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Cornelius Moore
Cornelius Moore

Cuban Film Reveals Important Black Cuban History
by Cornelius Moore, California Newsreel, 11/13/2013

A fact that few Americans know about Cuba – including Black Americans – is that the island received around 329,000 more Africans during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade than did colonial North America and the United States (779,000 vs. 379,000) (1). My recent trip to Cuba, the island nation of 11 million only 90 miles from the US, added exciting new information to my knowledge of Afro-Cuban history. Different sources cite today’s African descendant population in Cuba between a third or over half of the population – with the capitol city of Havana certainly representing those demographics. Afro-Cuban artists and other intellectuals are producing works on Afro-Cuban history and a leading force is Havana-based veteran filmmaker Gloria Rolando. She is perhaps best known in the US for her documentary Eyes of the Rainbow on exiled revolutionary Assata Shakur. I had the great opportunity to see Rolando’s most recent work, 1912 – Breaking the Silence (Voces Para Un Silencio) at its Cuban premiere in May 2013.

1912 – Breaking the Silence is the final chapter in Rolando’s sweeping 3-part series focusing on the first Black political party in the Americas, the Independent Party of Color (El Partido Independiente de Color). It’s an amazing early 20th century story about the fight for equal rights, the brutal government response and its legacy for contemporary race relations. Rolando says she made the film because she was “disturbed by how ignorant Cubans are about Cuba’s racial history, and how reluctant we are to talk about it.” (2)

Spain colonized Cuba in the 16th century. Over centuries, Spanish settlers and landholders, enslaved Africans and free Blacks and all of their descendants made up the population. Africans waged rebellions until the official abolition of slavery in 1886. Beginning in the 19th century, Cubans launched a decades-long independence struggle against Spanish rule and Afro-Cubans – free and enslaved – participated. Writer José Martí became the most famous independence campaigner along with the celebrated Afro-Cuban military leader, Antonio Maceo. In 1898, independence efforts culminated in the Spanish-Cuban-American War. Rolando’s film begins in its aftermath.

The Independent Party of Color

Afro-Cuban veterans of the War of Liberation from Spain were very disappointed that the new Cuban government did not fulfill its promise to treat all Cubans as equals. In addition, at the war’s end, U.S. businesses were appropriating land in the eastern province of Oriente where most Afro-Cubans lived and worked, further disadvantaging the population.

Inspired by the spirit of Maceo and Martí, Cuban activists including Pedro Ivonnet, Evaristo Estenoz, and other veterans of the War of Liberation founded the Independent Party of Color in 1908 Until the beginning of 1912, the popular Party tried to work within the system to bring about necessary reforms. But the government of President José Miguel Gomez, outlawed the Party, leading to an armed uprising in Oriente province. The press of the white elite portrayed Afro-Cubans as savages and the Party as a racist and divisive force, when actually the Party advanced a program for all Cubans. The Cuban army violently suppressed the revolt and massacred more than 3,000 people including many unarmed Afro-Cubans. Claiming it was “protecting” U.S. economic interests, American military forces participated.

The Documentary

The information-packed documentary draws upon a treasure trove of photos, visuals composed of newspaper headlines and clippings from the era. Commentary by Cuban historians enliven the film along with never before seen interviews with descendants of Independent Party of Color activists. Rolando makes the history relevant to today’s racial politics with images of Afro-Cuban youth and the rebellious sounds of Cuban hip-hop artists like Sekou Messiah.
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The film ends with an exhortation to viewers in 2013: “ A hundred years later, new voices are raised… that are not afraid to question the past and the present. But your voice is necessary, the voice of the future, the voice that will never again permit the cruelty of other silences.”

The Film’s Reception in Cuba

I attended the Cuban premiere of 1912 – Breaking the Silence in Havana at the prestigious Casa de las Americas. It was fascinating to be a part of the engaged and expressive audience of 300, including many Afro-Cubans. For instance there were audible gasps by the revelation that José Martí’s son played a role in the Cuban army’s 1912 massacre. Attendees included, Dr. Yolanda Wood of the Casa de las Americas, Dr. Eduardo Torres Cuevas head of the National Library, historian Tomás Fernández Robaina, economist Estéban Morales, critic Roberto Zurbano, students, hip-hop artists, researchers and the film crew. The evening ended with performances of Afro-Cuban folkloric music and patriotic songs directed by Prof. Magaly Rolando.

It was clearly a major event, not only validating the role played by Afro-Cubans in the country’s history but in today’s Cuba as well. I was eager to hear how people thought the film could play a role in generating public discussions about contemporary racial issues. Alas, there was no after film discussion. So where then, would the public conversations take place and how would they continue? Was this not a missed opportunity for dialogue then and there to end the silences which compelled Rolando to make the film?

Filmmaker Gloria Rolando will be visiting the U.S. in the Fall of 2014, enabling audiences to engage with her and the film. For more information or to schedule an appearance contact acw_AT_afrocubaweb.com (replace _AT_ with @).

1. Henry Louis Gates, Black in Latin America (New York University Press)

2. Interview with Gloria Rolando, afrocubaweb.com.

Cornelius Moore is the Co-Director of California Newsreel, the non-profit film distributor and producer that focuses on race, African American life and history, Africa and health and society. He has been with California Newsreel for 32 years, leads its African American Perspectives and Library of African Cinema projects and is extremely knowledgeable about African American and African Diaspora cinema, having curated film programs for the San Francisco International Film Festival, the African Studies Association, and the Museum of the African Diaspora. He serves on the Boards of Cal Humanities and the Priority Africa Network and is an advisor to the Afro-Latino film projects, Afro Uruguay: Forward Together and Cimarrón Spirit.

 

Links/Enlaces top

California Newsreel

Interview with Cornelius Moore, 11/09 "Cornelius Moore discusses Africa liberation support work he was involved in from the early 1970s to 2003. In Philadelphia, he worked with the African Liberation Support Committee in 1974-75 and with United People's Campaign Against Apartheid and Racism (UPCAAR) beginning in the late 1970s. Campaigns with UPCAAR included a campaign against a bank that was lending to South Africa and redlining black communities, a speakers’ tour for the South African Military Refugee Aid Fund (SAMRAF) and SWAPO Women’s League, and a premiere showing of O Povo Organizado that raised funds for health projects in Mozambique."

www.priorityafrica.org Cornelius Moore is on the Board of Priority Africa Network

1912 – Breaking the Silence (Voces Para Un Silencio), by Gloria Rolando

www.loscimarrones.com, site for Cimarrón Spirit, an Afro-Latino film project

 

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