Republic as a subject in his graduate studies was in a course on the literature of Hispanophone Caribbean. "It proved to be a very illuminating course. I also learned that my professor Haydee Vitali was also well-informed about other linguistic areas of the Caribbean. My interest in Francophone and Anglophone areas was piqued by her frequent references to literary works from there." This led to an independent study course with Professor Vitali in which the young scholar interwove the Spanish literature covered in the course with his individual research on the Francophone and Anglophone literatures of the Caribbean. "In my term paper, I made a large claim: that these literatures were inter-related and that the writers were dealing with issues that seemed to be coming from the same place, even though they may not have read one another because of language borders, and so out of that came the project that subsequently became my doctoral thesis. I could do that in the Comparative Literature Department because my subject met the departmental requirement of at least three languages in the thesis." The Caribbean, with its rich variety of languages, offered a fertile ground for the comparative study of literature as taught by NYU then. "So I became introduced to the Dominican Republic through the Caribbean. But also, since I lived in Washington Heights at the time, people found out that I was a university student, and I was designated as a smart kid, and I was invited to give lectures before I had any credentials. So I would have to do research to give a talk on whatever the topic was. In the end I was able to bring together my community experience with my university learning in such a way that there was no contradiction. You are at NYU reading Homer and the Italian Renaissance, and then you go back to Washington Heights where there's a neighbour or relative who needs help translating a letter that just arrived from the office of welfare or from a menacing landlord. At first my world seemed divided, but I learned to recognize the apparently disparate parts as facets of the same world, and it all came together in the end. So I became a Dominicanist as a result of pressure. A need in the community for people who knew things about the community's history and culture. So that's how I gained my current profile as a scholar whose work touches many parts of the world. Basically, I started from a standard Western literary training and then became steeped in the Caribbean region and things Dominican. I now see how important the Caribbean and Hispaniola fit snuggly at the core of what became the modern world."
I ask Dr. Torres-Saillant about people who influenced him early in life.
"The first teachers who influenced me were my mother and my father. He was always displaying his learning in conversation. And she was always quoting the Bible, especially in fights with him, using the authority of the scriptures to put him in his place. She would invokethe lofty biblical lexicon, words like inicuo – iniquitous—to indict his misconduct. And my father, who was a very erudite man, always read even while he drank. Quoting the classics all the time, he spoke of people centuries past as if they were neighbours. I remember a time when my brother Tulio brought to the house a friend who got confused when he heard my father speak about Nicolás de Ovando, the first governor of the "New World" right after the Columbus family, appointed by the Spanish crown in 1501. My father would refer to the historical character using such familiar forms as "this fellow Ovando" or, when trying to retrieve the name from foggy memory, "what's his name, the fellow from Extremadura," sounding like the way one would speak of a neighbour or co-worker, causing Tulio's befuddled friend to embarrass himself by asking, "Did you meet him?" My father, of course, answered with an angry rebuke. He would often rant about King Solomon, indicting the ruler's mismanagement of the empire that he had inherited from his father David. Our exposure to our father's learned conversation and bookish references made us somewhat different from our peers in the neighbourhood, giving us an early contact with the sorts of knowledge that they would only meet later in their schooling. When Federico Fellini's Satyricon first came to a movie house in Santiago, our native city, in 1970, my sisters and I found some parts of it familiar, unlike the experience of other moviegoers from the neighbourhood who went to see the film. We had the advantage that we had heard much of Petronius, the Roman author of the ancient novel on which Fellini based the script for his film. At home we had heard our father numerous times retelling the story of "The Lady of Ephesus," which Fellini's film captures evocatively. My father was my first teacher through the exposure he gave me to the bodies of knowledge I would find in school later, but my mother was my first teacher in a more immediate material sense, for she actually taught me my first letters. She, the peasant woman with little formal school, sat us down and taught us how to read and write. Then there were the teachers who influenced me in high school and college, many in indirect, unobtrusive ways by merely providing a model of people who made knowledge seem worth pursuing." Dr. Torres-Saillant curiously mentions a professor of French literature at Brooklyn College who, while not skilled in the art of teaching, nonetheless managed to inspire with his devotion to his subject. "He spoke about the subject with such passion that you figured, this must be important. Then there was Earl Miner, a professor of English, Asian Literatures, and Comparative Literature at Princeton whom I met in 1986 when I was accepted to participate in an NEH Summer Seminar on Comparative Poetics that he was conducting. Given his expertise in the literatures and cultures of regions that were languages, cultures, and regions apart, Earl Miner was the ideal teacher for me to meet at a time when I was wrestling with the subject that wanted to propose as a doctoral dissertation project at NYU. Miner was totally open to the literary and poetic systems of the world. His Seminar gave me a concrete introduction to a wide range of ways of saying, culturally speaking, to the systems of literary significance that correspond to distinct civilizations. Literary meaning occurs in its own discrete context that you need to learn for the aesthetic communication to happen. If you read Dante's Divine Comedy, you have to know some of the basic principles and contradictions of Christianity, and the same goes for other traditions. Literary meaning is culturally based."
When I ask the Founding Director of CUNY DSI about the contribution that the Institute has made, he gets right to the nitty-gritty: "One very concrete way of judging it is by looking at the acknowledgement pages of books on Dominican subjects that have come out over the past fifteen years. In most cases, they will acknowledge the Institute: the assistance that the authors received, the research they were able to advance because of the resources made known or available to them by the Institute, and the like. The knowledge of things Dominican in the United States is clearly divisible between before the Institute and after. Before the Institute came around, it was difficult to find Dominicans even in the scholarly reference books. Sometimes even the reference Hispanic sources left us out. There are still people who remain wilfully ignorant about the vast amount of information currently available about Dominicans, and you still find an occasional book or TV documentary that prefers not to avail itself of the existing knowledge. But the majority use to advantage the knowledge on the subject that the Institute has championed. The Institute's success is easily discernible especially in the writings of a new generation of scholars whose work would have seemed unimaginable fifteen years ago."
Torres-Saillant's Introduction to Dominican Blackness was originally published as a Dominican Studies Research Monograph in 1999, reprinted multiple times due to high demand during the first decade of the century, and recently made available online by the Institute in a new edition. We talk briefly about this seminal work. "Introduction to Dominican Blackness tries to help us move away from the simplistic narrative of race in Dominican society that prevailed when I began writing. It is a call to complexity. If we want to understand anything, we have to be open to complexity. It's not true that one community likes its blackness more than another. That's just too dumb. Even in Haiti, the beacon of dignity for the African diaspora in the hemisphere given its people's epic struggle against the depravity of colonial domination, there, too, you find the inescapable instances of Negrophobia. In fact, the best known work of Haitian social theory, Ainsi parla l'oncle (Thus spoke the Uncle), was published in 1928 during the country's US occupation by Jean-Price Mars felt to urge the middle class, the ruling class, and the learned elite to stop omitting reference to the African heritage in their vision of the Haitian nation. The book makes a powerful case to show that the bodies of knowledge and belief systems brought to Saint Domingue by the enslaved African population still inform the lives of the majority of the Haitian people, that they constitute a resource of inestimable value for the society as a whole, and that the French heritage that the educated classes prefer is in no way superior to its African counterpart. My friend Alfonso Munera, the eminent historian from the University of Cartagena in Colombia, who has written widely on blackness in the Caribbean coast of Colombia, laughs when he hears outsiders criticising Cartageneros for not calling themselves black. Only half tongue-in-cheek, he says, 'You know why? Because they're not stupid. If they've been told for 500 years that blackness is a bad thing, why would anybody want to be a bad thing?' The fact that Cartageneros or Dominicans do not use a language of black self-affirmation does not necessarily mean that they don't recognize their African origins or that they do not uphold their human dignity as such. There is an unfortunate metaphysics of language going around in the scholarly community and in the media that cares so much for what people say that they seem disinclined to even look briefly at what people actually do. The fact is we do not have a universal language for speaking about race. Words, too, are historical. The language that people use to name their racial identity in the Americas will vary from place to place as a result of the particular characteristics that the colonial transaction took in each given locales or historical moment. You can't just go to the language that people use to generalize about their view of themselves. We can't keep repeating to our students in the classroom that 'race is socially constructed' while at the same time denouncing people who construct theirs differently from how we construct ours. Introduction to Dominican Blackness tried to raise these questions, in addition to urging scholars in the field to give credit to Afro-Dominicans for centuries ofresistance against racial oppression especially since they pioneered anti-colonialist struggle that would later spread throughout the hemisphere. I am happy to say that, although the old narrative still recurs, there are colleagues working on the subject who have shown the intellectual courage to acknowledge the complexity of the matter." He cites Kimberly Simmons, whom he credits with making the effort to understand that the Dominican people and the state or the elites are not the same thing. He quotes her as saying, "Dominicans don't deny their blackness. Their blackness has been denied to them by the state."
"And it's true," he continues, "that we have a history of Negrophobic intellectual elites and state authorities, but that's not the Dominican people. There's too much focus on the intellectual elites."
Torres-Saillant is currently at work on a book, in co-authorship with University of Baltimore professor Nancy Kang, about the poet Rhina P. Espaillat, whom he calls "phenomenal." Espaillat was born in Santo Domingo in 1932, came to Washington, DC at the age of five and then to New York City in 1939. "She became a teen poet star in the 1940s, the youngest poet ever admitted as a member of the Poetry Society of America. She was doing her thing on her own as there was no Dominican enclave at that time, and until the 1990s Dominicans did not know her. Espaillat was aware of her Hispanic background, retained the language of her parents, and had enormous respect for her ancestral heritage, but she became a poet of note in the English language of her formal education in New York. From teen stardom, she went quiet for several decades when she attended to her family and gainful employment as a teacher. Then she took early retirement and came back to poetry with a vengeance in the 1980s, recovering her previous literary prestige. She is revered by poets who are interested in the traditional forms, in rhyme and meter. She is totally genial and totally humane. Reading her work you learn that humans are wired for empathy, which is why ideologies of dehumanization exist: to interrupt our normal connection to all our fellow human beings. The book on Espaillat takes precedence at present. As soon as we have finished it, I will work on completing The Advent of Blackness, a book that tells the story of how and when blackness was born. Blackness did not exist before the colonial transaction produced it. There was no value attached to blackness or whiteness before that. It didn't matter. An African visitor to Europe was not black. The whole thing begins in Hispaniola with the colonial transaction."
Looking ahead, Torres-Saillant is planning a book on Christopher Columbus and the world created by the colonial enterprise. "Why do we have governments siding with corporations that poison the soil, industries that make money from destroying the environment? Why is it so difficult for well-paid, highly privileged, well-fed legislators to agree on raising the minimum wage to enhance the lives of the working poor? Because of the logic normalized by the colonial transaction, spearheaded by Columbus," which "incorporated maltreatment as a factor of economic development. You deny people's knowledge, change their names, deprive people of the connection to their past, dehumanize them. Before that, there was no investment in psychologically and spiritually reducing captive populations." Acknowledging that previous works have dealt with the effects of the colonial transaction on ecology and cuisine, the issue of shifting populations, and other aspects of the material transformation wrought by colonial conquest, Torres-Saillant clarifies that his project seeks to analyze the spiritual transformation that also came in its wake. "Capitalism, the need to gain advantage, creating an economy out of enslavement… I am trying to learn how it happened."
Finally, I ask what advice he would offer younger readers. Here, once again, he does not disappoint.
"Most people, when you see them fighting racism, tend to use racist schemes of thought and racist tactics, because come from a racist socialization. We need to recover a time before social relations were mediated by racism: when someone of a different race is being nasty, I want to think of all the possibilities to account for their behaviour: could they be envious, angry, or just plain mean? Human depravity is a very rich field. You flatten life when you reduce human depravity to one thing.
"Don't assume that you know race. Knowledge is not genetic, something that comes through your veins. Knowledge is something you acquire through effort. Especially the knowledge of your own culture—that's the hardest to learn, because there are too many ways to self-deceive. Typically, Latino, African American, or minority students in general run the risk of doing badly in a course that deals with aspects of the history and culture of 'their own.' Because of the deceptive nature of ethnicity, they may not put the same effort into that course as they put into their Russian history, chemistry, or linguistics class. They may delude themselves into thinking that they don't have to work hard at learning the subject because after all they are 'it.' Ironically, that kind of delusion is itself racist insofar as it assumes knowledge of a people whom you have not taken the trouble to learn about. Racism places knowledge outside the realm of cognition and into the genes. But you cannot rely on your bloodstream to learn the complex experience and cultural production of any human population, especially not the one you regard as 'your own.' You have to study the thing. I did not know the Dominican heritage before studying even if I thought I was 'it.' Young people need to keep themselves reminded that it takes as much intellectual engagement to learn 'their own' as it does to learn the Napoleonic era or the ancient Mediterranean. Assuming knowledge of a people you have not bothered to learn about is a classical definition of prejudice, the thing that racism depends on. It's a type of thinking akin to witchcraft, except that witches do not typically conduct genocides or massive dehumanization the way racists do. We should not approach anything having to do with identity as if we could measure it or define it with precision, including our own identity. Understanding our own background requires the same kind of serious consideration as any subject that we really hope to understand. Admitting ignorance is a place to start if we want to be on the safe side. We must avoid large claims about any subsection of the human family, and we should always monitor our own racism, not only the one we might perpetrate against others, but also the one that might emerge when we think of ourselves, our people, our ethnicity, and the like."