Black in Latin America screenshot/PBS

Editor’s note: With the U.S. Embassy reopening in Havana on July 20, The Root is giving some insight and perspective into the lives of Afro-Cubans who suffer discrimination and economic distress, even in the midst of the Cuban revolution that Fidel Castro declared put an end to racism. Harvard professor and The Root Chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosted the PBS documentary Black in Latin America in 2011. This excerpt is from a chapter in the companion book called “The Next Cuban Revolution.”

I decided to spend a little time with some Afro-Cubans who are making some noise about the state of race relations in contemporary Cuba. I headed to the home of a rapper known as Soandres. His proper name is Soandres Del Rio Ferrer, and his stage name is Soandry. He’s the leader of one of Cuba’s top hip-hop bands, Hermanos de Causa.

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I was very eager to meet him. I knew the Cuban government had banned two of his songs because they are about racism. I’d actually planned to record one of his concerts during my trip, but the government told me I couldn’t attend. (We sneaked a camera crew in and recorded the concert anyway.) When I arrived, I realized Soandres hadn’t just invited me to his home—this was also his underground recording studio. After a very thoughtful and long discussion while we waited for a tropical rainstorm to pass, he agreed to perform one of his banned songs for me:

Hey, yo

The black Cuban wants to be just like the white man

Because he thinks that darkness is obsolete and that whiteness is
Progress
It’s this way so much that he’s always laughing loudly at racist jokes

The black Cuban discriminates against his brother and is violent to him
And even though he has no master, he crawls like a worm

He has nothing of his own because his self-esteem and pride are
broken

The black Cuban is the rubbish of his island

Soandres told me that he grew up during the Soviet Union’s collapse. He saw what it did to Afro-Cubans, and he began to wage his own personal war on the silence that followed. Listening to him, I started to feel inspired. Soandres wants to see social reform—to see the lives of Afro-Cubans get better, now. He wants all of Cuba to recognize a little reality and to join him in his personal war.

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“What we do is underground rap,” he explained. “Underground rap informs the people of what is really going on. What is being shown to us on television is not really what is going on. On television, they tell us that everything’s good, that everything’s okay, that everything is going the way it should, that the economy is doing great, that the country is getting better. But in the poor areas, this is not true.”

“We do everything in an independent way,” he went on. “Our strategy is to get our music to people, because government institutions don’t play us. We build our own recording studios, we burn our CDs, and we give them out at concerts. We decided not to wait for major Cuban labels to tell us what they want. We create our own possibilities.”

I asked him about the two songs I’d been told he is not allowed to perform because they deal with racism. “Well, I’m kind of allowed to sing them,” Soandres said, looking at me sideways and smiling, “but it puts the success of the concert and my colleagues at risk. The police could stop the concert right then and there. I could maybe sing that song, but the next person might not be allowed on stage, and that would be a loss for the rap movement. We want hip-hop to continue.”

Soandres told me the government wants to censor artists of all kinds, but it also wants to avoid criticism for doing it. So punishments are not always direct. Soandres and his fellow musicians just keep making their music and testing their limits.

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“Many of us have been put down for what we do,” he told me. “But we haven’t stopped doing it, because this is our reality. When you accept your reality, at least you have the courage to face what is happening. And you can begin working on how to fix it.”

“So you believe there is real racism against black people in Cuban society?” I asked.

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“Yes, yes it exists,” he said emphatically. “The system feeds its existence, because the system does not speak of its existence. The system pretends that there is no racism toward black people in Cuba. All along Cuba’s history, Cuba’s future has been put first, and the black people’s situation took a back seat. But we need to analyze this problem and face it up front and say that racism exists. Cuban soap operas show blacks almost like slaves. In the movies, the black man is always a thief, a criminal. This is what people are seeing. We need to say that we have a problem with racism, and we have to fight against it.”

I loved Soandres’s spirit. The boldness of his critique of contemporary Cuban race relations was so refreshing and invigorating—and I realized that while I respect Cubans’ love for the idea of cubanidad, even more, I respect those who see how Cuba is falling short of its ambitions and are determined to do something about it, despite repression from the government.

I left Soandres and went to visit Miguel Barnet, Cuba’s most successful living writer. Barnet is the author of the international bestseller Biography of a Runaway Slave. He works in Havana as the director of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, a most fitting appointment since he was Ortiz’s student. He believes passionately that only one thing can truly eradicate racism in Cuba: education.

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“The knowledge that people have of their African legacy comes from the roots, comes from the family,” he told me, as I sat down in his office. “But I want them to talk about it in universities, in secondary schools, in primary schools.”

Barnet told me that he doesn’t want black pride buried in brown pride. As much as Cuba is a mixed-race nation, he feels its black roots deserve attention. “We have to introduce more of the African mythology and African history in our schools,” he said. “The legacy of blacks in this country is not only cultural or philosophical or artistic. They have also contributed strongly to the economy of this country.”

We talked together, in great detail, about the tragic pitfalls inherent in cubanidad, racial democracy, and other Latin American ideals that have sought to bury blackness. It’s never healthy for any country to deny or hide any of its cultural roots. And Cuba’s revolution—well-meaning though it may have been at times—suppressed cultural elements that were black. No one was learning about Afro-Cuban history. Young people didn’t understand the origins of Afro-Cuban culture. By insisting that racial lines didn’t exist in Cuba, the nation also insisted that a separate black cultural tradition didn’t exist, either. But simply by considering the development of Son [music inspired by African culture], or the origins of Santería, one recognizes that that is obviously not true.

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Barnet and I agreed that Cuba had successfully banned institutional racism against people based on the color of their skin. And this is an important first step in any fight for equality. But it takes more than that to root out the racism of the mind, to eliminate behavioral racism.

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I left Barnet’s office hoping that his foundation could take the lead in this sort of broad and deep educational reform. While I’d met some Cubans who don’t think there is any racial problem here, I’d also met highly influential people who know that anti-black racism here is a major problem, something not eliminated by the revolution. And those voices, deep in passion, are growing louder. Over time, I believe they’ll persuade all Cubans to face a difficult truth—that Cuba has racism in the very fabric of its cultural being, rooted in its long history of slavery, and that the next great step forward for this multiracial country is to eradicate it for real, and for good.

As I left the elegant offices of the Ortiz Foundation, I tried to assess what I’d seen in Cuba. At the height of his power, Fidel Castro famously declared that Communism had put an end to racism here. But recently, he seems to have changed his mind. In a speech delivered in New York in 2000, Castro admitted, “We discovered that marginality and racial discrimination with it are not something that one gets rid of with a law or even with ten laws, and we have not managed to eliminate them completely in forty years.”

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Lately, other Cuban leaders have mentioned this with some frequency as well. But that apparently is all they have done. As the Cuban scholar Alejandro de la Fuente points out, no policies have been implemented to address the growing income gap between white and black Cubans, and no measures have been taken to punish those who publicly state that they don’t want “negros” to work in their companies. They act, almost uniformly, as if racism were a legacy of the old order of slavery and capitalism, a historical legacy that hasn’t disappeared yet, rather than admitting that anti-black racism in Cuba is an ongoing, living phenomenon with a life of its own.

I hadn’t found much evidence to confirm the government’s official policies on racism. Instead, I’d found an informal racism that is pervasive, internalized by some white people and even by some black people. Racism is not something that merely is inherited from a remote past; rather, it is a set of social practices and ideas that are constantly being re-created and reproduced, with the most devastating social consequences. The Cuban government has the institutional means to address both structural and behavioral racism, but beyond at least acknowledging the problem, it has not yet begun to confront it squarely and meaningfully.

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Cuba’s is a culture in which blackness is still in battle for expression, for inclusion, and for true equality, for an equal place at the social and cultural table. Cuban history is filled with examples of heroic, patriotic freedom fighters—men and women, black and white and every imaginable shade of brown in between—people who have battled with such nobility, courage, and determination for social justice, generation after generation.

Like those of us in the United States, these activists haven’t won the battle for civil rights yet in Cuba, just as they haven’t won the battle to end racism and economic discrimination in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, and Peru. But I had no doubt, as I prepared to return home, that this admirable fight will only grow in intensity in Cuba. And I have absolutely no doubt, either, that the spirit which Soandres embodies and to which his relentlessly dynamic music gives voice will prevail over time. The struggle will emerge, culturally, from hip-hop musicians and visual artists and eventually, as these young people age, will move into the center of Cuba’s political life, a life after Castro and Communism. Then this will become the next Cuban revolution.

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I have to believe that similar movements for the full equality of persons of African descent will arise and sustain themselves throughout the Americas, assuring that the sacrifices of the eleven million slaves who survived both the insufferably dreadful Middle Passage from Africa to the New World and then their harsh day-to-day lives within the inhumane institution of American slavery would not have been made in vain.

Excerpted from Black in Latin America by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, New York University Press.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.