By Rose Sackey-Milligan, Co-Director, c-Integral
I’ve had the good fortune of visiting Cuba (Havana, several towns, cities and provinces) three times in the past four months. What a privilege! I’ve been following el proceso for years, more so since my first visit there in 1995, so as you can imagine, these travels re-kindled my interest in all things Cuban, and dispelled quite a few dated and romantic ideas about “the revolution” as well. It has been a sobering experience, and I’m seeing clearly that el proceso de revolución no es simple; es complicado, muy complicado.
I’ve been mulling over the word “revolution” and I have more questions, none for which I have answers. What does it mean beyond the superficial meaning of change? How is it done in a way that does not compromise the democratic goals (in the truest sense of the word) and aspirations which it seeks to achieve? Is it an event or a process of change taking place over a protracted period? What principles and social concerns take priority in the revolutionary process? And are those sacrificed for some greater good? Is revolution a verb or a noun as is usually described?
I was sharing with a friend that, on these trips, I have gotten the sense that the issue of race and racism in Cuba is being discussed more openly now than before, at least in some quarters. I got this sense because of a conversation I had with a Cuban I met. He said something to me I found instructive, “…although socialism provided equality and access to everyone at the same time, we have to remember that blacks and whites did not have the same starting place… I work with young black kids to make sure they have experiences in the arts because many of them may never set foot in a museum.” My friend was glad to hear that the discourse had become more open and quickly introduced me to Carlos Moore’s work to give me some historical background on times past when this was not the case. I’ve just finished reading his most recent book, Pichón: A Memoir, Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba, which I found courageous, insightful, and compelling. Sarduy’s The Maids of Havana and Castillo Bueno’s Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in Twentieth Century were equally poignant. In those reads there are many clues why certain aspects of race consciousness—or a lack thereof—I assumed would have seen their end by el proceso are still found lingering. Revolution is a process of change, taking place overtime, not an event.
I found my academic training as an anthropologist useful on these visits. In general, deeply held attitudes, perceptions, values—essentially all forms of consciousness—and, generally, the ways people make meaning of life are often reflected through art, including arts and crafts. I was on the lookout everywhere I went on the island, and I was surprised to see small blackface carved wood mocking caricatures, blackface negritos, racial stereotypes that began with the minstrel shows. In the city of Trinidad these caricatures were being widely sold by some crafters, those not identifiably Afro-Cuban; Black women were selling hats, jewelry made from seeds, knitting or embroidering. I admit this may be my own projection, but upon seeing these caricatures I immediately found them offensive. I wondered if black Cubans did too. Was I projecting racism as I experienced it in the US historical context onto what I was observing? I remembered in the US the NAACP protested these and similar images on stage and on television a long time ago. Did these images trigger some old latent feelings in me?
It’s complicated! Now, I know the term negra(o) or negrita(o) can be used affectionately or pejoratively depending on the context, but how am I to read the blackface negritos wooden caricatures? What is the context in which these caricatures are being made? What is the message that’s been conveyed here? Do these caricatures continue to exist because, as another Cuban said to me “there’s no racism in Cuba” or do they exist because it does?
Still pondering on el proceso de revolución!