Reflections on Cuba: Culture, Ethnicity Pt. 2

April 2nd, 2014 by admin Categories: Cuba Destinations Feria del Libro Mobile Public History Programming Random No Responses

“Race, culture and identity: racist buffoonery as entertainment at La Feria del Libro”

by C. Wiatta Freeman.

I was in the process of working on my blog entry about race, culture and identity when I witnessed someone dancing in a costume that caricatures Black women. This occurred while I was picking up something to eat from one of the food stands at La Feria.  As the photos show, the entertainer was wearing a costume depicting a very dark-skinned woman with large, thick red lips, bug eyes, and a voluptuously exaggerated derrière. Check the name on his shirt, apparently he is sponsored by the beer company, Bucanero.

 

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

To further add to the irony, the entertainer was a Black male with African features.  

 

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

 

The whole thing was even more bizarre as he took a break to stop at a food stand and I photographed him without the large head portion of his costume, revealing his face. 

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

When he noticed this, he motioned for me to wait, and soon after, put the costume head back on and proudly posed for me.

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After I photographed him with his hand proudly on his exaggeratedly wide hips, he stopped to ask me, where I am from. Then he touched my locs and said in English with a strong Cuban accent “you are beautiful, so beautiful, I love you.” 

The irony of him telling me that I was beautiful while making a mockery of the physical features of women of African descent was not lost on me.  I also thought particularly about the Black girls and women witnessing his spectacle that reinforces internalized racism and self-hate about African physical attributes.

 

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Further ironic was the fact that I saw several Black women and girls among the people laughing and talking with the entertainer during his performance.  I included a third picture of a Black couple who were watching, but looked unamused.

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

I appreciated the visual contrast with the sister dressed in Ocha regalia, clothing and jewelry, as a marked contrast in Afro-Cuban expression to that being depicted by the buffoonery.

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

The informal performance reminded me of the U.S. history of minstrel and blackface entertainment, and the abuse of Saartjie Baartman the early nineteenth century South African woman who was kidnapped, exploited and exhibited as a curious spectacle in public forums around England and France from 1819 when she arrived in Europe, until her early death in 1824.  It also reminds me of the debate in the U.S. about contemporary Black entertainment with African-American men dressed in drag doing exaggerated portrayals of Black women and whether that is insulting to both (e.g. Tyler Perry’s “Medea” and Martin Lawrence “Shanaynay” TV/film characters).

His buffoonery also reflected some of the sculptures and souvenir items that I saw in Cuban gift shops and vending stands, displaying such exaggerated African features, and portraying Black people in stereotypical servant or entertainer roles.

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Some argue that African peoples should not be overly sensitive and should be able to laugh at ourselves.  To those who see it as just good-natured humor and entertainment, I ask them to reflect on why that similar caricature and buffoonery of women of European descent does not exist.  I also ask us to consider why we would re-create images historically used to justify white supremacy for entertainment that does not challenge the racism. 

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

These photos are symbolic responses to the question of whether there is racism in Cuba. Clearly, as African peoples in Cuba have told me, there is still work to be done to eradicate racism from hearts and minds.  

*Editor’s Note: For many members of  the Pan African Diaspora World, progress will be satisfactorily met in the 21st century when the caricatures of African faces cease to be used to promote, advertise and sell, chocolate, coffee, cigars, spirited beverages and the promise of sultry holiday vacation excursions in warm exotic destinations. Yes there is much work to be done.

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman

Photo credit: C. Wiatta Freeman