Writing Antiracism in Cuba: An Author’s Response

This post is part of our online roundtable on Devyn Spence Benson’s Antiracism in Cuba.

Woman wearing face paint, "Yo soy Fidel" (I am Fidel). Source: www.granma.cu.
Woman wearing face paint, “Yo soy Fidel” (I am Fidel). Source: www.granma.cu.

I still remember the first paper I wrote examining blackness in Cuba in my history PhD program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. We had read Daisy Rubiera’s Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in the Twentieth Century that week for seminar. I was awed, inspired, and fascinated by the stories Rubiera’s mother, Reyita, told about having bad hair, marrying a white man to improve her children’s life chances, and living during the dynamic revolutionary years of 1960s Cuba. In many ways, Reyita’s narrative mirrored stories my parents, US Blacks, told me growing up about brown bag tests, hot combs, Jim Crow segregation, and participating in the turbulent 1960s Civil Rights Movement in Charlotte, North Carolina.

That essay eventually led me to a dissertation project on the 1959 anti-discrimination campaign in Cuba and my first visit to Havana in the summer of 2003. I wanted to see for myself how blackness and race converged and diverged between Cuba and the United States. Still in a process of recovery from the dramatic economic collapse of the 1990s after losing its chief trading partner, the USSR, Cuba was a tough place to live and visit as a person of African descent in 2003. Brown skin and curly hair assured that you would be barred from entering tourist hotels, assumed to be a prostitute, and asked for your identification card by the many police who roamed Havana protecting the newest crop of white tourists from Black and brown Cubans—or anyone who looked “Cuban.” As I watched and listened, I wondered how anti-Black racism could be so persistent in a place that had not only undergone a radical revolution, but a revolution that was known throughout the world as being antiracist, egalitarian, and a challenger of injustice in Latin America and Africa. How did the same revolution that inspired Nelson Mandela to call Fidel Castro one of his closest friends also bar young Black women from entering hotels because they were thought to be prostitutes? And what does the persistence of racism despite revolutionary social reforms in Cuba teach us about blackness, whiteness, Cubanidad, and the very idea of revolution then and now?

These were the questions that motivated me to write Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution. Relying on Cuban and US archival sources, newspapers, visual materials, and over twenty oral histories, I found that the answers to my questions lay in the contradictory nature of white-led antiracist movements. In telling this story, many themes came to light that the participants in this roundtable have so clearly examined.

As Yesenia Barragan notes, Antiracism in Cuba fits into the scholarship about myths of racial harmony in Latin America. In trying to understand how Cuba’s national ideology of racelessness–epitomized in the quotation “we aren’t white, we aren’t black, we are all Cuban”–both allowed for and hindered certain types of antiracism in the 1959 revolutionary moment, I probed how long-held national narratives sometimes impede future progress. Aisha Finch draws attention to the ways Cuba’s anti-discrimination campaign not only had to address Black demands, but also white fears and reminds us that the 1959 revolution that we now take for granted as a historical fact was a “unwieldy, cumbersome, and often incomplete institution that had to be made and lived.” And, Melina Pappademos eloquently highlights the chapters in the book that show how the United States and Cuba both tried to use each other’s racial politics against the other in the tense Cold War/Civil Rights period. By drawing attention to the book’s focus on the persistence of Black Cuban political activism despite government censure, racial politics that crossed the 1959 divide, and how Antiracism in Cuba speaks to contemporary social movements, Nancy Mirabal and Sandy Placido also showcased aspects of the book that I had hoped readers would find valuable.

I especially want to thank the reviewers for their tough questions. They each pointed out moments when I left things out or where they wanted additional information: What about gender? Did a “different (possibly woman-centered?) Black, intersectional politics exist?” What did these same challenges to racism look like in Afro-Cuban music, dance, spiritual practices, comedy, or other cultural productions? “Is [there] still time to make change, or have the missed opportunities, silencing, and unwillingness to combat racism become a defining factor of the Cuban Revolution?” I began to address some of these themes in the Epilogue to Antiracism in Cuba, but, in reality, many of these questions deserve their own book, one that I am currently writing.

My new book project, Black Consciousness in Cuba: The Untold Revolution, 1968-1978, seeks to fill a gap in the current literature about race in Cuba that follows the familiar arc from slavery to freedom, through activism in the republic (1902-1958), to the 1959 revolutionary Cuba period and then jumps to the present-day via the challenges and openings following the 1990s economic crisis. Even Antiracism in Cuba uses this same chronology! In this narrative, most historians agree that after the early 1960s it became taboo to talk about continued racism—the project of revolutionary nationalism required unity and thus conversations about racism that could divide the nation had to be avoided. Only when racism seemed to “return” after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and Cuba’s dramatic economic collapse did public debates reemerge. Yet, in jumping from 1961 to 1989, this familiar history of race in Cuba leaves much untold. For example, after the official closure of the anti-discrimination campaign in 1961, what happened to the decades-long tradition of Black activism that had existed previously? What strategies did Black and mulato intellectuals, especially Afro-Cubana women, use to challenge racism in the late 1960s and 1970s? In what ways did their efforts mirror Cuba’s internationalist framework, especially through relationships with Caribbean activists and artists?

To answers these questions, I am building a new archive that looks different from the newspapers, government speeches, and political manifestos used primarily in my first book and written predominantly by men. Many of the activists and intellectuals who remained in Cuba and continued to fight against racism in the late 1960s and 1970s were women who did so through artistic and cultural productions. Building on historian Alejandro de la Fuente’s work on Grupo Antillano—a late 1970s artistic movement that saw the inspiration for Cuban art in the Caribbean and Africa rather than in Europe—and Elizabeth Schwall’s research on Afro-Cuban dancers in the Conjunto Folklórico, the archive for this project includes materials such as poems by Nancy Morejón and Georgina Herrera, documentaries and films by Sara Gómez, and short stories and plays by Inés María Martiatu Terry. I also plan to conduct oral histories with Black and mulato Cubans who were members of small home study groups that met privately in this period to discuss the writings of Caribbean Black consciousness thinkers, debate how those ideas might fit into a Cuban revolutionary context, and experiment with ways to include trans-Caribbean concepts in their films, art, and poetry. My forthcoming article in Cuban Studies 46, “Sara Gómez: Afro-Cubana Activism After 1961” (January 2018), is a part of this new research and highlights the previously under-examined documentaries of the first Black woman filmmaker in Cuba’s state sponsored film industry as a way of talking about Black women’s continued political activism after the closure of the early anti-discrimination campaign.

My new book project continues to delve into Black political activism in Cuba, but rather than focus on connections with the United States or Africa, it does so through an exploration of Caribbean Black consciousness in Cuba. I focus on a cadre of Afro-Cuban activists and intellectuals who proposed radical strategies for eradicating racism as part of their collaborations with Caribbean thinkers. For example, Clara Morera, a young artist who joined a Caribbean-inspired art collective named Grupo Antillano (Antillian Group) in the 1970s, remembers that the meetings between Afro-Cuban intellectuals and Aimé Césaire generated new forms of Black activism on the island. “When Césaire came, they began to form a movement, [those who read] Fanon, the [US] Black Panthers [on the island], and the [Cuban] intellectuals . . . the intellectuals they stopped straightening their hair, [instead] wearing Afros and Black pride (orgullo negro) really began.” That Morera links Afro-Cubans’ 1960s development of “Black pride” to Césaire’s visit to Havana in 1968 makes sense because the transnational movement of ideas among Cuba, the Caribbean, and the rest of the diaspora (before and after 1959) forged Black consciousness in Cuba in this period.

We know that the Cuban Revolution profoundly shaped social and political movements throughout Latin America and the Caribbean after 1959. But, we know less about the ways that Cubans of African descent influenced—and were influenced by—the work of Black intellectuals in the circum-Caribbean region during this era of revolutionary ferment. My new project hopes to answer some of the reviewers’ insightful questions by closing the gap between present-day Black political activism in Cuba and the 1960s. The defining legacy of the Cuban revolution is not its failures, but the continued resistance of all Cubans to make the revolution a reality. Many of the Afro-Cubana women poets, filmmakers, and artists who were the protagonists in 1960s Black consciousness movements paved the way for the explosion of debates about racism in the 1990s. By shifting conversations about blackness and discrimination in Cuba from the political to the cultural sphere, these brave women kept the fires of black political activism hot throughout the 1960s and 1970s so that they could converge into the new political/cultural movement of today.

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Devyn Spence Benson

Devyn Spence Benson is an Associate Professor of Africana and Latin American Studies and Chair of the Africana Studies Department at Davidson College. She is the author of 'Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution' (UNC Press, 2016). Benson received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the field of Latin American History, where her research focused on racial politics during the first three years of the Cuban revolution. Follow her on Twitter @BensonDevyn.