Not So Black and White: Unpacking Race and History through Bilingual Poetry Reading

Tiffany Vo, Contributing Writer

On September 18, Dominican poet Leonardo Nin came to Clark University as a guest speaker to present a “bilingual reading” from his book Poemas en blanco y negro or Poems in Black and White

Nin is one of the leading voices of the Dominican Diaspora Literature Movement, exploring themes like Afro-Caribbean identity, social justice, and being an exile. He graduated from Harvard University with a master’s degree in anthropology and has published numerous bodies of work since 2003. 

In 2017, Nin received the Dominican National Prize for Young Writers along with other recognitions such as having work showcased in national and international literary magazines as well as in anthologies. He is currently working on a novel based on Albizu Campos, a leading figure in Puerto Rico’s independence movement. Nin’s writings show his commitment to social justice and criticism of all forms of oppression happening in the United States and Latin America.

From the event’s title, it could be initially inferred that Nin was going switch between reading in English and Spanish. However, as the reading continued, it became an interactive experience as Nin read his poems in Spanish, the audience listened to the translation, and then students could share how the poems impacted and connected with their own lives. He prefaced the bilingual nature of his work by saying, “It’s what I draw from. I’m a linguist by training… language is a very powerful tool – a tool that transcends culture, race, color – and can create great emotions, great feelings, and a great sense of comradery.”

Nin also reflected on the strength of language not only as a means of expression, but also as a way of understanding race and history. He spoke of the value of understanding that race is a crucial element of recognizing Dominican history. “Having language as my only tool to express myself and expressing when I cry, I use Poemas en blanco y negro as a way to tell Dominicans that we are a product of history and that history was a mixture of races.”

Poetry has also been an important way for Nin to represent and honor the African roots of many Latin American and Caribbean countries. “I decided to use poetry because many African groups brought to the region their use of music and rhythm… I was trying to use them as a healing [form of] music… trying to tell Dominicans that this is our history—it’s the same as the Haitians today, they are unwelcome when they have the same right to be here.”

Delving further into tensions among groups like Dominicans and Haitians, Nin continued by saying that “as a society, we have the tendency of inventing ‘the other’ to transmit our own fears, our own demons, our own hatred to put into somebody because our own survival instinct as a species is to tell ourselves that we are perfect and to blame somebody else. That creates fear that later on transcends in history and becomes the product of events such as the Holocaust… I look at the events happening around the world and in the Dominican Republic and question why we haven’t learned our lesson.”

Not only was Nin’s reading and personal message powerful, but the interaction of the audience also felt impactful. People seemed very willing and open to having conversations about conflicting experiences from diverse cultures, and were able to laugh and find understanding despite some difficult topics.

I don’t know a lot of Spanish and the thought of attending this reading was overwhelming at first. However, it is experiences like this that make us aware of what is happening outside our own worldview. It was a pleasant surprise to see how our comfort zones expanded, even if it was by only a little bit.