Devyn Spence Benson. Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 334 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-2672-7.
Reviewed by Jennifer Lambe (Brown University)
Published on H-LatAm (August, 2017)
Commissioned by Andrae Marak
“Not blacks, but citizens.” The phrase implies what Devyn Spence Benson’s important new book unpacks: how it is that racism and antiracism could evolve side by side over the course of the Cuban Revolution in spite of official efforts in the early 1960s to eradicate racial discrimination. Central here is the framework of incompatibility. On one hand, racism was branded as out of step with the new ideological order. Racists, quite simply, could not be revolutionaries. At the same time, however, revolutionary rhetoric made race consciousness irreconciliable with revolutionary consciousness. One could not proudly assert blackness without jeopardizing one’s political bona fides.
The legacies of these discursive constructs was enduring. As Spence Benson notes throughout her book, a pervasive contemporary trope refers to the “return of racism” to Cuba following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the economic and political strategies adopted to navigate the resulting crisis. In contrast, she suggests, racism never actually disappeared. It was, rather, built into the fabric of the “neither/nor” proposition that made blackness antithetical to revolution at the same time that socialist Cuba opened up a broader theater in which to combat the structural roots of racial inequality.
Spence Benson does us the great service of tracing these debates in historical motion. She focuses in particular on the period leading up to the declared 1961 campaign to end racial discrimination in Cuba, as well as its political fallout. In some ways, this is a story of continuity: in tension with the stated aims of revolutionary officials, Spence Benson finds that “state-led, predominantly white, antiracist campaigns were often packaged or built on racist ideologies and stereotypes—sometimes on purpose, but mostly unconsciously” (p. 4). From the top down, then, the initiative to end racism in Cuba foundered on its own limitations and implicit biases. Abiding by a political construct dating back to the nineteenth century, official rhetoric proferred the image of an Afro-Cuban subject who was “grateful” to the revolution for the opportunities it provided. This notion worked to place a ceiling on Afro-Cubans’ demands for parity, inclusion, and recognition.
Even so, as the author explores, it is impossible to see Afro-Cubans as the “passive recipients of revolutionary reforms” (p. 4). Spence Benson studiously insists on reconstructing the campaign against racial discrimination from the bottom up as well. The battle against racism originated among black and mulato activists well before Fidel Castro and other political leaders began to advance the cause and continued long after they declared a premature “end” to racism in 1961. Across the historical record of the early revolutionary years, Spence Benson finds ample evidence of popular constituencies seizing the opportunity afforded by the political shifts around them and pressing revolutionary officials to take a more decisive stance against racism. Some black and mulato activists and intellectuals would pay a heavy price for their audacity on this score.
One of the most valuable attributes of Antiracism in Cuba is its insistently transnational framing. “White privilege,” the author proposes, “worked in relational ways in Cuba and its diaspora” (p. 149). As Spence Benson demonstrates again and again, both opponents of racism and those who resisted the campaign found foils in the racial struggles transpiring in the United States, Cuba’s imperial antagonist, in the same period. Several of the strongest chapters in the book reconstruct the complex and intertextual universe in which Cuba’s battle against racial discrimination was waged, from official campaigns to encourage African American tourism to the island (as well as the berth it afforded Afro-Cubans to call out lingering instances of discrimination they experienced) to Fidel Castro’s historic visit to Harlem in September 1960 and, most powerfully, the often forgotten stories of those nonwhite Cubans who made their way into exile in these very years. In making their respective claims on the revolutionary moment, political leaders and ordinary Cubans drew on the images and language afforded by parallel battles to the north to both expand and curtail the latent radicalism of an “official” antidiscrimination campaign.
One wonders, too, about other international referents embedded in this “transnational social field” (per Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, p. 123). In the book’s final chapter, Spence Benson traces the construction of an official “pantheon” of Afro-descendent martyrs for the Revolution. Most notably, a young man murdered during the 1961 Literacy Campaign would, in his death, become a symbol of “the successful end to the campaign against racial discrimination” even as it was declared prematurely over (p. 198). Slain Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba would also be claimed as a Cuban icon, branded the “African Fidel.” Elsewhere, Spence Benson devotes attention to Cuban instantiations of black consciousness, or “negrismo,” and puts it in conversation with contemporaneous discourses of black pride and power in the Caribbean and beyond. How might these conversations have reverberated in the political vocabularies of ordinary Cubans, well before the island’s legendary interventions in liberation struggles abroad?
Overall, Antiracism in Cuba succeeds admirably in providing a textured, multifaceted account of the early revolutionary period, and specifially Cuba’s contradictory campaign to end racial discrimination. On these grounds alone, it represents essential reading for Cubanists, Latin Americanists, and scholars of the African diaspora. Yet Spence Benson also charts new analytical ground in scholarship on the Cuban Revolution by insisting on a “both/and” framing for her story. Equally subtle in reaching for top-down and bottom-up perspectives, her account refuses to adhere to the antipodal logic that has long characterized scholarly and popular conversations about race and revolution. In tracing the ways in which “racism and equality…[can] exist together” (p. 3), Spence Benson makes us wonder that anyone would have ever thought it otherwise. Most importantly, she reminds us, historical conversations about the revolutionary campaign against racial discrimination are only possible when black and mulato Cubans are featured as its essential protagonists.
. The phrase is the title of an article appearing in a 1959 issue of Revolución, the official newspaper of FidelCastro’s 26th of July Movement (p. 1).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-latam.
Jennifer Lambe. Review of Benson, Devyn Spence, Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution.
H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews.
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