ONE RACE, TWO COUNTRIES; History and Culture Inextricably Tie Blacks in Cuba to Blacks in the United States. but They Are Worlds Apart, Too

Article excerpt

Byline: TONYAA WEATHERSBEE

In February, Times-Union columnist Tonyaa Weathersbee traveled to Cuba with the Institute of Advanced Journalism Studies at North Carolina A&T State University. She was there as part of an ongoing mission to examine how Afro-Cubans -- a group that is largely marginalized in most U.S. reporting on Cuba -- have influenced that country's development and the development of other people of African descent in the Americas.

HAVANA -- I was looking for someone to help me track down an old friend, Cuban ethnologist Natalia Bolivar Arostegui, this past February when I ran across Lazaro Ramos.

I hadn't seen Bolivar in seven years. I had lost her address, so all I had to work with were aged bits of a mental picture of her neighborhood -- Havana's once-ritzy Miramar district. But my Spanish wasn't good enough for me to ask around for her, much less understand the replies.

So Ramos did the asking. We wound up finding Bolivar.

For that, I had the Isley Brothers to thank.

Ramos, a representative of the Cuban tour company Transtur, told me he learned English by listening to the music of that legendary R&B group, as well as numerous other black artists.

"I learned my English by listening to rhythm and blues," Ramos, 39, told me. "I listened to Anita Baker, Kelly Pryce, Ron Isley . . . my professor explained that's the best way to learn English . . ."

Ramos said that many of his friends also received their English lessons via soul music. And our conversation, like countless others I had with Cubans of color in my six years of visiting the island, a place separated from the United States by 90 miles of water and 47 years of Cold War politics, reminded me of the inextricable ties between black Cubans such as Ramos and blacks in the United States.

Those ties extend from slavery, which was officially abolished in 1886, to Cuba's wars of independence. When the United States entered the third and last war in 1898 -- a war most Americans know as the Spanish-American War -- black frontier soldiers known as the Buffalo Soldiers drew the fire that led the charge in the Battle of San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba. That was one of the most decisive battles of that war, which led to Cuba's liberation from Spain.

Today in Santiago de Cuba, a monument exists in their honor.

Then, like blacks in the United States, Cubans of color soon felt the disappointment of being cut out of the freedom that they fought for alongside their countrymen. Just as Reconstruction was winding down in the United States, and just as white supremacist groups began to use violence and segregation to intimidate blacks, blacks in Cuba were grappling with discrimination and racism as well.

In 1912, when they formed a political party to deal with it -- a party called the Independents of Color -- the Cuban government staged its own Rosewood, the tiny Florida settlement of blacks wiped out in 1923. Revved by rumors of the group having designs on wanting to take over the island and rape white women, its military slaughtered more than 6,000 blacks.

Cuban leaders celebrated the slaughter with a picnic for the soldiers who carried it out -- shades of a post-lynching picnic.

But the ties between blacks in the United States and blacks in Cuba aren't just about oppression, but about culture.

According to the book Between Race and Empire: African-Americans and Cubans before the Cuban Revolution, the first black professional baseball team, established in the 1880s, was called the Cuban Giants. Cuban teams often played in New York City, and Negro League teams played in Cuba.

Renowned black social poet Langston Hughes spent time there in the 1930s, comparing notes with Cuba's national poet, Nicolas Guillen.

Afro-Cuban musician Chano Pozo took his conga drum to Harlem in 1946, joined Dizzy Gillespie's band and created the Latin jazz sound known as CuBop. …