To Be Black in Cuba


This article by Antonio López appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. For the original report follow the link below.

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).

For the original report go to

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