The recent diplomatic opening between the United States and Cuba promises to turn the page on nearly sixty years of political stalemate following the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The current détente in US-Cuba relations is unlike previous attempts at normalization, and not only because it seems that Cold War mentalities may finally be subsiding. The thaw has assumed special social and cultural significance because it also coincides with an intellectual movement in the United States and in the broader global intellectual community to (re)discover Latin America’s vibrant black heritage. One need only look at the recent flowering of popular engagement with Afro-Latin America, especially Cuba, including the recent documentary, “Cuba: The Next Revolution,” in Henry Louis Gates’ film series Black in Latin America; the publication of a polemical op-ed on race, “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun,” by Roberto Zurbano in the New York Times in 2013; and the forthcoming publication of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, edited by Franklin W. Knight and Henry Louis Gates Jr., which contains hundreds of entries on black Cubans.
While mainstream North American audiences are only recently beginning to challenge the stereotypical mestizo image of Latin America as a region, Cuba’s African diaspora—alongside that of Brazil and Haiti—has commanded sustained attention from North American scholars, intellectuals, and travelers at least since the nineteenth century. Cuba’s nineteenth-century slave society was a potential ally for Southern slaveholders, who sought to bolster their political influence through projects of annexation. Following the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886, the island’s raceless nationalism quickly became a symbol of possibility for African Americans who struggled against racist violence and Jim Crow in the US. When African American civil rights activism began to gain traction following World War II, studies of race in Latin America, especially Cuba, assumed renewed relevance in the North American academy—this time as a potential model for dismantling US racism, especially after the Cuban Revolution declared an official end to racism in the 1960s. Indeed, research on race in Cuba has often served as a frame of reference for understanding, validating, or even critiquing the racial climate in the United States, where anti-black racism has persisted as one of the most pressing social issues of the country.
Two key challenges have emerged with this comparative framework on race in Cuba. First, it has led English-language scholarship on Cuba to reproduce—albeit implicitly—the black-white binary that has typically characterized US racial thinking. A growing number of studies have begun to challenge this US-centric approach to race by foregrounding the historical experiences of Indigenous, Chinese, and Jewish Cubans. This essay focuses on the second problem: the male-normative perspective that has conventionally undergirded scholarship on race. The purpose is to highlight some of the most important historical scholarship on the specifically raced and gendered experiences of black peoples in Cuba published in English since the 1940s. The essay is chronologically organized into three substantive sections. It begins with a discussion of the most important works on Cuba’s colonial period; namely, the well-developed scholarship on slavery. The next section highlights studies of black experiences in the wars of independence, the postemancipation years, and the early republic, roughly, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The third section focuses on scholarship addressing the ways the 1959 Cuban Revolution has affected people of African descent. The essay also highlights the growing scholarship on women of color, gender, and sexuality to foreground critiques of the male-centered, heteronormative perspectives undergirding most studies of race. The essay concludes with a brief reflection on the ways building a library collection in this field can help prepare students to take part in this historic moment in US-Cuban relations.
Bonnie A. Lucero is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, where she teaches courses on the histories of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the African Diaspora. She is the author of several articles and book chapters on Cuban history and is coeditor of Voices of Crime: Constructing and Contesting Social Control in Modern Latin America (University of Arizona Press, 2016).