Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series Black in Latin America looks into the African element of Latin American societies and investigates both the accomplishments and disappointments of Afro-Latinos in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. In the second instalment of the series, he visits the largest of the Greater Antilles, sitting just 90 miles south of Florida: Cuba.
I’ve been to the island three times – in 2001, 2002, and 2005 – each time falling under the spell of majestically-crumbling Havana. I’ve walked down arcaded streets, photographing buildings and old people and kids (known locally as ‘futuro’). I’ve snapped sea-sprayed lovers and sanguine sunsets along the Malecón, the waterfront promenade fronting the Florida Straits. I’ve danced to salsa and merengue and reggaeton and hip hop at a New Years’ Eve party in the shadow of drab, Communist-era housing blocks. I’ve been mistaken for an American spy. I’ve been blocked from entering my own hotel when the security guard thought I was Cuban. I’ve run out of money and bartered clothes and a camera for the fifty dollars I needed to change my flight. I’ve left clothes and books and money in exchange for food and conversation and memories. I’ve made friends and I’ve made love in Cuba. God, how I miss that place.
Enough poetic wax; regarding this episode, I enjoyed learning more about black Cuban heroes like António Maceo than the little bit I knew from the history books I’ve read about Cuba. I also loved the footage and photographs of Havana’s past and present, visually conveying the cosmopolitan energy of what’s arguably the most sophisticated city in the Caribbean, before, during, and even after the revolution. Watching the interviews – especially of the professor who went into the countryside as a girl to teach people how to read – the sense of excitement, of expectation, of infinite possibilities that the revolution promised, still seems palpable.
I was a bit annoyed that Gates pointed out the propensity of black Cubans for putting country before race, contrary to black Americans, without offering context: that a communist system inherently ascribes nationhood to each citizen under the trope of egalitarianism, whereas the United States has consistently denied full ‘nationhood’ to a number of citizens (the current president, for instance). In other words, black Cubans, at least since the revolution, have been taught that they are just as much a part of the national fabric as anyone else. Black Americans, at least in my opinion and experience, have rarely been extended that sort of mainstream societal inclusion in the 235 years that the US has existed as an independent nation; why wouldn’t we see ourselves as black first and Americans second? Gates did mention, however, that the Cuban intellectual establishment began embracing African cultural elements as integral to cubanidad in the 1940s (some even earlier), a time during which black Americans were still trying to earn respect from white America on far-flung battlefields and atolls.
I definitely appreciated Gates’ inclusion of the two-tier economy, a discrepancy that clearly works against darker-skinned Cubans as they have less access to tourist dollars/euros and less access to remittances from abroad, as it was mostly well-educated, well-placed white Cubans that had the means to escape Castro’s dictatorship (many of whom were conspicuously silent as Batista imposed US-style racial segregation in posh hotels and restaurants to appease white American visitors in the ’50s). While yes, most of the island’s population is racially mixed, this isn’t socioeconomically proportionate. And, as we see with the young rapper at the end of the episode, there’s a political price to pay for speaking that unpleasant truth.
Oh yeh, and though Castro’s homeboy says that no white person in Cuba will say their daughter can’t marry a black guy or vice versa, best believe there are plenty of Cubans in Miami that will – and do – say just that. I’ve heard it.
Overall, I liked this episode better than the first; I felt enlightened and entertained, the music was correctly identified, and Gates’ Spanish pronunciation was less ruinous than in the Dominican Republic. However, I strongly disagree with his last statement, that after speaking with Cuban intellectuals, he thinks racial discrimination will disappear. If it hasn’t after 500 years, why would it ever? Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia will always be present in every society on some level: there will always be douchebags. That’s not to say that things won’t get better – they have and will probably continue to – but only when people confront these demons in all their manifestations (including ‘positive’ remarks about things like black sexual prowess) and realize that just because something hasn’t happened to them personally, that doesn’t mean the thing doesn’t exist.
Gates also didn’t venture into speculation, either on his own or with the people he interviewed, about the state of race relations in Cuba after Castro. I do not believe the opening of the economy to foreign investment and the mass return of exiles to be a wholly positive development. In many ways, Cuba has an incredibly inclusive society, in spite of historical and current inequalities. I wish I could be more hopeful for the future.
My grade: A-
I’ll review Episode 3 next week. Thoughts? (By the way…these are my personal opinions as an educator and editor living in Latin America. If you don’t like ‘pedantry,’ carry yo’ ass on over to a stupid person’s blog. A well-funded PBS documentary by a Harvard professor should be academically accurate and intellectually responsible).