Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution

Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution

Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution

Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution

Synopsis

Analyzing the ideology and rhetoric around race in Cuba and south Florida during the early years of the Cuban revolution, Devyn Spence Benson argues that ideas, stereotypes, and discriminatory practices relating to racial difference persisted despite major efforts by the Cuban state to generate social equality. Drawing on Cuban and U.S. archival materials and face-to-face interviews, Benson examines 1960s government programs and campaigns against discrimination, showing how such programs frequently negated their efforts by reproducing racist images and idioms in revolutionary propaganda, cartoons, and school materials. Building on nineteenth-century discourses that imagined Cuba as a raceless space, revolutionary leaders embraced a narrow definition of blackness, often seeming to suggest that Afro-Cubans had to discard their blackness to join the revolution. This was and remains a false dichotomy for many Cubans of color, Benson demonstrates. While some Afro-Cubans agreed with the revolution's sentiments about racial transcendence--"not blacks, not whites, only Cubans"--others found ways to use state rhetoric to demand additional reforms. Still others, finding a revolution that disavowed blackness unsettling and paternalistic, fought to insert black history and African culture into revolutionary nationalisms. Despite such efforts by Afro-Cubans and radical government-sponsored integration programs, racism has persisted throughout the revolution in subtle but lasting ways. Devyn Spence Benson is assistant professor of history and African and African American studies at Louisiana State University.

Excerpt

The black race has always been very oppressed and now is the time for them to give us justice, now is the time for them to give us equal opportunities to live,” Cristobalina Sardinas asserted only three weeks after Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement (M 26-7) forces ousted U.S.-backed Cuban president Fulgencio Batista. The new government’s young leaders were about to embark on a set of social reforms and policy changes that would make the Caribbean’s most populous nation beloved and admired by some and hated and maligned by others for decades to come. But when Sardinas was interviewed for an issue of Revolución (M 26-7’s official newspaper) in January 1959, Cuba’s future was uncertain and it seemed like everyone had an opinion about what the new government should do first. Sardinas and the eight other Afro-Cubans (five men and four women) interviewed lived in Las Yaguas, one of Havana’s poorest and most disreputable slums; and they clearly had their own plans for the new Cuban leadership—they expected Castro to put an end to the racial discrimination they faced daily. Each recounted similar life experiences before 1959. Their narratives involved extreme poverty, limited access to resources, and endless searches for affordable housing. In particular, the women noted the awful situation faced by “the black race” in Cuba and described how discrimination had kept their families from acquiring jobs and renting apartments regardless of what political party was in power. Sardinas specifically expressed some optimism that this time a new Cuban regime might fulfill its promises. “When a person goes to rent a house and they see that the person is from the colored race, they don’t want to rent to them. This is an injustice and we hope that the Revolution will put an end to it,” she said. A few days later, Revolución printed excerpts from the Las Yaguas interviews, along with large photographs of the community’s residents, under the title, “¡Negros No … Ciudadanos!” (“Not Blacks, but Citizens).”

I was struck when I first encountered this full-page article in Revolución. Hand-sized photographs of each interviewee sat above the small excerpts from their conversations with the newspaper’s journalist, José . . .

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