Afro-Cuban Literature: Critical Junctures

By DeCosta-Willis, Miriam | Afro - Hispanic Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Afro-Cuban Literature: Critical Junctures


DeCosta-Willis, Miriam, Afro - Hispanic Review


The practice of publishing one's earlier essays in a single volume has a long and distinguished history in diasporic letters. In 1984, Nancy Morejon published Fundacion de la imagen, a collection of previously -published essays that examine transculturation in Cuban and Caribbean culture. In 1985, Barbara Christian produced Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, a collection of essays written between 1975 and 1984; this volume became a major text in the interpretation of Black women's creative writing. In 1994, the noted historian Sterling Stuckey published Going Through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History, containing essays written over a span of twenty-five years, essays that had been largely inaccessible to scholars. This moving volume underscores the scope, depth, and unity of Stuckey's work. The act of reordering and revising one's essays creates a new and different text, a text that permits readers to explore the philosophy-the controlling idea-that undergirds the body of a scholar's work and gives it unity.

Edward J. Mullen's Afro-Cuban Literature: Critical Junctures is just such a text. As the author explains, this book is the culmination of years of research in the field; it is the product, he writes, of a "long-term research agenda that has focused on the study of texts dealing with the black experience in Spanish America" (2). The five chapters that form the body of the work are bracketed by (1) the introduction, which provides the purpose, theoretical frame, and a brief summary of Afro-Cuban literary and critical texts, and (2) a concluding chapter, "Shaping the Canon: The Flowering of Afro-Cubanism," in which the author discusses issues of canon formation. The appendices contain translations into English of three texts that Mullen considers important in the evolution of Afro-Cubanism: Jose Juan Arrom's "Afro-Cuban Poetry," which Mullen calls the "first major retrospective analysis of Afro-Cubanism" (14); Simon Aguado's Black Interlude; and Nicolas Guillen's Son Motifs, in the 1948 translation by Langston Hughes and Ben Frederic Carruthers. The bibliography reveals the breadth of research that went into the preparation of this important study, for it includes texts as diverse as Richard Robert Madden's The Island of Cuba (1849), Frances Smith Foster's Witnessing Slavery (1979), and Eugenio Matibag's Afro-Cuban Religious Experience (1996). The bibliography would have been strengthened, however, by the inclusion of all the works cited in the notes to individual chapters; in Chapter 1, for example, the texts of Frederic Jameson, Jose Ferrer-Canales, Leslie Wilson, and others appear in the chapter notes but not in the bibliography.

In his important study, Mullen retitles, rearranges, revises, and reconceptualizes essays published between 1986 and 1995; in the process, he makes three significant contributions to Afro-Hispanic Studies. He traces the roots of Afro-Cuban literature from its thematic formulation in medieval Spanish texts to its emergence as a discrete literary genre in the 1920s; he does so through an analysis of four foundational texts: Simon Aguado's Entremes de los negros (1602), Juan Francisco Manzano's Poems [and] History (1840), Fernando Ortiz's Hampa afro-cubana: Los negros brujos (1906), and Nicolas Guillen's Motivos de Son (1930). He also demonstrates, through perceptive readings of literature and critical responses to that literature, how racial ideology has shaped Cuban national identity and has affected the representation of Blacks in the country's literature. Finally-and this is the most fascinating (and perhaps controversial) aspect of his work-he examines, chronologically and comparatively, the formal, academic criticism of Afro-Cuban literature, demonstrating how issues of race and class have affected critics' interpretations of texts.

Mullen demonstrates, through the careful reading of what he calls "nodal texts" and the meticulous examination of expository works, that afrocubanismo -as a literary movement and a critical project-was shaped, from the early nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, by an elite, White, Cuban intelligentsia, including Domingo del Monte, Jose Fernandez de Castro, and Fernando Ortiz, whose anthologies and scholarly treatises depicted Cubans of African descent through sometimes reductive images. …

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