Cuban Literature in the Age of Black Insurrection: A New Book on Afro-Cuban Writers and Diasporic Religions

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Cuban Literature in the Age of Black Insurrection: Manzano, Plácido, and Afro-Latino Religion was recently published by the University of Mississippi Press.


Author of Cuban Literature in the Age of Black Insurrection: Manzano, Plácido, and Afro-Latino Religion, Matthew Pettway is assistant professor of Spanish at the University of South Alabama where he is associated with the Africana Studies Program. He teaches Afro-Latin American, Caribbean and Spanish literatures. He was a Visiting Scholar in the LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies Collections at the University of Texas in Austin in 2014. And, in 2013, the University of Kansas named him the Langston Hughes Visiting Professor. At Kansas, he offered a graduate seminar on Blacks in Cuban literature and delivered a public lecture on his research. Moreover, he was awarded the Foreign Language Area Studies Award (FLAS) to study Brazilian Portuguese in Salvador da Bahia in summer 2005. Pettway has a keen interest in how Afro-Latin Americans that endured extreme trauma in the colonial era took hold of the aesthetic and spiritual tools available to them to conceive a poetics of emancipation. His research examines race, slavery, and African ideas of spirit and cosmos in nineteenth-century Black Cuban literature. His work is part of a broader project of literary and historical recovery, akin to what Toni Morrison has termed “a kind of literary archaeology.” And, he has published peer- reviewed articles, book chapters and encyclopedia entries on Cuban writers of African descent such as Juan Francisco Manzano, Plácido, José del Carmen Díaz, and Ambrosio Echemendía.

Juan Francisco Manzano and Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (Plácido) were perhaps the most important and innovative Cuban writers of African descent during the Spanish colonial era. Both nineteenth-century authors used Catholicism as a symbolic language for African-inspired spirituality. Likewise, Plácido and Manzano subverted the popular imagery of neoclassicism and Romanticism in order to envision Black freedom in the tradition of the Haitian Revolution.

Plácido and Manzano envisioned emancipation through the lens of African spirituality, a transformative moment in the history of Cuban letters. Matthew Pettway examines how the portrayal of African ideas of spirit and cosmos in otherwise conventional texts recur throughout early Cuban literature and became the basis for Manzano and Plácido’s antislavery philosophy. The portrayal of African-Atlantic religious ideas spurned the elite rationale that literature ought to be a barometer of highbrow cultural progress.

Cuban debates about freedom and selfhood were never the exclusive domain of the white Creole elite. Pettway’s emphasis on African-inspired spirituality as a source of knowledge and a means to sacred authority for Black Cuban writers deepens our understanding of Manzano and Plácido not as mere imitators but as aesthetic and political pioneers. As Pettway suggests, Black Latin American authors did not abandon their African religious heritage to assimilate wholesale to the Catholic Church. By recognizing the wisdom of African ancestors, they procured power in the struggle for Black liberation.

Cuban Literature in the Age of Black Insurrection: Manzano, Plácido, and Afro-Latino Religion is a necessary book for our times, one that convincingly argues for a place for the two leading Cuban poets of the nineteenth century, Juan Francisco Manzano and Gabriel de la Concepción ‘Plácido’ Valdés in the Cuban literary canon. Both of African descent, Manzano and Plácido were radical thinkers whose discursive leanings were steeped in African religiosity cloaked in Western canonical tropes of Catholicism and Greco-Roman deities. In turn a historical, theological, and literary study, Pettway here establishes these two men as intellects worthy of more concerted focus nearly two hundred years after their deaths.– Vanessa K. Valdés, professor of Spanish and Portuguese and director of the Black Studies Program at the City College of New York

AAIHS Editors: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject?

Matthew Pettway: I envision Cuban Literature in the Age of Black Insurrection as an intervention into a larger debate about literacy as a conduit of knowledge for African Diasporic colonial authors. In the Cuban context, critics have contended that Spanish literacy was the symbol of cultural attainment par excellence and that it functioned as a basis for epistemology. While this was certainly true for many white Cuban authors, I argue that Black authors Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (also known as Plácido) and Juan Francisco Manzano navigated two worlds and traversed cultural boundaries. Manzano and Plácido pledged loyalty to Catholicism even while engaging African ideas of spirit and cosmos that subverted the authority of what the priesthood deemed “the one true religion.” My book is a radical departure from previous scholarship because I demonstrate how Plácido and Manzano appropriated Catholicism, Romanticism, and Neoclassical imagery as symbolic languages for Afro-Caribbean spirituality. I hope my book will represent a paradigm shift in our thinking about Black writers in colonial Latin America because it analyzes how they reconstructed Africa in America through an engagement with Bakongo- and Yoruba-inspired spiritualties. Afro-Caribbean spirituality provided Black authors political and metaphysical tools to conceive what African-descended liberation might look like.

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