Two recently published books about the Cuban past may be of interest to ethnographers of Cuba, although in very different ways. The first, Shade-Grown Slavery: The Lives of Slaves on Coffee Plantations in Cuba, by Luis Pérez, Jr.’s student, historian William C. Van Norman, Jr., comes from Vanderbilt University Press. By focusing on coffee, rather than sugar, plantations, as well as in siting the research in and around Matanzas, I found the perspective of the book to bring a welcome contrast to more conventional reads of Cuban history through the lens of the production of sugar. This is also a straightforward historiographical work, lucid, informative and without the theoretical angst of many of us contemporary cultural theorists.
The second volume, The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuba Religion, by Stephan Palmié, University of Chicago Press, is, predictably, a slower read, but well worth the effort. Taking on the anthropological production of knowledge about Cuban religious practice, from Ortiz onward, the volume challenges us anthropologists to rethink just what we do, and why. (In this sense, I am reminded of David Scott’s critique of the external production of narratives about the Caribbean past in his classic “That event, this memory”, 1991, Diaspora 1:3, but of course, the metaphor of “cooking” is in part a nod to Sidney Mintz). Most welcome, for me, is a sense of reflexivity about the object of study, much more pronounced than in Palmié’s earlier work. Thus for instance, while I am still leery of the use of the term “Afro-Cuban” due to the way so many non-Cuban scholars carelessly conflate it as both a classification of cultural practices and a category for persons (who sometimes resent being so labelled), here Palmié is careful to indicate his own doubts about the adequacy of such a label–the introduction title actually puts “Afro,” “Cuban,” and “Religion” all in quotes. Most immediately, then, the book speaks to others studying Cuban religious practices, and indeed, questions the nature of “anthropology” as well, in a sophisticated yet readable way. One thing I’d like to have seen more of is consideration of the way present-day Protestant and evangelical religious movements in Cuba fit into the picture Palmié is drawing–in the sense Trouillot described of the “present in the past.” And while Fidel Castro’s famous description of Cuba as “un país latinoafricano” is deftly brought into the story (p. 85), surely much more thinking could be done about the relation between a distinctive revolutionary African-Cuban present and contructions of an African past. But again, this is a text worth wrestling with, probably more at the graduate/professional level than for most undergraduate classes, and I’d love to hear other colleagues’ takes on it.