Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

Talking about Race in Cuba: Four Trans-Atlantic African Diaspora Women Share Their Experience

Academic journal article The International Journal of Cuban Studies

Talking about Race in Cuba: Four Trans-Atlantic African Diaspora Women Share Their Experience

Article excerpt

Nataka (First Author): my reflections on my cuban Ancestry

My great grandfather was born in Cuba during the time of Cuba's independence from Spain in 1899. He was born to a Black Cuban mother and an African American father who arrived as an American volunteer from South Carolina. In his very early years, my great grandfather was raised by his mother in Cuba. Around the age of 5, he came to live in the US and settled in South Carolina with his paternal grandparents. The circumstances that made him leave Cuba are unknown but through a look at the lives of Black Cuban woman after Cuba's independence, any number of issues could have been likely, including an early death of his mother. My great grandfather was an absentee father in the life of my grandfather, so there was not much information passed down about him. Even so, as a genealogist and psychologist, I became very interested in tracking down what I could learn from my great grandfather's life and the events surrounding his birth during the independence movement in Cuba.

During my search, I came across a book in an antique store in Chicago that was published in 1899 called Neely's Photographs: Panoramic views of Cuba, Porto Rico, Manila and The Philippines by Frank Tennyson Neely. The book contains well over 75 images of the Spanish-American war with a substantial focus of the book covering Cuba. At the bottom of the photos, the author made captions that often explained the context of the pictures by telling the reader who was in the picture and/or where the picture was taken. However, at times the caption would be reflective of the author's personal opinions about the people in the pictures. What became significant for me about this book was my reaction to the images and the captions of these with Black Cubans. White Cubans in the book are referred to as Cubans, whereas Black Cubans are referred to as Negroes. To me this reflected that Neely, a person with an etic perspective, saw Black Cubans as not being citizens of Cuba nor as contributors to the fabric of Cuban society. My question is this: if they are neither citizens nor contributors to Cuban society, then for Neely what were they?

For one photo, an image of Black Cubans gathering in Havana on a Sunday, in their best clothes dancing likely to the rhythms that have contributed to music and dance across the world, he provided commentary that answered my question. In this photo, he stated, 'Negroes are children of the fun and sun.' I see several problems with this statement: (1) the photo captured adults engaging in a social affair, (2) the adults are being infantilised as they are called children, (3) they are referred to as Negroes and not Cubans, and (4) the comment was patronising and likely reflects the overall lack of respect for the human rights of Black people during this period. While I intellectually knew that Cuba's history with slavery and racism was very similar to that of the US, I was not ready to go through another version of this story; I felt in the moments of reviewing the book that I had undergone two different forms of historical trauma. Historical trauma can be defined as experiencing trauma due to historical loss (i.e., slavery, loss of culture, land, etc.) as a result of intergenerational transmission with devastating impact on emotional, psychological and behavioural well-being (BrownRice 2014).

I realised that I was descended from another history due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and that having some Cuban ancestry did not offer me an escape to the historical trauma of being African American; instead, it offered me another set of historical trauma to contend with.

Having this epiphany about my Cuban ancestry made me want to look deeper into the issues of race in Cuba and explore what racism looked like in Cuba historically and contemporarily. Cuba and the US have a shared history with respect to enslaving humans through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This history has produced a legacy of racism in both countries. …

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