Now that I am wrapping up teaching–over 1,000 students this year!–what better way to get back to scholarly work than to attend the launch of a volume showcasing Cuba and providing the opportunity to meet, or catch up with, contributors and editors.
The book, Activating The Past: Historical Memory in the Black Atlantic World, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2010, is edited by Andrew Apter and Robin Derby. Perhaps because it is not yet available in paper, it may not be familiar to some readers, but it should be, since many of the essays prominently place Cuban history and ethnography within an inter-Atlantic conversation. Thus, for instance, the first chapter, by Stephan Palmié: “Ekpe/Abakuá in Middle Passage: Time, Space and Units of Analysis in African American Historical Anthropology.” There are also Cuba-centered chapters by art historian Judith Bettelheim, “Espiritismo Altars in Puerto Rico and Cuba: The Indian and the Congo,” and Carrie Viarnes, “Muñecas and Memoryscapes: Negotiating Identity and History in Cuban Espiritismo.” Surely, however, the broader value of the volume is in (re)emplacing Cuba within wider currents, histories, and movements.
As an event, the launch (at UCLA’s African Studies Center) provided an opportunity to speak with Professors Apter and Derby, as well as Judith Bettelheim and several other contributors. I was particularly struck by Professor Bettelheim’s description of the way in which her chapter built from one particularly startling archived photograph (see Activating The Past, p. 299), circa 1860, in which two performers are wearing feathered headdresses. Clearly, art historians are very, very skilled at image analysis, and perhaps we ethnographers would be well advised to study those methods or collaborate with art historians in some contexts. In any case, get your library to order this book, and take a look at it.
I just returned from the 2nd Workshop on Afro-Cuban Religion held at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais (ICS) in Lisbon, Portugal. The theme for this meeting was “Creativity, improvisation and innovation in Afro-Cuban religion.” The event was organized by Ana Stela Cunha and Diana Espirito Santo, currently post-docs at the ICS and CRIA (Centre for Research in Social Anthropology), respectively.
A dozen scholars of Cuban religion gathered for two days to share work in progress, debate ideas, talk theory, practice, and participation, and network. Many participants were at the dissertation-writing stage or post-docs, and established scholars also attended. Discussants from ICS, Universidade de Lisboa, and Universidade Nova de Lisboa provided thoughtful feedback.
Participants included scholars from the US, Portugal, Spain, Cuba, Greece, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Brazil, and Colombia. We spoke in English and Spanish, sometimes switching between languages mid-sentence during Q & A.
The delights of Lisbon pulled us in during evenings, as we ate wonderful food and quaffed mojitos and caipirinas in a friendly, lively, bohemian city with picturesque neighborhoods and charming architecture.
Lia Pozzi, Andrea Antonelli, Anastasios Panagiotopoulos, Katerina Kerestetzi, Géraldine Morel, Diana Espirito Santo, and Jalane Schmidt in an Alafama neighborhood cafe
(You can view the entire episode by going to the PBS website)
Just this week, PBS has been showing a series on race in Latin America. This is Prof. Maria Elena Díaz’s very illuminating review of the Cuba episode:
The story begins with slavery & sugar, the 10 years war (with a slightly inaccurate and very rosy take on Cespedes and this war–you may take a look at the Cespedes’ manifesto (in Chomsky et als’ Cuba Reader) it is very problematic–there is actually no abolition of slavery, Cespedes is very careful on this controversial issue, at most grants a very limited gradual abolition with very problematic terms on how a slave can even join the liberation army, no freedom to do so, etc).
The program covers the war of Independence through, of course, a bit of Marti (and his ideology compressed into the phrase “we are all Cubans”) and particularly less well known issues around the figure of Maceo (a few bites with NYU Professor Ada Ferrer). Then a bunch of history compressed on the iconic “Maine” explosion (perhaps because there is the tangible monument). The interview with this historian (Iglesias?) is not too enlightening, frankly. They could have pulled anyone from the street to say that. These bites try to compress Louis Perez’s book <The War of 1898> and miss quite a bit, but ok, it was mostly background and perhaps it did not want to alienate a North American audience too much, particularly these days when similar adventures are being played out in other latitudes. The occupation and new segregation policies introduced during the occupation are mentioned (missing the white diplomatic corps, though) and the compliciteness of the white elite with these policies is noted. The Platt Amendment is not mentioned, which is quite basic, but the narrator pointed out there had been de facto colonialism (“from Spain to the US,” he said, to put it softly). It mentioned the white/Spanish immigration and the full emphasis on “whitening” which it could have contextualized a bit better by framing it in the greater turn of the century trend of “whitening” as part of the wider scientific racism, eugenics and the idea of “whiteness” as “progress and civilization”–going on elsewhere in L.A. (Brazil being the best known case in L.A. but elsewhere too–not to speak of course Europe and US as the emblems of modernity and progress to be imitated). It could have emphasized the universal male suffrage guaranteed in the Constitution of 1901 that became an element in the self-definition of the new Republic as a “racial democracy,” a claim that was challenged by Yvonette and the Partido Independiente de Color. It dedicated a good number of bites to the important Race war of 1912 and showed the brutal cartoons that illustrates the political unconscious of the time.
The periodization then moves to the 1920s noting that it represented the beginning to the move toward greater acceptance of “black” music and cultural traditions previously marginalized, when not outrightly persecuted . It could have explained that this coincided with broader emergent nationalist trends throughout L.A, in the interwar period. It touches on the famous story of Machado’s birthday event as a kind of lithmus test of how far black music or culture (i.e. the son) had become accepted in power circles at the time. Perhaps it could have mentioned Guillen, and Wilfredo Lam, as the show cases in “high culture” in Cuba during the following years, but it focused on popular culture, and that is just fine. It also runs through this period with some interviews with soneros and some pretty bold footage of some carnival scenes (backed by the state in the 1930s for commercial purposes) that might not be altogether accurate.
The film rightly mentions the decree to end discrimination in the public sector in the 1940s, but did not mention that, contrary to the Const of 1901, this one was explicitly guaranteed in the social democratic Constitution of 1940. (The question of implementation is a separate one.) It could have covered more about the black organizations and clubs operating throughout this period, those would have been nice memories to recover from informants, but the program sticks to the script of what are pretty much commonplaces in the academic research by now– it does not engage in any original research as mentioned above. for the 1950s, it notes the usual common places (Batista, mafia, tourism, etc); puts a good light on black participation in the 26th of July Movement by using Comandante Dreke as narrator. Chailloux got too emotional on the Literacy Campaign and that prevented her from speaking more eloquently (Gates has to pull out the words from her), but her tears were eloquent of that moment too. It highlights as well Fidel Castro’s declaration against discrimination (I think 1960), and then moves on to the issue of economic and social advancement and rights–the infrastructure and superstructure line that becomes emblematic of the Revolution’s position on race (and represented as well through the figures of Dreke and Chailloux). I thought it covered the debacle of the special period effectively as well as the effects of the dual economy, the greater access to dollar paying jobs by white sectors. (It skipped throughout the waves of emigration and exile).The discussion on the lingering of racial prejudice in Cuba that has been recently exacerbated by new global factors is actually tame.
Overall, I thought the program was very good and quite restrained. I suppose it will be shown in Cuba at some point. I wonder about reactions to it in the island and in Miami–a reception study of some kind would be nice.