Review of Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic by Melina Pappademos The University of North Carolina Press

Black Political Activism and the Cuban Republic. By Melina Pappademos. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011. ISBN: 9780807834909

Melina Pappademos’s work is intended as a corrective to the influential body of literature that explores the intersection of race, nationalism, and political mobilization in twentieth century Cuba. Seminal books by Aline Helg, Alejandro de la Fuente, and others have contributed to an understanding of black Cubans’ struggle to assert their claim to economic and social equality in the face of continued racism and the pernicious limitations imposed by Cuban “race-blind” nationalism. Yet according to Pappademos, these studies impose upon their subjects a homogeneous Afro-Cuban identity and universal black consciousness. By “decentering nationalism as the principal frame for understanding racial politics and black activism,” she hopes to recover the heterogeneity of “blackness” and move beyond racial binaries. (9)

Socioeconomic opportunities in the early republic stemmed from the government, which melded patronage and the spoils system with republican democracy. Pappademos’s opening chapters illustrate the continued discrimination faced by blacks in the contest for government largesse, and in the machinations by which black elites claimed a share of the political spoils. Despite public efforts to represent themselves as the voice of a coherent black community, Pappademos finds that black political activists entered into politics as “self-interested agents rather than leaders politicized by derivative race consciousness” on behalf of their constituents. (9) Notwithstanding the visibility of the Independent Party of Color (PIC), and its violent repression in the Race War of 1912, most black politicians joined mainstream parties and worked alongside white party members for socioeconomic gain, rather than to combat racial injustice. Moreover, these leaders “emphasized racial self-help” and blamed lower-class blacks for their own marginalization. (27) “In exchange for public prominence, black leaders largely eschewed overt racial consciousness and supported progressivist…values” including “liberal democracy, uplift, and bourgeois respectability.” (71) By pursuing racial uplift, they sought to challenge the dominant presumption that blacks were unfit for leadership in a republican democracy. But in so doing, they reified bourgeoisie-liberal values that discouraged antiracist activism.

Because success at the polls depended upon black votes, elites who could marshal and deliver these votes gained access to vertically integrated patronage networks. Though political parties had national reach, Pappademos contends that organizing began at the local level and relied upon political caciques. Central to this process were black social, cultural, and political clubs and societies that allowed members to attract support from politicians. In turn, powerful black politicians such as Juan Gualberto Gómez and Rafael Serra owed their success to their ability to appeal to a wide base of black civic organizations. (90) Both clubmen and politicians came to rely upon this arrangement to such an extent that the PIC uprising threatened the position of black political elites, many of whom closed ranks with their white coreligionists against race-based mobilization.

Yet civic communities often existed outside of the networks and value systems established by the privileged black cadre. In subsequent chapters, Pappademos turns to alternative constructions of black Cuban identity. Cuban Africanist civic communities rejected the “confines of a delimited, national community in favor of a more expansive” diaspora consciousness. (95) By embracing African identities, members of these societies placed themselves in opposition to the dominant discourse, that cast the African legacy on the island as incompatible with modernity and nation building. (98) Though they stressed many of the same liberal, progressive values espoused by members of the elite clubs, Africanist societies “declared commitments to both Cuba and Africa,” thus asserting their own construction of the Cuban nation and blacks’ role therein.  (115) Ongoing ethnic identification, however, inhibited unified black political action and retarded the development of a broader black club movement.

While Africanist societies fought to redeem Africa’s place in nationalist discourse, elite blacks defined themselves in opposition to the Dark Continent. In their view, race “registered at the level of behavior” and their aspirations for social and economic status depended upon “distancing themselves from the cultural backwardness embodied by Africanist practices.” (125-126) In order to earn acceptance as leaders, black civic and political activists performed normative roles, which depended upon adherence to bourgeois social norms, such as female domesticity and patriarchal authority. Thus, even as they struggled to remove racial barriers, elite blacks perpetuated class and gender hierarchies amongst black Cubans. (142) Just as they had in the nineteenth century, black elites in the early years of the republic argued that their education and “cultural practices distinguished them from the masses of culturally ‘backward’ black Cubans.” (147) Black newspapers and literary journals, many of them influenced or controlled by politicians, sought to “define a delimited, corporatist community” by clearly demarcating the refinement and intellectual capacity of black elites. (151)

Beginning in the 1920s, however, formal politics became discredited as the popular classes reacted to widespread fraud and corruption. The traditional black cadre’s close connection to Gerardo Machado’s government left them particularly vulnerable to charges that they had failed to represent marginalized blacks. After the 1933 Revolution, a younger generation of activists “moved beyond the traditional themes of black redemption, morality and racial self-improvement.” (175) When women were enfranchised in 1934, many of them also challenged traditional politics and undermined the black cadre’s base of patriarchal authority. The rise of black communists, labor leaders, and leftists further problematized the creation of a unified black movement. The club movement reached its height with the formation of the National Federation of Black Societies and the administration of President Fulgencio Batista. By the 1960s, black clubs and the traditional elite dwindled as they lost political relevancy.

Pappademos’s history of the black political activism is successful in propagating a number of salient critiques of the literature. “Black leaders’ struggle for resources…relied on a homogeneous construction of blackness that helped them shore up their role as cadre of the community.” (225) Yet, this community was more symbolic than real. Rather than a monolithic black identity, Cuban “blackness” was fraught with cleavages along gender, class, and ideological lines.  Moreover, Pappademos contradicts Aline Helg’s assessment of declining black involvement in republican politics after 1912. Finally, while “black Cubans engaged with nationalist ideologies, black experience cannot be subsumed by a nationalist paradigm” since black identities were formed more by local experiences than universal racial consciousness. (230)

A wealth of source material, including black newspapers and personal correspondence between politicians and club activists, provides ample support for Pappademos’s arguments. However, the study suffers from repetition, and might have benefited from a more detailed examination of the period between 1940 and the overthrow of Batista. While unsuitable for undergraduates or a general audience, Black Political Activism can be read profitably by scholars of republican Cuba and the wider African diaspora.

Reviewed by Micah Wright, Texas A&M University
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]