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Karina Marie Ash

Donald Backman

Jun Kurihara

Amie Pascal-Joiner

Andrew Oetzel

Aimée Reed


The Birth of the Afro-Cuban Identity Through Cuban Literature

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Aimée Reed

Cuba is one of the leading nations of culture and thought. One of the last Spanish colonies to seek its independence from its European mother, Cuba set the stage as a contact zone for both the African and the Spanish cultures. What has resulted is an island that has, since its inception, sought to establish an identity that would define it not only to the rest of the world, but also to its inhabitants. Significantly, blacks or Afrocubanos, have contributed greatly to the establishment of Cuba's identity and the gain of its independence. Through the study of Cuban writings and authors, we see that a lineage of evolution of the black Cuban subject exists: slave, freedom fighter, national icon, and finally one of the clearest voices to comment on the progression of culture and society on the island.

Cuba was one of the first lands within Latin America to have been visited by the conquistadors, but it wasn't until the Haitian Revolution of 1791 that Cuba was brought into importance for the world market. Spain stepped up its attention to Cuba and helped cultivate it to become Haiti's successor as the world's leading sugar producer. Cuba's slave trade went into overdrive:

In 1846, 36 percent of the population lived enslaved. Even well into the nineteenth century, a thriving (and illegal) slave trade continued to replenish the supply of enslaved Africans. More than 595,000 arrived on the island's shores in the last fifty years of the trade, between 1816 and 1867— about as many as ever arrived in the United States over the whole period of the trade (523,000). (Ferrer 2)

The majority of these slaves lived on sugar plantations separated from the rest of the island's population of Spanish Creoles and free persons of color.

As a result, many aspects of African culture and heritage were able to remain untouched by its hegemonic master and preserved throughout the history of Cuba. Unbeknownst to the enslaved Africans at the time, although this preserved heritage would come under fire time and time again, slavery would help to establish the island's nationality through the attention of its literature and writers. Such authors as José Martí, Fernando Ortiz, and Alejo Carpentier, to name a few, would be fascinated by this "other" culture and would use their position of intellect and pen to help establish an identity for not only the island's black inhabitants, but also its nation.

Birth of Blacks as a Subject for Literature

Spain's hold on the island of Cuba lasted longer than any other colony that makes up Latin America today. One of the main reasons for this was that many Cuban nationalists feared that any separation from Spain would result in another race war like that of the Revolution of Haiti in 1791:

Since the end of the eighteenth century, advocates of colonial rule in Cuba had argued that the preponderance of people of color and the social and economical importance of slavery meant that Cuba could not be a nation. Confronted by threats to political order, they invoked images of racial warfare and represented the nationalist's desired republic as Haiti's successor [as an economic power]. (Ferrer 8)
From this, stereotypes of blacks as savage animals ready to kill and rape at will flooded the island and heightened the fear of whites, which served the purpose of hindering any of Cuba's notions to seek its independence.

However, there were many groups of intellectuals who sought to fight colonial rule on their island. These patriot-intellects realized that the biggest issue standing between them and their independence was the issue of race and fear:

For almost a century, analogies to Haiti and allusions to black revolt and social chaos served to compromise the appeal of a political sovereignty won through widespread mobilization. To launch a successful rebellion, then, required that independence activists supply responses to these racial claims; they had to invalidate powerful and longstanding arguments against independence. This effort led patriot-intellects— black, mulatto and white— to rethink the relationship between race and nation. (Ferrer 112)
Among those patriot-intellects were Cuban-born writer José Martí, Juan Gualberto Gómez, a mulatto journalist, and Rafael Serra y Montalvo, a journalist. These three, among others, produced literature that sought to establish an identity of Cuba as a raceless nation and to create a union between both the black and white reaces, to give birth to an independent state. "The ideological campaign to negate Spanish representations of the nationalist movement was carried out largely in writing— in periodical, pamphlet, and testimonial literature published both in exile and on the island" (Ferrer 113). One such example was the separatist writers' work at creating a new identity for the insurgent black who fought next to his white brother against Spanish colonial rule:
As part of a dialogue with the Spanish portrait of the Cuban rebellions as race wars, separatist writers conducted a sweeping re-evaluation of the role of the black insurgent in the process of making the nation. It involved the formulation of an ideal black insurgent in the process, who rose above others in acts of selfless patriotism. In the process, the figure of the black insurgent, dreaded emblem of race war and black republic, was neutralized and made an acceptable— and indeed central component in the struggle for Cuban nationhood. (Ferrer 117)
Plantation owners and masters were called upon to bestow freedom on their slaves so that they could go and fight for the island's freedom. What resulted was a major role that blacks played in the rebellions of the Ten Year War (1868-78), La Guerra Chiquita (1879-80), and the War of Independence (1895-98). These three wars ended with the Spanish American War, which finally freed Cuba from Spain's hold and also helped to foster the abolition of slavery in 1886.

Of course, blacks were not fully accepted into society as free people. The majority of literature published at this period shows the identity of a black man who is so grateful for his freedom that no thoughts of revolt or establishing himself as an equal ever enter his mind. "Though this black insurgent participated in the struggle for Cuban independence, he himself was not represented as independent but as a kind of subservient and in a sense obedient insurgent" (Ferrer 119). One example is that of Ramón Roa's writings on a black insurgent named José Antonio Legón. In Roa's piece, he speaks of Legón as a feeble-minded, harmless child who has no notion of revolt or rebellion. Only when his master is killed and he is called upon to fight against colonial Spain does he take on an identity of valor and strength. Notice that it is only when his master dies that he realizes his role and identity to fight against Spain. It is through these writings that we begin to see a departure of the role of a slave to an actual citizen of the island. In no way does that role equate that with the identity of a fellow white inhabitant, but it is the birth of some type of an identity that does not call upon the past of slavery.

Reluctant Acceptance of Blacks as Citizens After the War of Independence

At the turn of the nineteenth century, after the War of Independence, blacks began to experience a backlash against their culture and heritage. There was much confusion as to what place and role these recently freed blacks would play out within the nation and many Cuban writers began to take up this issue in their work:

Throughout the Americas, the abolition of slavery was followed by post-emancipation societies in which a racist simplism gained currency— one that has been termed 'cultural marronage,' meaning a flight from all that was black, a denial of the African past— and blacks were pathologized as an obstacle to development. (Sarduy and Stubbs 17)
Writers such as José Martí, who at this point has been exiled to the United States, continued to write on acceptance of blacks as equal members of society (Moore 27). But he was a lone voice in a sea of many who had taken up arms in "war on Africanisms," which sought to condemn anything resembling any aspect of the African heritage (Moore 30). As a result of the abolition of slavery, it was through culture and society that many intellectuals turned to attack those from African descent.

One such intellectual and writer was Fernando Ortiz. Long an advocate of the African culture, Ortiz started studying and writing about the culture of blacks as a way to attack and devalue it. "Before the early 1920s Ortiz's writings demonstrated a disdain for African-influenced expression. His earliest work, Los negros brujos (The black witches) from 1906, condemned santería as a grave social affliction. . . Ortiz's interest in Africanisms stemmed initially from a desire to better understand and remedy the social ills of the nation perpetuated by blacks" (Moore 34). Ortiz continued to study the African culture within Cuba and fathered the term Afro-Cubano, which, more than any other term, established a permanent position for blacks within Cuba. His attitudes toward the African culture changed dramatically and he has contributed major writings on the study of Afro-Cuban music. But Ortiz is the best example of how literature helped to estalish an identity of a diaspora that was stripped of its homeland and forced to conform to a new one. "The intellectual trajectory of Ortiz's career metaphorically echoes the struggles of the entire nation to reposition their collective identity relative to black culture and to accept Afrocuban expression as Cuban" (Moore 34).

National Identity Established Through Afro-Cubano Culture

Blacks were not the only people searching for an identity during this time. After independence had been established, Cuba found itself floundering for an identity it could call its own.

The central dilemma facing the overwhelmingly white middle-class artists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was how to create a 'Cuban' culture while simultaneously distancing it from black and working-class expression, of which they did not approve. [...] Ironically, the genres that served best as 'primordial' symbols of Cubanness to Spain and the international community were the syncretic musics of working-class blacks, consistently denounced by nationalist leaders. The period of the machadato was the first in which, heavily pressured by political and economic circumstances, middle-class intellectuals tentatively accepted Afrocuban culture as their own. (Moore, 117-18)
White members of society sought to establish an identity for themselves that was a departure from that of their Afrocuban cohabitants. Cuba had recently seen a revolution against the regime of Machado and was suffering an economic crisis. Cuba, now more than ever, needed to establish a national identity. Ironically though, the outside world and international market defined Cuba and all that lived on its island through Afrocuban culture. Music, santería, and dance were all elements that caught the world's attention.
The war against Machado and his defeat in 1933 gave rise to strong nationalist sentiment. [...] During the conflict [of Cuba's economic crisis] and for a short time after its resolution, the country's intellectual elite attempted more actively to promote uniquely Cuban cultural forms. The sudden prominence of African-influenced music and dance in Cuba owed much to these events. The arts of socially marginalized blacks, for centuries ignored or dismissed by Cuba's middle classes, took on new significance as symbols of nationality. (Moore 2)
It was during this period of the 1920s and the 1930s that literature from Fernando Ortiz, Alejo Carpentier, Juan Marinello, and Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring sought to revolutionize the identity of Afrocubans into one of valor and importance.
The first qualified valorization of Afrocuban arts by the intellectual elite and their acceptance as the valuable heritage of the entire nation date from the 1920s and 1930s (e.g. Carpentier 1976, 91; Ortiz 1934, 205). In an important sense, the opinions of these authors were fundamental to the formation of modern Cuban thought. They demonstrate a significant break with previously held conceptions of Cuban society, from which African-influenced culture was almost entirely excluded. (Moore 1-2)

Through the progressive eyes and pens of these influential writers, Afrocubanos were able to gain a little more in their fight for equality.


Any culture that starts off using indentured slaves must fight long and hard to move beyond its past. This is not a study to condemn Cuba in any way or to argue the moral aspects of slavery. More so, this is a study of how the literature of an unborn nation helped to establish and then develop an identity of a diaspora, and, in turn, helped to establish a nation. This study ends with a quote from Rogelio Martinez Furé, a black Cuban citizen and an author of major works on the culture of Africa and the African diaspora. Furé worked with Fernando Ortiz extensively in his youth and has pioneered the study of African literature in Cuba. His quote is that of an analysis of music, but it could comment on any aspect of the Cuban culture. He states:

Don Fernando always said that it should not be thought that the African was grafted on a pre-existent Cuban culture, but rather, on the contrary, the Cuban came of the fusion of African and Spanish, plus other elements. But there are some who evidently choose to forget this. They say "Cuban" and "Afro-Cuban," as if Afro-Cuban is something else and Cuban is chemically pure, Hispanic, or white. That's when you find the biggest mistake of all, which is to talk about Cuban music and Afro-Cuban music when most of the genres known throughout the world as Cuban music have been created by those of African descent. In the final analysis, it's Afro-Cuban music. (Sarduy and Stubbs 156)

Works Cited

Ferrer, Ada. Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation and Revolution, 1868-1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Moore, Robin D. Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1920-1940. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Sarduy, Pedro Perez and Jean Stubbs. Afrocuba: An Anthology of Cuban Writing on Race, Politics and Culture. Melbourne: Ocean Press, 1993.
---. Afro-Cuban Voices: On Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba. Gainsville: University of Florida Press, 2000.

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