Afro-Cuba: Black History Month’s International Beacon of Hope

Devyn Springer
Mar 6 · 12 min read

Statuettes of Catholic idols like Mother Mary stand in many alters, however the orishas prayed to are as African as can be — a Black theology tale as old as time.

Details of a painting by artist Emilio O’Farrill

Upon arrival, once they had the chance, they searched for the wide, tanish-gray trunk and twisting limbs of the Baobab tree, whose leaves gave shadow as if they were chiding the sun. The tree they searched for was not only central to their religion, one which would be called animistic and attemptedly tortured out of them, it was also central to their lives; they were used to placing offerings of food, money, and clothes underneath them to receive blessings from the orishas, the leaves boiled to soup to cure sore throats, the occasional fruits a sign of good luck and, often, dried into a nutritional powder to be consumed. What do you do when you arrive forcefully on the shores of an island in chains, your life awashed with middle passages and languages foreign to you, and as your feet eventually gain comfort and familiarity on the ground, the symbol of the power of your orishas — your gods, your guiding lights of wisdom and strength — are nowhere to be found?

Instead of finding the Baobab they found the Ceiba, still massive in grandeur but more vertical, thicker limbed tree than what they searched for. They made do. They maintained. They translated the Earth which they’d grown acquainted with into a world in which they had to redefine to their spiritualities, unmoored but marooned, not dead but now ‘diasporic’ as it would eventually be called: These are the spiritual roots of Black people — Blackness — in Cuba. This is the history of enslaved Africans and their descendants not just making the best with what they had, but making anew with what they could.

I’ve spent time in both Matanzas and La Habana, meeting with Black Cubans who are members of the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (“Afrodescendant Neighborhood Network”), a large network of Black educators, activists, artists, and workers across the island who are using radical popular education to reeducate Cuban society on race, gender, and sexuality. The network is led by several powerful Black women, including Maritza López McBean (pictured in blue, smiling), who have used and expanded on the popular education methods described by radical Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire. Like many things in Cuba, racism too has been recycled and has slowly reinserted itself in civil society, and the members of the Afrodescendant Neighborhood Network work tirelessly to end such an upcycling; many contribute this to the growing tourism industry in Cuba which brings in outside influences, but also to the climate of blanquemiento and machismo which is so deeply rooted across Latin America. In both large public forums and intimate social settings members of the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente sit in cultural circles and affirm each participants’ humanity before discussing a topic of concern, coming to education and understanding based on processes of collective knowledge. This has proven to be powerfully successful method of education, with Cuban institutions like La Casa De Las Americas and the Centro Martin Luther King partnering with them for events and forums in aims of forging deepening connections.

In song and dance, freedom and liberation are remembered and tasted and experienced and teased and celebrated with every hit of the tumbadoras. In the barrio of La Marina, Matanzas, the birthplace of rumba music and dance, I sat in the practice studio of Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, the Grammy-nominated rumba collective. Loud clashes of drums and vocals, thick wooden beats and brash bangs of claves filled the room as they began to perform for us. Much like the Baobab tree being transmuted into the Ceiba tree, rumba is deeply rooted in West African musical traditions which, although altered in some places, were guarded strongly by Abakuá practitioners.

Black artists like Emilio O’Farrill, whose work you can see in the photos, draw heavily on the Afro-diasporic spiritual traditions which contour the lives of so many Black people in Cuba. In vivid colors and expressive tones, the art of Afro-Cuba is filled with iconography that references the orishas and parables of Abakuá, Santería, Palomonte, three spiritual practices that are not just religions done once a week but enlightening practices which heavily guide many aspects of their daily lives. I remain surprised at the vibrancy of Afro-Cuban religion across Matanzas and in parts of Havana. In most homes I entered, shrines and alters existed and were actively prayed to, imagery and fables which directly descend from Nigeria’s Igbo and Efik cultures intertwined with the Catholic names and faces which were placed onto them. Statuettes of Catholic idols like Mother Mary stand in many alters, however the orishas prayed to are as African as can be — a Black theology tale as old as time.

Some cars may be old, but Cubans have become the best mechanics in the world so they run with ease; the buildings may appear old, but only if fresh coats of paint are what stand between you and comfort. This is the energy which led to the creation of La Casa Tomada MirArte (“The Taken or ‘Reclaimed’ House”), a Black LGBTQ community center in Habana, where artist, educator, and activist Myrna Dickson decided to reclaim an abandoned home and turn it into a bastion of art, learning, and safety. I was warmly surprised to see drawings of Marsha P. Johnson and Nina Simone hanging from the walls in the kitchen, alongside large, breathtaking paintings of Black people in an almost cubist style by artist Daymi Ticet. Here, the meal was intentional and warm, an embrace from friends and now family which felt familiar, where every single spice, flower, and food item on the table was specially curated in hopes of not only satisfying our hunger but honoring our ancestors as well.

Back in Matanzas, the San Severino Castle stands as a massive stone fortress by the sea, built by enslaved Africans in the 18th century. Like the Casa Tomada, the walls of this castle have been reclaimed and it now functions as a historic site of slavery in the Caribbean, and an African cultural site for the island surrounding it. While I was there, I was able to immerse myself in a wonderfully endearing and powerful exhibition they had at the castle on Nelson Mandela. As I walked through the incredibly intentional exhibition, the archival imagery of Fidel and Nelson’s long walk of friendship and solidarity, the hanging nooses which represented the Sharpville Six, the walls plastered with international posters of solidarity spanning countries and continents of coordinated anti-apartheid action, all resting atop a mountainous castle which existed for the preservation of slavery’s history, I couldn’t help but swell with emotion. This is Afro-Cuba, a space of cross-cultural and continental solidarity, a place and a state of mind which says we can always make anew so long as we let the past guide us, a tangible revolution which has not yet been stopped but is continuing in the everyday work of Cubans like the Afrodescendant Neighborhood Network.

Blackness, Black power, and resistance to white domination have also had their own versions of recycling and upcycling in Cuba, from the times of searching for Baobab trees to today. Although often understated, Cuba is very much a Black country. At the José Martí International Airport, the first place most people touch down when entering the island, you are greeted by workers who are mostly Black, with deep brown skin proudly on display everywhere you turn. For someone who has never been to a majority Black country like Jamaica, Nigeria, or Cuba, it can be jarring at first to crack one’s own perceptions from the yoke of western whiteness.

During and following the Haitian revolution, many French slaveowners fled to Cuba with their ‘property’ — thousands of enslaved Africans. Between c. 1791–1804 large waves of fleeing French colonizers and even more enslaved Africans found themselves resettled in eastern Cuba, with French-Creole-Spanish mashing together in some neighborhoods to bore difficult but reliable communication, with estimates putting the number of newly settled French and Africans at over 30,000. These African Haitians weren’t treated much different from the some 600,000 enslaved Africans who already presided in Cuba, those who’d been there for three centuries enduring the worst of the chattel slavery system. What was particularly cruel, however, was the nature of their movement; forced (often at gunpoint) to flee with their master to a land where slavery continues, because your people are back home powerfully and successfully fighting it off; to leave a land in which your freedom was close to taste and re-enter into freedom’s enemy.

There were many large slave revolts and uprisings in Cuba, as is the case virtually everywhere slavery existed. These revolts were in some ways given the energy for continuity and a renewed tenacity once those from Haiti arrived; they were often intentionally kept separated from their enslaved Cuban counterparts for fear that the Haitian slaves, who’d witnessed the birthing of a massive slave revolt turned protracted revolution, would spread the word among the enslaved of what was happening in Haiti, of what was possible. And despite the slavemasters’ attempts to divide and conquer their subjects, word spreading is exactly what happened, and following the arrival of enslaved Haitians we see a sharp rise in slave uprisings across the island of Cuba. In many cases, as was famously exhibited in 1803, ships full of white Frenchmen and newly freed people of color (not just enslaved Africans, but many and at times a majority ‘mulattos’ who would refute any other descriptor) arrived at the shores of Cuba only to be told that the white Frenchmen were the only ones allowed to leave the ship and, should any Africans leave the ship, their “freedom” would immediately be meaningless and they’d return to being considered a slave. Some tales have been passed down with care and craft of ships full of Africans and mulattos arriving at Cuba’s shores, only to be turned away and never seen again, assumed to have either sunken or arrived at the shores elsewhere; an Abakuá priest once told me he believes these souls are the orishas giving life to the ceiba trees, and that we can hear them in the ocean; a certain numbing middle passage in itself.

Cuba was harsh in the sense of longevity of slavery and lack of abolitionist movement, and until the 19th century they had virtually no white or European abolitionist movement/sympathizers. In March 1812, an infamous event in Afro-Cuban history, freed slave Jose Antonio “Black” Aponte led and organized a massive uprising across multiple plantations, which lead to hundreds — possibly thousands — of slaves arrested and executed but nonetheless continued the spark of revolutionary uprising.

Many Black people in Cuba today speak about this history like Americans talk about Football — they assume you know it — it’s a national pasttime for the most educated population on Earth. They have the luxury, through struggle, of having these facets of radical energy sewn into their education and breathed into their society. When I ask friends and comrades in Matanzas who are activists about their current fight against racism in their home country, they say things like “the enslaved revolted and didn’t give up, so why should I?” and speak about the contexts of struggle being radically different than in the US. In Cuba, racism and discrimination are outlawed, and they take pride in that. They know that along with the industries of tourism and other outside influences, as well as readily admitted and sometimes hushed groans, influences of racial bias, tokenism, or blanquemiento have crept back into society in ways that they are prepared to combat. Race is a magnificently difficult entity wherever it exists, and Cuba is no different, however the participatory democracy system which exists has allowed them to not only air out their grievances, but also advance the struggles of popular education and state-sponsored initiatives to thwart off the claws of racism. In fact, as the new constitution has reaffirmed and a slew of new initiatives across the island from the grassroots to the state level, Cubans recognize the risk of race problems creeping back into society, and have proactively worked against it on every level. While observing public forums in popular discussion of the new constitution last year, I saw the topic of racism and general discrimination be so strongly reaffirmed as needing to be outlawed, harshly banned, and parsed out in the overwhelmingly ratified new constitution.

Kimbo, the man photographed above in the “100% Black” t-shirt, is the type of man you meet once in a lifetime. He has an energy that is profound, loud, special in a way that can make you uncomfortable if you’ve never met a true community leader and organizer. At one point during my stay with him, he tells me with clarity and force, “Vivimos en una sociedad revolucionaria, eso es lo que me dijo Fidel, y yo soy un Fidelista hasta muerto. Entonces, por qué debería bajar la guardia? Por qué no continuaríamos nuestra lucha contra el racismo en honor a Fidel?” In his words I hear the group most loyal to the revolution expressing their commitment to continue it, and in his face I see the commitment, and he invites me and the rest of the diaspora to join them in their perpetually profound assertion of Blackness. These photographs are just a small snippet of the power, resilience, and cultural insurgency which comes from a people who have continued to make do, to maintain, to reinvigorate and recharge and recommunicate and upcycle, who beckoned revolution and refused to let it stop, who, like Black people in every society, will create fire from ashes and warm entire villages.

Devyn Springer

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African/African Diaspora studies. Artist. Writer. Educator? Organizing outcasts who likes Outkast and fried chicken.