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Dialogue with Juan Cruz, Social Club “Marianao”, Havana.

Cuban Popular Music: Renewal Efforts From Above, 9/04

Dialogue with founding leaders of Social Club “La Nueva Era” of Guantánamo, 8/04

La Protesta de Baragua: Culture and Popular Music Have the Last Word -- They Say What the Official Culture Can’t, 8/04

Alto Songo: Son in popular culture & history, resistance & liberation, 7/04

Buena Vista Social Club: Critics, self-criticism, and the survival of Cuban Son, 11/00

 

 

“Sociedades de Negros” 
“Societies of Blacks”

The African Cuban Diaspora’s Cultural Shelters and their Sudden Disappearance in 1959
September, 2000

Eugène Godfried
Caribbean specialist/radiojournalist
Radio Habana Cuba
Guantánamo 

Radio CMKS/Guantánamo Cuba 

Introduction 

World music lovers enjoyed the film ‘BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB’ which emphasizes the amazing artistic talent of Cuban Soneros such as Fransisco Repilado (Compay Segundo), Ibrahim Ferrer, Eliades Ochoa, and others. They won also the love and affection of millions of dancers. Spectators tasted the flavor of Europe and Africa blended into one real Cuban cultural identity.  These groups have enjoyed a spectacular renaissance and are now touring the world repeatedly.

Since 1998 during many of my lectures on several University and college campuses, as well as on radio shows around the United States, the Caribbean and Europe, I was repeatedly asked one interesting question. What was precisely the meaning of ‘BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB’? Whose Social Club was it and what role did it play in the Cuban society? Is it or any other of its type still in existence?

Brilliant questions which urge us to reflect and to open up serious and frank dialogues on the matter.

More than just consumer goods, the BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB and similar groups such as the AFROCUBAN ALL STARS lay the basis for thought and action as being principal functions to culture. A worthwhile bridge for dialogue among ourselves, wherever we might be.top


Denomination: ‘Sociedades de Negros’

To answer that question we have to shed light on some backgrounds related to the origin of the phenomenon named “Sociedades de Negros”. Its immediate meaning could be defined as the Social Clubs of people of African descent, or blacks, in Cuba. The official discourse would refer to people of African descent as “Negros”, literally translated ‘Blacks,’ in order not to say Africa. Any reference to Africa would be avoided in the official discourse. People of African descent in Cuba are still classified and commonly addressed as “Negros and Mulatos”. Therefore, neither as African nor of African descent. 

On the other hand, the European Ibero Spanish immigrant in Cuba will officially be registered as “blanco’ (white). Social clubs gathering descendents of immigrants from Galicia, Andalucia, or elsewhere in Spain, were allowed by law to assemble their members under the name of sociedad de Gallegos, Andaluces, etc. In practice they would be named and considered “societies of whites”, “sociedades de blancos”.

Yet, in the case of the people of African descent, we can see that those societies were roughly named by the official racist discourse, “Sociedades de Negros,” “Societies of Blacks”.

The members and the leaders of those societies of people of African descent, as I would prefer to call that social category in Cuba, never called their societies “societies of the coloreds or blacks”. They knew they were of African descent and that they were forbidden to say so in public for many years. No reference to their continent of origin was permitted during and after the Spanish colonial era. The people of African descent were made to believe that they were not Africans, but “Negros Cubanos”, or “Negros Españoles Cubanos. Respectively, “Cuban Negroes” and “Spanish Cuban Negroes”.

On the contrary and as a sign of homage and respect to their leaders, many times they named their societies after one or another of their heroes. Like, e.g. Aponte, Moncada, Maceo, etc.top

Pacifist Marroonage

Members of their own social category are secretly aware of what they are indicating through the names of their social club. Yes, they perpetuate their struggle of resistance and liberation. They give a response to official discrimination and racist attitudes imposed by the dominant elite. Indirectly, in a pacifist manner. They made a conscious selection of names of their societies expressing their fullest respect for their leaders of African descent, who lived and died for the cause of equality and social justice in Cuba. 

That pacifist method of resistance in the liberation struggle of the Cubans of African descent could well be considered a new form of maroonage manifested in 20th century Cuba. The maroons were the runaway enslaved Africans of the centuries before, who either by violent or non - violent means resisted European colonialism and the accompanying system of enslavement, oppression and exploitation. Vincent Harding, says in his outstanding book “There Is A River” that in the United States of America, the term ‘outliers’ was commonly used as an equivalent of ‘maroons’.top

Until 1959

Racist denominations by the Ibero Spanish elite of those social clubs or societies representing people of color, calling them societies of ‘coloreds’, ‘mulattoes’, and ‘blacks,’ were officially maintained up until 1959.

Those denominations have their roots in the era of the trade of enslaved Africans, as early as the 15th Century, by the Portuguese and Spanish traders. Various racist terminologies were introduced in that epoch as commercial jargons to identify the de – personalized enslaved migrant from Africa. Up to this very day these anachronistic concepts and denominations are being freely used also by the official discourse in Cuba. Therefore, one can never hold the African immigrant responsible for the racist inclinations of denominations such as societies of colored, mulattoes and blacks. 

After this social - linguistic search we will take you on a journey to discuss the presence and the role that those societies played in Cuba during the first six to almost seven decades of the 20th century. Naturally, it is indispensable to review the process of their disappearance which occurred precisely during the revolutionary era around 1961 and 1962. It is urgent to also know what were the motivations of the official policy sustaining the disappearance of those societies. top

Historical flashbacks

The cause of Liberation of people of the African Diaspora is an ongoing process also in Cuba. 

People of African descent have come a long way in the Cuban process of Liberation. The contribution of that social category to shape up the cultural identity of Cuba is an undeniable manifestation of persistent demand for national unity and social justice.

The rebellion led by Aponte in 1812 to end the system of enslavement of Africans was a call for recognition of African cultural values in colonial Cuba. That example was followed in the independence struggles under the militant and illustrious leadership of Antonio Maceo Grajales, who in his Protest of Baragua, irrevocably demanded independence and the ending of the system of enslavement of Africans in his Homeland Cuba. The masses of African descent were the most militant in demanding equality for all Cubans and rejected the cultural hegemony of the Ibero-Spanish ruling elite in Cuba.

These masses and their leaders already had awareness of what José Martí, many years after, stated: “more than white and more than black we are all Cubans”.

After the post – colonial era was introduced in 1898 with Cuba’s independence from Spain, Quintín Banderas, former Liberation Army General of African descent, had to take up arms again to struggle against Eurocentric Ibero Spanish cultural domination among the ruling elite, now seconded by Eurocentric Anglo Saxon American impositions. 

No later than 1910, black skin and advanced white Cubans had to collectively organize themselves into a political party named Partido Independiente de Color, Colored People’s Party. Their objective was to reiterate their uncompromising commitment to the principle of equality and social progress for all. Their leaders Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonnet and over 6000 people of color and some whites were slaughtered in bloody witch-hunting practices carried out by the reactionary racist military forces. 

What else could be the answer for those masses than to persist in forging unity and applying principles of welfare care, through self – help projects within their own social category? Eurocentricm remained unfriendly and the elite continued to display an attitude of prejudice against the African segment in Cuba. top

Alternative solutions to social and cultural denial

In this light one should understand that it was imperative for the people of African descent to seek alternative solutions in their peaceful resistance against the hegemonic cultural positions of the ruling elite in all its complexities. That explains why the people of African descent persisted in creating their own social clubs in various cities and villages. Those social clubs served as a protected area in which they could freely live out and transmit cultural values and norms typical to their social category on to newer generations. 

Those social clubs were extra – mural cultural schools in which the members in a disciplined manner learned about their habits, culinary arts, music, dance, and sports. They were at the same time a source of information on the political realities inside and outside of Cuba. They were Non Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) that forced the ruling political elite to take them into account as representatives of the people of African descent.

After 1959 and the case of the blacks

The year 1959 introduced a new era in Cuba. One could observe a new policy being implemented with regards to the Sociedades de Negros, as termed by the official discourse. It was astonishing to see that those society were promptly eliminated. Official political stands stated, now, that organizations based on race should not exist any longer in Cuba. Seemingly that was a response to the longstanding racial contradiction in the Cuban Society. 

We should also mention that the people of Spanish descent too had their social clubs. Like for example, Sociedades de Gallegos, Andaluces, etc., in which people of color were refused entry and membership. Those clubs also disappeared, but are recently being revived.

I have searched everywhere for a decree or any written law, in which officially those social clubs were outlawed. I have not found any yet! Upon my questions even to members of the board of the Association of lawyers, the only response was: “those were eliminated with the first discourse of Fidel after he came down from the Sierra Maestra…” 

We could only conclude that this measure was of a political nature and not a constitutional one. That makes the case even more serious, from a legal (juridical point of view).top

Social and cultural questions

Our first question is the following: Was it necessary to completely erase those so called ‘Sociedades de Negros’?. What was the difference with the sociedades de Gallegos, Andaluces, and others of Ibero – Spanish cultural background? Were the ‘Sociedades de Color’, really exclusively for ‘blacks’, or were they also open to other nationalities as well?

What do the initiators, past presidents and officials of these societies, and other activists and people of African descent in Cuba think about these central questions and other issues in this regard? What other contributions could they make to the reflection on this subject, starting from a general Cuban, and in particular, African Cuban perspective?

I am purposely stating this in this manner, for I am absolutely aware of existing theoretical tendencies and concepts which would want to dilute this issue by not wanting to use the specific denomination and concept ‘African Cuban’. It must be clear therefore, that I firmly reject opportunistic and self - denying attitudes, which are aiming at placing the issue of the Africans in Cuba outside of the context of the contradictions between European and African cultural values as inherited from the colonial days. European colonialism repeatedly declared the African factor as ‘non-person’, and consequently, ‘non-existent’. It is our conscious task to convert that process of cultural genocide into a revival of human values in the entire society.

We cannot roughly speak of any ‘general Cuban position’ or point of view. Especially not in multi – ethnic societies like Cuba. As Caribbean thinkers we are interested in the following series of matters. Where do ideas come from? From a materialist perspective we are persuaded that ideas come from practice. That opens up the way for the next immediate question. Which are the roots of the social and cultural practice typical to those ideas? How are the social and cultural compositions in a society that knew the plantation economy based on the practice of enslavement of Africans? Which social categories continue to determine the dominant cultural ideologies in the post – slavery and independence stages until present date in Cuba? 

At present we witness the re-activation or re- creation of societies of Andalucians, Galicians, Asturians, and Canarians. What is the situation with Societies of Coloreds or Black? Or Societies of People of African Descent?

We reject any fossilized euro-ibero-centric response that arrogantly states: “They are not Africans, they are Cubans!!!” top

Method

Our microphones served as a tool of communication. Luis Bennet Robinson, a Cuban from African Jamaican descent, is our photo-reporter. We went to the field in direct person-to-person contact with our invited guests who shared their views and experiences about the Sociedades de Color in Havana and Guantánamo.

An open and frank dialogue with those immediately involved could help us understand the processes that took place during several stages of the existence of the so-called ‘Black Social Clubs’ in Cuba.

Thus, it is a deliberate choice to employ the method of interviews with distinguished personalities who were directly involved in the activities of those ‘Sociedades de Negros’, ‘Societies of Blacks’. Nowadays, we depend on oral history to be able to look into this past in order to comprehend the present Cuban society. It is also high time that grassroots sections among cultural workers and activists in Cuba themselves speak their mind to brothers and sisters all over the world. In so doing, a longstanding silence around this eye – catching subject will be transformed into a vibrant exchange between Cubans and friends from all around the world. 

We recommend you to read our publications:

1) Dialogue with Juan Cruz, Social Club “Marianao”, Havana.

2) Dialogue with founding leaders of Social Club “La Nueva Era” of Guantánamo.

eugeneg@afrocubaweb.com

top

LINKS

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB

AFROCUBAN ALL STARS

Castro and the Cuban Negro, Juan René Betancourt, Crisis (NAACP), May 1961, PDF - not accessible to Eugene Godfried when he wrote this article, but contains some of the answers he was seeking.

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