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Black Histories in Cuba and Its Diaspora (December 2016): Appropriating the Revolution through Artistic Expression

by Bonnie A. Lucero

Appropriating the Revolution through Artistic Expression

Like Afro-Cuban religion, black cultural forms offer black Cubans a domain in which to engage the state and carve out spaces for self-expression. The cultural uses of the past are precisely the subject of an emerging field of research of which Performing Afro-Cuba: Image, Voice, Spectacle in the Making of Race and History by Kristina Wirtz is among the best examples. She offers a theoretically informed anthropological study of history, charting some of the ways contemporary Cuban religious and folklore performances echo earlier racialized traditions such as blackface theatre. Myriam J. A. Chancy takes a parallel approach to the study of black women writers in Cuba and the neighboring Dominican Republic and Haiti. In From Sugar to Revolution: Women’s Visions of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, she argues that writers like Cuba’s Nancy Morejón have sought to excavate women’s historic experiences of national belonging through their literature. In particular, Cuban music was not only a site of cultural expression but also a medium of political engagement. Yvonne Daniel argues that rumba offers a window into social change and government initiatives to produce it in Rumba: Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba. This insight exposes a particularly fruitful interplay between contemporary culture and the state in Cuba.

Like Daniel, other scholars have examined Cuban music for its political and social activist dimensions—a project that is particularly pronounced in recent studies of Cuban hip-hop. For many black Cubans, hip-hop music has offered a platform on which to express themselves as well as to offer subtle critiques of the revolution, including its racial legacies. Sujatha Fernandes challenges prevailing notions that public sphere activism cannot exist in communist or authoritarian countries, showing that in Cuba, activism often coincides with state sponsorship. In Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures, she argues that artistic expression, including rap music, offers activists greater leverage in pushing for racial equality. In Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana, Geoffrey Baker explores the relationship between Cuban hip-hop music and the state since the Special Period, following Robin Moore (Nationalizing Blackness) in tracing its nationalization. Marc D. Perry similarly sees Cuban rap music as a form of racial activism. In Negro Soy Yo: Hip Hop and Raced Citizenship in Neoliberal Cuba, he examines how black Cuban raperos (rappers) craft particularly racialized notions of self and citizenship through their music, which challenges longstanding notions of Cuban racelessness. Tanya L. Saunders zooms in on a group of young hip-hop artists who self-identify as antiracist revolutionaries. In Cuban Underground Hip Hop: Black Thoughts, Black Revolution, Black Modernity, she frames the socially conscious cultural production of this group of activists from their inception to their exit from Cuba. Katrin Hansing’s Rasta, Race and Revolution: The Emergence and Development of the Rastafari Movement in Socialist Cuba examines the ways young Cubans appropriated the Rastafari movement to challenge the resurgent racism following the economic collapse.

Alongside new diasporic forms of music, visual art has also provided an arena for discussing and challenging racism in Cuba, as Fernandes aptly notes in Cuba Represent! Following that lead, Alejandro de la Fuente’s bilingual and beautifully illustrated tome, Queloides: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art, documents his co-curated exhibit of the same name, and reconstructs two artistic exhibits on racism that took place in 1990s Cuba. This line of work on Cuban cultural and artistic expression helps challenge monolithic interpretations of the Cuban Revolution as either erasing racism or perpetrating it. Rather, by foregrounding the activism and artistic production of black Cubans, this research elucidates the limitations of revolutionary racial agendas as well as concrete attempts to push for change.