A Discussion with Devyn Spence Benson and Jane Anna Gordon
September 28, 2020
Jane Anna Gordon, Ph.D., is Professor of Political Science with affiliations in American Studies, El Instituto, Global Affairs, Philosophy, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The University of Connecticut.
Devyn Spence Benson, Ph.D., is the Chair and Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of Latin American Studies at Davidson College.
In Fall 2013, UConn Professor of Political Science Jane Anna Gordon became president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association (CPA). Founded with the bold mission of "shifting the geography of reason", it became a meeting place for intellectuals who were constructively challenging the view that philosophical ideas or ideas rich with theoretical content had only ever emerged from Greece and Rome, Western Europe, or Euro-America. CPA members did not only challenge that view, they studied and engaged a rich counter history and alternative account of the present, with the aim of building a different kind of intellectual and political future. They believed that philosophical ideas did not only emerge from people with PhD’s in Philosophy or who taught in Philosophy departments, although some certainly did, nor did they believe that important ideas were only authored or described in the English language. This meant that CPA members came from a wide range of academic fields and meetings were always multilingual. CPA did not want to duplicate the linguistic borders erected by European colonialism. This led to the creation of two CPA book series with the Rowman and Littlefield International with a focus on translating global works into the English language.
In 2015, UConn's Office of Global Affairs was in the early stages of building a long-term partnership with academic institutions in Cuba. While initially this programming focused on shared strengths in agriculture, animal science and health behavior, Global Affairs also reached out to scholars in the humanities and social sciences. It was under the auspices of the Global Affairs-Cuba initiative that Gordon traveled to Havana in 2018 for the annual Caribbean Studies Association conference. Having longed to travel to Cuba for many years, the experience was profound. But as soon as she returned to the United States, ready to move forward with the creation of a winter session study program in Santiago, Cuba, travel between the U.S. and Cuba—which had already been restricted—was shut down almost completely.
Gordon wondered, what could be done in the interim?
There was already a wealth of philosophically and politically rich intellectual work written by Cuban scholars that was not yet available to non-Spanish readers. The exchange of ideas could continue by beginning to make some of this work available in English. With support from Global Affairs, Gordon reached out to scholars of Cuba within the CPA. Neil Roberts, who became president of CPA in 2017, recommended Devyn Benson, Associate Professor and Chair of the Africana Studies at Davidson College and a historian of 19th and 20th century Latin America with a special focus on race and revolution in Cuba.
When Gordon reached out to Benson, it turned out that she had already been working—for several years—on proposing the publication of an English-language edition of Afrocubanas. Benson had already prepared the proposal and the scholarly pitch and only needed a willing publisher and funds to hire an excellent translator. With the support and funding from UConn’s Office of Global Affairs the team was able to hire Karina Alma, an Assistant Professor in Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA to do the translation and they proposed the project to Rowman and Littlefield International. With wildly enthusiastic support from external reviewers, all of whom underscored how invaluable such a translation would be to teaching and to scholarship, the translation was signed with the Creolizing the Canon series. The hardback of Afrocubanas: History, Thought, and Cultural Practices was published this past July.
The following Q&As from Gordon's interview with Benson are edited for clarity and are a part of the full interview above.
View the full Afrocubanas Interview Transcript here
Why have you singled out this book as one especially urgent to make available and to make available to non-Spanish language readers?
Afrocubanas was a special book in Spanish, it was a special book in Cuba, and now it’s a really special book in English. It was a special book in Cuba because it was the first book of its kind. It’s the first time that you had a collective group of black women come together to write and publish a book with a state-sponsored press. The state actually comes out with Ciencias Editoriales. They publish it at the state press. So that’s one, a book about black women by black women and two, it has the word Afrocubanas in the title. These are words that are much more accepted now, today, in 2020 in Cuba. But even when the book first came out in 2011, it was a radical idea to think about putting the word Afrocuban in the title because of the fact that many Cubans only like to think of themselves with only their national identity, don’t recognize a racial identity and the revolutionary government hasn’t recognized that identity. So to call yourself Afrocuban, to call yourself Afrocubana, to identify yourself with your racial identity but to talk about the intersection of race and gender, was actually really radical then and continues to be, in some ways, radical now.
I have a copy with the inscription from Daisy Rubiera Castillo. She gave me the copy of this book in January of 2012. The book had been released in 2011, she saves me a copy, and inside she actually inscribes it, “To my young sister in the fight continue pursuing your dreams and continue fighting against racial discrimination.” She gives me the book, I take it back to my casa particular immediately in Havana and I start reading it. The main thing that happened to me was I realized this was really special and this was something that I wanted my students, my family members, my parents, and my colleagues to be able to read in English. The only way to do that was to do the translation. I’m really close to Daisy Rubiera, so I’d been talking with her for a while about what it would look like if we were to do it in English and we just needed the funding and support that I started off thanking people for because that’s what really made this possible.
Could you say a little bit more about what you and others mean when they say that Afrocubanas is a book that really grew out of, or is the expression of, a social movement?
Black activism in Cuba, in some ways, had to go underground after the early 1960s because the revolutionary leadership said that they eliminated racial discrimination. And they had made a lot of really important strides. They'd integrated education spaces, they'd integrated leisure spaces like beaches and private clubs, they'd increased Afro Cuban employment rates. So, by the time you get to the 80s, you really see that black Cubans have the same life expectancy, they had the same standard of education, they have the same standard of living, in many ways, as their white counterparts. What happens then is in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union crashes and falls, that has an incredible impact on Cuba's economy mainly because of the fact that without the Soviet Union able to sort of subsidize the economy, Cuba's economy crashes and they go into what's called the Special Period. In the Special Period there is not enough food, not enough oil, not enough of any basic necessities. People are standing in hours long lines to get anything like bread, coffee, beans, rice. So, Cuba has to make certain structural changes so that the country can survive and one of those is by opening the island to tourism and joint business ventures.
As soon as that happened, one of the things that you saw happening was that very clearly racial discrimination became a part of the society again and lot of people talked about this is sort of the reemergence, or the return, of racism. In my book I sort of combat that idea. I talk about how racism doesn't go away, you don't lose it, it is not hiding under the table just to reemerge later. Really what happens is that anti-black attitudes persist from the revolutionary period to the present. When there was an economic crisis, I think Mark WHO/ 11:09 talks about this really well. Then you see those attitudes starting to have a play in the economy. There were a number of anti-racist organizations that begin fighting against this persistent discrimination. What type of discrimination am I talking about? I'm talking about how black Cubans couldn't get jobs in the hotels. I'm talking about how black Cubans, especially women, were assumed to be prostitutes when they were walking down the street with a foreigner. So, I’d have been assumed to be a prostitute if I was walking down the street with the director of Study Abroad at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill just because I'm a black body and he was a white man. There was a way that you start seeing obvious types of racial discrimination in the 1990s and so you see all these movements come about to fight against that. And there a number of well-known anti-racist organizations in Cuba. Afrocubanas comes about in the early 2000s in response to the fact that even when there were anti-racist organizations, they didn't always focus on black women. They didn't always focus on the challenges that black women in particular were facing in this new moment. And those are very much gendered as well as racialized challenges, they were intersectional. It was started by Daisy Rubiera, Inés María Martiatu Terry, as well as Alessandra Alvarez who's a blogger, poet Carmen González and painter Paulina Marquez. This group of black women said that they wanted to create a space where black women in Cuba could come together to talk about the challenges they were facing in their everyday life, but also the negative stereotypes that we're now starting to persist. And really, they'd always been there, but now were really embedding themselves again into Cuban society.
So, what they did you've got a group of women who are all different ages, it's generational. They have all different types of professions. You've got people who are in communications, people who are in the medical field, people who are scholars and intellectual writers, but also people who were teachers at the regular elementary school. It was sort of a collective group of women but what they did say is, and I did want to quote this for you, is that they said that they had two main goals. One was “to recognize the contribution and the work of black Cuban women,” and two, “to stimulate the existence of a counter discourse to dismantle the negative racist and sexist stereotypes about black women in Cuba.” One is that they want to talk about just the very existence. They want to recognize black women's contributions in history and art and music and then two, they want to say we're going to push back against those negative stereotypes. That's what led them to do a number of things and the book is one of them, but they are also holding weekly workshops. They're also holding these monthly meetings for the community to come and learn about different topics. Then they decided to publish the book. One of the things that I think is really interesting to say, what does it mean to have a book that comes out of activists' movement? In black studies that's actually not that strange of a thing. In Africana studies and black studies there's been a long history of pairing intellectual scholarship with social activism, but outside of black studies I do think that people aren't as familiar with that. That means that when readers come to this book, they should know that this book isn't just something that is for your intellectual consumption, it is also part of a social movement. It’s also part of a desire to change the experiences for the better of black women in Cuba and even black women globally.
"...white supremacy and anti-blackness is global and the only way to fight it is through a global movement."
What do you hope will come of the book’s availability to English language readers?
Right now, especially in the United States with the social protests and the social sort of emerging conversations about race that are happening in our own country, this is an important time to talk about black feminism. This is a really important time to talk about black women in the United States, but I want everyone to remember that black people have always lived transnational lives. Black Americans have been in conversations with the black Latin Americans, with black Europeans, with Caribbeans for so long because of the fact that white supremacy and anti-blackness is global and the only way to fight it is through a global movement. Even as we focus in on black feminism or black women's experiences in the United States, it's really important to think about transnational black feminism. To think about, what do black Cuban women experience? How are their situations similar to, different from? What moments do we see convergences where we can talk and mobilize together because we're all stronger together? This book could have a long reach for people who are interested in black feminism globally. The same way that Audre Lorde's work continues to be held up as something that's really important for the movement. Or Cherríe Moraga’s “This Bridge Called My Back” continues to be held up as something that's really important for Latinx populations, but even anyone who's interested in the type of people of color feminism. I think this book can have that same role. I also think that it'll be really interesting to anyone who wants to know more about Latin American social movements, who wants to know more about Cuba, who wants to know more about everyday people's experiences and how they imagine those experiences and talk about them themselves. That's why I think it could be taught in a wider way of Latin American history, anthropology, sociology literature classes, as well as just for everyday readers. Anyone who's interested in thinking about how black lives matter globally.
How do you understand the role of translation projects in building intellectual collaborations between U.S. and Cuban scholars?
I've worked with undergraduate students as well as graduate students and I'm always telling my students how important it is for them to learn languages. Especially if you're going to study Cuba. You don't want to be the Cubananist who doesn't speak Spanish and can't do research in Cuba in the archives, who can't interact with Cuban historiography, who can't interact with Cuban scholars and intellectuals. It's really important for us to learn languages, but not everybody outside of my graduate school program or outside of the ivory tower is going to be able to have the opportunity to learn multiple languages. Which means that, so often, the only information that they have about Cuba comes from U.S. sources and English based sources. First of all, what is translated? I always ask that question. It’s often men and they're often white. White, male, Latin Americans will be translated. So, you're missing out on a whole different experience from so many other people and a whole different set of knowledge from another group of people. It's really important to do books like this because books like this allow us to have people in the United States, who don't speak Spanish, be able to interact and engage with Cubans because they're getting a sense of that perspective. They're not only reading the things that either Americans write based on U.S. sources or things that have been translated by people who have a lot more money and tend to be a white, male, Latin American translations. It's really important for us to say, well, if we're going to use translation as a way for collaboration, that we have to make sure that our translations projects are equitable. That we're just and fair, that we're translating everyone's experiences. When I talk about the 1960s, I always say over a third of the population is black and mulatto in Cuba. There have been more contemporary political scientists who say that it's upwards of sixty percent. If we're talking about sixty percent of the population is black or mulatto in Cuba, why in the world are we continuing to translate only white male Cuban leaders of the revolution? I think it's really important for us to move away from that in this book is a really great first step in that direction.
"Afrocubanas History, Thought, and Cultural Practices" is available for purchase on Rowman.com. The book is available in English and Spanish as a Hardcover and eBook.
Use Code AFROCUBANAS40 for 40% off until Dec. 1, 2020