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 BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE   BULLETIN 4

ON THE CIVILIZATION
OF THE TWO AMERICAS

 We inhabit a different world on this side of the Atlan­
tic; we truly live in what centuries ago Seneca pre­
dicted would be the novos orbes—a New World, with
distinctive individuality. A good number of these
characteristics are geographical, resulting from the
shape of these lands stretching from the Arctic to
the Antarctic zones to make the two Americas lands
of all climates, of all products and of all types of
economic organization, separated by the oceans from
other parts of the world. The geographical isolation
of the New World, coupled with the shape of the
American continents extending from north to south,
cannot be found anywhere else in the world and pro-
vide the ideal environment for the establishment and
developing of human societies with very advanced
standards of political, economical and social progress.

The New World for several thousand years before
Columbus had an aboriginal population which the
Europeans first called Indians and whose number,
notwithstanding the slaughter and the enslaving and
the ill treatment for centuries practised on them by
Spanish, English, French, Dutch and Portuguese
colonizers, is now larger than it ever was and shows
a decided tendency to increase, even in those coun­
tries where, as in the United States, the Indian was
considered to be a vanishing element of the popula­
tion a few years ago. Mr. John Collier, the Commis­
sioner of Indian Affairs, asserts that the Indian pop­
ulation of the United States is increasing more rapidly
than the Negro and the White. That is true, too, of
Mexico, Central America, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay,
and some other countries in this part of the world.

 

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It does not seem probable that there were more than
fifteen million Indians in the New World in pre-
Columbian times; but that number, if we pool pres­
ent day Indians and mixed-bloods, has more than
doubled, for the Indian population of the New
World today exceeds thirty millions. It still predom­
inates wherever there were advanced aboriginal
civilizations, as in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru
and Bolivia. We have, therefore, to conclude that the
Indian is not disappearing, that he is an important
—an increasingly important factor of the ethnic
elements living in the New World.

 But as the Indian himself has survived the impact
of European civilization, so also have his philosophy
of life, his artistic capabilities and means of expres­
sion, his simple economic life. This is more evident
in Mexico and Peru, but it is by no means absent
among the Indians in the United States and else-
where.

The most advanced civilizations of the New World in
pre-Columbian times were born and developed in
the tropical and torrid zones. Mayas, Toltecs, Aztecs,
Chibchas, Quechuas, lived from the Tropic of Cancer
to the Tropic of Capricorn. This singular paradox is
completed by the fact that the more backward Indians
generally lived in the temperate and the cold zones
of both Americas. And if it is alleged by some that
the high civilizations flourished in the plateaus, that
assertion overlooks the fact that the Mayas usually
attained their extraordinary progress in the lowlands.
As a rule, the Indian has remained numerically and
culturally strong where he was so at the time of the
conquest, and has been overrun and destroyed where
he had a poor cultural structure, as we can see today
in the United States and Argentina. It was not long
ago that Ortega Gasset was drawing a parallel between
these two countries and coming to the conclusion
that they appear to have a common vital horizon, as

 

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belonging to peoples born and developed off-center,
far from where the old Indian civilizations had de­
veloped, and thus showing a tendency to make of the
United States and Argentina the center of other civil­
izations.

 The underlying aboriginal cultural layer is not lost
in the New World: it is kept alive by the increasing
number, influence and preparation of the aborigines
themselves and by their reaction following the im­
pact of European civilization brought across the At­
lantic more than four centuries ago. The most gigan­
tic migration ever recorded in history was that of the
Europeans to the New World, starting in 1492 and
still going on. It is close to impossible to tell how
many Europeans came to the New World during
colonial times, but from 1820 to 1935 the United
States received well over thirty millions of them;
Argentina, from 1858 to 1935 more than six millions;
Brazil about the same number in that period; and
Cuba about one million during the course of the
twentieth century. These figures referring to four
countries give an idea of what a vast migration has
taken place from Europe into the New World. Spain,
Great Britain. France, Portugal, the Netherlands,
Russia, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, at one time or
another colonized or attempted to colonize more or
less extensive territories of the New World, almost all
of which are now independent countries. In these—

Haiti excepted—only three languages dominate: Eng­
lish, Spanish and Portuguese, with such close affin­
ities between the latter two, that it can properly be
said that the whole of the New World. from Alaska
down to Cape Horn, speaks either English or Hispano-
Portuguese with accents, regional terms, and African,
Indian and foreign words. This situation, which we
cannot find in any other part of the world, points to
the possibility of further greater changes in the lan­
guages used by the peoples of the New World. Lan-

 

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guage is, however, a vehicle of culture, and every
mingling of languages will be accomplished by ming­
ling of cultures, ideas and accomplishments of every
kind.

 The European brought the Negro to the New World.
With the beginning of the 16th century the African
slave trade was started, and Spaniards, British,
French, Dutch, Prussians, Portuguese, Anglo-Amer­
icans and Latin-Americans engaged in the cruel traf­
fic which, so far as the New World is concerned, did
not come to an end until about 1870 with the last
smugglings of Africans into Cuba. A conservative
estimate of the number of Negro slaves brought to
the New World in nearly four centuries would amount
to more than ten millions. It can be said that at one
time or another the Negro slave, in smaller and larger
groups, has been all over the New World, from Can­
ada to Argentina; but it is a fact that the Atlantic
sea coast has always been his special place of abode.
Again, as in the case of the Indian, the Negro has
been able to survive political oppression and eco­
nomic exploitation; and has not only survived, but
increased his numbers to the point where there are
today more than thirty million colored people in the
New World, all of them incorporated in the civ civiliza-

tion of their particular countries and proving their
capabilities as useful elements of society. The Ne­
groes brought across the Atlantic represented a ver­
tical cross-section of many different African societies,
more or less advanced, and their presence and ex­
ploitation have contributed to shape and determine
the political, social and economic life of extensive re­
gions of the New World.

 There have been still other minor racial additions to
the population of both Americas in the last one hun­
dred years, represented by about one million Chinese
and Japanese, who established themselves mainly in

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the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Cuba and
Peru. More recently about one hundred thousand
East Indians have been brought by the British to some
of their colonies in the Caribbean.

A huge and complete process of acculturation—con­
tinued contacts between two or more cultures—has
been going on in the New World. for several centur­
ies, affecting all the racial elements just described. It
is generally accepted that there were more than one
hundred and fifty languages spoken by the Amerinds
in pre-Columbian times; yet all of those languages
have given place to Spanish, English and Portuguese,
extending themselves over the New World to be used
by everybody in the course of time. If certain authors
have begun to discuss the mixture of Spanish and
English spoken all along the border lands of the
United States and Mexico—what Vasconcelos, the
Mexican philosopher, now contemptuously calls the
"pocho" language—it is likely that between Portu­
guese Brazil and a neighboring Spanish country that
mixture will be even easier. The same process has
affected the descendants of the African slaves brought
to the New World. It is a fact generally overlooked
that the Dahomans, the Ashantis, the Foulahs, the
Kaffirs, the Calabars, the Angolas, the Yorubas, and
many other Negro groups brought to the New World
did not have a common language and were not all of
them at the same stage of cultural evolution. The
Africans and their descendants, therefore, have gone
through the same process of acculturation as the
Amerinds; but if the study of the mingling of cul­
tures did not go beyond the point we have just reach­
ed, it would not be complete. The truth is that a
"give and take" of cultures has been occurring in
every direction during several centuries. The Europ­
ean has provided the New World with four languages
and two groups of languages; he brought with him

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Western civilization, with its most representative
economic, political and social features; but he also
borrowed from the Amerind and from the Aframer­
ican in many respects and not, as it is generally be­
lieved, in the sense of economic exploitation alone.
Artistic manifestations, literary subjects, words, scien­
tific and practical knowledge, economic institutions,
some social patterns and many other cultural ele­
ments of the New World result from the mingling of
cultures and, in certain regions, from the mingling of
peoples, too. The assertion of Mr. Melville J. Hersko-

vits (The American Negro, New York. 1928, p. 10)
to the effect that about 80% of the colored popula­
tion of the United States has white or Indian blood,
is important in itself; but that is also the situation in
Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba. Panama, the
Dominican Republic and other countries where the
mixture has been taking place for centuries, more or
less freely according to circumstances, lack of pre­
judice, and even policies of national integration. And
let us not forget that in the countries where they
boast of not having Negroes or Indians, they can do
so because they have already absorbed these racial
elements together with their cultures, many of whose
characteristics can from time to time be detected in
the life of these countries.

Out of that gigantic "have and take" of cultures,
which we could say has just been started, although it
is more than four centuries old, the civilization of the
New World is coming into existence; and there is no
doubt that, in line with their formative elements, it
will be a half-breed civilization, a "mestizo" civiliza­
tion. A few years ago Vasconcelos startled the Latin
American countries with his theory of the cosmic
race which was hound to be developed from the Mex­
ican border down to Cape Horn. It is today highly
questionable whether the Mexican border would in
the long run be the northern limit to the so called

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cosmic race formed by the mingling of divers ethnic
elements; but if the mixture of races will not go on
evenly everywhere—and there cannot be any ques­
tion that it is taking place in every country—the mix­
ture of cultures which will produce a halfbreed civil­
ization is in full swing throughout the New World.
The Amerind, the White, the Aframerican and the
Oriental living from Alaska to Cape Horn form, for
better or for worse, the halfbreed civilization of the
New World found in every country the United
States or Mexico. Cuba or Colombia. Haiti or Panama,
Argentina or Brazil, Chile or Canada. In Spanish colo­
nial times, it was said in Hispanic America that the
Spaniards could do whatever they wanted in their
colonies, with just one exception: they could not have
Spanish children. Their descendants were Americans,
born in the New World and feeling themselves Ameri­
cans. This was also true of the British, the French, the
Dutch, and all other colonizing nations.

This halfbreed civilization of the New World is a
different civilization; a civilization which must be
studied, more than by anyone else, by those living
on this side of the Atlantic. And it must be so because
it is ours, because it means that there is more in com­
mon among the countries of the New World than any
of them have with the countries which sent across the
Atlantic the elements composing some of the ethnic
groups in both Americas. It is necessary to consider
and appraise what pre-Columbian civilizations were
like; who the white settlers were and what they
added; what was supplied by the Negro and by
the Oriental—all of this in order to learn where we
come from, what we are and where we are bound for
in the New World. And this we must do without stop-
ping to think about the much discussed decline of
the West, the revitalizing of ancient European or
Asiatic powers and other problems pertaining to the
Old World. Those problems must of course interest us

 

as something connected with other human beings, of
old engaged in the struggle for progress that is also
our goal; but this goal we must strive for through
the employment of our own means, and unhandi­
capped by the multiplicity of languages, the old feuds,
the growth of the population in small countries and
the limited economic resources so common in the Old
World. As the Chilean thinker and teacher Gabriela
Mistral puts it: it is time for all of us to come back
from Europe.

The importance and usefulness of this study can be
even better seen in the following words of Professor
Kidder, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington,
before the Third Pan-American Congress of Geo­
graphy and History:

"Civilization is at once our greatest achievement and
our greatest danger. Being the creation of exceptional
brains and always being carried forward by a rela­
tively small number of unusual individuals, it is
never really common human property. And being at
the same time super-organic, it is uncontrolled by
biological brakes and moves with an entirely differ­
ent order of velocity than that of physical or mental
evolution. Civilization also progresses unevenly, its
material components always tending to outstrip its
spiritual attributes. And when it gets, in one way or
another, out of hand, come war, pestilence, economic
maladjustment or any one of the hundred secondary
ills which bring social orders to collapse. So it was
with Egypt and Greece and Rome. So it must have
been with the Mayas. So it may well be with us. If
we are to cope with this Frankenstein's monster, if
we are to keep it in its place as a servant of man, we
must understand it far better than we do today . . ."

 

May, 1937       Herminio Portell-Vila