Antonio Feros. Speaking of Spain: The Evolution of Race and Nation in the Hispanic World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. 384 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-04551-4.
Reviewed by Nicholas Jones (Bucknell University)
Published on H-Black-Europe (March, 2019)
Commissioned by Robbie Aitken (Sheffield Hallam University, Humanities Research Center)
Antonio Feros’s Speaking of Spain: The Evolution of Race and Nation in the Hispanic World meticulously investigates and uncovers the complexity and richness of the “idea of Spain,” in that the author argues that such a conception came into being due to the slow shifting categories of race and nation. In its careful examination of the so-called evolution of these two categories, this monographic study explores how “the term race also evolved from the fifteenth century onward, parallel to dominant theories about the existence of distinct human groups (races) or explanations of the causes and consequences of human diversity” (pp. 8-9). Feros further explains that the book’s aim “is to link intellectual processes with contemporaneous social and political practices and contests” (p. 9).
In my view, Speaking of Spain is a great book because of its clear organization and self-interiority. By self-interiority, I am referring to Feros’s astute historical framing of the idea of “self-perception.” For the author, this concept describes “Spaniards’ perceptions of self and others, within and outside of Spain” (p. 10). And via the conceptualization of “self-perception,” which Feros attends to throughout the entire book, this positions Spain’s “speaking” of and “thinking” about race in a complex and compelling manner that privileges the histories of Spaniards’ visions of themselves. I enjoy Feros’s clear periodization of epochs and his discussion of the various ways race has become more complex over time. Further, the attention Speaking of Spain gives to ideas of self-interiority and self-reflexivity will prove important for readers. To that effect, what substantiates this monograph as impeccably researched, meticulously analyzed, and impressively documented is the way the author brings the study of race and nation together. In one sense, he illuminates how race and nation developed and changed over the course of the Hapsburg and Bourbon dynasties. A close side-by-side reading of chapter 1, “Spains,” and chapter 5, “A New Spain, A New Spaniard,” elucidates the bureaucratic, cultural, legalistic, and political differences, to only name several, operative over the course of Hapsburg global expansion and the Bourbon Reforms. And in another sense, we have the historiographical and encyclopedic knowledge Feros provides: he urges his readers to reconsider the evolution of and linkage between race and nation via such categories as climate theory, hierarchy, language, lineage, purity of blood statutes, and religion. Scholars and students, especially those working in early modern transatlantic Hispanic studies, can learn a lot from firstly the carefully crafted research questions and secondly from the approach of the study on the subjects of empire, race, and even, perhaps, postcoloniality.
The author explains that the book attempts to understand premodern and modern constructions of ethnicity, nationhood, and race in Spain, as well as the contexts that shaped them—“on their own terms but also because these concepts and ideas in some vital ways continue to inform the identities and struggles of modern Spaniards.” Thematic and chronological in its structure—which the author adds “mirrors [the book’s] major questions and lines of analysis”—Speaking of Spain comprises seven chapters and a conclusion (p. 11). The first four chapters focus on the early modern period, thereby delineating emergent definitions and terminologies operative in Spain and the Americas during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To that effect, chapter 1 analyzes the political composition of the Spanish monarchy during this early period, while chapter 2 treats contemporary theories about the existence of Spanish ethnotype. Attending to the “others within” sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain, chapter 3 considers the predicament of converted Jews (conversos) and Muslims (moriscos), while chapter 4 addresses Spanish visions and theories of the racial difference of black Africans and Amerindians. Turning to the eighteenth century, chapter 5 uncovers the processes of national and ethnic creation in Spain, while chapter 6 takes on these issues in a transatlantic frame. Political in scope, chapter 7 examines the role and legacy of the Constitution of Cádiz of 1812, which inaugurated a new, concrete form to the modern meaning of nation, citizenship, gender, slavery, and race. Feros’s conclusion is particularly compelling and well done, for it reminds us that Speaking of Spain “emerged out of social and political debates in the 1990s [that] insistently point back to the evolution of the national question in the early modern period” (p. 280). His fervent and gripping concluding thoughts will challenge readers in Spain and across the Americas to rethink Spain’s historic relations with its “others within and without”—Arabs, black Africans, Native Americans, and Jews—in order to reconcile their interactions with new immigrant populations.
Feros’s consideration of these ethical questions is what, furthermore, makes Speaking of Spain an exceptional piece of scholarship. I commend his self-awareness, self-interiority, and self-reflection articulated throughout Speaking of Spain, which ultimately enriches the journey on which the book takes us, a journey that speaks of Spain’s—not Europe’s—uniquely complex construction and history of the evolution of race and nation, while also urging present-day Spain as a nation to reconcile its colonial exploitation.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-black-europe.
Nicholas Jones. Review of Feros, Antonio, Speaking of Spain: The Evolution of Race and Nation in the Hispanic World.
H-Black-Europe, H-Net Reviews.
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