“For me—a writer in the last quarter of the twentieth century, not much more than a hundred years after Emancipation, a writer who is black and a woman—the exercise is very different. My job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over “proceedings too terrible to relate.” The exercise is also critical for any person who is black, or who belongs to any marginalized category, for, historically, we were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its topic.”1
—Toni Morrison from her essay The Site of Memory
As our plane began its descent into Havana, I became inexplicably emotional. There was something about the trees—lush, green, tall and thick with roots seemingly so full of spirits, they wept.
They reminded me of Africa. Having just returned from a trip to Nigeria about two months prior, I recalled the rolling, verdant landscape of the seven mountains surrounding Ibadan, abundant with trees that spoke to me. Now, in Cuba, these trees, too, had something to say; about Africa and stolen people, chained and stumbling from ships—ships newly landed in Brazil, the U.S., Jamaica, Haiti, Barbados, Mexico and here, in Cuba—their eyes stung by sudden daylight and, perhaps, the sight of trees.
The splendor of Cuba is undeniable. Like Janie in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, men have sought for years to capture and control its radiance, to turn it to their own petty purposes; but this island will not be so easily dominated. Even in decay, Cuba retains remnants of an irrepressible former beauty. It’s people, too—breathtakingly beautiful. Not just mere physical beauty (though certainly that), but a beauty of spirit, indomitable, like Cuba itself—despite decades of political unrest and staggering poverty—refuses to quit, refuses to crumble.
It’s more than a little tempting to speak only the beauty and leave the rest unsaid. But, like Morrison—because I’m Black; because I’m Woman; because both these aspects of my identity are now and have been, historically, marginalized—I’m charged to pull back the veil and speak it all; and because Cuba and its people—all of its people—deserve more than such a superficial shout-out.
As a Black, U.S. citizen, I found it tumultuous navigating the many layers of my identity in Cuba.
America is home. But here at ‘home’— from the streets of Ferguson to New York to Baltimore—my people are purported to be responsible for our own deaths: shot to death, choked to death or driven to death in the backs of police vans. At ‘home’, in the Ivory towers of Hollywood (and I do mean ‘Ivory’ with a capital ‘I’) and along the strip of the ‘Great White Way’ (as a young artist, I thought this referenced the bright lights of Broadway, now…not so much), Black directors, actors and writers, seemingly, have nothing to do with artistic excellence. And then, of course, there’s the preposterous claim (yet correct assessment) of The New York Times demonstrating America’s preference for lighter-skinned Blacks versus their “less classically beautiful” darker-skinned counterparts. Here at ‘home’, Black is seen to exist only on the margins and Black people are expected to be satisfied—grateful even—to peer in from the cracked side of the looking glass at the pale-skinned world all too happy to co-opt what you did but significantly less willing to acknowledge you’re the one who did it.
So as our plane taxied to a stop and emotion overcame me, I realized I was hoping for communion with my Afro-Cuban colleagues. My own country no paragon of racial equity, I wanted discourse with other Africans of the Diaspora on the global, political and socioeconomic realities of Blackness. What aspects of our experiences were shared? Where did they differ? What were our aspirations for our respective countries? Were they being fulfilled or failing? What were our collective and contradictory struggles? How were we addressing those struggles and could those actions be implemented globally? And, as artists, how do we and can we help create Pan-African solidarity through our art?
You see Cuba’s history, too, had birthed a social and economic class distinction between its fairer and darker-skinned citizens. From the caste system set in place by its Spanish colonizers to the bloody dissolution of the Partido Independiente de Color and the unexpected boom of the sugar and tobacco trade, the need to create and keep a ‘bottom rung’ society as a means of cheap labor was a shared trait Cuba had with its U.S. cousin. Of course, as in the U.S., attempts to address that inequality had been made. Fidel Castro, in a 1959 speech at a Havana labor rally, condemned racism and sought to put the matter to rest by addressing racial discrimination at work centers, correctly highlighting the connection between social segregation and employment. He then implemented sweeping anti-discrimination laws and set in place literacy programs meant to close the gap between wealthy white and poorer Black Cubans.2 Two years later, he professed these actions to be a complete success, that racism and discrimination were now over and that the: “just laws of the revolution ended unemployment, put an end to villages without hospitals and schools, enacted laws which ended discrimination, control by monopolies, humiliation, and the suffering of the people.”3
Cuba—like the U.S. with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency—was declared to be a post-racial society. But, as with African-Americans, Afro-Cubans did not always share in this seeming utopia. Castro later admitted his declaration premature, but the divide—politically, culturally and economically—between fair and dark grew. And now with the normalization of U.S. relations, capitalism may exacerbate the problem. American Blacks are now poised to become unwitting participants in the continuing cultural and economic demise of our own.
Black Americans, in my opinion, should be among the first to make a Cuban pilgrimage, if at all possible; but the dollars from our entry visas, hotel stays and taxi rides could serve to keep a boot firmly on the neck of those already marginalized. Presently, a Cuban couple with ‘good jobs’ may expect to take home the equivalent of about $125 a month, a paltry sum by American standards and not really a living wage in Cuba either, particularly if they desire to have a family. But Afro-Cubans hold only 5% of these ‘good jobs’, many of which are in the profitable tourism industry where they could earn tips in U.S. dollars.4
The paladares—restaurants run from the homes of owners—are another source of tourist income for the locals (while in Havana, our contingent dined at many); but as housing reform was not part of Castro’s original anti-discrimination plan, many Afro-Cubans are excluded from this revenue arena as well.5
Race and economics are intricately bound, complicated bedfellows anywhere; Cuba no exception; and the perceptions of race in Cuba are, by no means, a cut-and-dried affair. There is the widely held belief that the large mestizo population has created racial harmony coupled with the fact that many Afro-Cubans want no part of the heightened racial awareness that seems to have created racial tensions in the States. And while there is a willingness to discuss the concept of race, as here in the States, the effects of racism and who benefits from it are topics on which most would prefer to remain silent. A silence, I found, may also extend to the arts.
Cuba is known for its art and artists. A short stroll through any square or a visit to any market in Havana and the reason for this renown becomes abundantly clear. Art is everywhere. And it incorporates that indomitable Cuban spirit, sparking impromptu concerts and converting alleyways into galleries.
And though Afro-Cubans are noted worldwide for their achivements in dance and music (see Celia Cruz, Machito, Mongo Santamaría, Omar Sosa & Carlos Acosta, to name but a few), I observed there were entire artistic disciplines and arenas where they were, quite noticably, absent.
Our first night in Cuba, we visited La Isla Secreta, a company comprised of a husband and wife artistic team who'd lost access to their theatre space and so, held performances in their tiny apartment. Our contingent--about 30 in total--crowded in and, after the light board operator literally climbed over several of us to reach his equipment, the performance began. It was a muscular piece, visually stunning despite their meager equipment and aurally engaging despite my limited Spanish. Afterwards, the couple and their friends served us tea and ginger cookies and invited us to stay and talk with them about the performance, Cuba, politics and theatre. One of the artists made a rather profound statement that stuck with me:
While I wholeheartedly agree with the artist’s statement, it did make me wonder: whose point of view? If the theatre is that place where political muscles are exercised, who gets to flex?
In the American theatre there’s been much discussion around artistic intent. Instances such as what occurred with Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India and Katori Hall’s Mountaintop, accompanied by the highly publicized war-of-words between Tonya Pinkins, Brian Kulick and others regarding her Mother Courage departure, have reignited the conversation and sought to clarify the point that importance lies not only in a story’s existence, but—and perhaps more urgently—in how that story gets told and who gets to tell it. Whose point of view are we speaking from? And what are we saying if entire groups of people and their contributions to a society are being systematically erased?
And here’s where my own privilege ran smack into the wall of my current circumstance. As Black American artists, how do we hold ourselves accountable? If my insistence is that we make this Cuban pilgrimage, how might we be radical in what we ask for/set up/demand before we go? And with our non-Black allies at American art institutions, how do we hold everyone’s “feet-to-the-fire” to be certain Black people and their work are included in these artistic journeys? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we become more intentional in our relationship-building throughout the Diaspora in self-determining ways?
These are questions/considerations/conversations we can no longer leave solely up to the mainstream artistic community.
Artists are revered in Cuba and theatre is government subsidized. Havana’s residents flock to performances, eagerly cramming themselves into the smallest of spaces. During my time there, I saw a range of Cubans of all hues in the audiences of several theatres. But I was dismayed at who they were looking at; at how very few Afro-Cuban artists were included in an international festival. Granted, I did not attend every event; but I was present at quite a few, and I saw the sum total of exactly one Afro-Cuban actor and met only three other Afro-Cuban theatre artists; those introductions coming about only after I voiced my concerns to two of my colleagues and was invited to attend a luncheon. These artists and their work were not on the program. They were not included as part of the festival and, had I and my colleagues not actively sought them out, their voices would have been lost to us during our visit. As the Cuban performer rightly indicated, theatre is a place where one can exercise the muscle of having an opinion. But absence speaks volumes, too.
Self-portrayal is a core issue in any peoples continued development, but how do Africans of the Diaspora see themselves through art if their art is not present or if they are not represented in the art that is present? When Cubans—of every hue—pack into theatres, whose stories do they witness and from whose point of view? Whose voices do they hear and whose image is reflected back to them?
So here I was—Black Girl in Cuba (to paraphrase Shay Youngblood’s novel), a privileged American artist to be sure, with personal travel money roughly equal to a Cuban citizen’s yearly income, seemingly gazing from the other side of that looking glass and yet, there it was; that familiar, cracked portion again being held up to me and it’s recognizable, jagged edge cut and, ultimately, hurt. It hurt—deeply—to remember how the world, even here in Cuba, regards what it means to be Black.
And so, we—Africans of the Diaspora—must, as Morrison charges, ‘rip that veil drawn over “proceedings too terrible to relate” and relate them, particularly if we are artists. Silence between us is no longer an option. That silence, historically, used as a weapon, a source of division and a means of control. There are, of course, "allies" ready to assist, but we can no longer allow our contributions to our respective societies and our collective stories to be told by another, parceled out piecemeal or excluded altogether. And we can no longer wait to be invited to the conversation. Because, it seems, our invite got lost somewhere in the Middle Passage mail.
1 Morrison, Toni, edited by Carolyn C. Denard. What Moves at the Margins: Selected Non-Fiction, University of Mississippi Press. 2008, p.70
2 Perez, Louis A. Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, Oxford University Press. 2006, p. 326
3 Speech given by Fidel Castro, April 8, 1961. Transcript available via The University of Texas at Austin - Web Central
4 “Revolutionary Racism in Cuba”. Council on Hemispheric Affairs. June 21, 2011