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Chronicle of Higher Education October 14, 2013
To Be Black in Cuba
By Antonio López
In March, The New York Times published a commentary by the black Cuban
intellectual Roberto Zurbano, "For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn't
Begun." Written in Spanish and translated for the newspaper, the essay
fit a tradition going back to the early 19th century of Cuban literary
and political works published or produced abroad in hopes of creating
change on the island. Zurbano's reasons for why people of African
descent fare worse than whites in a contemporary Cuba beset by informal
and structural racism rang true: the legacy of slavery; lack of
resources to participate in the growing private economy; cuts in the
social-welfare system; discriminatory hiring practices in a state
tourism industry that pays in valuable American dollars; remittances
that go only to white Cubans from a majority-white Cuban diaspora; and
the related underrepresentation of Afro-Cubans among the elite and
overrepresentation among the incarcerated.
All that is largely off limits in public discussion, Zurbano reminded
us, a fact not unrelated to the omnipresence of racist discourse in
everyday, private life in Cuba. Change is needed. Some of Zurbano's
readers might even call it a revolution.
And therein lies the problem.
Soon after the appearance of his essay, Zurbano was demoted from editor
of the Casa de las Américas, the famous state publishing house. His
essay was repudiated by Cuban critics in La Jiribilla, an online,
state-sponsored magazine about culture. Zurbano defended himself, taking
the Times to task for apparently changing his title without his
consent—from "For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Isn't Over." The
change impugned the Cuban revolution's record on racial justice, a
sensitive matter for Zurbano, who, while commenting on Cuban race in
compelling ways, hews to the official line in intellectual and cultural
matters of working always "within" the revolution—which is to say, of
ultimately endorsing, rather than opposing, the seemingly
untranscendable horizon of the state.
A black Cuban intellectual was punished by the Cuban government for
writing in the mainstream American media about racial injustice in Cuba.
But that's only the beginning of the discussion of how racial categories
that were forged during plantation colonialism mark the economic,
political, and cultural supremacy of the elite blancos criollos (white
Cubans) on both sides of the Florida Straits, from the watershed of 1959
to the seeming wane today of both reactionary Miami exiles and the
regime of the Castro brothers.
What if Zurbano's essay had been published in its original Spanish in
Granma, the state newspaper, with the title that Zurbano originally
submitted, before many rounds of changes? "El país que viene: y mi Cuba
negra?" ("The Country to Come: And My Black Cuba?") would have provided
a mood of possibility. Or what if a white Cuban intellectual writing
"within" the revolution turned the public conversation about race in
Cuba to how the inherited, undemocratic power of whiteness is reflected,
for example, in the state's heir-apparent, Miguel Díaz-Canel? Or if the
Times, emulating such earlier Latino newspapers in New York City as El
Gráfico and Pueblos Hispanos, had run side-by-side Spanish-English
versions of "For Blacks," calling attention to, rather than erasing, the
twists and turns of Spanish in its relations with English?
Such thoughts hover over the fact that, with Havana's new travel policy
easing departures from the island this year, the arrival of "For Blacks"
in the Times coincided with the remarkable visits to the United States
of dissident Cuban activists and intellectuals, white and black.
Critiques of the regime by such thinkers as Yoani Sánchez, Berta Soler,
Guillermo Fariñas, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, and Manuel Cuesta Morúa
have appeared on social media, in newspapers in the United States, and
in lectures on college campuses, and they have often condemned racism.
For years many people in the United States either ignored Cuba or viewed
the island through a familiar prism: the U.S. intervention in the war
for Cuban independence in 1898, the missile crisis, the rise and
influence of post-1959 expatriate communities, or the mass migrations
from the island. Beneath the headlines, intellectuals and writers in
Cuba and the United States have long been interested in the island,
though often through a lens of evasion and contradiction when it comes
to race and, in particular, the situation of Afro-Cubans. That was the
case despite the efforts of some critics who looked at racism in Cuba.
Now, in the last decade or so, scholarly attention has coalesced on the
culture and politics of race in Cuba—and in the broader Cuban diaspora.
You can see that in a number of books published in the last few years.
Vera M. Kutzinski's The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and
Translation in the Americas (Cornell University Press, 2012) offers a
superb historical context for Zurbano's vexed experience, demonstrating
how bearing the words of Cuban race (and, in particular, of
Afro-Cubanness) back and forth between Cuba and the United States has
long been constitutively troublesome, challenging both Afro-Cuban and
African-American aesthetic and political certainties.
Kutzinski, a professor of English and comparative literature at
Vanderbilt University, shows how Spanish translations in Latin America
of Hughes's writing, especially his poetry, and Hughes's own
translations of the Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, published with the
help of the African-American professor Ben Frederic Carruthers, at
Howard University, emerged as major works themselves, in tension with
the supposed primacy of the originals. What we have is a recognition of
how hemispheric these literary and cultural texts were—as captured,
for example, in the wonderfully allusive term of the Afro-Puerto Rican
poet Tato Laviera, "AmerRícan."
The "AmerRícanness" of Hughes is in the details. His poem "I, Too,"
Kutzinski shows us, translated into Spanish by the Cuban José Antonio
Fernández de Castro, sees its "darker brother" ("I, too, sing America./I
am the darker brother.") become an hermano negro (black brother), in a
blackening of Hughes's color that evokes, too, poor and working-class
identifications. When Hughes takes the Afro-Cuban Guillén into English,
particularly those poems of Guillén's configured to the speech of poor
and working-class Afro-Cubans, he does so in African-American vernaculars.
While such translations link African-Americanness and Afro-Cubanness,
they are also not equivalent. That's part of the African diaspora. In a
similar way, Zurbano's "Mi Cuba negra" turned into "For Blacks in Cuba"
evokes not just the Times's editorial limitations, but also African
diasporic translation practices in all their productive "error": in the
root sense of the word, wandering. Against the erasure of Afro-Cuban
pasts, culture seeps through and ultimately complicates
everything—leaving behind traces that belie complete disappearance.
Complicating things for the better is Grupo Antillano: The Art of
Afro-Cuba (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), a collection of
essays, images, and primary documents edited by the historian Alejandro
de la Fuente. The collection testifies to the work of a group of Cuban
artists, many of African descent, producing painting, sculpture, and
graphic design as the collective Grupo Antillano (Antillean Group).
The story of the group, active on the island between 1978 and 1983, is
largely missing from dominant narratives of Cuban art. Yet its work was
known in Cuba—however indifferent (in ways benign and less so) the
attitude toward it may have been in elite art circles and officialdom. A
unifying aspect of the collective was its commitment to art based on
black Cuban cultural and historical experiences—and to seeing such an
endeavor as broadly Caribbean. That not only set the collective apart.
It made it provocative, in opposition to the island's cultural doctrines
of the time (for example, socialist realism) that looked on Caribbean
associations with the plantation system, religious traditions like regla
de ocha (also known as santería), and historical acts of black
resistance as mere "folklore."
Afrocubanas: historia, pensamiento y prácticas culturales (Afro-Cuban
Women: History, Thought and Cultural Practices), published by the
Editorial de Cencias Sociales in 2011, is an important volume edited by
the writers Daisy Rubiera Castillo and Inés María Martiatu Terry. In it,
the writer and blogger Yusimí Rodríguez López tells of erased pasts in a
narrative both personal and public: Bringing to light an incident of
workplace racism under a white superior, Rodríguez López goes on to
discuss how the official memory of an episode of 19th-century Spanish
violence against Cuban medical students has often ignored the role that
Abakuás, members of a men-only Afro-Cuban secret society, played in
resisting the colonial attack. The telescoping of Abakuá history into
the anecdote about discrimination reflects the collection's investment
in black Cuban women's agency against both racist and masculine
constructions of Cuban belonging. The essay also calls into question the
attitude we saw in the criticism of Zurbano—that Afro-Cubans should be
grateful for the gains they have made since the revolution.
One of Zurbano's points in "For Blacks" is the need for an accurate
count of the island's majority Afro-Cuban population, a tabulation long
feared by some Cubans as revealing a numerical, and political,
Afro-Cuban "advantage." The call to fix the undercounting happens in the
context of complex negotiations among Cubans of African descent with
categories of race, gender, and sexuality. In his ethnography
¡Venceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba (Duke University
Press, 2011), Jafari S. Allen, a scholar of African-American studies and
anthropology at Yale University, reminds us that any remedy will thus
involve challenging Cuban racial, gender, and sexual discrimination.
It is crucial to reflect, as Allen does, on how lesbian, gay, and
straight identities intersect with Afro-Cubanness. Allen is careful to
acknowledge that his island observations, begun in 1998 and often the
product of a "deep hanging out" (a rich concept for any critical
ethnography), demonstrate the partial, short-lived, often "failed"
character of his respondents' erotic engagements. One such everyday
encounter is an Afro-Cuban women's dance party in a home just west of
Havana: the crowded, peso-taxi ride to the party; the beauty and
managerial skill of the woman at the door welcoming guests and
collecting the money; the clothing and shoes among the partygoers; and
the lesbian courtship on the dance floor between partners who test
"butch" and "femme" parameters to a song by the group Bamboleo, all of
which, to Allen, registers how "serious play" counters alienation on the
way to establishing community.
Allen does not, however, argue for black and queer protest movements.
Like Zurbano, he marks himself (and his respondents) as committed to
changing Cuba from a position within the revolutionary process. A black
scholar from the United States, he calls to mind such names as Amiri
Baraka and Angela Davis in a long history of African-American engagement
with the Cuban state, one by no means uncomplicated. At times "passing"
or "mistaken" as a black Cuban during his fieldwork, Allen is profiled
by the Cuban police, prompting disillusionment informed by the virulence
of racial profiling in the United States. Such incidents complicate the
portrait of the island.
Although ¡Venceremos? begs the question of dissidence, we see in its
titular queer interrogatory (in place of a straight exclamatory)
intimations of sympathy with questions unanswerable or otherwise left
hanging by the book itself: in particular, how the people whose social
erotics Allen describes may relate to and one day (perhaps even already)
wander across utopian terrains unhindered by the revolution. In a
similar way, an Afro-Latino reading of Zurbano's "For Blacks in Cuba"
sees in it an unspoken possibility of Afro-Cuban-American lives lived
"here" already and in the future.
Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball
(Hill and Wang, 2011), a biography by Adrian Burgos Jr. of the
Afro-Cuban-American Alejandro Pompez (1890-1974), is an excellent
contribution to our historical understanding of afrolatinidad: the
Afro-Latino condition in the United States. Pompez was born in Key West
and lived there and in Tampa before moving to Harlem, a trajectory that
places him in three historical centers of the Cuban diaspora, from the
eve of the island's independence to well after the revolution. Pompez
was the owner of the Negro League teams the Cuban Stars and the New York
Cubans, ran a numbers bank, and, eventually, worked as a scout for the
New York and San Francisco Giants—a stretch of baseball history during
which he facilitated the careers of many African-American and
Afro-Latino players. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of
Fame in 2006.
Race has factored into Latino experience in the United States in uneven
ways, Burgos shows: Speaking Spanish in public affected the ways black
Latinos were received by Anglo whites, African-Americans, and other
(often white) Latinos. Burgos recognizes, for example, that using
Spanish often marked Afro-Latino players as "acceptable" (because
"foreign") blacks, thereby placing them above African-Americans for
opportunities (however limited) of upward mobility. Nothing, however,
could give Afro-Latinos in the sport the privileges of those
"light-skinned" Latinos who managed to play for both the white Major
Leagues and the Negro Leagues before Jackie Robinson.
In May, the Afro-Cuban rapper Raudel Collazo Pedroso (Escuadrón
Patriota) did a show at Cuba Ocho, the art, performance, and nightlife
space in Miami's Little Havana. The place was packed with Cubans born in
this country, and those who came here years ago or yesterday. White
Cubans, Afro-Cubans; youth, the elders, and everyone in between. Other
people, not just Cubans, were there as well. Collazo Pedroso tore it up
that night, his physical presence and voice buoying the crowd, his
Cuban-Spanish lyrics speaking to love and resistance, the latter aimed
at whatever constrains us—aimed at the Cuban state. He shouted out
Güines, where he's from, and Hialeah, still South Florida's thickest
Cuban center. He addressed himself to the crowd "as a father," "as a
Cuban," "as a negro."
"As a negro" hung there for a moment in the nightclub air and above the
audience. The promised possibilities—to some, perhaps the threats—are
not unrelated to the concerns of Zurbano's essay and the books discussed
here. Collazo Pedroso's self-presentation "as a negro" evoked a Cuban
Miami less white than before, in demographic and ideological terms. It
sounded out an island-Cuban future other than the one sanctioned now,
one proffered "as a negro"—or "as a negra."
Antonio López is an associate professor of English at George Washington
University. He is the author of Unbecoming Blackness: The Diaspora
Cultures of Afro-Cuban America (New York University Press, 2012).
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