Recently, I had the opportunity, for a second time, to visit the small island nation of Cuba. I first went there during the 1970s, when I was a graduate student, and saw that nearest, and most distant, of neighboring countries. During a rare window of opportunity (Cuba had been closed to U.S. citizens), I and my best friend, having successfully survived our oral exams and both eager for adventure, joined an NAACP charter flight bound for a Latin country once reputed to be the playground of the Western world -- then in the throes of social, political and economic transition, a land of mystery, romance and revolution.
Almost three decades later, in the spring of 2001, I returned to Cuba as part of a delegation of American artists and scholars participating in an academic conference sponsored by the U.S.-based literary and cultural journal Callaloo and the Cuban institute Casa de las Americas. Unlike the first time, when traveling to Cuba was something of an exotic journey to a foreign land, my return was more akin to a homecoming.
Today's Cuba is still a land of transition -- not, as previously, from capitalism to communism, but now from communism to capitalism. Unexpectedly, contemporary Cuba reminds me of nothing more than the Black Southern culture in which I grew up during the '40s and '50s. In the first instance, the automobile culture of Cuba takes me back to the era of the 1950s, with its wing-backed, chromeplated, two-and-three-toned Chevy, Buick Electra, Dodge Imperial, Olds 88 and Ford Fairlane coupes and sedans, images that now invoke black and white photographs of cars parked outside the African Methodist Episcopal church on Sunday afternoons in my hometown of Fayetteville, N.C.
But it is not only the automobile culture that is reminiscent of an earlier era of my youth; it is the richness of an indigenous Afro-Cuban popular and folk culture that, once again, invokes for me the Black South of a bygone era. The rhythms of jazz emanating from the local clubs and cafes reminded me of nothing so much as the forbidden juke joints and house parties of the Black South of my childhood.
But on this trip, I encountered not only popular and folk culture, but contemporary Cuban intellectual and academic culture. The conference in which I participated, The Changing Academy in the United States, was organized in an effort to encourage greater dialogue and exchange between American and Cuban artists, performers and scholars. The Cuba I witnessed during this visit had not only survived the revolution, the missile crisis, and the Soviet Union; it also had survived the economic embargo. Cuba's economy has been boosted, in part, through the assimilation of U.S. dollars into the peso economy through tourism, limited foreign investment, local private enterprise (e.g., the paladores, or privately "home-run" restaurants and what are, for the typical U.S. or European tourist, affordable bed and breakfasts and home rentals) as well as through personal remittances sent by Cubans in exile to relatives on the island.
For me, the most powerful and poignant moment of the conference occurred when a middle-aged Afro-Cuban professor of the social sciences responded to issues addressed by my panel, "Critical Theory, Literary History and Cultural Studies." At the outset, she addressed the consequences of the embargo. Her comments both shocked and saddened me, for the embargo to which she referred was not economic, but intellectual -- in effect, an information embargo that has functioned to keep scholars, artists and academics out of touch with contemporary currents of Western intellectual thought. It is this informational, or intellectual, embargo that affects all facets of Cuban academic, intellectual and scholarly life, especially in the arts and social sciences. And, for this reason, there was a kind of asymmetry in our discussions, since subjects such as U.S. feminism or poststructuralism or cultural studies draw on ideas that have been circulating only in the U. …