The University of Toledo – Research News

Predicting Violence

“Domestic violence is the most prevalent crime that police come in contact with and is the number one source of violent crime against women and children,” says Richard Johnson, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice. In one year 1.3 million women in the U.S. are physically assaulted by a spouse or intimate partner; of the 3,800 women murdered annually, 33 percent are the result of domestic violence. Further, domestic violence contributes to other crimes–the vast majority of inmates in U.S. prisons grew up in abusive environments.

In an attempt to understand what happens in domestic violence calls, Johnson has pursued three general lines of inquiry: the likelihood of assault on a police officer, analysis of firearms incidences and the possibility of predicting a physical assault on an officer.

Domestic violence is the crime that police officers encounter most often, Johnson notes. In the late 60s, the U.S. Department of Justice said that it was the most dangerous call a police officer could make. But there were no data. Studies conducted in the 80s found that statement not to be true (because the databases of the time did not separate the types of calls); academicians thus began to play down the dangers of domestic violence. The problem was, even if domestic violence was third or fourth on the list (after ambush, robberies and traffic stops), it was still dangerous and still the cause of police deaths.  When he examined the data, he found that, from 1980 through 2006, 514,711 officer assaults occurred nationally. By extrapolating from other research, Johnson was able to calculate that domestic violence is the cause of 113,236 officer assaults. That statistic, if correct, means that 4,194 assaults occur each year on officers handling domestic violence cases. “Clearly,” he says, “domestic violence calls are not danger free.”

Further, Johnson notes, whereas officer murders have decreased for a number of reasons (better protective gear, better training, better weaponry), he found that officer survival statistics in domestic violence cases have remained stable. When he analyzed FBI data and searched newspaper accounts for the years 1999 through 2003, he found 143 firearm assaults on 225 officers responding to domestic violence calls. Of those, at least one officer was wounded in 67 of the incidents and one officer killed in 27.

To determine survival characteristics in domestic violence cases, Johnson analyzed the 143 firearm assaults as to the day of week, time of day, place, type of weapon, presence of witnesses, offender background, and officer behavior. He found that survival was mostly under officer control—in particular, was the officer wearing body armor.  Johnson also found that officers are twice as likely to survive an attack with every yard distant from the shooter; officers are also twice as likely to survive if they are able to return fire.

Johnson subsequently wanted to determine if he could use existing data to predict officer assaults. What are the characteristics of domestic violence calls that lead to assaults on officers? When he examined assailant characteristics, he found a one in four chance of assault if five distinct variables were present: (1) unemployment, (2) residence with the victim, (3) alcohol use (drugs seem not to be an issue), (4) property damage, and (5) hostile demeanor. If none of those characteristics were present, no assault occurred in any of the cases in the study.

These results led Johnson to develop a training presentation to help law enforcement officers screen calls for the level of danger. Dispatchers can be trained to collect details from the caller. The presentation has been mailed to all police departments in the Midwest that employ 500 or more officers. Several states have incorporated the presentation into in-service training on a statewide basis and several municipalities have also independently adopted the program.

“It’s important to remember,” Johnson says, “that even though domestic violence does not result as many assaults and murders as some other police duties, it still presents dangers. We need to do anything we can to predict a dangerous situation and save lives.”

 

 

Johnson became interested in police encounters with domestic violence as a consequence of his service as first a patrol officer, then a probation officer and finally a criminal investigator assigned to child sexual assault cases. “It took an emotional toll,” he says. Since he enjoyed teaching and writing and had taught at a community college and written for police journals, he decided academic life would suit.


Who’s in Your Neighborhood?

Where do members of different ethnic and racial groups choose to settle and where do they buy land and houses when they become mobile and middle class?  Is upward mobility inevitably linked to ethnic and racial discord and conflict?

Although he started out looking at immigration and ethnic history, Todd Michney became interested in black neighborhoods on the urban periphery. Most historians have focused on large, segregated inner city neighborhoods where a majority of the black population lived before World War II, but Michney takes a different approach. He noticed that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—mostly Italians and Jews—interacted with African-Americans, settling in many of the same neighborhoods in outlying areas. “There didn’t seem to be nearly as antagonistic a pattern of race relations that others had identified,” he said and wondered what was going on.

The turn of the 20th century and into the 40s saw a growing black middle class and the beginnings of the suburban dream. African-Americans who were upwardly mobile sought a higher quality of life and better living conditions. They steadily started moving out of inner city areas. “Even working class individuals went to the periphery to buy land cheaper and build homes—sometimes room by room,” Michney says. “I felt I started to uncover a whole world that didn’t fit.”

Upon examining residential patterns of the 50s and 60s, Michney says he found that all-white, middle-class ethnic neighborhoods of Cleveland, Ohio were “threatened” not so much by African-Americans moving in as by ethnic residents moving out. As Jewish and Italian residents achieved higher economic status and moved to outlying suburbs, their departure provided the opportunity for middle class African-Americans to improve their living conditions by moving into vacated properties.  While there was some racial tension and isolated conflicts relating especially to swimming pool access, whites in these areas moved away much more slowly than has been recognized and some developed friendly relations with their new black neighbors in the meantime.  But as whites continued to move further and further out, African Americans, sharing the same aspirations, followed suit.

During this later period, Michney says that intraracial conflicts arose over maintaining a reasonable quality of life in those neighborhoods that were largely African-American. As whites moved out and less affluent blacks moved in, conflicts developed over housing upkeep, how available liquor should be, overcrowding, schools, and commerce. “One really interesting pattern I am not sure I can explain is the scapegoating of southern black migrants,” Michney adds. Even though most African-Americans suburbanites were only one or two generations removed from the South, they started to place blame, saying that rural southerners did not know how to live in an urban setting. “This occurred despite the fact that most of the new black residents came from urban areas and had jobs and stable families,” notes Michney.

“We have to rethink our assumptions about how residential patterns were shaped in the early 20th century,” says Michney. The claim was that African-Americans moving into an area would cause property values to decline; they would bring in crime; they would not keep up their property. But from the perspective of the African-Americans, they were seeking good housing and good living standards—all the same goals as the white residents. “Whites did not give the African-Americans a chance in the 50s to see how they would really fit in,” Michney comments. Ironically, then, fears of losing one’s investment led whites residents ultimately to move away, even in those instances when their encounters with incoming African American residents had been benign.

In the early twentieth century, African-American Clevelanders generally lived in compact areas but in close proximity to Czech, Italian and Jewish immigrants. Their children all went to the same schools. Michney says that most of the black and white former residents he interviewed talked about friendly neighborly exchange, even though historians have emphasized that immigrants, who were not initially viewed as white, basically had to adopt an anti-African-American attitude to be accepted by the larger white population.

What historians have often seen as the problem and how indigenous residents assessed the situation were not the same, Michney explains. A shrinking industrial base in cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit created a competition for jobs and economic insecurity made it harder for people to maintain their housing stock. Banks were less likely to lend to blacks and shopping malls moved further out. That is an important part of the story but not how residents typically imagined their situation, he says. Local residents were concerned with maintaining the livability of the neighborhoods—by cutting off the easy source of liquor, starting their own local businesses, and keeping money in the community.

The Community Council movement, which tried to bring together people from different backgrounds starting in the 40s, has received little press, Michney notes. These councils were somewhat successful, noting that Jews were more open to the idea, Catholics less so. “Jews were more willing to participate in the dialogue, but since they tended to be more upwardly mobile they often moved away sooner,” he says. Catholics on the other hand were less open and typically sent their children to parochial schools, although Michney found some of these desegregated before the 60s. Several observers actually noted that desegregation tended to alleviate racial tensions, especially between Italians and blacks. “In fact,” Michney states, “there was often more tension between the various white ethnic groups than between blacks and whites.”

“Racial conflicts are less now,” Michney says,” but we still see some of the same sort of reasoning on when and where to move. Today the African-American community remains split with the middle class doing quite well up until this last recession. Working class and poor blacks are increasingly alienated with some as frustrated as in the 60s. Ancestry is not destiny, but there is still a glimmer of those patterns.”

 

Todd Michney is an assistant professor of history. He received his doctorate from the University of Minnesota. He specializes in African-American history, urban history, race, ethnicity and labor. His upcoming book, Changing Neighborhoods: Black Upward Mobility in Twentieth-Century Cleveland, is a citywide study of the city’s black middle class. He anticipates using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to represent statistical data and settlement patterns in strikingly new and innovative ways.


A Few Good Women

French Couple

French literature, film, feminism, women’s studies—connections. Ruth Hottell is constantly on the lookout for connections between French literature and other topics. But as a student of French culture, she has gravitated to film. “There is no better way of showing culture than by film. The images are there,” she remarks.

Because of her love for both French and classic movies, Hottell initially was interested in the “fantastic,” loosely defined as an occurrence that creates confusion about its reality—think Hitchcock’s Vertigo. As she delved deeper into these tales, she began to analyze the underlying structure and discovered that women were generally treated as objects and had largely stereotyped roles—the temptress, the perfect housewife, the poor visitor, the wicked or evil one, the saint.

Trained as a structuralist, Hottell took film courses to learn the intricacies of creating film so that she could then dissect it with the practitioner’s expertise, peeling the different layers apart from the varying perspectives of language, grammar, scenery, costume, storyline. Once she has taken the building blocks apart, she can ask, “Now what do I have?” This is what Hottell calls engaged criticism, which involves breaking the text apart and looking for something: How does the film look at people? Does it “foreground” minor characters?

Using her background, training and personal interests, Hottell began looking at film through the lens of feminism and French post-colonialism. How does film portray women and culture and how does that portrayal change over time?

Women filmmakers are outside the mainstream of the dominant male culture, Hottell explains. As the “other,” they push to change the status quo. She finds that these women tend to treat all characters more equally. “Minor characters are more complex than they often are in men’s work,” she says, “and without regard to whether the character is male or female.”

Women also articulate the subject differently, Hottell continues. She has examined the work of several female francophone filmmakers, paying particular attention to Agnes Varda, who herself said that she films like a woman because she is a woman.  Hottell thus set out to explore more deeply what it means to “film like a woman.”  Along the way, she is also looking to see the effects of French colonialism on the work of these women and whether or not colonialism has a continuing impact.

“Mainstream narrative works on all levels to present the white male perspective as the norm,” Hottell comments. Theorist, educator and scholar bell hooks (yes, her name is spelled in all lowercase) once said, “Any artist whose politics lead him or her to oppose imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, white supremacy, and the everyday racism that abounds in all our lives would endeavor to create images that do not perpetuate and sustain domination and exploitation.” Hottell notes, “To seek alternatives to repressive representation, one must first understand how mainstream cinema manipulates images.” She says that other feminist film theorists have noted the need to expose the “glossiness of the finished text, the attractive trappings of how things are presented, and the mask of what is being said along with its ideology.” Only then, Hottell says, can critics and filmmakers seek expression of the “other’s” discourse in film.

Several Francophone filmmakers have set out to answer their own critical voices, but in doing so have “reinvented narrative pleasure in such a way as to include what the mainstream would exclude.” Artists and scholars such as Laura Mulvey, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Marguerite Duras and Chantal Akerman have taken different approaches, but all have given voice to the gendered, racial and ethnic “other.”

Hottell says that Agnes Varda “provides concrete examples and models that are strong practical applications of the concept of inclusive spectatorship.” In Le Bonheur, Varda “visually and narratively reformulates romantic paradigms to insert the gendered presence.” In fact, Hottell adds, “Le Bonheur is a subtle satire that exposes the hypocrisy of the system.”  Ironically, Hottell comments that many critics did not understand the subtlety of the film and even denounced what they considered its acceptance of the patriarchal model. Despite these criticisms, Hottell says they did generally realize that the film was not a simple fiction film but intended instead to elicit audience reaction and draw them into the cinematic world.

As her art developed, Varda produced L’Une chante, l’autre pas a few years later.  Hottell describes that film as “a fictional world in which women—and their friends, communities, problems and joys—become the central focus of the narrative.” Women’s stories permeate the entire film; Varda herself even enters it as the voice-over in the prologue. The film highlights two women, who remain very close despite their differences. Hottell says that the differences—indicated in the title of the film: one sings while the other does not—are a contradiction that is not one. “Varda’s cinécriture embraces difference and evinces an understanding of contradictions between self and other,” she says.

One critic has noted that Varda was more interested in questions than answers. Hottell remarks, “Applying Varda’s questions to films that pinpoint issues of race, ethnicity and class could be a way to meet the need for discussion of various kinds of marginalization.  Thus can film unite issues of race, class and gender in cooperative, engaged practices.”

Ruth Hottell

Ruth Hottell, professor of French and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages, holds a Ph.D. in Expanded French Studies from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  The author of numerous articles on a variety of topics within French studies, she has taught and conducted research at the University of Toledo since 1988.  Hottell has earned an international reputation, particularly within French film studies and Francophone women filmmakers; her scholarly standing has been enhanced further in the last few years by the publication of three highly-acclaimed books.


The Sounds of Music

Coming from a singing family where music was an elemental part of her life from a young age, Denise Ritter Bernardini says it was only natural that she would choose singing as a lifetime effort. She began her professional life as a studio musician in Nashville, but wanted to return to school and pursue a degree in music. After teaching in public schools for three years, she decided to enter the master’s program at Texas Christian University, which had a partnership with Fort Work Opera. This partnership provided your artists the opportunity to be in the opera apprenticeship program while also enrolling in the university’s graduate fellowship program.  “To my shock, I won the audition,” she says. And the rest, as they say, is history.

While singing with the Fort Worth Opera and Bernardini, was also section leader with both the opera chorus and a local church, had her debut at Carnegie Hall in New York with Skitch Henderson and performed the Merry Widow with Encore Arts, a traveling group. “At that time, there were a lot of traveling opera companies,” she notes, “but that is no longer the case.”

Part of the requirements for her degree in vocal pedagogy included an internship at an allergist’s office where Bernardini learned about the physiological and anatomical aspects of singing. She says she became fascinated by that part of her education and decided to pursue an opera career and teach voice. She knew she would be able to pursue her interests at the university level and so set out to get her doctorate, studying with Marilyn Horne along the way.

Ritter as Violetta in La Traviata

Bernardini’s scholarship follows three distinct paths: first she is an opera singer, with her other pursuits following ; second is her interest in a teaching method that incorporates science and pedagogical techniques; third is her passion for the history of vocal literature and cabaret in particular.

A singer’s voice changes continuously, Bernardini explains; it is never the same. She says that she continues to see a coach and is now singing better than ever before. Part of this change process is hormonal, she adds, but a singer never stops learning and studying. “Use it or lose it is so true vocally,” she notes. “It is not like riding a bicycle.” The range of scholarship required of a singer is extensive, Bernardini comments, and includes music theory, playing an instrument, music history from the Renaissance through the modern era, anatomy, vocal literature, acting, stage deportment, diction in multiple languages and how to write about music. Physics also enters the picture because the travel of air, acoustical sound and the Bernoulli effect Her background, knowledge and experience have led her to concert performances and opera roles with companies around the globe.

Ritter in Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen

Ritter in Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen

The knowledge acquired for her degree has made Bernardini a diagnostician and given her the ability to treat vocal faults. She says she is fascinated by how the voice can be manipulated to make it more resonant and how voice problems can be resolved. Some of those problems include hoarseness, nodules on the vocal chords, breathiness, holes in the voice and especially bad habits. Anatomical knowledge and an understanding of the effect of allergies can lead her to help students overcome some of these deficits. “Sometimes the problem is muscle paralysis, or vocal chords not meeting correctly,” she explains. “We have to teach the person how to exercise the vocal chords, somewhat like being a physical therapist for vocal chords. But it can be difficult because you can’t look down someone’s throat or feel what the problem is.”  Sometimes she says you just have to send the person to a doctor for a more in-depth physical diagnosis.

Bernardini says she is not a voice therapist but has worked closely with physicians and therapists to help people recover from surgeries, nodes and thyroid and throat cancer treatments. Helping to overcome voice problems is both rewarding and frustrating, she comments. “It is very frustrating if we can’t figure out what the problems are, and it can be truly devastating if someone has an irreparably damaged voice.”

Close to Bernardini’s heart and her talents, however, is her research on cabaret, a topic on which she has become an international expert. Cabaret takes its name from the place—a bar, bistro or restaurant with a stage for performers who can be comedians, jugglers, singers, actors, instrumentalists.  It is a form that bridges the traditional and contemporary divide. Coming out of the chaos of World War I, the cabaret format had no rules.

Cabaret originators thought they were being very art nouveau in breaking all kinds of performance rules, developing a new art form and rebelling against ‘the man’,” she explains. Many composers we think of as “classical” got their start in cabaret. Three of those who initially made their living by writing music for cabaret performers are Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill.  Francis Poulenc and Benjamin Britten, embracing the philosophy of art imitating art, wrote music in cabaret style. Both wrote instrumental, orchestral and vocal music and were seen as innovators

Through her study of cabaret, Bernardini finds that cabaret songs have given a rich palate of emotions—funny, sad, witty, dark, sexy, innocent—but above all they are about the human condition. “This ability to tell the story of humanity is the one thread that has not changed in cabaret. To be cabaret is to be versatile, culturally relevant and historically expressive. It is difficult to pin down whether cabaret has influenced society or if society has influenced cabaret. The constant process of creativity and artistic evolution is the essence of cabaret. Cabaret is proof of the vibrancy of popular culture,” she concludes.

 

Bio

Denise-RitterDenise Ritter Bernardini is an assistant professor of music who appears on both the concert and opera stage in music of many periods. She has sung in Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Pergolesi’s Magnificat, Bach’s Missa in A Major, Dvorak’s Te Deum, and Mozart’s Requiem. She has also appeared as  Violetta in La Traviata, Mimi in La Boheme, Yum Yum in The Mikado, Gilda in Rigoletto and other leading roles. She was looking for a home in a culturally active locale for an art song festival that she founded—The University of Toledo welcomed them both. She has also created a one-woman show that looks at cabaret history and performance. She was invited to present the show at the International University of Global Theater in Austria and at the Toledo Museum of Art.

 

 


Bio-weapon in the lettuce patch

The common cottontail rabbit — ubiquitous in forests, suburban woods and backyard gardens — seems an unlikely agent of bioterrorism. However, Jason Huntley in the Medical Microbiology and Immunology Department has rabbits on his radar; they’re the best-known reservoirs of the deadly pathogen and potential bio-weapon he‘s studying.

Francisella tularensis is a bacterium high on the U.S. government’s list of Category A Select Agents, a rogue’s gallery of molecular bad guys that also includes anthrax, botulism and plague. Capable of surviving in species that range from an amoeba in a freshwater stream to flies, ticks, mammals and humans, F. tularensis is the cause of tularemia, which can kill an adult in as little as five days.

Particularly worrisome, Huntley says, is how easily F. tularensis can be aerosolized. (Documented cases include those caused by inhaling the aftermath of sick or dead rabbits caught in lawn mowers.) “The bacteria could easily be dispersed by a small device,” he notes. “And all it takes is one Francisella bacterium to kill a human, whereas for anthrax it’s about ten thousand spores.”

Huntley and his group study aspects of proteins that exist on the bacteria’s surface. One such characteristic of these proteins is their role in virulence: How can F. tularensis cause life-threatening disease so quickly? “We now have evidence that these proteins are involved not only in the basic survival functions of the bacterium, but also in attaching to host cells, invading them and killing them,” he says.

“We also study the bacteria from a defensive standpoint, for vaccine development. Because Francisella kills so quickly, the body doesn’t have time to react, to create the antibodies and recruit immune cells necessary to kill the invader. Developing a vaccine would allow the human body to have those defense mechanisms already in place.”

Studying such deadly pathogens has profound implications for other diseases, he adds. “If you can understand how they cause disease, you can start to ask questions about how many other bacteria and viruses work: pneumonia, GI infections, skin infections. The list goes on and on.”

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Huntley’s work is under consideration by the U.S. Department of Defense.


Dance of life and death

Plants, insects and fungi in every sort of ecosystem have over time developed complex, mutually beneficial interactions that allow delicate coexistence. The pesticide/herbicide/chemical fertilizer revolution, however, has overridden these ecological relationships.Insects on leaf

Natural may be best, however, according to Dr. Stacy Philpott, UT assistant professor of environmental sciences, who’s been researching an organic coffee farm in Mexico. There, an intricate dance of interdependence exists between an unlikely set of partners: a feisty ant species (Azteca instabilis); the green coffee scale insect; and the predatory lady beetle. All three — plus some potential players waiting for a cue — play critical roles in bringing the coffee crop successfully to market.

The ants and scales form a symbiotic relationship in which the ants protect the scales from predators and parasites. In return, the scales secrete a sweet honeydew that’s eagerly taken by the ants. It’s made more complex by a predatory lady beetle: Both adults and larvae feed on coffee scales. Azteca ants can protect scales by fending off adult beetles, but can’t make a dent in the larvae.

ants on plantThe ants’ success at repelling another scale enemy, a parasitic wasp, inadvertently chases away other wasps that attack beetle larvae, adding to the system’s complexity. The ants have their own enemy, too: a parasitic fly that can limit their presence in the ecosystem. Likewise, the lady beetles can make an impact on ant numbers by preying on the scale and limiting the available honeydew.

Perfect balance is achieved when the ants are limited by beetles and parasitic flies. Both ants and beetles thrive, the latter keeping the crop-damaging scale insects under control.

But wait — scale insects can also be attacked by the white halo fungus. That same fungus, though, is an enemy of coffee rust, a disease that in the past wiped out entire coffee-growing regions. The rust exists in Central and South America; white halo fungus is a powerful rust eradicator only in places where it’s already mounting a major attack on scales — places most likely to be where the indefatigable Azteca ants are protecting their honeydew-producing scales.beetle larva

The complexity of the relationships on the successful coffee farm in southern Mexico  wouldn’t have become clear without close research, Philpott says. “Studying these interactions is important for understanding how ecosystems work, especially how agricultural systems work,” she adds. “Industrial agriculture is largely aimed at the target pests — controlling an insect or fungal disease by applying something. It wreaks havoc on biodiversity, and causes loss of habitat, contamination and related health problems.

“One solution to these problems is looking at this extremely complicated agricultural system that has so many interlinking components and asking how we can achieve natural forms of disease- and pest-control using complex food webs.”


Too few fish in the sea?

Fish feces seem an unlikely tool to help preserve the world’s much-stressed coral reefs. John W. Turner Jr. in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology knows better; he and his team of researchers have been using fecal material from parrotfish in the Virgin Islands to link their stress with that of the reefs.

The project, funded in large part by conservation groups, centers on cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress. The hormone serves as an excellent biomarker and stress monitor for both mammals and fish, and is detectable in their waste matter.

For a fish, stress goes beyond the presence of hungry predators. Nitrite — present in water due to fertilizer runoff — creates the condition as well, eventually impacting their numbers. That in turn affects the reefs. “One of the biggest threats facing coral reefs today is that we’re seeing much lower diversity in fish populations, lower reproductive success and slower growth rates in those who do reproduce” says Turner. “The bottom line is fewer fish.”

It‘s a fraught line because fish play a critical role in reef ecology. Take parrotfish: Grazing on the coral’s surface, the colorful fish eat away algae that unchecked would block sunlight from the coral and prevent vital photosynthesis.

“Parrotfish are part of most coral reef systems worldwide, so if you can find a reliable biomarker for the parrotfish family, you can apply it to almost any coral reef system,” Turner explains.

Cortisol was the first stress biomarker the researchers identified by analyzing parrotfish fecal matter. Taking a further step, they began looking at gene expression associated with stress response, and with the fish’s reproductive success. “We’d like now to know what genes are being turned on and off by stress. If we know, we have a template to tell us what type of stressor is affecting that area,” Turner says.

Recently the team was able to isolate RNA from four specific genes. The discovery encouraged them to begin developing a hierarchical biomarker system to detect and isolate individual stressors in an environment.

That would create a powerful tool for everyone interested in conservation, Turner notes. “It’s to the advantage of resort builders, for example, to know what the conditions are before they begin to build near a pristine coral reef area, then what they are as they build, open and operate.

“The relationship between developers and biologists used to be antagonistic, but that’s counterproductive. Everybody, including the public, benefits from knowing about the environment before and after. It makes constant monitoring possible.”

Far from spurning fish poop’s Ew! factor, Turner is excited: “Coral reefs are in bad enough shape as it is, and we’d all like to stem their degradation. We think this is the path to do it.”


Black conquistadors and the politics of resistance

Beatty-MedinaPirates of the Caribbean notwithstanding, the concept of being marooned is not an exclusively shiver-me-timbers phenomenon. Dr. Charles Beatty Medina in the Department of History has been studying entire marooned societies in Latin America, made up of escaped African slaves. One such group fled from a stranded slave ship in the 16th century and created independent communities along the Pacific coast of South America in present-day Esmeraldas, Ecuador.

“Escaped slaves in that country come as a surprise to most Americans, who equate the practice of slavery with America and the Caribbean,” notes Beatty Medina, who has long studied Afro-Latin slavery and resistance movements. “Before the term maroon was used to describe people left stranded, it referred to people who escaped from Spanish settlements. They were called cimarrones.”

These marooned Africans in Ecuador may have resisted colonial Spanish rule by their acts of escape, but they ended up establishing their own space within the colonial structure. In their official reports, in fact, the Spanish described the Africans as a new type of conquistador.

The parallel isn’t entirely accurate, Beatty Medina feels: “What would in fact happen in this particular area was that the Africans subjugated some Native communities, intermarried with them and over time became indigenized. So conquest and all that comes with it don’t really apply here.”

In a fascinating development, the Spanish legitimized the maroons, signing peace treaties with them. “This was very early in the process,” says Beatty Medina. “Spanish administrators realized that these African had become effective masters over this region, something the Europeans themselves, with their guns and steel and horses, had not been able to do despite numerous attempts.”

Taking a pragmatic view, the Spanish were willing to work with the Africans as long as they were amenable to becoming legitimized under Spanish rule. That was part of a pattern, Beatty Medina notes: “What the Spanish couldn’t attain by violence, they would achieve by diplomacy.”

Beatty Medina is examining numerous marooned communities in the same historical period, in Mexico, Santo Domingo, Panama and Colombia. “Some groups, like those in Panama, allied themselves with Europeans competing with Spain, like Sir Francis Drake who came in the 1570s to capture Peruvian silver as it was carried across the Panama straits,” he says.

Given their relatively small numbers and wide dispersion, maroons have been studied largely as a history apart, not within the larger run of events, he says. “My primary aim now is trying to understand how escaped African slaves whose trajectory seems to have nothing to do with the overall colonization of the Americas came to have integrated roles in that process, largely by choice.”