On Monday, March 13th, Social Sciences Associate Professor and Department Chair at the State University of New York Empire State College Nadine Fernandez spoke in McCabe Library to community members about race in Cuba. Her speech focused on the history of race among Cuban populations in relation to the family unit and relationships. In the audience were students taking Professor Nina Johnson’s Blacks in Diaspora, the directed reading course of the Black studies department this spring semester. This course also participates in the college’s Experiential Learning Program this semester as it culminates with a trip to the island. The course explores Black identity in Cuba in relation to the migration of Black people and their social movements.
Fernandez’s talk framed the construction of race in Cuban circles through the island’s history. She began with describing the island’s colonial plantation economy that imported enslaved people from Africa, led the audience through the Cuban Revolution, and concluded with commentary on the present day. The talk traced how “the sexual economy of race” in Cuba — explained in Cuba’s Racial Crucible by University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Karen Morrison as how different sexual actors; their relationships; their children, if they are present; and their histories are defined by race — influenced perceptions of race on the island. Further, it defined how race mixing, or people of different races coming together in sexual relationships and in interracial relationships, helped to form the island’s layered organization of race.
Blacks in Diaspora dissects the African experience in different societies that are historically related to the African diaspora, defined by late Nigerian historian J. F. Ade Ajayi in his Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s as “the migration of Africans to the outside world under the auspices of the trans-Atlantic and other forms of slave trade.” This semester, the course considers Cuba as a society with a stratified construction and classification of Black, brown, and white people. Coleman Powell ’20 detailed how the talk helped to parse the racial system we work within in the U.S. versus that of Cuba.
“The concepts of one Cuban race clash bitterly with my own understanding of a country [the U.S.] still reeling from the legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and other institutionalized forms of racism,” Powell said. “Cuba has a history of mixing between races and this is helpful when one is trying to understand the stratification of Cuban society [such as] the racial categories of White, Black, Indigenous peoples, and Mulatto/Mestizo.”
Part of the experiential learning course is the participation in research on the particular aspects of the Cuban experience in relation to race. Prospective Black studies major Brandon Ekweonu ’20 outlined his research intentions.
“I am very interested in studying the different ways in which different Black people around the world understand their own identities,” Ekweonu said. “I want to … gather data as part of my research on the different ways in which people understand ‘race’ and its implications if they even believe that it has implications. Again, I am most interested in who might identify themselves as Black, Black Cuban, or Afro-Cuban and how their narratives may differ from those of white Cubans.”
Powell, who is studying Afro-Cuban social movements and whether there are connections between Afro-Cubans and other people throughout the African diaspora, stated that Fernandez’s talk provided perspective into how to better approach differing encounters with race.
“The talk was helpful in helping me to think about race from the standpoint of Cubans rather than as an American,” Powell said. “I will have to be very meticulous with my word choice in interviews [for my research] because my perception of race related questions may be completely different than someone of Afro-Cuban descent.”
A key component to the course is the trip to Cuba following the Spring 2017 semester. The trip will allow students to continue research ingrained in the culture and environment they were studying. Ekweonu highlighted how the trip will provide new opportunities.
“For a while now, I’ve been particularly interested in the way race is constructed in Latin America,” Ekweonu said. “For me, [the trip] is going to be my first time ever being in Latin America, and therefore the first time I will ever have an opportunity to witness race within a Latin American context apart from experiences in Latinx communities in the United States. It is also a trip that I wouldn’t have been able to afford to make on my own.”
Powell did note that the trip, although exciting, is the product of a semester’s worth of exploration, study, and research. The trip will be contextualized by the work performed and produced by the students.
“The trip will be a culmination of this [semester’s] learning. There is a research component to this class, and before I even think about the itinerary of the trip, I must first have this research done.”
Powell then detailed his motivations for understanding the Cuban history of race.
“As a member of the African-Diaspora myself, I am deeply interested in the political implications of a group that is linked based on a shared cultural memory of slavery because the nature of our struggles for liberation have been inherently political,” he said.
Powell also made note of how the course had extensive connections to other social science fields, and he highlighted links to historical power structures in relation to the African diaspora.
“I entered the course with the expectation that I would find linkages between the diaspora and the field of international relations as well as sociology in general, and I have not been disappointed,” Powell said. “There is a clear link between imperialism, colonialism, and the scattering of the peoples of the diaspora. Imperialism and colonialism have to do with how empires were administered, and this represents some of the earliest manifestations of the field of international relations.”
In sum, Powell described his goals of connecting his academic motivations to understandings of history, contemporary politics, and intercultural relationships.
“The trip is important in fostering engaged scholarship across international borders. What I learn in the classroom will always be applicable in the real world, or at least that is my goal. The trip will also be helpful in fostering dialogue between people of the diaspora,” Powell said.
Ekweonu went on to say how the trip will provide important context in the study of Black experiences and demonstrates the importance of racial and ethnic study programs at Swarthmore and beyond.
“I’m someone who has, for a long time, been having trouble deciding whether or not I wanted to pursue Black studies because of the way it seems to be undervalued by a lot of the academic community. A trip like this reassures me, first of all, that there are professors that are extremely invested in Black studies work in the world and here on campus,” he said. “Second, it reminds and reassures me that so many of my fellow students see just as much value in Black studies as I do. This goes, just as well, for areas like the Latin American and Latino studies program … It reminds me that the work I and so many others want to do is valuable. So, I think this trip means a whole lot for every single person involved.”
Powell echoed this sentiment, explaining the multifaceted nature of the program.
“It is also important to note that this is Black Studies course! The importance of Black Studies as an interdisciplinary field cannot be ignored, especially when it is contributing new and dynamic research to academia,” he said. “Black studies provides a space for discussions on identity, culture, and politics that would not be had otherwise. These discussions and the opportunities, like trip, that discussions produce are necessary if progress towards a more socially conscious state is actually what anyone really wants.”
The Blacks in Diaspora course offers students an opportunity to explore race in Cuba through research and an immersive trip. Students largely see this trip as a way to understand race in another societal context and as reason to support racial and ethnic studies on campus.
Ryan Stanton, The Phoenix
March 16, 2017