Black and mulata women have participated in constructing Cubanidad (Cuban nationalism) since the beginning of the Cuban republic in 1902. However, the largely male-dominated national narrative that has made Fidel Castro’s and Che Guevara’s “New Man” famous since 1959 frequently overshadows their interventions. Even today, when commentators talk about normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba or going to visit the island for the first time, they are imagining visiting the Cuba of José Martí, Castro, and Ernest Hemingway.
Despite this public silence, Afro-Cubanas (Afro-Cuban women) have consistently challenged narratives of national exclusion and today they are leading the way in antiracist and antisexist movements in Cuba. For my second semester at Davidson College, I decided to teach a new course about this unknown facet of Cuban history. Titled “Afro-Cubana Feminisms,” this class is cross-listed with Africana, Latin American, and Gender and Sexuality Studies. Because my course is designated as a major thinkers course, instead of being a survey of a black and mulata women in Cuba, it focuses on four women. But what are Afro-Cubana feminisms? And how do you study them in a class where all of the texts have to be in English?
Here is the course description:
This course will analyze Afro-Cubana feminisms through a close reading of the work of four key black and mulata intellectuals and activists—Sara Gómez, Nancy Morejón, Daisy Rubiera, and Inés María Martiatu Terry. In doing so, it seeks to trace the legacy of the many black and mulata women who participated in revolutionary Cuba from the 1960s to the present. In particular, the course will examine how Afro-Cubanas have challenged negative stereotypes about black women, worked both inside and outside of Cuba’s state-sponsored women’s movement, and fought to create space for racial and sexual rights.
This course is a reflection of social movements happening today in Havana. In the mid-2000s, a group of black and mulata women began meeting in each other’s homes to strategize about how to tackle new economic difficulties and racial discrimination that emerged during Cuba’s economic crisis of the 1990s. Following the collapse of Cuba’s chief trading partner, the Soviet Union, in 1989, the island’s financial transactions came to a near stand-still as the United States tightened its trade embargo instead of offering aid. Black and mulato Cubans suffered these hardships even more than their white counterparts because of their limited ability to access foreign currency—they did not receive remittances from family members in the United States, nor did they have the fair or white skin, the so-called “buena presencia” (good presence/appearance), needed to qualify for tourist jobs in Cuba’s new economy.
As a result, public discourse about discrimination in Cuba reemerged, and residents, public intellectuals, and scholars began to debate what numerous people have since referred to as the “return of racism.” One of the most notable spaces for this activism has been in Afro-Cubana organizations as black and mulata women mobilize to combat the negative stereotypes about Afro-Cubans that frequently impede black social opportunities in Cuba’s new economy.
Since 2006, I have attended meetings of the Afro-Cubanas group whenever I visited Havana for research. The group is composed of a variety of black and mulata women of different ages, professions, and sexualities who share a common desire to better their communities and promote a positive image of black Cuban women. Initially founded by Daisy Rubiera Castillo and Inés María Martiatu Terry to support black and mulata women struggling to get by in the face of Cuba’s floundering economy, the group has evolved into a diverse activist movement. Its stated objectives are to “recognize the contribution and the work of black Cuban women” and to “stimulate the existence of a counterdiscourse to dismantle the negative, racist, and sexist stereotypes [that exist in Cuba] about black women.”
Members of the Afrocubana project have focused on re-writing history as a way of drawing attention to black women and combating contemporary discrimination. Their first collaborative project, the 2011 edited collection Afrocubanas: Historia, pensamiento y prácticas culturales (Afro-Cuban Women: History, Thought, and Cultural Practice), included essays about black and mulata women fighting against slavery and for Cuban independence in the nineteenth century.
Their second book was just published in January 2017: Emergiendo del silencio: Mujeres negras en la historia de Cuba (Emerging from the Silence: Black Women in the History of Cuba). The new book specifically aims “to fill gaps in the historiography.” Noting that it “provides another important step in the reconstruction of the historical memory of African descended Cuban women,” the authors claim that this recovery project is important not only to “recognize women from the past and present,” but also because “this type of research has to be included in the agenda of whatever contemporary debate [we have today] about racial issues.”
The role of constructing new sources for Cuban history in contemporary Afro-Cubana feminisms cannot be overlooked. Black blogger Sandra Álvarez, who is also a member of the Afro-Cubanas group, frequently profiles the lives and work of black women from the past in her blog—including articles about Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez and U.S. feminist Audre Lorde. Currently, she is building a website that includes informational entries about black and mulataCuban women from the past and present. The Directorio de Afracubanas (Afrocubana Directory) is a digital archive with essays, photographs, and links to the work of prominent Cuban women of African descent, both on and off the island. Álvarez used a GoFundMe page to raise money for the site, and while she runs it from her new home in Germany, where she has lived since 2013, she presented the Directorio at a conference in Havana in June 2016 and distributed CDs with its information to Cubans who might not have access to the internet.
The new Afro-Cubana movement is more intersected than ever before. Norma Guillard examines this intersectionality in “To Be a Black Woman, a Lesbian, and an Afro-Feminist in Cuba Today.” Guillard agrees that it is important to fight against negative stereotypes. She notes that, “in the popular consciousness, to be a Black Woman is synonymous with dirt, of amorality… We are considered sexual objects, great prostitutes, and good in bed.” But, she also recognizes the additional challenges black lesbians face as a result of being disowned by their families and being targeted by black heterosexual women. Drawing parallels with other feminist thinkers in Latin America, like Sueli Carneiro and Ochy Curiel, Guillard’s theorization of Afro-Cubana feminisms sees them also as a transnational phenomenon for black women’s rights.
With all of these developments in the Afro-Cubana movement in Cuba, it is the ideal time to look back on the lives and work of some of the earliest iterations of Afro-Cubana feminisms. Rather than claiming a strict definition, my course is only one step towards a better understanding of how black and mulata women lived during the revolution and what goals they expressed for themselves.
More research is needed on the precedents of these contemporary Afro-Cubana movements. As theater critic Inés María Martiatu Terry explained in the introduction to the first book published by the Afro-Cubana working group in 2011, Afrocubanas: Historia, pensamiento, y practicas culturales, one of the goals of their Havana-based project is to “feminize negritude and to blacken feminism.” It is long past time for Afro-Cubanas to get the recognition they deserve in histories of antiracism and antisexism.
Bernice L. McFadden is an amazingly talented and hardworking writer. In a relatively short but breathtakingly prolific career, she has published ten critically acclaimed novels under her own name, including her first novel, “Sugar“, and her latest novel, “The Book of Harlan“, which won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction. In addition, she has published five steamy novels under her pen-name Geneva Holliday.
I have become a huge fan of McFadden’s writing, which is intimate, impactful, and truly beautiful. Recently, I was fortunate enough to meet Bernice at a Black History Month event, after which she agreed to answer a few questions.
Chronic Bibliophilia: You have definitely ensconced yourself on my “Must Read Everything” shelf. Do you have authors whose full catalog you devour (or aspire to devour)?
Bernice L. McFadden: Yes! I read everything Toni Morrison publishes. Also, Terry McMillan. Both writers have had a significant influence on my work.
CB: What is on your bedside table to be read right now?
BLM: I’m reading a few things in rotation: “The Fire This Time” edited by Jesmyn Ward, “Here Comes the Sun” by Nicole Dennis Benn; “Marking Time Making Place (An essential chronology of Blacks in New Orleans since 1718)” edited by James B. Borders IV
CB: Are you able to read for pleasure when you are writing, or do you find you have to shut out outside voices?
BLM: When I’m writing I read poetry for pleasure and inspiration. Any other literature I consume has to do with whatever I’m working on at the time.
CB: I suspect that your books are your babies, so this may not be a kosher question, but… do you have a favorite? One that holds a special place in your heart?
BLM: Yes, they are all my babies and it’s difficult to chose one. But If I had to, I guess it would be “The Warmest December” because I poured so much of my personal life into it.
CB: I’ve read both that you knew at age 9 that you wanted to be a writer and that you went through a mill of unfulfilling jobs as an adult. Did the dream of writing stay with you or did it wax and wane? What was the linchpin for becoming an author?
BLM: Did I feel defeated at times? Absolutely! But something in me wouldn’t allow me to give up on my dream. I just always knew that being an author was in my future and I was willing to chase that dream until I took my last breath. I’ve not felt that type of passion for anything other than writing.
CB: Your books seem so well researched. Tell me a little about your research process. Is it ongoing throughout the writing process, or do you research until you get a sense that you are satiated?
BLM: I start researching years before I begin writing and the research continues on until I finish the novel. For me, research is like falling down a rabbit hole. One question leads to another and another and so on. Sometimes it’s quite daunting. But daunting or not, I love it.
CB: You are amazingly prolific. What is your writing process like? Do you have a place or ritual that particularly facilitates your writing?
BLM: I write when I feel moved to write. Early in my career I found that I could only write late at night when the world had gone to sleep. But later, I found that I could create during the daytime hours – this, only if it was quiet. I guess as long as there is silence, I can write.
CB: You have 10 Bernice McFadden books, with a spate of 5 Geneva Holliday publications in the middle of between 2005-2009. Is Geneva a living altar ego or was she a temporary love affair?
BLM: Hmmm, Geneva came at around at a time when I needed her financially and emotionally. I hope to revive her at some point. The world has drastically changed since she first made her appearance and I think she would have a lot to say about it.
CB: How did you go about plotting The Book of Harlan? Were the twists decided in the planning or did some surprise you during the writing process?
BLM: I allow my novels to unfurl holistically. I don’t dictate the plot. More often than not, I am just as surprised by the twists and turns as my readers.
CB: Would you mind telling me a bit about the elements in The Book of Harlan that you’ve tried to work with before and how they finally clicked for you?
BLM: I’m a fan of backstory. And if I’m not mistaken, backstory occurs in all of my novels. It’s an innate part of who I am. Even when I relate story verbally, I often find myself telling the backstory before I dive into the meat of the narrative. I guess, that’s why I write historical fiction – because the past is prologue.
CB: As far as I can tell, The Book of Harlan is your first novel with a male protagonist. Did writing around a male create any new challenges or changes in your perspective?
BLM: Yes it is and no, it did not present any new challenges. You’re not the first person to ask that question. Someone else asked if I had a difficult time writing from a male perspective or in a male voice. My answer was and still is: NO. And that’s because I didn’t know writing a male protagonist was suppose to be challenging. So, what you don’t know won’t hurdle you….
CB: In this time of uncertainty and, at the very least, increased stress and anxiety about the state of the world, what do you do to take care of yourself? What are the ways you hold onto your sanity and creativity?
BLM: I step away from the news. I watch cartoons and comedies. I take the time to smell the roses, as they say, and spend as much time with people I love and who love me.
Thank you so much to Bernice McFadden for so graciously sharing her time and her self! For more information on Bernice McFadden, be sure to visit her website at www.bernicemcfadden.com and, most importantly, read her spectacular novels!
No, I’m not talking about the popular “Carmen” movies that a lot of you have seen or at least heard of; not Beyoncé in “Carmen: A Hip-Hopera” nor Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones.”
I’m talking about Grace Bumbry.
But rewatching “Carmen Jones,” which is now out on blu-ray, it got me to thinking about Bumbry, who starred in a film version of George Bizet’s original French opera back in 1967.
A St. Louis native, Bumbry, who, now at age 80, is still very active, living and performing in Austria, was, in the 60’s and 70’s, one of the truly great operatic mezzo sopranos of her day; and like her peer Leontyne Price, broke down many barriers.
For example, in the early 60’s, she sang the role of Venus in Wagner’s opera “Tannhauser” at Bayreuth (the home and shrine to Wagner which holds an opera festival, performing only his operas every summer). It was, to put it mildly, a scandal. How dare a black woman play the role of Venus, the audience thought at the time. The director of the production’s response was: “Show me anyone who can sing it better and I’ll hire her”.
No one did.
Then, in ’67, Bumbry played the role of Carmen for a film version of the opera, directed by the legendary conductor Herbert Von Karajan (with the Vienna Philharmonic) who, at this time, started making films of his opera and symphony performances.
Once again there was *shock and horror* that a black woman played the role of Carmen. Dorothy Dandridge (whose singing voice in “Carmen Jones” was dubbed by an 18 year old white girl named Marilyn Horne, who also went on the become one of greatest opera singers ever) was one thing; but to (white) audiences at the time, Bumbry was something else. And, once again, they kept their mouths shut when they heard Bumbry sing.
Interestingly, Karajan, with the same Vienna PO three years earlier, recorded a performance of “Carmen” with Leontyne Price, for RCA, which is considered one of the greatest recordings ever of the work.
So why didn’t Karajan use Price for the film version, instead of Bumbry? I suspect it was most likely because Price was too majestic, too regal a figure to convincingly play… how shall we say… a *loose* woman like Carmen, on the screen. Bumbry, however, had an earthly sensuality that was perfect for the role.
Just take a look in the clip below (poster follows it). By the way, the film is available for purchase on DVD; pick up a copy on Amazon:
I’m not sure how many of you are aware of film storyboard artist Elizabeth Colomba; I sure wasn’t, and in case you weren’t either, I wanted to profile and share some of her fascinating work.
What’s worth noting is that Colomba has done extensive storyboard and visual consulting work for many films including “Romeo and Juliet,” “Beloved,” “Slums of Beverly Hill,” “Waist Deep,” “Next Friday,” “The Wood,” “A Single Man,” “Catwoman,” “Amelia” and more.
For those of you not familiar with what a storyboard artist does, Colomba is hired by film production companies as a professional illustrator; she creates comic-book like drawings or sketches, which filmmakers use in order to help visualize the story’s narration.
Although she may be hired to sketch individual or particular scenes in films, according to a 1998 interview by tipjar.com, her work for a film like Rick Famuyiwa’s “The Wood” for example, demanded her to draw almost every frame, which would be quite a feat.
Colomba said, “My partner Kasia Adamik and I had to storyboard the whole movie. They had the money for a month, so we did everything we could. We didn’t finish it, but there was a lot of work. There were action scenes. Even simple scenes were drawn. You could read the whole story from the storyboards.”
Colomba is of Caribbean heritage (Martinique); she was born in Epinay Sur Seine, a suburb in Paris. Her passion for painting started at the age of six. She achieved a first class high honors degree upon graduating from college in Paris. She obtained work in the late nineties at an advertising company. However, she was disappointed with the lack of creativity and control over her work, so she moved to L.A. to pursue a career in painting and storyboarding.
Colomba credits work by masters like Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Edgar Degas, Johannes Vermeer and Diego Velazquez as inspiration and influence over her works.
We rarely celebrate the necessary work of those *unknowns* behind the camera, especially Black artists (the actors and directors typically get most of the attention), and we will do more of that.
I love her Victorian-age paintings (see below) and the artists whose works she has been influenced by. I’ve always wished I had the talent for painting like this. Oh well…
These days, Colomba is less focused on her work as a storyboard artist, spending more of her time on her painting. In fact, most recently, she participated in a conference (on March 4, 2017) that explored intersections of slavery and fashion with presentations from scholars, artists and designers. It took place at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, NY. She continues to showcase her work around the world.
Visit her official site at elizabeth-colomba.com to see some more of her work and to read their very interesting back stories.
Check out some of her paintings below.
“We firmly believe that formerly incarcerated individuals not only have a right to fully return to society, but can offer innovative solutions to one of the most pressing issues of our time.”
Mic reported on the launch of the Right of Return USA Fellowship yesterday (March 23). The fellowship offers five artists a $10,000 prize and additional $10,000 for materials and production costs, as well as a three-day retreat with sessions on criminal justice reform and political art history.
The Soze Agency, a Brooklyn-based creative agency focused on social justice campaigns, developed the fellowship with funding from The Open Philanthropy Project. It’s part of the agency’s broader Returning Citizens Project, which seeks to develop a network of formerly incarcerated creators and performers. “Artists have always been able to tap into something that is unique and vibrant,” Soze Agency co-founder Michael Skolnik said in a statement to Mic. “Imagine what artists who have experienced incarceration have to share with the rest of the world.”
“We firmly believe that formerly incarcerated individuals not only have a right to fully return to society, but can offer innovative solutions to one of the most pressing issues of our time,” Philadelphia artists Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig wrote in a joint statement to Mic. Craig previously worked with the Returning Citizens Project to create and exhibit the self-portrait above, which was drawn on a canvas covered with his old prison documents and parole papers. He and Krimes are two of the fellowship’s inaugural recipients.
Interested and eligible individuals can apply here for one of the remaining three spots through April 21.
Afro-Hispanic Review Special Issue
CFP Deadline: 1 August 2017
This special interdisciplinary issue of the Afro-Hispanic Review examines maroon communities in Latin America to reassess the concept of “maroonage,” escaping slavery, negotiation with slave-based and racist systems, and resistance against oppression from colonial times to the context of our globalized world. Taking as point of departure recent literary, cultural, linguistic, historical, archeological, and anthropological studies, this issue will problematize the ideas of resistance and negotiation within Afro-diasporic studies at large, thus including material culture, social movements, and postcolonial studies. The issue celebrates UNESCO’s designation of 2015-2024 as the Decade of the Afrodescendant, bringing together representatives and works from various regions of Latin America. Editor William Luis and Guest Editors John Maddox and Graciela Maglia invite submissions of articles (20-30 pages, 2016 MLA Style [8th ed.]) by 1 August 2017. Submissions in English, Spanish, and Portuguese will be considered. Editors will also consider relevant creative writing, interviews, book reviews, and unpublished materials.
Please submit articles in Microsoft Word as attachments sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact the guest editors directly at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org with any inquiries regarding this special issue on runaway slave communities.
Above adapted from Vanderbilt.
About Rafael Torch:
Rafael Torch died in December, 2011, at the age of 36, after a courageous four-year attempt to overcome sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. A native Chicagoan, Rafael graduated from Antioch College and obtained a Master’s Degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago in 2005 where he received numerous acclaims for his writings including the Illinois Arts Council Literary Award. Rafael dedicated his life to impacting lives of high school students. As a teacher at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, The Latin School of Chicago and The Meadows School in Las Vegas, NV, Rafael influenced hundreds of minds as he challenged his students to rise to their greatest potential. His students had a profound impact on his life and he cared for them deeply. Rafael was also a committed, passionate writer who drew upon personal experiences to find inspiration. Rafael, whose award-winning work and vivid essays have appeared in many journals including Crab Orchard Review, Antioch Review, North American Review,wrote with honesty, insight and wit. At the time of his death, Rafael’s immediate family included his beloved wife, Emily Olson-Torch and 4-month-old son, Rocco James. (adapted from Chicago Sun Times)
You may submit only one piece of creative nonfiction, no longer than 30 pages in a Word document. All contact information should be entered in your cover letter. No names or addresses should appear on manuscripts, please. Your piece will be assigned a log number so it can be “read blind.” Simultaneous submission to other journals or competitions is not allowed. Payment will be required as part of the sign up procedure which will provide you with a one-year subscription of North American Review.
First Prize: $500
Deadline: April 1, 2017
Judge: Dinty W. Moore
Submissions open November 2016
Illustration: Jared Rogness