Reflections on Cuba – Literacy, Part Two

March 5th, 2014 by admin Categories: Cuba Destinations Feria del Libro MIldred G. Skillman Fund Mobile Public History Programming No Responses

Reflections on Cuba – Literacy, Part Two. Fully engaged at La Feria del Libro.

by C. Wiatta Freeman.

On Tuesday, February 18, 2014, in the Sala José Lezama Lima, through the assistance of a English language translator, the department of Public History Programming hosted a discussion about the mission, work and current projects being done by Cinnamon Traveler Heritage Trust on behalf of the Mildred Grant Skillman Herstory Educational Scholarship Fund Inc. (MGS Fund Inc.,) and the significance of its book exhibition at La Feria del Libro La Habana. 

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Representing the independent book publisher Juana Negra Press and making an introduction of book titles by Dare Books Inc. and Big City Entertainment Inc., Cinnamon Traveler is the first book exhibitor from the United States to receive an invitation to participate at the annual international book fair.  Additionally, as the first African American exhibitor, its participation is also historic because of its decidedly Pan-African perspective and affirmative acknowledgement of Cuba as part of a global community of people of African descent that are connected by history, culture, and shared interests. In this context, sharing African-American literature with Cuba is an opportunity to re-connect and provide cultural exchange with Cubans equally yoked by an appreciation and interest in Afrocentric sensibilities and traditions. 

Photo credit: Intern Sara-Lis Muñiz Bueno Aljovin

Photo credit: Intern Sara-Lis Muñiz Bueno Aljovin

The presentation began with the reading of excerpts from the travel guide book “Onward Toward Recife: Cinnamon Traveler: Martha’s Vineyard Guide,” to explain what inspired the establishment of the Cinnamon Traveler Heritage Trust. The book title references Recife, Brazil and its historic significance to the Diaspora as the first stop in the Americas for all enslaved African captives who were brought to the Western hemisphere.  It also acknowledges Brazil as the country with the highest concentration of people of African descent in the Western hemisphere.

Since its Martha’s Vineyard beginnings in the United States, Cinnamon Traveler Heritage Trust has expanded to include field study research excursions to Brazil and Cuba. It was explained that Cinnamon Traveler’s exhibition at La Feria del Libro, the documentation of the experience on its website and blog, and the recent work on behalf of the MGS Fund Inc., which awards a research fellowship grant for women, are the latest manifestations of the Trust’s commitment to the Pan-African Diaspora. In a moment of personal reflection, Director of Public History Programming, Grace Lynis, talked about the feeling of familiarity that she felt on her first trip to Cuba and her return trips since then. Comprehending the full gravity of the experience, she expressed her gratitude for the invitation and coordination by Cubans that have made Cinnamon Traveler’s participation successful.  

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

She also discussed the importance of books in providing positive self-images for people of African descent and in healing the negative impact of historic and present-day oppression and racism.  She used her travel guide book and one of the children’s books “Black Mother Goose” available at the  Cinnamon Traveler exhibition stand as examples.  

The Pan-African travel guidebooks allow the reader/visitor to go on a cultural tour independently and to be aware of the contributions of Black people to the area.  This helps heal psychological conditioning that minimizes or ignores our culture, history and contributions and leads to the adverse results of devaluing ourselves, other African peoples and our ancestors.  

Discussing the Mother Goose book, she pointed out that popular nursery rhymes and folktales often include caricatures and other derogatory images of people of African descent. Grace further explained the impact of children’s books on self-esteem, saying, 

          “A lot of our ideas about who we are start when we are children. So it’s important that children get to see themselves in a favorable way….From the darkest person to the blancitos…[they too have] African descent…However, whenever we feel negative about ourselves, we deny a portion of ourselves and that contributes to a lot of other internal problems…so it’s very important that we start with our children [and instill]…positive images….so it’s a total continuum from childhood to adulthood…it’s something that we all work on throughout our lives.”

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

An interesting interaction occurred between Grace and the English translator during the discussion that further elucidates the importance of African peoples defining their experience through literature and other media. While translating to Spanish, the interpreter used the word “slaves” instead of Grace’s wording “enslaved Africans.”  Though not fluent in Spanish, Grace had sufficient understanding to catch this misinterpretation and asked the interpreter to correct her translation. She then explained to the audience why the distinction is significant, stating,

          “The reason that I asked the interpreter to explain [the distinction] clearly is because people of African descent were not slaves, they were enslaved Africans trapped in a slave labor economic system. It was a condition that was put upon them, prisoners of war of triangle trade across the Atlantic Ocean. In our Western hemisphere, African ancestors are called “the slaves” and use of this terminology deliberately diminishes and discounts the humanity of the captive Africans. Therefore it is very important to make a clear distinction.”

The presentation sparked a deeper discussion during the question-and-answer period when a Cuban professor pointed out the insufficient amount of literature available in Cuba that affirms Afro-Cuban and Pan-African culture and history, particularly for children. He expressed appreciation for Cinnamon Traveler’s role in the book fair. 

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

He also spoke about views on ethnicity and the existence of prejudice in Cuba. He asserted that the Cuban government’s hard work since the 1959 Cuban Revolution to eradicate racism has been successful, particularly in removing discrimination from laws and government policy/practice.  This set a standard for the culture as a whole. However, he pointed out that 55 years is not enough to remove it from the hearts and minds of all Cubans. He acknowledged continued ethnic prejudice, though it has been eradicated structurally. He also made a distinction between how race is viewed in Cuba versus in the United States. He emphasized that Cubans view themselves as Cuban first, and ethnic differences are secondary to that shared identity and culture. He distinguished this nuanced perspective as distinctive and separate from structural racism and ethnic divisions that are popularly practiced in the United States.

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

 

The dialogue continued after the presentation at Cinnamon Traveler’s booth, which has become a meeting ground for Cubans and other visitors from the Pan African Diaspora to converse as they peruse and shop for books and other cultural items.  I look forward to us inviting you as readers into these dialogues and sharing some of my reflections via future blog posts.

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

 

Thanks for reading!