• William Mathis

GATHER UP THE FRAGMENTS - NOTES FROM CUBA (HAVANA)



The more we pull together toward a new day, the less it matters what pushed us apart in the past.

Johnnetta B. Cole

I’m interested in music, not in my image. If someone plays something fantastic, that I could never have thought of, it makes me happy to know it exists. Only America makes you feel that everybody wants to be like you. That’s what success is. Everybody wants to be like you.

Ornette Coleman

Character is what you know you are, not what others think you have.

Marva Collins


Cuba was an interesting experience as it not only piqued my curiosity as to the resilience found in a revolutionary and defiant people of Western status quo, but also my queries as to how Blackness plays in such a revolutionary atmosphere that rejects the West, its philosophy and thinking, and how Blackness thrives in such a system and its structures. Needless to say, my curiosity was fed both by the sense of independence of Cubans' defiance, but also by how, because of the revolution, “Afro-Cuban” identity was consumed by the revolution causing their African-ness/Blackness to become subordinate to their Cuban-ness for the sake of the revolution. I place Afro-Cuban in quotations because while I was there one of the most heated discussions among academicians and certain members of the community was the non-reality of Afro-Cuban as a sect of people and culture - it's Cuban, although there are some historical ties to Africa. I found it particularly interesting as I was focused on the practice of faith among Afro-Cubans in which it was quite obvious the connection to African traditions as well as similarities of practices within the African Diaspora global community, that these roots were minimized in order to enhance the Cuban-ness of the practices, making them more Cuban than African, thus challenging their Blackness; their identity and all aspects of their culture as "Afro-Cuban". I heard and deduced time and time again, that the revolution came to free everyone, including Black Cubans, thus because of the revolution, Black Cubans were dissolved into the dominance of identity as Cubans, as we are all one, Black and White. Before the revolution, there were self-identified Afro-Cuban communities and organizations and they were visible as advocates and supporters of both their Blackness and their community, however, since the Revolution, it was decided by the new system - the Revolution that Afro-Cuban organizations and spaces were no longer needed because the Revolution has made them equal, comrades with all. Please note that Afro-Cubans were instrumental in the strategy and implementation of the revolution, however, since the revolution their influence and participation have been somewhat strained or one may say constrained. Other self-identified communities within Cuba, i.e. Spanish and Asian, also maintained independent community organizations and spaces of advocacy and support before the revolution, and were in alliance with the revolution, after the revolution was allowed, if not encouraged, to continue their efforts and work and have done so even in this present day. Among the older generation of Afro-Cubans, this reality of the difference caused by the revolution for the development and nurturing of Blackness is very true and thus they cling to and long for a day, even though they supported and support the revolution, for the re/creation of spaces that will promote their Blackness. Younger Afro-Cubans, who have come up after the Revolution in the vein of the Revolution, see no color and thus do not see and/or desire such an independent movement and/or communal spaces among Black people toward their Blackness, they are all Cuban. Sounds familiar? I would suggest it is amazingly familiar to what I have found among educated liberal westernized African and African Diaspora young people globally. I would suggest it is a byproduct of a "post-integration," "allied," "I see no color," "diversity, equity, inclusion" world in which we have allowed non-Black people to force us to give up our authenticity and genuineness, ultimately our ancestors, contributions, and legacy, for the sake of the whole - their continual dominance. This deception, I would suggest destroys the ability to create, develop, nurture, and sustain spaces of Blackness within the community, the lack thereof hinders a community's sense of independence and replaces it with interdependence in which we are always in a needy position to be accepted by others and eventually absolved by them for what is perceived as the “greater good," although it may be detrimental to our long-term survival and thriving. I would further suggest that the powers that be, realize that if we can be prevented from creating and sustaining spaces that promote our Blackness, inclusive of Ubuntu - I am because you are and you are because I am - we will build our own tables/paradigms, driving our own narratives and insisting on our community thriving.

Nevertheless, what was affirming about community and the African notion of Ubuntu I saw and experienced among Afro-Cubans was the tolerance of differences; gender, sexuality, etc., and even to some degree philosophy made me wonder if this tolerance was a direct result of maintained African traditions and/or the revolution and/or the combination of the two - African legacy of what is now Cuban. However, according to the revolution, differences are accepted but it appears only those differences that further the principles, ideals, and legitimacy of the revolution; somewhat similar to the cancel culture that presently exist in the USA. It was my impression that no one would deny the differences between individuals and people, but the differences must be swallowed up in the revolution, the victory over the previous oppression because of differences. My impression caused me to make further inquiries, especially among Afro-Cuban community activists and organizers and they shared with me that yes, there is an acknowledgment of our differences, who we are as Black people, our vibrant history, and our contribution but only up to a point of it being dissolved into our Cuban-ness, into the revolution not as a space in which we stand tall independent and equal to others but just simply our acceptance and accepting of our Cuban-ness. The revolution seeking to eliminate differences, especially as imposed by the former oppressor may have worked generally, although when I observed the poorest areas of Cuba, it appeared to be dominated by dark-skinned Cubans, Afro-Cubans; those, by testimony, who had an extreme difficulty of rising out of poverty, through education, exposure, employment, etc. all appeared to be dark-skinned, Afro Cubans, not because of laws and regulations, it is illegal to discriminate, but more so because of systems and structures which still disfavored Afro-Cubans and this also extended to Eurocentric looking Cubans community's unspoken social rules in which they frowned upon intimate relationships, especially intermarriage with Afro-Cuban. Even scholars who are presently debating the African origin of traditional religions in Cuban, sought to deemphasize the African portion because "Cubans" had developed a more pure practice and form that was nurtured in the struggle and experience as Cubans, thus the term "Afro-Cuban" is somewhat deceptive of the reality of the religions as practiced in Cuba; they have become more Cuban than African. As an example, in one of my conversations, a dark-skinned brother was sharing about his in-laws, his wife visibly a European-looking Cuba, and their reaction to him prior and subsequent to their marriage, estrangement from them and the rest of their family and as he was sharing, others were nodding their heads in agreement from their own similar stories, yet they could or would not admit that at the root of such, was racism, anti-Blackness, for they proclaimed there is no Black or White, "they are all Cubans." Within that same setting, I asked the other young people how did they identify, and they responded, Cuban, no one readily identified as Afro-Cuban so I asked why and their overwhelming response was the acknowledgment of African ancestry, however, their primary identity was that of Cuban, they had no other connection to Africa or even the African Diaspora. However, community activists and the elders of the community, identified as Afro-Cuban, and eagerly sought to reclaim and/or reestablish their community's identity as Afro-Cubans and believed that the discussion, especially the academic dismantling and disowning of the term "Afro-Cuban" was silly. Among the elders of the Afro-Cuban community, they remembered the spaces that developed, nurtured, and sustained their community prior to the revolution and those memories challenge them now, despite post-revolution Cuba, for communal spaces of advocacy and support to ensure that they and their culture thrives with and alongside the revolution. For the younger generation who grew up after the revolution, there was no such thing as a Black Community or a Black Church, we are all Cuban, yet as you travel throughout Havana and other areas of Cuba, the poorest of the poor communities were visibly and predominantly Afro-Cuban, while the majority of middle-class and upwardly mobile communities were distinctly "whiter," even the churches in the poorer areas, historically, were intentional of White congregations evangelizing Christianity to Afro-Cuban communities who were believed to be practitioners of African traditional practices of faith. I would suggest that the revolution, although with great intentions of correcting the oppression experienced by all people, Afro-Cubans who were critical members of the pre-revolutionary strategy and provided practical support, have been forced to choose, like no other groups, between the revolution and their authenticity as Afro-Cubans which has created a generational divide as well as a disconnect from community, locally and globally, of Black people and the power and celebration of our Blackness - Ubuntu.

As Cuba's intellectual community debates whether or not the Cuban experience trumps Blackness and thus, the identity of Black people in Cuba and their culture, there is no denial of its African origins but instead a Cuban washing of those origins to establish an identity that better fits and promotes the narrative of the revolution. This too can be said of how the Western-European experiences of Black people, especially per my time spent in London, Paris, and life in the USA as well as to a certain extent in Senegal, Ghana, and South Africa, which we openly struggle and live with our Blackness as subordinate to our identities as English, French, or American. The notion of allowing our Blackness to take a subordinate position as to our identity plays outs so that we can socially, economically, educationally, and politically receive acceptance and fit into the dominant culture and/or expectations, although it appears to work, experience teaches, or at least it should, that it never does and/or is sustainable. Nevertheless, inextricably tied to who we are as Black people, although challenged based upon where we are in the world, is community and it there where, if we choose, can create, nurture, and sustain spaces to prioritize our identity as Black people, our Blackness as well as develop paradigms and tools, equipping us to counter anti-Blackness and the temptation to trade in our authenticity for that which is more acceptable by the dominant cultures in our environments. Socialism and capitalism or communism and democracies may be different in their approaches and one may favor one over another but what is consistent when it comes to their systems and structures, they are all anti-Black and, intentionally and/or unintentionally, block or hinder the development, nurturing, and sustaining of our own communal spaces that would promote Blackness and the thriving of our community, authentically and distinctly within their frameworks.

To be Black and occupy spaces in general society, whatever ideologies may exist, in which we establish and promote our Blackness and the thriving of our community in our authenticity does not have to be in opposition to anything, actually, when one is true to oneself you bring to your general spaces the genuine you, including the authentic traditions and culture of your community, providing a true diverse engagement that can produce outcomes that cause individual communities as well as the general society to thrive alongside one another and not in opposition to each other. In my opinion, the priority of our Blackness above ideologies and other identities is extremely important for our thriving wherever we may be and is best achieved by our own means of intentionally creating, preserving, and/or developing our own spaces and tables in which we, Black people, unite to support and facilitate our thriving, locally and globally, recognizing and embracing our own multifacetedness as well as that of the world. Therefore, though there are challenges, Afro-Cubans come to the experience of global Blackness with a unique and important voice that will not smother debate but instead enhance it; potentially the reevaluation of positions that possibly are more influenced by the dominant systems and structures which we as other members of the African and African community possess with an eye toward the developing and executing of paradigms that maximize outcomes for our community and its thriving, locally and globally. As we seek to glean and benefit from the multifacetedness of who we are as a people globally, recognizing who we are is not based on who people think we are or what economic, social, or political persuasion to subscribe or even the way we are treated, the anti-Blackness that exist all around us and on all levels instead, it comes from within to establish, nurture, and sustain our greatness, our significance to humanity, the reality of our past, present, and future contributions as the originators and caretakers of civilization. We can be Cuban, American, English, French, Colombian, or Brazilian, and yet be African. We can be male, female, straight, gay, transexual, or non-binary and yet be African. We can be a Democrat, Republican, Independent, Democratic, Socialist, or Communist and yet be African. Our Blackness transcends all things and serves as the foundation for our viewing the world and life through the lens of our Blackness for the good of our ancestors and our legacy, sharing our experiences toward shared resolutions, creating our paradise in which we thrive.

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