Caribbean Circulations: Race, Nation, and Citizenship in Cuba, 1890–1980

AHA Session 275
Conference on Latin American History 61
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Michele Reid-Vazquez, University of Pittsburgh
Michele Reid-Vazquez, University of Pittsburgh

Session Abstract

The vibrant historiography of the Caribbean has long documented how the transnational circulations of people, goods, and ideas have wrought major social, cultural, and political transformations. At the same time, scholars have recognized the constraints imposed on movement by empires and nation-states. Central to many of these circulations—and constraints—were questions about race, nation, and citizenship, especially regarding African-descended peoples (Putnam, 2013). Few scholars, however, have analyzed these themes from their perspectives.

This panel seeks to deepen understandings of how African-descended peoples imagined their places within—and without—the Cuban nation-state. The papers examine the Caribbean circulations of African-descended peoples to and from Cuba between 1890 and 1980 who negotiated the tensions between racial and national affiliations and proposed new models for political belonging. Cuba is an ideal setting for this topic because the island’s history condenses many of the key watersheds of Caribbean history into a short period: the emancipation of slaves, independence from empire, the development of “racelessness” ideologies, U.S. occupation, and revolution. Each paper considers the impact of migration on ideas about race, nation, and citizenship in Cuba within the context of these watersheds.

Philip Janzen focuses on Antiguan-born preacher William George Emanuel who travelled to Cuba in the 1890s and organized a back-to-Africa movement. Emanuel and his “Colonia Africana” rejected the Cuban state and Cuban citizenship and petitioned the British and Belgian governments for land in either the Gold Coast, Nigeria, or Congo Free State.

Christina Davidson’s paper follows the story of Henry Astwood from the Turks islands to the Dominican Republic, U.S. (where he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church), and then to Cuba in 1898, where he served as an A.M.E. missionary. Davidson emphasizes how Astwood’s movements informed his thinking about racial ideology in Cuba.

Dalia Muller’s paper centers on a group of Afro-descendants in early twentieth-century Cuba who rejected Cuban citizenship but wanted to remain in Cuba. Muller explores how they articulated an “African” identity to challenge the mythical transracial Cuban state, resist the U.S. Empire, and imagine a Cuba in which they were legally equal but could remain apart.

Finally, Lillian Guerra investigates the Cuban Revolutionary Government’s “rehabilitation” of dissidents and so-called “anti-Cubans” in the 1970s. Guerra looks specifically at Nicolás Guillén Landrián, a black activist and filmmaker who was incarcerated in Cuba’s national insane asylum and then lived in exile in Miami. Guerra examines how his art and militant blackness critiqued the Cuban state’s narrow vision of “ideal citizens.”

The panel thus employs diverse temporal and geographic perspectives and bridges the Anglophone and Hispanophone regions of the Caribbean. Above all, the panel emphasizes the impact of migration on African-descended peoples and their ideas about race, nation, and citizenship in Cuba. Michele Reid-Vazquez, an expert on the history of race and migration in nineteenth and twentieth-century Cuba, will serve as chair and commentator. The panel should attract a broad audience of Latin Americanists and Caribbeanists, as well as scholars of the Atlantic world and African diaspora.

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