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I WAS JUST THINKING: Who was Yanga? African Prince on exhibit and why he’s important to African Americans and Latinos (Part I)

By Norma Adams-Wade

Dr. W. Marvin Dulane
Dr. W. Marvin Dulaney, retired history professor, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and former deputy director of the African American Museum at Fair Park in Dallas

I hate not knowing something. But I am among tens of thousands of African Americans who never heard of and were never taught about this once-enslaved African prince who is so vital to who we Black and Latino people are today that apparently someone thought it best to keep him a buried secret.

His name is Gaspar Yanga. An entire exhibit about this self-liberated African Maroon opened April 9, 2022 at the African-American Museum at Fair Park and will be there through October 31. I urge you to see it.

There are so many elements to this story – both then and now. Some of it is unifying and worth celebrating. Some of the elements hint of a culture clash and needs some unifying work behind the scenes. An underlying purpose is to show correlating themes behind the Hispanic Cinco de Mayo and African-American Juneteenth annual celebrations.

But first, meet Yanga exhibit curator Jorge Baldor. That’s pronounced (whore-Hay Bal-Door). I had a nice conversation with Baldor who was cordial and seemed genuine. He is a busy, much-awarded local business leader and arts and film entrepreneur who has a Southern Methodist University history degree. He talked about his cultural arts and community interests, his birth in Cuba, and growing up in Dallas’ Oak Cliff community. He still lives in Dallas.

“I have seen how art can bring communities together,” Baldor said. “Through art and culture, you can have commonalities. … After that, then you can tackle tougher topics.”

Baldor founded the Latino Arts Project in 2019 as a “pop-up” museum to be displayed in various innovative spaces and to engage visitors’ five senses. He is the main force behind the Project collaborating with the African American Museum at Fair Park and its founder, president and CEO, Dr. Harry Robinson Jr. to bring the exhibit to the museum.

Baldor’s produced a ground breaking Black History Month Afro-Mexican celebration at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas in February 2020. He is founder and CEO of the first-of-its-kind nonprofit After8toEducate youth homeless shelter in the former Fannie C. Harris Elementary School that closed in South Dallas in 2006, and he founded the Latino Center for Leadership Development in Dallas. His various awards include being a 2017 Texan of the Year finalist and the D Magazine CEO Edition’s 2016 Latino Advocate of the Year.

Yanga exhibit curator Jorge Baldor
Yanga exhibit curator Jorge Baldor Credit: The Dallas Morning News special contributor Jeffrey McWhorter
WHO IS GASPAR YANGA?

The West African prince was taken from his French-speaking homeland of Gabon, West Africa, enslaved by Spaniards in the 1560s, and brought to Veracruz, Mexico then known as New Spain. During the Atlantic slave trade in the North, South and Central Americas, Yanga is known as an effective liberator who convinced a group of
enslaved Africans to revolt in New Spain against their ruling Spanish masters. The escapees found freedom in the New Spain mountainous wilderness and established independent, free, hidden Maroon farm settlements that some historians call an African dynasty in the Americas.

In the 1930s, the area was renamed Yanga in honor of the African liberator, and inhabitants erected a machete-holding statue of the Yanga freedom fighter that remains today as a tourist attraction. Yanga also is an important ancestor to Mascogos — descendants of Blacks who escaped slavery in the United States in the 1800s via the Underground Rail Road and populated the desert town of Coahuila, Mexico and who are predecessors of the areas’ Afro-Mexican traditions and festivals. The mysterious question and shock is this: why has the history of Yanga and his liberation victory been withheld from African-Americans over the centuries?

Statue of machete-griping liberator Garpar Yanga in Maxico
Statue of machete-griping liberator Garpar Yanga in Maxico Credit: Wikipedia
ABOUT PART I

This is part I of a two-part column that will continue next week. Three local historians will give their perspectives on the exhibit. Besides Baldor, the other two historians are Clarence Glover Jr., a former Southern Methodist University diversity administrator and adjunct professor; and Dr. W. Marvin Dulaney, an associate history professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Arlington. All three agree that the exhibit is captivating, and they lament that this proud information about Yanga’s contribution to the Americas – North, South and Central — has been withheld so long from young and old, students and adults of various cultures. The three historians salute Baldor and the Latino Arts Project for bringing Yanga out of the darkness. Glover calls Yanga his “personal hero.” Yet while Glover applauds the exhibit, he presents some differing views about its presentation of what he calls “the lost story of the first freedom fighter in ‘The Americas.’ ” Come back next week learn more.

EXHIBIT DETAILS
Historian Clarence Glover Jr.
Historian Clarence Glover Jr. at the exhibit, talking with friends about a commissioned art piece simulating the Yanga liberator in Mexico Credit: Clarence Glover J

The FREE exhibit, “Yanga: Path to Freedom in the Americas,” opened April 7, 2022 and will continue through October 31, 2022 at the African American Museum, 3536 Grand Ave inside Fair Park in Dallas. Enter the fairground through Gate 5. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. During the Yanga exhibit, the museum – that traditionally is closed on Sunday and Monday — will be open now on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. To inquire, email jorge@visityanga.com or info@aamdallas.org; call 214-565-9026 or 800-569-YANGA. Also, visit www.visityanga.com or www.aamdallas.org.

Norma Adams-Wade, is a proud Dallas native, University of Texas at Austin journalism graduate and retired Dallas Morning News senior staff writer. She is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and was its first southwest regional director. She became The News’ first Black full-time reporter in 1974. norma_adams_wade@yahoo.com
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