Some Reflections on Blackness and Cuba

When I first got my dreadlocks I knew nothing about the history or significance of the style. I just did it because my bestfriend in undergrad had just started his. I had always preferred letting my hair grow out so it was an easy transition (only a few rare pictures remain of my time in middle school with a head full of plaits or cornrows). Now, however, I understand more about the historical, social, and spiritual significance of locks. How they represent resistance to white supremacist domination: historically in the European invasion of Ethiopia and other decolonial struggles, as well as all over the world where natural black hair is met with punishment. For me, they have come to represent my life philosophy of “controlled chaos,” seeing as they exist somewhere between freeform and more neatly styled locks. I like to go with the flow but I’d like to think a fierce commitment to my principles keeps me grounded — s/o to my virgo rising. It was not until I began traveling outside of the United States that I learned of the seemingly automatic sense of camaraderie that gets built between me and other black folks who chose to let their hair lock up.

In Cuba, I had this moment while visiting a queer Afro-Cuban art collective. In the midst of a gorgeously decorated house filled with portraits, sculptures, trinkets, a spiritual altar, and a sound stage, I locked eyes with a tall black Cuban man in shorts and a half-buttoned lavender shirt sitting in a chair getting his hair retwisted by another black Cuban man. He shot me a sly grin before making a fist and tapping his chest, as I proceeded to mirror his gesture of friendship. He even let me hop in the chair before his locks were finished so that I could get my hair done before my group had to leave. A moment of mundane yet ethereal connection. I would go on to get my locks retwisted, all while sippin’ some “juice” and communing with my BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) comrades as we were serenaded with dazzling rap and singing performances, interspersed with moments of laughter and community.

The theme of the delegation I traveled on was “Black Socialist Strategies for Healing and Healthcare.” I could not have imagined a better-curated trip; we saw doctors, med students, organic farmers, artists, museums, musicians, veterans, academics, folk coolin’ on the street and more. As a black person from the U.S., it was mind-boggling to be in a country where a majority of black people genuinely identify with their nation. There was certainly a diversity of opinion when it came to black Cubans identifying as “Afro-Cuban” or just wanting to be seen as Cuban, but what predominated above all else was a spirit of faith in the Cuban revolutionary project. This project began not with Castro and Cuban socialism, though he represented a significant turning point in their history, but with slave rebellions and the independence struggles led by national hero Jose Marti. This history is venerated and celebrated; it permeates through art, culture, and the consciousness of Cuban people.

In the U.S., we know we’re black before we’re “American.” Never had I been to a place (outside Africa) where so many people — both black and nonblack — spoke so highly and lovingly of Africa. When Cubans spoke of their pride in having defended African liberation struggles, it was as if their voices sang and their souls glowed through their chests. Meeting and hearing from a soldier who fought to end apartheid in southern Africa and free Angola will forever be one of the greatest privileges of my life. I heard from doctors recounted their collective efforts on the frontlines of the Ebola outbreak in African nations. At a museum dedicated to the legacy of slavery and the critical role that women-led slave rebellions played in abolition and Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain, the curator declared that whenever Africa is in trouble, Cubans are there to answer the call.

As a scholar, my continual struggle is for my allegiance to lie with my principles; that is, my allegiance should not lie with a discipline, a department, or the university as an institution. The violence wrought by academia upon black people and black existence is a sort of trauma that can never be fully reconciled or repaid. As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have opined, the only ethical relationship to academia is one of theft. The only way I can justify being in my position is through stealing knowledge and resources. I was lucky enough to take advantage of my position and go on this trip so I could bring something back. COVID-19 created a global crisis that has exacerbated all of the manyfold crises which had become normalized. One of these are the inhumane, genocidal sanctions the U.S. places on countries like Cuba, simply for refusing to bow to policies which are made to erode the sovereignty of other countries and prevent them from forging their own destiny. The U.S. government has exploited to global crisis to increase sanctions on countries like Cuba, exponentially increasing the immiseration of the Cuban people — immiseration which is falsely attributed in U.S. media to the Cuban socialist economic system.

There are reasons why the vast majority of Cubans in the U.S. are not black — and it’s not for lack of black Cubans, who (though they have a range of self-identifications) constitute up to 50% of the island. Those are histories I may write about elsewhere, but if you know me personally I’m always down to have that conversation. Black people in particular have no reason to hate, fear, or look down upon Cuba. This nation and its people have done more for international black struggle and black people in its 61 year contemporary history than the United States ever has or ever will. Even under these tightened sanctions, they are sending doctors to help badly afflicted countries.

One night in Cuba I was in one of those beach bars that cater to tourists when I walked — or more likely stumbled — to the bathrooms. As it was a tourist town, the club was filled mostly with European and Canadian foreigners. Many public bathrooms in Cuba have attendants, and as I looked ahead of me I saw an Afro-Cuban woman fielding the richest smile at me. After locking eyes she proclaimed “Mi familia!” and we embraced each other. That moment will stay with me forever.

Pictured on the left is Fidel Castro on his first trip to Harlem NY, where he met with both with black leaders and the disenfranchised black masses. On the right is Malcolm X, whose reputation precedes any paltry description I can provide.

The apostate marabout in absentia. Tentative tai chi swordsman. Soul-not-for-sale whilst suffering from weltschmerz. Somewhere sippin' baobab juice.

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