Mapping Afro-Cuban America

Antonio López, Unbecoming Blackness: The Diaspora Cultures of Afro-Cuban America (New York: New York University Press, 2012); 271 pages; ISBN: 978-0814765470 (paperback).

• February 2015

Offering an interdisciplinary and transnational approach to race in the Americas across literature, performance, music, film, and memoir, Antonio López’s Unbecoming Blackness: The Diaspora Cultures of Afro-Cuban America argues that there has been extensive Afro-Cuban cultural production in the United States since the 1920s that has been minimized in favor of presenting the Cuban American experience from a lens of whiteness. Employing astute analyses and archival recovery, López problematizes this lens by articulating an overlap of Cuban and African diasporic experiences that subvert supposedly postracial Cuban national identity on the island. His methodology, invoking Jacques Derrida’s supplementarity, Édouard Glissant’s fragments arrachés, Toni Morrison’s “American Africanism,” and Tiffany Ana López’s “critical witnessing,” points to myriad ways of reading blackness in Cuban American culture. In so doing, López expounds on a series of moments in Afro-Cuban American cultural production spanning from as early as the 1920s to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Mariel boatlift of 1980, and finally to the Special Period of the 1990s, thus concluding the century. His objective is to underscore intersections between Cuban American, African American, and mainstream American cultural production that question the limits of Cuban nationalism and racial identity. Thus López presents nearly a century’s worth of an evolving and shifting identity in which Afro-Cubans in the United States, shaped by transnational flows, relate to and differ from (Afro-)Cubans on the island, mainland Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Cuban Americans.

The study is divided into two parts. The first two chapters deal with early-twentieth-century expressions of Afro-Cuban-American modernism in New York City via performances by Alberto O’Farrill and Eusebia Cosme. López’s chapters on O’Farrill and Cosme are strong, with convincing claims about two performers who came to the United States in search of employment opportunities that conflicted with postracial Cuban nationalism focused on la raza hispana, or the Hispanic race: O’Farrill’s teatro bufo (Cuban minstrelsy) and Cosme’s recitations of poesía negra (black poetry). Of particular interest is how these two artists were in dialogue with authors of both the Spanish Caribbean and African American canons (Bernardo Vega, Nicolás Guillén, Langston Hughes), and yet, because of the ephemeral nature of their performances coupled with their liminal positions as Afro-Cubans in the United States, their contributions to Cuban American cultural production have largely been overlooked. López does a superb job of piecing together their lives and works and showing how these two artists, along with Rómulo Lachatañeré, in the third chapter, associate their Afro-Cuban identities with blackness among African American populations. In that vein, López could have furthered his analysis by developing how the Harlem Renaissance impacted and was impacted by Afro-Cubans in 1920s New York City.

In keeping with signs of race in Cuban American cultural production, the second part of the book turns its attention to the second half of the twentieth century. The third chapter examines complex relationships of amicability and enmity between Afro-Cuban Americans and mainland Puerto Ricans. According to López, 1950s and 1960s cultural production shows that Afro-Cuban Americans tended to identify and even pass as mainland Afro–Puerto Ricans in an effort to further their professional and supplementary careers, with varying degrees of success (112–13). The rationale for doing this was to avoid the United States’ conflictual relationship with Cuba and still cater to an increasing “ethnic literature” market. The author supports his argument by studying Boricua identifications in the works and lives of the aforementioned photographer and anthropologist Lachatañeré, author Piri Thomas, and, briefly, author Lourdes Casal. One such example would be López’s keen analysis of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967), in which the father character is rendered mainland Afro-Puerto Rican. However, this novel, often presented as a memoir, is misleading: Thomas’s father was in fact Afro-Cuban. López rightly points out that because of this change, Thomas’s work permits him entrance into a Boricua identification and with it the advantages of citizenship (however problematic they may be), while denying the text and author’s afrocubanidad.

Perhaps the most salient chapter of López’s study is his fourth, “Around 1979: Mariel, McDuffie, and the Afterlives of Antonio.” Therein the author’s study examines the murder of two men (one white Cuban, one African American) against the backdrop of race in Cuban America as the Miami exile. Here the Cuban exile, figured as white or “off-white,” attempts to deal with rising afrocubanidad that was the result of the Mariel boatlift and its textual representation in Scarface (1983) and subsequent portrayals of Antonio Montana (Scarface) in rap songs. The murder of the white Cuban hits home for López: this man was his father, Antonio López Sr. Because of this personal connection, López masterfully weaves memoir and critical narrative to discuss racial anxieties in Miami, which stem from a series of racialized events there. In 1979, the murder of an African American (Arthur McDuffie) by three white policemen and one light-skinned Cuban policeman caused a race riot. Around the same time, an influx of Afro-Cuban immigrants, in conjunction with the exploitation (or “spicsploitation,” as López terms it) of Al Pacino in brownface, playing the role of a Mariel migrant, led to increasing racial tension. Indeed, López’s point is that white or “off-white” Cubans in Miami panicked over the “blackening” of Cuban America and that this “blackening” culminates in glorifications of Antonio Montana in Cuban American and African American rap songs, further intensifying the white or “off-white” Cuban’s unease. López’s writing style could occasionally benefit from shorter, more concise sentences to help elucidate profound interpretations. In this chapter, however, with its sententious personal accounts alongside sharp analyses of pop culture, his writing is the most readily accessible in the manuscript.

López’s fifth and final chapter examines Cuban American narratives of the 1990s as white, middle-class children of the first wave of postrevolutionary migration return to Cuba to find their homes occupied by Afro-Cubans, many times by former servants. Studying Román de la Campa’s Cuba on My Mind (1990), Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s Next Year in Cuba (1995), and Ruth Behar’s Adio Kerida (2002), López argues that the trope of the Afro-Cuban-occupied house evinces Cuban American whiteness as privilege, that is, a privileged minority among Latinos in the United States and a majority on the island through historical claims to social and economic dominance. Finally, the author complicates his own analysis by means of a counterpoint: the Afro-Cuban American’s return to Cuba as seen in Pam Sporn’s documentary Cuban Roots/Bronx Stories (2000). Therein López shows how Afro-Cuban Americans view their childhood houses in Cuba differently, specifically because they often lived in multiple homes of little property value without servant figures. The excessive memory, nostalgia, and intimacy apparent in the memoirs of white Cuban Americans are strikingly absent. In returning to Cuba (and, by extension, notions of whiteness), this chapter is notable for its completion of the transnational flows throughout the manuscript. The chapter allows the reader not only to further situate afrocubanidad in the United States but to further comprehend race in postrevolutionary Cuba.

Because López works with many noncanonical figures of the Cuban diaspora, the manuscript would best serve advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in American studies, US Latino/a courses in English and Spanish, and Caribbean studies. Unbecoming Blackness is undoubtedly a worthwhile read for those interested in exploring the growing field of Afro-Latino/a studies in the United States.

 

Daniel Arbino is an assistant professor of Spanish at Centre College, where he specializes in Caribbean literatures and Afro-Latin American cultures. He holds a PhD in Latin American literatures and cultures from the University of Minnesota. He has previously published in Callaloo, Journal of Caribbean Literatures, Mester, Label Me Latin@, and Sargasso.