Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Continuing the Revolution: A Critical Analysis of Henry Louis Gates' Cuba: The Next Revolution

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Continuing the Revolution: A Critical Analysis of Henry Louis Gates' Cuba: The Next Revolution

Article excerpt

Continuing the Revolution: A Critical Analysis of Henry Louis Gates' Cuba: The Next Revolution

Henry Louis Gates, Junior's documentary series Black in Latin America (2011) has introduced students and television viewers from all across the English-speaking world to Afro-Cubans and Afro-Latin American people in general. This series remains as the only US documentary dedicated to the lives of Afrodescendants throughout Latin America. Its importance in drawing US attention to the lives of its neighbors notwithstanding, viewers will do well to analyze it critically for its selective representation of Afro-Cubans. Gates presents the documentary as the travelogue of a well-read African American who is discovering his black brethren in countries where he is still learning the language, perspectives, and customs that govern what interests him most: black identity politics. While his episodes on Mexico, Peru, Brazil, and Haiti display the taboos, contradictions, and prejudices surrounding racism in Latin America, Cuba is a special case because of its unique recent history as a Communist nation in the media age. Castro has carefully guarded his regime's representation to the outside world, beginning with his notable New York Times interview in 1957 (Matthews 1). Since his 1961 proclamation in "Palabras a los intelectuales" that those "dentro de la Revolución" will be allowed "todo" and those "fuera de la Revolución" will be allowed "nada," the government has censored those who might threaten the Revolution's image through frontal criticism. Today, "since freedom of speech has never been one of Fidel Castro's strong suits, declaring that racism exists can be judged as seditious criticism by the government," Gates affirms in his documentary. The narrator gives ample time to the Revolution's hegemonic narrative regarding racism in Cuba: that Fidel Castro worked to end racial discrimination on the island. The official story is personified by Professor Graciela Chailloux and veteran Víctor Dreke Cruz-both of whom Gates calls "romantic" in their recollections of the early days of the Revolution. The criticism he presents through interviews with writer Miguel Barnet, journalist Tato Quiñones, cultural scholar Roberto Zurbano, and rap musician Soandry del Río Ferrer of the group Hermanos de Causa is that the Castro government has silenced the debate on racism by declaring it defeated and has not done enough to combat it.1 This repeats Castro's declaration in 2000: "We discovered that marginality and racial discrimination with it are not something that one gets rid of with a law or even with ten laws, and we have not managed to eliminate them completely in forty years," which Gates later includes in the companion book he wrote regarding his travels through Latin America, indicating that he is aware that his criticisms of the Revolution are in line with Castro's more recent assessment of racism in Cuba. While the Castro government apparently censored Gates and his informants, Gates gradually opened up about racism in Cuba during the documentary and upon leaving the island in his book. This article seeks to fill the silences in the terse interviews of the documentary by juxtaposing them with information left out of it (but of which some has been included in his book), as well as pointing out important racial aspects of Cuban culture that it failed to address. Also, we will show that the Cuban regime's skill at media manipulation can be seen in Gates' own documentary. We suggest that viewers consider more than Gates's tame critiques if they wish to participate in the debates over racism on the island in an informed manner.

First, viewers must understand the source. Henry Louis Gates, Junior is himself a black icon. His scholarship helped elevate the slave narrative to a par with canonical literature.2 He consolidated his reputation for theorization of black literature with The Signifying Monkey (1988), and he is Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. …

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