From email@example.com Tue Jun 20 06:45:43 2000
Learning from the Black Experience in Cuba
By Wiley A. Hall, 3rd, The Afro-American, 5 March 2000
Images reminiscent of Little Black Sambo and Aunt Jemima are alive and well and flourishing in Cuba.
I'm sure you know what I'm talking about: the skin so bowling ball black that it sparkles; the shiny white eyes and thick red lips; the grotesquely misshapen hindquarters.
I visited Cuba with a group of African-American newspaper columnists earlier this month and I found such images everywhere. I found them in newspaper cartoons. Sambo-like images were hot tourist items as dolls and carvings in open-air craft markets.
In America, we'd have found such caricatures very offensive. They are a heritage of White America's deliberate attempt to insult, ridicule and demean African Americans.
But the Afro-Cubans I met considered them harmless.
"You must understand that we are very different in Cuba," insisted Gabriel Molina Franchossi, director of Gramma newspaper, the official organ of the communist party in Cuba. "To Afro-Cubans, big lips and big backsides are objects of beauty. To us, such images represent the feminine ideal."
I held up a cartoon. "So this is a compliment not an insult?"
"Yes, yes," replied Franchossi, looking puzzled by my question. "Very much so."
Frankly, I don't believe him. We love lips and hips in America, too, but that doesn't lead us to embrace images of Little Black Sambo and Aunt Jemima. And although I looked as hard as I could, I never saw Whites complimented that way.
So here's the question: Are African Americans overly sensitive or is it that we understand White folk better than anyone else does? Should Blacks throughout the African Diaspora consider the bitter history of race relations in America and despair? Or should African Americans draw hope from the energy and optimism of our cousins overseas?
I found myself asking the same questions after a trip to Israel two summers ago. I found that Ethiopian Jews who had immigrated to Israel were so optimistic about their ability - and their children's ability - to integrate smoothly into Jewish society that it seemed to border on naivete to me. But who am I to say? My cynicism is based on nearly 300 years of broken promises in America. The Black experience in Israel is less than a decade old.
Afro Cubans also seem naive. Cubans are fond of saying that Fidel Castro abolished racism when he came into power 40 years ago, as though this can be accomplished by a simple decree. What they really mean, of course, is that Castro outlawed discrimination. And again, who am I to say he hasn't? In the United States, discrimination didn't become illegal until the mid-60s when Congress passed a series of civil rights laws effecting voting rights, equal employment, and fair housing. By 1968, Richard Nixon was riding a wave of White backlash into power and the process of undermining those gains began.
Blacks appear to have had a different experience in Cuba, where better than 40 percent of the population is either Black or mestizo (mixed) and where a fair percentage of those who are considered "White" acknowledge some degree of African or mestizo blood in their heritage.
"We in Cuba are not so easily categorized as in the United States," said Reynaldo Calviac Lafferte, director of the International Press Center. He pointed to a wall in his office. "In the same family, there are some who are as White as that wall." Then he slapped his patent leathers. "And there are some who are as black as my shoes. For us, race is not an issue like it is for you."
Under Castro, Blacks are well represented in the country's ruling bodies. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world and mortality rates comparable to that of Europe and the United States. Successful Afro Cubans are quick to note that they and their children have been afforded opportunities since what they call "the triumph of the Revolution" that they would never have received under the old regime.
"Since the triumph of the Revolution, if you study, if you work hard, you will advance," insisted Ruben Remigio Ferro, an Afro Cuban who recently became president of the Supreme Court in Cuba - the equivalent of the Chief Justice of the United States.
At the same time, my sensitive antennae as an African American found ample evidence that Cuba is not a racial paradise. The caricatures in the marketplace were just one example. In addition, now that the country has opened itself to foreign trade and tourism, some Afro Cubans conceded that it might be difficult to prevent European firms from bringing Old World prejudices with them. Others acknowledged that there were still some White Cubans who look down on those with dark skin. But so what? They asked. Without the power to discriminate, prejudice is a personal matter.
A moment ago I asked whether African Americans could learn from the experiences of Blacks elsewhere in the Diaspora. The answer is simple: Yes we can. And our cousins can learn from us.
Copyright (c) 2000 Afro-American Newspaper Co. of Baltimore.
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