Thoughts on Part Two of ‘Black in Latin America’: Cuba

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).

Watch the full episode. See more Black in Latin America.

Read my review of Episode One.

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4 Responses to Thoughts on Part Two of ‘Black in Latin America’: Cuba

  1. InternationalSwagger says:

    Great recap E, I enjoyed this episode much more than the 1st one as well and enjoyed learning about some of the Black Leaders of Cuba and how The US once again imposed it’s imperialist and racist ways on the island to undermine the Black Population and how that influenced the Island post Spanish Colonial Rule after the Spanish/American War. Like I told RC I think this is a god start to at least get the dialogue started even though Gates can be very irritating to watch and listen too. Isn’t it interesting that the islands that had most of the white immigration post colonial rule were in Spanish/US influenced (Cuba/DR/PR) ruled countries while in the British Speaking Caribbean while smaller they didn’t have the same overwhelming white immigration to their countries and racial mixing either.

  2. iamkultured says:

    I cosign with International Swagger about how we, Americans, go into countries and try to impose our views without accepting other perspectives for what it is. I enjoyed the documentary. I was so moved by the black lady who was on the verge of tears when she was retelling her story about her participation in improving literacy in Cuba during Fidel’s initial years in power. It almost brought me to tears too!!
    On another note, I respect the Cuban idea of race relations in their country. Their history is so different from the United States so we can’t fault them for their perspectives on race. The communist goverment does not allow resistance, so institutionalized racism will be firm unless someone could speak freely about how they really feel and demand better. In the United States, blacks have been blatantly treated like SHIT during slavery and beyond, so we have a very passionate spirit when it comes to race relations and are very sensitive about the topic in general. I thank God for our spirit because now, consequently, being black in the United States is a priviledge that only a few seem to realize is theirs to keep.

  3. kwerekwere says:

    ja, so i’m on a posting spree today. [three blog posts, check them out — for some reason, i even took time out to answer your troll from the last one.]

    i am in full agreement with you on this critique. unlike the first show, where skippy spent what seemed like the entire hour getting on my last nerves, i was right with him up until the end. that final question, however — i was like “wtf? are you serious? nothing you discussed for the past 50 minutes, except for castro’s homeboy, sets us up for this conclusion.” i think he must have been attended to by castro’s minders, much in the same way that sky news switches to its reporters in tripoli with the disclaimer that they are being minded by the libyan authorities. it’s the only logical way i can get my mind around it.

    i spent much of high school having white cuban racism hurled directly at me; it’s a main reason that i refuse to set foot in south florida except to change planes, and i try to avoid it even then. i openly admit it’s why i just don’t get the way the government has bent over backwards for them for the last five decades, and i often point out there’s a reason why celia cruz lived in new jersey and not hialeah. [those floridian crocodile tears when she died had me to the point where i nearly broke my teevee.]

    so, next up… brazil. estou esperando o que tens pra nos.

  4. kwerekwere says:

    Isn’t it interesting that the islands that had most of the white immigration post colonial rule were in Spanish/US influenced (Cuba/DR/PR) ruled countries while in the British Speaking Caribbean while smaller they didn’t have the same overwhelming white immigration to their countries and racial mixing either.

    the answer is not that difficult. to start with, empire-wide, the caribbean wasn’t held in as high regard as it was for spain. middle-class britons emigrated to canada, south africa, and new zealand, and poorer ones were shipped to australia and south africa to increase the white populations that would be eventually loyal to the crown. it’s fairly well-documented.

    closely related to that is the fact that the iberian ethnic cleansing [reconquista + inquisition] left a whole lot of men who wouldn’t be able to get laid, much less wives. so it’s off to the americas for both. england was suffering from population overcrowding; there were more than enough white women to go around. white men didn’t need to go to non-white women to make sure that their family lines were continued in the manner that many folks from iberia had to. [one sees a lot of spanish last names in southern italy for many of the same reasons.]

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