Power of the Black Pen: Afro-Latin Activism in a Digital Age

Emmanuel Harris II, Ph.D.

University of North Carolina Wilmington

On June 11th of this year, organizers abruptly canceled Cuban ballerina and choreographer Carlos Acosta’s groundbreaking autobiographical presentation of Sin mir atrás. Perhaps the closure of a given production would not receive substantial notice; however, the thematic elements as well as the subject of the internationally recognized dancer’s work’s closure received a considerable amount of attention in Cuba, the country in which the production took place. A few weeks ago, on July 23rd , Alberto Abreu Arcia posted an essay in his blog Afromodernidades titled, “ La censura de Carlos Acosta o los rostros ocultos tras el emblema de nación mestiza” [“The censure of Carlos Acosta or the Hidden Remnants Behind a Mestizo Nation,” my translation – all translations are mine] in which not only does he shed light on the background to this event, he postulates on the reasons behind what on the surface appears to be an extremely arbitrary decision to cancel the show. Abreu Arcia writes the following in his blog:

Not only was it a despotic act of censure committed against the glory of international ballet, but without doubt, the motives for the cancelation had to do with the depiction of anti-black racism (a burning topic in contemporary Cuban society). And as if that weren’t enough, the decision involved one of the most legendary figures and cultural institutions of post-revolutionary Cuba. (July 23 2016)

Upon continuation, he quotes Maykel Paneque’s article published in the Havana Times in which he questions the authorities’ motives, “Once again the official censure has exercised it dominion. While at the same time the rumors and not-so-anonymous voices abound to suggest an explanation that counters the official statement or in this case, its uncomfortable silence”. Thus Abreu’s voice, in the written form of a blog, fills an issue that has been silenced in a public arena. In this case, it pertains to the life story of an accomplished artist of African descent being arbitrarily censured.

The issues confronting people of African descent have taken a multiplicity of forms. The role of the writer and the power of the pen can been seen in the groundbreaking investigations and expositions of scholar-authors like Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro of Puerto Rico, Quince Duncan in Costa Rica, Carlos Guillermo Wilson in Panama, Lucía Charún Illescas en Peru and Inés María Martiatu in Cuba. Addressing race, racial categorizations, phenotypical prejudice and ever-evolving cultural demographics present noteworthy opportunities in an age of mass communication and the employment of the Internet is a necessary and worthwhile point of departure to analyze these issues. Writings by people of African descent like other ethnic groups have a rich and varied history that have explicitly and implicitly influenced others’ world views. Exploring the realities and objectives of black Latinos increases our black diaspora cultural consciousness and possibly alters the way in which we view fiction and non-fiction within a societal context. Emotionally charged writings bring to the forefront the plight of the oppressed in Latin America while showing the human aspect of social activism. My presentation examines the digital writings of Cuban author and scholar Alberto Abreu Arcia and particularly his blog Afromodernidades.wordpress.com as a case study of a means that contemporary Afro-Hispanic writers circumvent establish norms in underscoring the plight of African-ancestored peoples in order to foment social change. Furthermore, upon closer examination and reflection we see not only the socio-political importance of his writings but also the literary and scholarly value of his and similar writers’ postings.

As stated in his web profile, Aberto Abreu Arcia a renowned essayist, novelist and who was born in Cardenas, Matanzas, Cuba where he still resides. He is the author of several books and important studies on contemporary Cuban culture among which 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; an anthology with Isnalbys Crespo, Campos cruzados: Crítica cultural la latinoamericanismos y saberes al borde, and 2014 book publication of La cuentística de El Puente y los silencios del canon narrativo cubano. He celebrates is African heritage and writes on topics such as race, identity, and LGBT issues and is a member of the Articulación Regional Afrodescendiente de América Latina y el Caribe (ARAAC). He has given presentations throughout the United States and Latin America and hhis blog Afromodernidades is just one of the many ways he is involved with the Afro-Cuban community.

Afromodernidades merits significant attention for a number of reasons. However, first it is important to understand the context of blogging in Cuba. As one can easily imagine, the use of the internet, in particular a blog (and Facebook, which I try to avoid but that’s because I’m straight outta Lowtech) presents numerous opportunities to be heard for those with something (worthwhile) to say. 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. Furthermore, much state- produced Cuban media is dedicated to news and current affairs and closely connected to the viewpoints and objectives of the socialist government. Consequently, 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. A press release from the World Briefings in July of 2015 stated that in Cuba internet use would decrease from $4US to $2US for households. 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.

Research on blogs and bloggers has increased recently though most have focused on the socio-political and mass media perspectives. I propose we additionally weigh the content merits of blogs like Abreu’s Afromodernidades from a literary and Africana Studies approach. We must keep in mind that Abreu is a recognized and accomplished writer and intellectual and Casa de Americas award recipient who writes and lives in Cuba. Marie Laure Geoffray’s article which analyzes of the socio-political of the internet by Cubans corresponds especially well with Afromodernidades and helps contextualize its cultural contributions. Geoffray categorizes blogs into three areas:

I propose to name those arenas: the dissident, contentious, critical and diaspora arenas. The classification I propose here is based on an analytical distinction I make between these arenas’ political positions and strategies vis-à-vis the Cuban government. Dissidents directly confront the government, find the socialist regime to be illegitimate, and call for free and fair elections. Contentious voices accept the socialist heritage as legitimate, but they disagree with the current socialist rule. Critical voices remain within authorised boundaries and do not question the government’s legitimacy.

Abreu would fall somewhere between the second and third groups in that while he is critical of the government especially in terms of its treatment of African-ancestored peoples, gays and women, he does not foment its overthrow or complete subversion. And it is unclear as to whether or not he disagrees with the socialist rule. Analysis of the writings that appear in the blog are often brazenly critical of the government, yet at no time does Abreu call for a new revolution.

Yet when taken into consideration using Stafani Vicari’s conclusions postulate in her article “Blogging politics in Cuba: the framing of political discourse in the Cuban blogosphere” Abreu’s entries become even more salient. According to Vicari

Overall, research on blogs and blogospheres has shown that blogging eases the renegotiation of public and private discourse practices, where popular and unpopular topics differently spread from blog to blog in dynamics of concentration and isolation. . . In line with these considerations, [her] study considers bloggers as social agents who blur argumentations in support or against normative politics via the extensive use of personal narratives and cultural knowledge. (1002)

True, in many ways Abreu’s writing facilitates the dissemination of information from at times dynamics of isolation and concentration to spheres significantly more public. However, the difference lies in that he rarely incorporates personal narratives to form the foundation of his argument. On the contrary, it could be effectively argued that his writing is scholarly or other times literary.

In the index to his blog Abreu includes what could be called his vision statement in which his postings counters 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.” (Visuales). A cursory glance at the blog demonstrates that dating back to 2010, there are 236 entries. They are 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.

For example we can also highlight entry on July 13 in which Abreu talks about recent round table discussion involving the Afrocubanas Board of a Directors, the formation of which he has helped advocate for years. In his post, which includes a photo of the directors, he establishes the ideological foundations of the group’s objectives. He mentioned Gloria Anzaldúa and incorporates, Ochy Curil, Stuart Hall, bell hooks, Inés María Martiau and Audre Lorde among many others. The product is a compelling, informative, dare we say subversive essay of nearly 1500 words wrought with content, linguistic polish, academic integrity. Less us not forget the powerful potential of social media – for it was a post of black comedian Hannibal Buress that went viral and eventually led to the public downfall of Bill Cosby. The fact in our society a man’s words were given more weight than those of Cosby’s numerous victims that had previously stepped forward is a topic for another time and occasion.

While a few of the Afromodernidades entries are re-posts, such as articles by others that speak to issues relevant to Cuba, many of the entries or profound investigations up to 2000 words in length with references, quotations and a solid theoretical foundation. Without question Alberto Abreu Arcia’s writings merits reading, analysis and inclusion in Afro-Hispanic debate. As we await the publication of his forthcoming book, ¿Puede ser negra la nación? Literatura, raza y modernidad en la Cuba del XIX, we are privy to insight and uplift from Cuba by a Cuban in this digital age.

As Abreu concludes his entry about the censure of Carlos Acosta invaluable work stating that he we refuses to be distracted by discussions of subaltern-ness surrounding the unsubstantiated removal of Sin mirar atras because in the artistic and intellectual world color of skin should not play a role in assessing the quality of the product. He adds, “Nor am I going to feign a tranquil gaze at the horizon with the internal passivity of someone contemplating the future of the birds in flight as the gray seas roars unsettlingly along with the wind at his back that raises dust storm of garbage to the sky.” It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Today, in an ever more cosmopolitan world, the hope is that the keystroke is more powerful than the gun, or perhaps the assault rifle. And as Abreu states, “what I attempt to put in manifest is that this battle is not only against racial exclusion but against all discrimination and that it is necessary to forge new alliances and add new social activists.