Dr. Tomás Fernández Robaina, a longtime researcher at the Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba “José Martí” and prolific author on the topic of Afro-Cuban issues, visited our department on Wednesday, January 30, 2013, to offer a lecture titled “The Fight against Discrimination and for Visibility of the Denied History of Afro-Cubans in the Current International Context” as a part of CLACS’ Spring 2013 colloquium series titled, “What’s Left of Cuba? Culture, Politics, and Civil Society.” Both his lecture and the larger series deal with recent cultural movements in Cuba that are increasingly challenging the Cuban state and its unfinished revolutionary projects, and demanding for recognition and inclusion in a new civil society.
The first image Dr. Robaina displayed featured a public gathering in Cuba at a monument erected to honor the deaths of Cuban medical students who had been executed at the hands of the Colonial Spanish power in the late 19th century. However, the significance of this recent gathering was not related exclusively to the deaths of the students, but rather the recognition of the role of the Afro-Cuban brotherhood known as the Abakuá. Historically absent from Cuban history books, five members of the Abakuá were also killed at this location in an attempt to rescue the students, one of whom was a member of the order. With the goal of raising awareness of the role of the Afro-Cuban people in episodes such as this in Cuba’s history, Dr. Robaina and his colleagues have been struggling to reincorporate Afro-Cuban history into the national imaginary of Cuba. While the Cuban state and elite have appropriated Afro-Cuban forms of music and dance as “Cuban,” recognition of “Afro-Cubanity” and lingering barriers to political participation and freedom of expression are still lacking. However, as Dr. Robaina reminded us, things are changing in Cuba, and demands for political and social inclusion are on the rise from all sectors of the population.
Dr. Robaina was the first person I have ever met to have been alive in Cuba during the Cuban Revolution, at which time he was 17 years old. It was inspiring to hear from one so invested in social change for such a great length of time, and exciting just to be in the presence of someone who had witnessed so many of the historical episodes I have only read about as a student of Latin America and the Caribbean. His wealth of knowledge on Afro-Cuban issues, warm personality, and sense of humor made the discussion truly a one of a kind experience. I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of this colloquium series will bring!
Michael Benjamin Jordan is an MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU, and is currently enrolled in the CLACS Interdisciplinary Seminar: “What’s Left of Cuba? Culture, Politics, and Civil Society”