Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Achy Obejas on Race in Cuba (from The Root) with commentary from Walter Lippmann

Race in Cuba: Yes, Virginia, There Is Racism on the Island

When it comes to race, Cuba is far from the utopia that black intellectuals like to think it is. Today, on the 57th anniversary of the start of the Cuban Revolution, The Root launches its series exploring the island's color complex.

By Achy Obejas, The Root, July 26, 2010

In 1998, when President Bill Clinton was allowing Cuban artists to travel relatively easily in and out of the United States, I invited a well-known Cuban visual artist to visit my graduate class at Columbia College in Chicago. I wanted her to show the students her work and talk a little about what it was like to create art -- such a personal endeavor -- in a society that focused on the collective rather than the individual.

The visit to Columbia, an urban school with a strong arts focus, went well until the question-and-answer session. An African-American student, eyes misty with hope, asked, "Is it true that there's no racism in Cuba?" My friend, a red-haired and white-skinned Cuban, nodded enthusiastically. "No, there's no racism," she affirmed, and there was a collective sigh in the class over the very notion that such a utopia could really exist.

Like my friend, I am also light-skinned -- white in Cuban society -- but unlike her, I didn't grow up in Havana hearing, and thus believing, in this human-relations miracle. I was born in Cuba but grew up outside Chicago in the 1960s and '70s; I'd lived through the U.S. civil rights movement and worked for Harold Washington's mayoral campaign. I'd struggled with racism all my life -- racism directed at me as a Cuban-Latina by white and black Americans, racism by Cubans and other Latinos of all colors directed at anyone darker, and, of course, my own racism. And instinctively, I rejected her assertion that racism had been vanquished on the island -- and I said so right there in class.

This didn't go over well. My students preferred her version of events -- she was the Cuban from the island and had the edge on credibility by virtue of residence -- but perhaps more importantly, they wanted to believe her. The idea of a racism-free space was intoxicating.

My friend was also upset. She felt that her credibility had been publicly assailed and I had failed to understand the real achievements of the Cuban Revolution. I had gone back to Cuba and missed the point; I had been obviously brainwashed by my years in exile in the United States.

We remained friends but agreed to disagree on this issue. She went back to Cuba and told her friends her stories about her first visit to America, including the tale of this silly Cuban-American who'd suggested that there was still racial discrimination in the homeland.

To her surprise, her black and mixed-raced friends -- including close and longtime friends -- used the opportunity to express their own misgivings about the racial situation in Cuba. My friend was flabbergasted.

Why, she asked, if the truth didn't conform to the official story, hadn't anyone ever said anything before?

Click here to read more of this story.


I also recommend anything on race in Cuba by Alejandro de la Fuente, pictured to the left (for a start on his extensive scholarship go here and here).  Also see his excellent book, A Nation For All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in 20th Century Cuba (UNC Press, 2000).

Though Walter Lippmann and I rarely agree on our analysis of contemporary Cuba, his commentary below is nuanced and helpful, as is his list of links.

"A few notes on racism in Cuba"
Posted by Walter Lippmann (
July 27, 2010

Anyone who tells you there's no racism or racial discrimination in Cuba is either ignorant or dishonest. At the same time, it's very important that people from the United States when looking at Cuba try to understand that society and its problems in the island's own historical and social context. Cuban racism isn't the same as US racism. But it certainly does exist and has long existed. At the same time, the idea that the Cuban revolution's leadership ignores the issue is disingenuous. Separately I will post an extensive list of documents to indicate a consciousness of racism as a continuing problem on the island.

Those studying this topic need to explore it in depth. Here is one example, among many others which could be cited: Whereas the United States elected its first Black president relatively recently - Barack Obama in 2008, Cuba elected its first black president long, long ago: Fulgencio Batista in 1940. And also in 1930, the head of the principal industrial trade union on the island was a black man, Jesus Menendez. And the head of the main left-wing political party, the Communist Party, was a mulatto, Blas Roca. And the Communist Party wasn't a small radical fringe group. It was sufficiently influential that it had two members of the cabinet under president Batista.

THE ROOT'S discussion of racism in Cuba raises important issues, but misses some aspects of the Cuban treatment of these complex and difficult themes. U.S. readers are likely to be unfamiliar with the considerable Cuban literature on race, racism and how they play out in Cuba today. Here in the United States of America, where racism is a central facet of the social and political culture, and where ignorance of Cuban reality is maintained through a travel ban, thats not surprising.

In my opinion, people from the United States ought to be careful to avoid thinking that the experiences and lessons of life in the US can be applied to every other country on earth without taking into account that country’s history, culture and experiences. I believe

The United States didn’t elect its first Black president until 2008, in the third CENTURY after gaining its independence from the United Kingom. Cuba, which had and continues to have racial problems of its own, elected its first black president in 1940, at a time when the island had only achieved formal and juridical, but not practical nor actual independence, from the United States of America. Actual independence, I would argue, only began on January 1, 1959, with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

Though I am non-Black, and can’t discuss racism from the same personal experience foundation that Blacks can, I’ve attempted to follow these issues for many years. I’ve traveled to Cuba and stayed for extended periods of time. In addition, I direct an Internet-based news service, CubaNews, available at http://groups. group/CubaNews/

Part of the work of the CubaNews list is to locate Cuban materials on these themes, and to make translations of them for the English-speaking public. Even as fierce an opponent of the Cuban Revolution as Carlos Moore has found himself citing my work and my personal website regarding these issues, as you can find in his recently-published autobiography, PICHON. (see the footnotes to the book)

Among the accomplishments of the CubaNews list has been locating and translating from Spanish to English articles on racism, which is a continuing problem, from the contemporary Cuban media. I’ll cite a few examples and hope that anyone interested in these matters, will take a look at what Afro-Cuban authors have had to say about them.

Thank you,

Walter Lippmann

Esteban Morales: Cuban Color

Esteban Morales: Challenges of the Racial Problem in Cuba:

Esteban Morales: Anti-Cuban Subversion – The Race Issue

Miguel Barnet: Preserving Memory:

David Gonzalez and Walterio Lord:
Some Quick Comments on Carlos Moore’s PICHON:

The Independent Party of Color:

The Teachings and Lineage of Walterio Carbonell:

Esteban Morales: Malcolm X – An Unyielding Revolutionary:

Fernando Martinez Heredia: Malcolm X Still Speaks to Us

Fernando Martinez Heredia: The Meaning of a Centennial

Fernando Martinez Heredia:
Social diversity is not a weakness of the nation,
but a very important element of its wealth.

Alberto N. Jones: Unmasking the Promotors of Racial War in Cuba

There are many, many more, but these are a few to get an interested reader started.

============ ========= ========= ========= ==
Los Angeles, California
Editor-in-Chief, CubaNews
http://groups. group/CubaNews/
"Cuba - Un Paraíso bajo el bloqueo"

No comments:

Post a Comment