In June of 2017 Alberto Abreu Arcia (1961) gave a brief yet insightful talk at Claremont Graduate University in California in which he succinctly and directly addressed the motivation behind the creation of his most recent book, Por una Cuba negra. He states as translated by David Luis Brown, “For a Black Cuba. Literature, Race and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century arose in these [historical] circumstances, but above all from my mistrust towards the texts, documents and the whole genealogy of distinguished patricians venerated by official Cuban historiography and held up as the founding fathers of the Cuban nation and nationalism” (Clairmont, translated by David Luis Brown). He continues referencing Hugo Achugar’s assertion “that to return to those nineteenth-century texts that articulated the search for American national identity is not to rummage through the garbage dump of history, but instead resembles the work of the prophet, who works with the light of the present in attempting to illuminate and clarify unfinished projects of the past”(Clairmont). Yet the insight he provides in Por una Cuba negra is merely his latest incarnation of a lifework dedicated to filling the historical and literary gaps and silences relating to people of African descent in Cuba, all while still residing in the island nation.
Like the title of his second book of scholarly essays, El Puente, his writing bridges audiences and inevitably varies in content, genres and subject matter. Born in Cardenas, Matanzas, Cuba where has lived nearly all is life. He is the author of several books and important studies on contemporary Cuban culture including Virgilio Piñera: un hombre una isla; Los juegos de la escritura o la (re) escritura de la historia, which received the Dador Award from the Cuban Book Institute and the Casa de Américas Prize for Essay in 2007; and the aforementioned 2014 book publication of La cuentística de El Puente y los silencios del canon narrative cubano. La cuentística de El Puente explores Ediciones Puente, one of the first independent literary projects in post-revolutionary Cuba. Abreu’s historiographic and critical essays examines a little-studied press dedicated to providing a forum to publish young or unknown authors, many of whom were black, gay or originating from humble social origins. His most recent publication Por una Cuba negra: Literatura, raza y modernidad en el siglo XIX futher cements his stature as a Cuban intellectual and scholarly luminary of African descent.
Abreu celebrates his African heritage and explores topics such as race, identity, LGBT issues and popular culture. He writes from Cuba, about Cuba, for Cubans in addition to those interested in her social, political and racial realities. Abreu argues that the debate over racial problems in Cuba is too often limited to internet sites to which the majority of the Cuban population lacks access, or to academic spheres, which is a space completely shaped by official politics that establish a borderline between what is permitted and what is not, between which approaches and themes are politically correct to address and which are not (Clairmont). His position regarding writing and activism incorporates the scholarly as well as the struggles of the populous and manages to transcend these areas in forums and publications that speak truths and give voice to the silenced and or marginalized.He has given presentations throughout the United States and Latin America and his most recent travels to the US completed in 2017 included the previously referenced lecture at Claremont University as well as one at U of Massachusetts and an invited talk at Harvard where he discussed his blog.
His blog Afromodernidades merits significant attention for a number of reasons. However, first it is important to understand the context of blogging in Cuba. The situation in Cuba, contrary to popular belief, is rather peculiar. According to Anna Cristina Pertierra in her article, which appeared in Bulitin del mundo, the information sharing that occurs in Cuba, is quite ample.
It is certainly true that all telecommunications and media infrastructure in Cuba is state controlled and that access to such technologies and media is determined by political rather than commercial considerations. Further more, much state-produced Cuban media is dedicated to news and current affairs and closely connected to the viewpoints and objectives of the socialist government. Conse quently, media such as newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, and more recent media and communication technologies such as mobile phones and the internet have been central and visible platforms upon which the cold war politics of the United States and Cuba have been staged in recent years.
The high cost of the internet connections prohibits the overwhelming majority of the population to have access. Additionally, the increased availability and implementation of cellular phones further facilitates surfing the web to a certain extent. Nevertheless, Cubans tend to have more readily access to email. Herein the blog fits well and becomes a means if not to connect with the masses, it provides a mechanism to connect to the Cuban diaspora and its sympathizers.
Afromodernidades includes what could be called his vision statement in which his postings counter the dominant discourse in Cuba which is white, male, heterosexual and pedantic. He states “Afromodernidades aspires to be a bridge that permits the introduction and reflection to a subaltern modernity. It is about those that from this vantage point raise their voices attempting to place their claims in the political sphere of debates that are not only Afro-Cuban but also Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American. We reclaim appeals and inquisitions that speak of cimarronajes, utopias, cultural and historic reclamations.” (my translation). Indexed into eight categories, which include cultural criticism, interviews, the (re)writing of history, Afro-cultural debates and reviews, the majority of the entries falls under the “uncategorized” group and, as one would imagine, addresses a wide range of topics such as feminism, black theology, the Cuban artistic scene and Afro-Cuban dignitaries.
Recently however one finds on the title page of the blog that Abreu has, as he states, “Por este medio les informo que por diversas razones he decidido cerrar AFROMODERNIDADES y abrir un nuevo blog titulado AFROMODERNIDAD.Al cual pueden acceder a través de https://afromoderno.wordpress.com” (https://afromodernidades.wordpress.com/). On the new blog we find the following discription of the page:
Afromodernidad así se titula este nuevo blog del intelectual afrocubano Alberto Abreu Arcia donde, al igual que su hermano mayor Afromodernidades, hablaremos raza, racismo, identidades sexuales disidentes, activismo, afrofeminismo, del poder de la teoría y las teorías del poder y por supuesto sobre las idas y vueltas del Movimiento Afrocubano. Siempre desde una perspectiva transversal y transdisciplinaria. (https://afromoderno.wordpress.com/)
Abreu Arcia further explains his objectives with an introductory statement:
Tras ocho años de existencia en la blogosfera, y por motivos ajenos a mi voluntad, me es imposible continuar administrando Afromodernidades con los nuevos requerimientos visuales y tecnológicos que demandan estos tiempos, y en su lugar nace Afromodernidad. El cual no responde a ninguna agenda institucional, política, académica o proyecto-grupo específico. El único compromiso o militancia que reconocemos es con nuestros iguales: esos sujetos y actores sociales que desde un espacio de exclusión y subalternidad intentan colocar sus reclamos de visibilidad, emancipación y justicia social. Aquí som@s, hablamos y pensamos desde nosotr@s sin el rol mediador o ventrículo del letrado blanco que históricamente ha usurpado nuestro derecho hablar. No som@s ratas de laboratorios dispuestas a satisfacer la curiosidad insaciable y manipuladora del mercado académico occidental. Todo lo contrario: producimos un saber: hereje, cimarrón, antisistémico y som@sdueñ@s una tradición teórica silenciada y pisoteada que continuamente interpela y deconstruye la manera en que ese saber hegemónico nos piensa, clasifica y proscribe. En este sentido Afromdernidad se propone buscar nuevas alternativas teóricas que permitan pensar la cultura, la historia, la raza, la sexualidad desde una voluntad inclusiva, democratizadora y desde las deconstrucciones del orden simbólico dominante: blanco, varón, heterosexual y letrado. Lucharemos porque Afromodernidad al igual que Afromodernidades, sea un blog para reflexionar y debatir los imaginarios y prácticas de la negritud desde su naturaleza vernácula, subversiva y desmanteladora de las narrativas maestras de la modernidad occidental. Hecha estas aclaraciones, echemos a navegar. Que nos impulse el viento de la blogosfera. Alberto Abreu Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
While it begs to wonder what if any other “motives ajenos” out of his control would require the cessation of his original blog, I am encouraged to see that both spaces are still intact and accessible. In fact, the first article on the new site, written by author is titled, “El racism antinegro en los studios literarios cubanos”. Abreu by no means has lost his voice.
If we consider the book on which the immensely popular (1991) movie Strawberry and Chocolate is based, Senel Paz’s El lobo, el bosque y el hombre nuevo, we can imagine the metaphorical coding to describe Abreu’s tireless efforts. For eight years running he has nearly single handedly maintained a blog in spite of the financial, systemic and structural limitations that Cuba presents. His public lectures, panels presentations and seminars throughout the island have included some of the most noteworthy Cuban scholars, writers and activists, including Marys Conde, Inés MaríaMartiatu, and Georgina Herra among many others and now we are gifted with his latest publication. Indeed, the mouse, the mic and the pen epitomize the struggles of citizenship, national politics and a leader among the race in Cuba as well as Latin America. He resoundingly responds to Spivak’s inquiry as to if the literary subaltern can speak with an empathic pues claro que sí.
Por una Cuba Negra: Literatura, raza y modernidad en el siglo XIXis Abreu’s most ambitious work to date. An impressive, densely written, thoroughly researched, and convincingly argued 420+ page tome published in 2017 by Hipermedia Ediciones (Deleware). The text assesses Cuban authors and histories from the late 1830’s to just prior to the turn of the 20th Century. Among the numerous writers covered inclu de Juan Francisco Manzano, Domingo del Monte, Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés , Plácido, Julián del Casal. He also dedicates substantial time and essay space to contextualize the historical backdrop and relevancies of the time period. He likewise examines popular and marginalized cultures such as Black oral histories, transvestitism and the teatro bufo. He scrutinizes what Doris Somer would call Foundational Fictions with Cuban voices and backdrops. Furthermore, the theorists that influence his approaches span numerous countries, languages and ideological foundations, including and definitely not limited to DuBois, Stuart Hall, Franz Fanon, Inés María Martíatu (with whom Abreu shared an extraordinarily special ideological and spiritual bond), Aimé Césaire, Cornell West, Glissant, Gilroy, Ángel Rama and Ileana Rodríguez.
In addition to “using the light of the present to illuminate and clarify unfinished works of the past” (Claremont) as previously mentioned, Abreu expounds on his reasons for choosing the time the 19th Century as his point of focus:
The second reason responds to my distrust of the archives of official historiography by exposing the cracks, erasures and silences that cultural studies, subaltern studies and decolonial studies reveal when confronting the colonial text and subject. These approaches seek to deconstruct the oppositions tradition-modernity, cultured-popular, hegemony-subalternity, writing-orality, etc. The final reason, a more personal one, has to do with my fascination as a researcher with that object of study that Bourdieu has termed “a simply negligible quantity,” referring not only to the subaltern subject, but also to those imaginaries, writings and symbolic practices that the canon and the reigning norms in Cuban literary studies assume to be an excess or a castoff (Claremont).
He focuses on Otherness, modernity, and silenced or displaced voices. Poruna Cuba negra is a challenging, scholarly, and thought-provoking read on many levels. Yet it is also profoundly insightful, illuminating and informative. Furthermore, it arguably presents Abreu’s most assertive, no-nonsense book-length publication about Afro-Cubans to date. Whereas he began with Los juegos de la Escritura o la (re)escritura de la Historia in 2007 and followed it with La cuentística de El Puente in 2014 the second o bridge between his first and this latest essayistic production. Abreu leaves little doubt about his ideological position with Poruna Cuba negra as it is unabashedly Afro-Cuban. He explicitly argues, “En mi caso el término afrocubano/a es perfectamente coherente con el posicionamiento intelectual desde el cual encaro esta investigación, y con mi voluntad de explorar diferencias y exclusiones históricas cuya discusión pública ha sido largamente silenciada” (Cuba negra 26). By way of the mouse, the mic and the pen, Alberto Abreu Arcia, breaks literary and popular silences in the blogsphere, the lecture halls and the island’s literary canon with compassion, scholarly insight and personal conviction. Viva Cuba negra.