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Robin Moore reviews Afro-Cuban Voices: On Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba, 9/04

Pedro Pérez-Sarduy


Jean Stubbs

Forwards by Manning Marable and James Early

Review in Africana.com

Review by F.W. Knight, Johns Hopkins

cover.jpg (24269 bytes)Afro-Cuban Voices:
On Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba

by Pedro Pérez-Sarduy & Jean Stubbs
University  Press of Florida, Spring 2000

Now that we have seen Miami Cubans so concerned about free speech in Cuba that they wanted to force Elian Gonzalez's father, a communist party member, to come to Miami to testify "freely" about his son, this book features a torrent of free speech from inside the island on one of most sensitive topics around. From the book:

"The ethnic factor is fundamental as the new millenium begins. In Cuban history, the race question is one that has been extraordinary linked to the search for a national identity in the context of racial divide. After 30 years of revolution, the crisis 1990s have witnessed paradoxical developments where race is concerned.

There has been a symbolism of race deployed, black Cuban support for the revolution is invoked, and Afro-Cuban culture celebrated.  At the same time, there have been increasing racial divides in the restructuring process and a perceived growing unease about those divides, especially among black and brown Cubans. This book is the first to privilege their voices.

In interviews conducted in 1994-96, Afro-Cuban women and men, of different generations, walks of life, and parts of the island, reflect on their lives and experiences of race in both pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba, and the broader issues of race and racism. Together, they constitute eloquent and moving testimony to the tremendous openings provided by the revolution, and also its contradictions. They challenge dominant views of Cuban history, on and off the island, which have downplayed a long tradition of black Cuban thinking and leadership. They express the urgent need to end the silences and distortions of history and celebrate black achievement; to counter the resurgence of racial stereotyping; and to rethink notions of Africania, Hispanidad and Cubanidad.

The interviews are framed by an introduction which draws on the editors' extensive knowledge of Cuba and Cuban history. They trace historical parallels between the period 1868-98, which were 30 years of armed struggle for political independence from Spain and abolition of slavery; the 1920s to mid-1940s period of popular struggle to the point of the failed 1933 revolution, populism and popular front; and the 1959-1989 revolutionary period. In all three, the races forged in struggle what might be seen as a 'social pact' to usher in a more racially egalitarian and pluralistic society.

The years 1898-1920, with two US military occupations and the demobilization of the Liberation Army, along with massive foreign investment and Euro-American immigration, saw the race barriers resurrect to the point of the 1912 race war and a concomitant strengthening of Hispanicism, as well as North Americanism. A similar, if less racially divided, process can be seen in the years of the late 1940s Cold War and 1950s coup and repression. Again in the 1990s, the 'social pact' is under duress.

The introduction seeks also to place 1990s Cuba in comparative Americas perspective, looking especially at Brazil and the US. A certain 'convergence' of race relations, it is argued, calls for rethinking conceptual frameworks of bi-polar (US) and multi-racial --Brazil, Cuba--models.

This is designed to help contextualise three key questions regarding race that the book as a whole sets out to address. How far has the revolution made a difference? To what extent is that difference eroding today? And what can be done?

A precursor article to this book can be found on this web site: "What do Blacks have in Cuba?"

Forwards by Manning Marable and James Early

From the forewords:

"At a time when Cuba is undergoing immense economic and social changes, race becomes a kind of cultural litmus test for the national identity. . . . This anthology illustrates fully that it is possible to be both revolutionary and black in Cuba."   -- Manning Marable, Columbia University

"The authors of Afro-Cuban Voices, also key actors in the new, unfolding dialogue about race in Cuba, make a seminal contribution through a forthright critique of racial blind spots in official history and present-day racial discrimination."  -- James Early, director of cultural studies and communication, Smithsonian Institution

Review by F.W. Knight, Johns Hopkins

Despite prolific literary production on the subject, it is still enormously difficult to penetrate or understand the black experience in the Americas. This beautiful, poignant collection os snippets of thoughful reflections and conversations by a wide range of Afro-Cubans will go far toward understanding. It deftly cuts through the caricatures, myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions about blacks, not only in Cuba, but also across much of the Americas. The 14 accounts represent passionately articulate voices than span geographically, generations, occupations, and politic al persuasions. They come from Havana and Santiago as well as the provinces in between. Their brith dates, not always indicated, span the early 1920 to to late 1960. They include docgtors, writers, artists,teachers, actors, musicians, and maker of batá drums for santería festivities.These talented people all succeeded against great odds, regadless of when they came to maturity in Cuba. Their interesting personal stories, candidly related, illustrate graphically the substantial difficulty of being nonwhite either before or after the Cuban revolution. An excellent introductury essay and a few informative notes provide a powerful context for the personal reflections. Highly recommended to both public and academic libraries. - F.W.Knight, Johns Hopkins University. "

Robin Moore reviews Afro-Cuban Voices:On Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba, 9/04

Pérez Sarduy, Pedro and Jean Stubbs, eds. Afro-Cuban Voices. On Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000, 200 pp. ISBN #0-8130-1735-1. Introduction. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Hardcover

Reviewed by Robin Moore
[author of Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1920-1940]

This publication appears as part of a series launched by the University Press of Florida on all aspects of socialist Cuba, edited by John Kirk. It represents an ongoing attempt by the authors to provide information on topics related to race on the island. Their present book consists of interviews with black Cubans of distinct ages, backgrounds, interests, and political convictions, though all are professionals. The interviews themselves were conducted between 1995 and 1997. Stubbs and Pérez Sarduy offer the reader views from those with firsthand experience on the nature of racial problems and how they might best be addressed. The authors describe their publication as falling between disciplines, neither a social science study, literary text, or historical narrative, but drawing from all of these fields.

The preface to Afro-Cuban Voices underscores the importance of racial issues in contemporary Cuba. It notes the ongoing lack of information on the subject and recognizes that racial friction has increased in the 1990s. The much longer introduction consists of an essay on literature related to race in Cuba. This section is impressive, demonstrating the authors’ thorough command of secondary literature. It begins by touching upon subjects including the effect of involvement in the Angolan civil war on racial discourse and the effects of the “special period” on job opportunities in the black community. After providing an overview of the book’s contents, the introduction continues with a summary of racial attitudes throughout Latin America as they developed in colonial times. It underscores the fact that Afrocubans have been commenting on their social circumstances in published sources for well over a century, but that such literature remains largely unknown. The authors comment on the similarities between racial stereotypes in Cuba and Brazil, then analyze specifically Cuban-related studies. The introduction ends with a critique of existing literature on racial matters written on the island, noting that Afrocubans themselves generally find it superficial, dogmatic, and not sufficiently focused on the present. 

The interviews themselves are divided into three sections, “The Lived Experience of Race,” “The Representations of Race,” and “Race and Identity.” Part I concentrates primarily on older interviewees. Chapter 1 considers the life of retired journalist Reynaldo Peñalver, his early years in poverty and the tremendous obstacles he overcame to become educated. Chapter 2 recounts episodes in the lives of industrial chemist Elpidio de la Trinidad Molina, his wife Egipcia Pérez, and their son Jorge. Chapter 3 includes interviews with doctors of different class backgrounds and ages, Liliam Cordiés Jackson and Nuria Pérez Sesma. While grateful for what they have been able to accomplish under the revolution, they recognize that few publications exist on racial matters within their country and that no forum for public discussion of race is currently available. 
Part II explores racial representations in Cuban fiction and the mass media. Print journalist Marta Rojas is featured in chapter 4 with an account of her involvement in the 1953 Moncada trial as well as more recent professional aspirations. Scriptwriter Eliseo Altunaga appears in chapter 5.

He discusses biased depictions of Antonio Maceo in the work of Cuban historians and discrimination against Afrocuban religions, among other topics. Chapter 6 focuses on actress Elvira Cervera and her experiences with discrimination in radio broadcasting. This is one of the most critical essays, ending with her decision to create an all-black drama troupe as a reaction to the marginalization of Afro-Cuban dramatists. Chapter 7 considers the career of screen actor Alden Knight. He is also highly critical of the present, mentioning that the black community has no authority within the power structure of the media. This section ends with an interview by poet Georgina Herrera (chapter 8) who began writing after growing up in poverty in Jovellanos, Matanzas.

Part III contains some of the most widely known interviewees. It begins with filmmaker Gloria Rolando’s comments in chapter 9 on how difficult it has been for her to receive approval for projects with Afrocuban subject matter in the national film institute (ICAIC). She is followed by Juan Benkomo (chapter 10), a drum maker and santero who has suffered persecution as the result of his religious beliefs. Chapter 11 continues with anecdotes from the career of Guillermina Ramos Cruz and the difficulties she has experienced attempting to study African-derived culture in Cuba. Afro-Cuban specialist Rogelio Martínez Furé is cited in chapter 12, critiquing the term “Latin American” as exclusionary and noting the racism frequently implicit in the use of the terms “Cuban” and “Afro-Cuban.” He underscores the fact that there is no homogeneous “Cuban culture” and calls for a greater celebration of the fact. The thoughts of author Nancy Morejón (chapter 13) end the book. She reflects on the concept of the African diaspora and its meanings for African Americans throughout the hemisphere. She shares her thoughts on the state of black intellectual development within Cuba and—as in the case of Martínez Furé—comments on the implicit, unconscious racism evident in many forms of national discourse. 

More than anything else, Afrocuban voices does an excellent job of problematizing the concept of “the Afrocuban community” and “the Afrocuban perspective,” providing the reader with a surprisingly wide spectrum of distinct views and life experiences. It does the international community a service in this sense by offering relatively direct access to a few of the countless voices in Cuba that have no means of making themselves heard. The writing style is clear and easy to read, and the content highly significant. I found the testimonies to be very compelling. For instance, I was amazed to discover how many middle-aged Cubans had grandparents who were born into slavery and had been told firsthand about that period when they were young. The sense of awareness among Afro-Cubans about the extent of suffering in their recent past and the gains they have achieved over the past century is striking. Equally as noteworthy are their views on the ways they have benefited from the revolution and the areas in which it has failed to meet expectations. While the interviews provide more basic information than synthetic analysis, it is information that has been sorely lacking. Afrocuban voices is an important work for all those interested in contemporary race relations and one I highly recommend. 

Robin Moore
Temple University

Contacting Pedro Pérez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs

They may be contacted through this web site.

Obtaining their books

Afro-Cubans Voices is available from Amazon.com for April 2000. The publisher, the University Press of Florida, may have it availabe in March 2000. It will be available in major bookstores and can be ordered from the University Press of Florida at http://www.upf.com/Spring2000/sarduy.html.  From Amazon, just click ==>

See Pedro's home page for their other books.

From the University of Florida Press' catalog entry for the book:

Afro-Cuban Voices
On Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba

Pedro Pérez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs
Forewords by Manning Marable, James Early, and John M. Kirk, Series Editor

From the forewords:

"At a time when Cuba is undergoing immense economic and social changes, race becomes a kind of cultural litmus test for the national identity. . . . This anthology illustrates fully that it is possible to be both revolutionary and black in Cuba." -- Manning Marable, Columbia University

"The authors of Afro-Cuban Voices, also key actors in the new, unfolding dialogue about race in Cuba, make a seminal contribution through a forthright critique of racial blind spots in official history and present-day racial discrimination."  -- James Early, Director of Cultural Studies and Communication, Smithsonian Institution

From the series editor: "A courageous attempt to deal head-on with the issue of race in Cuba today. . . . Perez Sarduy and Stubbs [seek to] put a human face on this debate, and do so well. The book will be received with relief by some and with frustration by others. Controversial it will undoubtedly be, since -- as with most things Cuban -- strong emotions are a given assumption. It will be an admirable beginning for the series and, it is hoped, will spark a much-needed debate in the United States on many aspects of the Cuban question. It is about time." -- John M. Kirk

Based on the vivid firsthand testimony of prominent Afro-Cubans who live in Cuba, this book of interviews looks at ways that race affects daily life on the island. While celebrating their racial and national identity, the collected voices express an urgent need to end the silences and distortions of history in both pre- and postrevolutionary Cuba. The 14 people interviewed--of different generations and from different geographic areas of Cuba--come from the arts, the media, industry, academia, and medicine. They include a doctor who calls for joint U.S.-Cuban studies on high blood pressure and a craftsman who makes the batá drums used in Yoruba worship ceremonies.

All responded to four controversial questions: What is it like to be black in Cuba? How has the revolution made a difference? To what extent is that difference true today? What can be done? Exposing the contradictions of both racial stereotyping and cultural assimilation, their eloquent answers make the case that the issue of race in Cuba, no matter how hard to define, will not be ignored.

Pedro Pérez Sarduy is a Cuban poet, writer, and journalist who has worked for Cuban and British media. Jean Stubbs is a British historian and professor of Caribbean studies at the University of North London in England. Both have published on topics related to Cuba and the Caribbean. They are coeditors of AFROCUBA: An Anthology of Cuban Writing on Race, Politics and Culture.

Contemporary Cuba Series
April. 312 pp. 6 X 9. Jacket.
Glossary, notes, bibliography.

ISBN 0-8130-1735-1 Cloth, $24.95

To order, see http://www.upf.com/Spring2000/sarduy.html

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