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Black Histories in Cuba and Its Diaspora (December 2016): Modernity and Nationalism in the Early Republic

by Bonnie A. Lucero

Modernity and Nationalism in the Early Republic

Drawing on studies of Cuba’s transition from colony to republic, another body of works charts the construction of a uniquely Cuban nationalism, in which black culture was at the very center. The great challenge Cuba’s national architects faced was how to reconcile the island’s significant black population with Euro-American notions linking modernity and civilization to whiteness. Some historians have argued that Cuba’s historic traditions of racial mixture, or mestizaje, offered one solution to this dilemma. Cuban Counterpoints, edited by Mauricio A. Font and Alfonso W. Quiroz, explores the legacies of Fernando Ortiz, whose concept of transculturation proved central to twentieth-century Cuban notions of nationality and modernity.

Other scholars have suggested that the nationalization of black cultural forms—increasingly prevalent in the early twentieth century—constituted another important way Cuban nationalists sought to uphold the colorblind discourse while effectively maintaining racial exclusion politically and economically. In Lydia Cabrera and the Construction of an Afro-Cuban Cultural Identity, Edna M. Rodríguez-Mangual explores the writings of the famous Cuban anthropologist to illuminate how she foregrounded Afro-Cuban contributions to Cuban national culture. Similarly, Robin D. Moore examines the shifting national responses to Afro-Cuban musical forms to explain how they became so central to mainstream Cuban culture in Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1920-1940. Building on the foundation of Moore’s study, Susan Thomas shows that the Cuban lyric theatre form zarzuela played a pivotal role in popularizing Afro-Cuban musical forms in Cuban Zarzuela: Performing Race and Gender on Havana’s Lyric Stage. Yet she also shows that zarzuela elaborated a moralistic pedagogy to a primarily female bourgeois audience through specifically racialized and gendered characters. The popular success of Cuban musicians like Benny Moré, one of the most celebrated musicians and bandleaders of the 1950s, grew out of this nationalization of Afro-Cuban music. John Radanovich resuscitates the biography and career of Moré in The Wildman of Rhythm: The Life & Music of Benny Moré.

While the nationalization of black cultural forms discussed in the above works implied a hierarchy of cultural value, Stephen Palmié recounts that European and Afro-Cuban modernities emerged together as mutually constitutive notions. In his heavily theoretical Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition, Palmié subverts conventional approaches to Afro-Cuban religion as backward and in need of civilization. His subsequent work, The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion, continues in this vein by challenging ideas about what it means to study something like Afro-Cuban religion in the first place, examining the ways scholars and practitioners mutually constitute this set of cultural practices. Tiffany Sippial offers a parallel, though more historically concrete, argument about the construction of modernity. In Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840-1920, she shows how the “race problem,” especially racialized notions of vice and hygiene, informed evolving policies and social anxieties surrounding prostitution at the turn of the twentieth century. These scholars showcase the persistence of race and black culture in early twentieth-century renditions of Cuban nationalism as Cubans constructed their own unique notion of modernity.