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Black Histories in Cuba and Its Diaspora (December 2016): Diasporic Connections in Neocolonial Cuba

by Bonnie A. Lucero

Diasporic Connections in Neocolonial Cuba

Building on both decolonial and postemancipation scholarship, a fascinating subset of work on Cuba at the turn of the twentieth century sets out to explore the entwinement of US imperialism and the cultivation of a unique diasporic community. An early pioneer of this kind of work was Willard Gatewood Jr., who compiled a collection of African American writings on race and empire during the Spanish-American War in “Smoked Yankees” and the Struggle for Empire: Letters from Negro Soldiers, 1898-1902.

More recent diasporic studies foreground the agency of black Cubans in constructing hemispheric connections with their counterparts in the United States and beyond. Frank Guridy’s Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow builds on this foundation by examining the myriad political and cultural ties connecting African Americans and Afro-Cubans in the so-called American century. He convincingly shows how black Cubans navigated the ties of empire to cultivate valuable connections with other black peoples in the United States and beyond. Similarly, in Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution, Jana K. Lipman examines the mingling of Cuban and US racial ideas in the context of social interactions between US servicemen and Cubans in prerevolutionary Guantánamo. In Waves of Decolonization: Discourses of Race and Hemispheric Citizenship in Cuba, Mexico, and the United States, David Luis-Brown explores Cuban approaches to decolonization in hemispheric context. Examining the texts of prominent nationalists, writers, social scientists, and others, he suggests that Cuba’s struggles against empire and racism paralleled similar processes in the United States and Mexico.

At the same time as scholars were developing a burgeoning historiographical tradition on black Cubans’ histories on the island, much of the work on Cuba’s diaspora in the United States has implicitly assumed a predominantly white or white-passing exile population. Over the last few decades, a small body of scholarship has emerged to challenge that view by charting black Cuban experiences in the United States. Much of this scholarship focuses on South Florida, where Cubans immigrated to escape the economic and political tumult of the independence wars in the late nineteenth century. In More than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa, Susan D. Greenbaum reconstructs black Cuban communities in twentieth-century Tampa, Florida, through ethnographic and archival research on a local mutual aid organization, La Union Martì-Maceo. In Exile and Revolution: José D. Poyo, Key West, and Cuban Independence, Gerald E. Poyo posits that the revolutionary Cuban community in South Florida offered black Cuban cigar workers somewhat of an oasis from the Jim Crow racism that permeated other parts of Florida.

The second pillar supporting studies of North America’s Afro-Cuban diaspora has been New York, where a nascent community of Cuban and Puerto Rican nationalists organized in support of Cuban independence in the late nineteenth century. Rhythms of Race: Cuban Musicians and the Making of Latino New York City and Miami, 1940-1960, by Christina D. Abreu, expands the parameters of research on prerevolutionary Cuban American communities by charting the ways Cuban musicians helped forge Latino communities and identities in two of the country’s most culturally important Latin@ hubs. In Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball, Adrian Burgos, Jr. uses the case study of a heavily Latino Negro League baseball team, the New York Cubans, to illuminate the challenges Cuban and other Latino immigrants posed to the black-white racial binary in the Jim Crow United States. Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities, by Laura Lomas, likewise shows how Cuban (and other Latino) migrant intellectuals in New York City, including Cuban nationalist José Martí, challenged entrenched systems of inequality in the United States; in this case, empire as well as racial and cultural inequality. These works foreground the myriad connections and interactions between diasporic populations in Cuba and the United States, centering black peoples as essential agents of Cuba’s nation-building, labor, and international presence.