In Black and White
Racism, whose historical cause lies in the pursuit of the most brutal exploitation as a means of enrichment, is also in its essence and necessarily a cultural phenomenon. That is why it does not end with the elimination of the economic bases that sustain it.
By Ernesto Estévez Rams
July 5, 2020
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
The kidnapping of the black from the white is not exclusive to a single country with a slave-owning or slavery-like past; rather, it is the rule. In Cuba, it can even be sought from what is sometimes considered our first literary work, Mirror of Patience, written by an acriolated canary. [from the Canary Islands]
The story, in the words of Eduardo Torres-Cuevas, is an aesthetic recreation of a lie and, at the same time, the creation of a myth. The first, associated with the fact that the work tries to hide the context of smuggling that causes the events portrayed; the second refers to the intention of enhancing the heroism of the Bayamese Creoles.
But it can also be read in other ways. In the work, black appears, fundamentally in the figure of Salvador Golomón, an “Ethiopian worthy of praise”, who puts an end to the unfortunate life of the buccaneer Gilberto Girón, kidnapper of Bishop Cabezas de Altamirano. With this courageous action, the black man achieves his freedom. Salvador’s virtue, in the eyes of Silvestre de Balboa, author of the poem, is to have served the white masters courageously in a battle for commercial reasons – for a traffic from which he did not benefit at all – in which he was only a participant in his condition as a slave. Black was seen through the eyes of white, this time in his utilitarian function.
Racism, whose historical cause lies in the search for the most brutal exploitation as a means of enrichment, is also in its essence and necessarily a cultural phenomenon. That is why it does not end with the elimination of the economic bases that sustain it. It endures over time beyond the elimination of the explicit or implicit laws that codify it, beyond the economic relations that need racism. And discrimination is not completely stopped unless the cultural fabric that supports it and which, in many cases, forms part of the structural core of countries is also stopped.
Nations such as the Cuban were shaped from the Christian Eurocentric with a significant racist component. Significant actors in the formation of this nationality saw the black as a factor of social backwardness. The Creole elites justified concrete proposals for eugenics and other more genocidal proposals.
Such racist positions, whether in their most extreme or most paternalistic variants, were the norm among defenders of the colony, annexationists, reformers, or autonomists. But racism was also present in pro-independence sectors, despite our most distinquich heroes and the profoundly anti-slavery roots of our deeds. Martí’s preaching of thinking of an inclusive and peerless republic in all its ethnic diversity did not mean by far the acceptance of an anti-racist stance by the frustrated society that emerged from the war of independence.
The intervening power favored actors who shared its anti-black vision. From the elites, Cuba’s progress was to “whitewash” it, appealing equally to processes of “advancing the race” by means of mestizaje, as to relegating the black “to his place”. Such ideas, projected from the class hegemony of the subordinate bourgeoisie of imperial power, were also used as a mechanism of fear to justify violence against components of the humble masses of whites, blacks and mestizos. They were used to justify crimes like the killing of thousands of Black people during the 1912 uprising. The fear of the Black people, which had been stirred up as a mechanism of domination in the colony, was transferred to the nascent republic for the same purpose.
The black, in the neo-colonial republican design that emerged, was a symbol of incivility, backwardness, and a hindrance to the nation’s progress. Its culture was not such, it was ignorant, lascivious, perverse and incompetent, and to the same extent that its rebellious presence in authentic Cuba was unstoppable, it made more of an effort to create its “white”, “civilized” variant, whether in music, theater or literature. That perspective is still there in sectors of the Cuban social imaginary, even after 60 years of systematic effort to change it from the political power that the Revolution gave to the dispossessed, including in them the black.
Any process of gestation of the national, essentially symbolic, necessarily generates an organic intellectuality to that effort. We know the white intelligentsia, most of them representatives of sectors of the owning class within the Creole population. The memory of the black woman was largely lost, either through the lack of her own written testimony or through an exercise that she sought to forget. But, although recovering it for the social imaginary is difficult, we have the emancipatory duty to continue doing so. We still have a debt to the Aponte of our history and we will not succeed in crowning our aspirations until we pay it off.
These shortcomings persist despite years of effort to study the country’s black roots and the intellectuals who have made and continue to make this study the reason for their scientific endeavors. Studies to which the Revolution managed to incorporate the Black himself from his literate empowerment, as a prying into his past and shaping his history. This systematic effort to discover our Black history has not been accompanied by the same success, in spite of all the progress that has been made there too, in its incorporation into the educational systems. Nor is the generation of tangible and intangible symbols of that memory sufficient.
Beyond laws and concrete efforts to eliminate the economic and social roots of racism, the Revolution set in motion gigantic cultural decolonization processes that are still in progress today. Entire spaces in society acquired dark colors, especially in artistic culture, but far beyond it. Never before in the history of this country has a more monumental effort been made to incorporate the Black, not as something grafter on, but as an essential part of the trunk of what is Cuban. This was done at the same time as the methodological tools were being developed to achieve this, based on the urgency of taking the sky by storm here too. Like all emancipatory social processes, much was achieved in a very short time and it was also erred as a result of doing and, also, not doing enough.
The special period, with the social and economic processes that it unleashed, gave rise to processes of re-marginalization of tangible and symbolic areas of Cuban society that joined others that had never ceased to be marginal, where the Black presence is marked. This pointed to structural problems of inequality or vulnerability, associated with skin color, which have not been resolved in our society. Racism is still present in Cuba today, because it underlies, often dormant, in the social consciousness of not a few compatriots and is invisible in not a few social and even institutional spaces.
Today, the symbolic marginalization has as a new component the influence of colonizing globalization. It is in this context that the fight against racism in Cuba also acquires even more peremptory connotations and scope, as part of the common cultural front against the onslaught to which we are subjected as a nation.
We also see this marginalization in the loss of civility reflected in reprehensible social attitudes, the rise of misogynistic lyrics in songs and other manifestations. When this phenomenon occurs, the underlying racism tends to re-visit it in terms of race: the Black is antisocial, the Black is the ill-mannered, the Black is the uncivilized… This image is reflected in common places that persist among us, such as when it is associated with doing things right with “let’s do it like whites” or when a person is reproached for behaving like “a Black man”.
In our current society, wide spaces, where racism has been defeated, coexist with others where it persists and expands. We can proudly see tremendous advances in this fight against racism: firstly, its banishment as a phenomenon inherent to a capitalist society, but we also have to recognize its stubborn permanence as a real social phenomenon.
We recognize our formal dress, symbolically legitimized for protocol and official acts, in the very Cuban guayabera, but also in the jacket and tie imported from white and symbolically exclusive Europe, and none other. We do not incorporate into the garments accepted as formal the beautiful clothes of our African heritage. It is a simple and “innocent” example of all those symbolic dimensions of racism that go unnoticed among us.
Some monuments erected in the bourgeois neo-colonial republic have not been adequately intervened to re-describe them in the light of an anti-colonial and revolutionary vision of our history.
We carry with us the consequences of those centuries in which the Black, culturally speaking, was forcibly inserted into a society shaped from the white and its codes. Their culture, as an everyday attitude, is still seen by many as peripheral, another reality not incorporated into a supposed white root; it is perceived as a culture of folklore. It persists in segregating certain social behaviors, such as Black behaviors. The most explicit reaction on the part of those attacked to this symbolic aggression is then reduced by some to a supposed threat to social coexistence.
A relentless struggle must be waged, on the real economic, social and cultural levels, against racism, which not only persists but threatens to advance. It must be fought with the tools that we have used and are using in all these years of immense and insufficient effort. We have a tremendous arsenal of ideas that we didn’t have before, which is also the result of what has been done since the Revolution, and which we can and must incorporate into this battle, the one we owe to all the Salvador Golomóns of our history. They did not fight to reproduce patterns of exploitation, but to open up paths to seek full human potential. We owe it to ourselves, regardless of color, all the children equally of Martí and Maceo, of Camilo and Almeida.