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Two new volumes at the intersection of Cuban history and ethnography, fall 2013

By Paul Ryer, History, history of anthropology, Religion, Space & Place No Comments »

shade-grown_slaveryTwo 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.  cooking of history

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.

Edward B. Tylor in Cuba, in 1856

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, history of anthropology 7 Comments »

It is little known that Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917), a founding father of British social anthropology, began his ethnographic journey not in Mexico, but in Cuba. Young Tylor traveled from Louisiana to Cuba when he was only 24 years old. At an omnibus in Havana he met a man who’d change his life: Henry Christy, a British ethnologist and archaeologist. Together they explored Cuba and then headed to Mexico, where Tylor experienced the intellectual conversion that would set him on a life path to theorize culture “in the ethnographic sense” (Tylor’s words) and in relation to civilization.

There is not much available documentation of Tylor’s Cuba sojourn except for the excursion Christy and he undertook to the Isle of Pines, and which he describes in his Mexico book, Anahuac ‘s first chapter.  Tylor describes the lush tropical jungle that walled the train tracks between Havana and Batabanó (something hard to imagine today), as well as the hamlets along the way, where “cigar making seemed to be the universal occupation.” Once in Batabanó, the travelers boarded a steamer to Nueva Gerona, in the Isle of Pines. His observations are well worth a read, from those about their fellow steamer travelers, to the daily (and nightly) life in mosquito-infested Nueva Gerona (where men tinkled guitars and sung seguidillas, and where they befriended “the Cura” -whose “parentage was the only thing remarkable about him: he was not merely the son of a priest, but his grandfather was a priest also”), to the rural settlements of free blacks (both emancipados and expatriate Floridians), to his observations concerning race relations (and racial intermarriages), to the sorry conditions of indentured Chinese migrant workers, to the continuing slave trade (abolished in Cuba only six years later, in 1862).

I reproduce here the fragment about Tylor’s visit to one of the Floridians’ settlements. These were African descendants, “free inhabitants of Florida who chose to leave that country when it was given up to the United States.”

We paid a regular round of visits to the Floridan settlers, and were
delighted with their pleasant simple ways. It is not much more than
thirty years since they left Florida, and many of the children born
since have learnt to speak English. The patches of cultivated land
round their cottages produce, with but little labour, enough vegetables
for their subsistence, and to sell, procuring clothing and such
luxuries as they care for. They seemed to live happily among
themselves, and to govern their little colony after the manner of the

In one house in the Floridan colony we found a _menage_ which was
surprising to me, after my experience of the United States. The father
of the family was a white man, a Spaniard, and his wife a black woman.
They received us with the greatest hospitality, and we sat in the porch
for a long time, talking to the family. One or two of the mulatto
daughters were very handsome; and there were some visitors, young white
men from the neighbouring village, who were apparently come to pay
their devoirs to the young ladies. Such marriages are not uncommon in
Cuba; and the climate of the island is not unfavourable for the mixed
negro and European race, while to the pure whites it is deadly. The
Creoles of the country are a poor degenerate race, and die out in the
fourth generation. It is only by intermarriage with Europeans, and
continual supplies of emigrants from Europe, that the white population
is kept up.

For more on Tylor, see George Stocking’s essay, “Tylor and the Mission of Primitive Man,” included in his book Delimiting Anthropology. An earlier paper of Stocking’s on Tylor’s culture concept (and its contrast to Boas’) can be downloaded HERE.

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