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Between A Rock & A Hard Place: Reflections on Cuba

Pastors for peace delegation in Cuba

My body has been back in the United States of Amerikkka for three days, but it’s a shell housing a consciousness forever stuck there and then with them. Perhaps it’s a “blackened” consciousness, forever outside of time and place, which would explain why it feels like I’m out of time; matters are urgent. After being in Cuba, time, itself, passes differently—somehow slower yet faster, a cautious drag and then a rushed pull like a tug of war. Time now skips past me with its tongue stuck out and hands wagging at its ears like a teasing bully. I trace its movement with my soggy, sagging eyes and soon grow dizzy, realizing it’s running circles around me. I’m the needle and it is the groove. We turn and turn and turn until…

words are barriers
between flesh seeking touch
rupturing air with palms striking
taught-faced drums     skin on 
skin on ears on bobbing heads
on swaying shoulders on circling
hips on ten toes tapping through
their soles

For many in the United States of Amerikkka, Cuba is shrouded in mythologies whose sources are myths themselves. That is, Amerikkka is a “material myth” generating narratives to secure its own reality, to mandate its own existence by manifesting its fraudulent destiny. We’re always told that words cannot break bones, but they certainly can break up families. Take, for instance, Operation Pedro Pan, a propaganda campaign instituted by the US following the Cuban Revolution in which fourteen thousand Cuban children were wrangled up and sent stateside. Cuban parents were encouraged to collaborate with the Catholic Church in evading an ally of revolutionary Cuba: the “child-eating” Soviet Union. US propaganda manufactured fears among Cubans that their children would soon be taken and churned into cans of meat by Russians. Jeff Bezos’ father was one of these children snatched from his family, which makes quite the intergalactic villain origin story that we see unfolding today.

To be fair, Amerikkan mythologies are rooted in truth and previous historical occurrences. It is true that at one point US labor laws were so exploitative that children worked the front lines of the meat packing industry, working machinery hungry for their limbs. There’s no telling how many children were consumed in the United States, their fingers and arms feeding this bloodthirsty empire. This is a history the US cannot contend with internally because it would shatter too many “truths,” which are nothing more than falsities enforced by the gun. The largest Amerikkkan exports are violence and mythology, each working in tandem to coerce domestically and terrorize internationally (and domestically to internal enemies) to impose a world ordering system in which black people remain on the lowest rung wherever their bare feet touch soil. In the beginning there was blackness, and blackness is what signals the end of empire if only it can be allowed the capacity to touch. Its touch—our touch—has the latent ability to obliterate the current arrangements of our constricted and restrictive being.

When I first arrived to Cuba I was hesitant of its relationship to blackness. Everywhere in the world it seems, there is visible anti-blackness even if it is disavowed to allow the myth of a national unity. My first question to black Cubans was often “so what’s really going on here?” And I was met with the truth, anti-blackness does exist. Black hair is still disparaged, black skin is still feared on the streets, adverse opinions on black existence still linger. More than a few times I heard that there is no end of anti-blackness in sight, a claim that begins to dispel another myth of the supposed US-centricity of a field of thinking termed “Afro-pessmism.” 

The difference in Cuba, however, is that anti-blackness is illegal. The governmental structure, itself, forbids it even if performances within the structure do not conform. Sylvia Wynter writes of our “opiate reward system” through which we receive embodied encouragement and are made to feel good for reinforcing the (anti-black) symbolic system we are born into. At the level of structure, however, Cuba is attempting to overturn this white-over-black world order—a Sisyphean task. So, when I speak about anti-blackness in a US capitalist context, I mean something different from the revolutionary socialist Cuban context. “Representation” does not have the same implications in Cuba as it does in the US. This is clear when we consider the way critiques of racism in Cuba are taken up in the US by pro-Amerikkkan forces to undermine the revolution and create internal strife, creating a rock and hard place for black Cubans who are, at times, forced to choose between nation and race. Their response? Something akin to “focus on your anti-blackness at home and we’ll focus on ours.” Fair. When I asked one of the art educators we met about her opinion on Cuban artists critiquing Cuban racism from outside of the country she quipped something akin to “Why are you even talking about Cuba if you aren’t here?” sparking chuckles amongst the room. Truly, if you are not interested in the revolutionary project, what is your aim in critiquing it beyond attempting to destroy it?

Cuban attempts at black solidarity are not only internal, but also external, as Cuba’s track record with black nations is impressive, often placing itself on the side of African and Caribbean nations. It sends doctors to the continent in times of major pandemics, providing much needed assistance that neo-colonialism robs these “sovereign” nations of. During COVID-19, Cuba has managed to produce five different vaccines and, again, attempted to provide foreign aid. The issue? Imperialist Amerikkka bullied syringe manufacturing companies into not selling to Cuba, preventing black people from getting assistance across the globe. Wherever tough decisions regarding material resource allocation must be made, the symbolic re-inforces its hold, solidifying the white-over-black relation within and without Cuba. Therefore, we can conceptualize violent US foreign policy against Cuba such as the US-imposed blockade as anti-black because it exacerbates anti-blackness. Imperialism is anti-black.

This may seem like a stretch, but given the knee-jerk reaction of many white non-Cuban Americans (as well as white Cubans) to Cuba, something seems to remain in the collective memory—even if unspoken. The request of many of my friends when I first told them I’d be traveling to Cuba was “tell Assata what’s up.” Oh yeah I forgot—I would be walking the same ground as one of the most notorious and respected black freedom fighters to come from Amerikkka who was forced into exile after allegedly killing a cop. Again, Cuba most regularly places itself on the side of black people, including those in the United States. Black Cubans frequently assured me and my comrades that they could separate a government from its people, meaning we are American in name and perhaps in learned and unlearnable biases as a result of coercive US ideology, but not in a 1 to 1 relationship. They recognize our excess, the amount of our being that exceeds and undermines “American.” 

This explains why the center my comrades and I laid our heads every night was named after Martin Luther King, Jr., with images of him and his family welcoming our dragging feet after a night of disappointment spent waiting for food later revealed to be unavailable due to the blockade. This also explains why Mumia Abu-Jamal provides inspiration to black organizers I met. This was something I found comforting: a shared co-identification, a shared enemy, a shared orientation to, within, and against the anti-blackness of the world. This made me work even harder to exorcise myself of my Amerikkkanness, which is only natural when it is the only way of being one has known and is as natural as drinking tap water (depending on where one is in the US). But we understand our shared culture of exile. Cuba, because of its global positioning, foreign policy, economic structure, relationship to blackness, and potential to unleash the (im)possible, lives a life of exile with Amerikkka trying to starve it into submission. 

imperialism is a blockade
between flesh seeking touch
rupturing air with palms striking
taught-faced drums     skin on 
skin on ears on bobbing heads
on swaying shoulders on circling
hips on ten toes tapping through
their soles

I think black culture is a culture of touch; it cultivates a desire to touch and to be touched. There is something erotic to it, but in the way that Audre Lorde emphasizes that the erotic exceeds the sexual. The erotic is not relegated to our bedrooms, though this is certainly another place it often resides (and yet often doesn’t). The erotic is an ongoing emergence in which minds sink and unfolding bodies shrink before another in the company of an unseeable Other. Our respective bodies take in the force that most often offers us glimpses of its existence behind our eyes and on the tips of our fingers. We hold it together, like it’s always been this way—even if it hasn’t. The erotic is collaboration. The erotic is a conspiracy—feared not for its own sake but because of what it can do and undo. The erotic can create such ecstasy that one will do anything for it, and in that ecstasy one gets a peek at what might be the closest thing to God—nothing—which is to say everything. In that moment of ecstasy everything goes black, everything is black, and the night doesn’t end. 

Black culture is one that exists within the context of exile. It rests in the unseen because it is unsightly and thus, subjected to unquantifiable repression. The moment it is sighted we should fear because if the World is a swarm of flies then black culture is the finest honey in all the lands; and my grandma always told me that honey catches more flies than vinegar. So, if the World flocks to anything in particular that is black, we have to ask what makes it so sweet? Is it being robbed of something upon its entrance onto the world stage? Is it being stripped of its tactility, defanged in the process?…But this is an aside. 

While visiting a performing arts school in Matanzas, I was reminded of the essential nature of black music that seems to transcend geography and time. My comrades and I sat in the audience of a small, humble auditorium. The first performer stepped from behind the curtain and took her place at the concert piano on stage. My eyes traced the room, taking in the sights of a Cuban high school. It was very…normal. I didn’t expect it to be anything else but, again, given the propaganda we’ve been fed its mundanity was noteworthy. Snatched, then, was my attention by notes ringing from the piano, vibrations colliding with my inner ear. This girl aged no more than fifteen or sixteen daintily lifted her arms before pounding the keys with her heavy fingers, losing herself in a cycle of motion she’s clearly found herself in multiple times before. A quartet of four children followed her. None of them seemed that impressive visually; they were all built slim, appeared unassuming and, again, just looked like regular kids—acne and all. But when they opened their mouths in their initial wail, my body flinched like it had been struck. This pattern would continue for the rest of the time we spent in that auditorium being “imbued with [a] funk” that could make walls weep and hairs stand. Another young black boy came forward for his solo on the cello. He looked like he could be my cousin, or a student of mine. He closed his eyes and felt his way around his instrument, exuding a confidence that was damn near palpable. He knew he was a baaaaad motherfucker and he was simply allowing us knowledge of this fact. I respect it. His body moved in waves, ebbing and flowing in sync with his bow across the cello strings. What did he feel? How does it feel to be so thoroughly swept into an action that brings such comfort, even as he’s perpetually surrounded by the effects of aggression from an imperialist nation hell-bent on preventing these moments of self-intimacy. Indeed, the US blockade makes it nearly impossible to get new instruments for students, particularly after they’ve graduated. What is the Amerikkka afraid of? In these types of moments of self-reflection that these children performed, we might stumble upon those things that haunt us deep within our unconscious mind. In these depths we might find a potential space for exploration with implications that linger after we’ve consciously re-entered the world. Not only might we discover how we truly feel but also how we feel about how we feel, a dangerous proposition for a world reliant upon our divorce from our own bodily sensations and reflexivity. On the contrary, this type of thinking/feeling is encouraged—if not mandated—in Cuba.

We then moved from Western music to rhythms brought from and inspired by the continent. A troupe of young black and brown girls strolled in from the auditorium side door, drums in hand and took their seats. The bassist began her plucking, setting a foundation as solid as her straightbacks for the drummers to layer on top of. This is the period of the performance I have the least footage of and remember only faintly. I was more concerned with allowing my body to experience this moment in its fullness. I leaned forward in my seat, my shoulders bounced subtly until it wasn’t so subtle any more. With the encouragement of our Cuban guide and friend, Carmen, I found my way to the front of the auditorium, but not before tapping friends to come with me. In several moments, with closed eyes, I asked myself, “Is this the moment I lose it?” as my vision became more and more black. In the end, I didn’t allow myself to go all the there, simply because I didn’t know when I would return and we had many more activities for the day. 

Christina Sharpe writes that the weather is the total climate, and that the climate is anti-black. Anti-blackness is the air that we breathe with its spores clogging our lungs. With the blockade and terrorism the US has subjected Cuba to, it attempts to export this externality to a country it previously considered its playground when under capitalist reign. There’s bitterness in the Amerikkkan cough, trying to increase the viral count of anti-blackness in Cuba by creating conditions ripe for its proliferation. Like COVID-19, the US prevents touch, trying to maintain that chasm between hands like The Creation of Adam. In doing so, it imposes its own touch, which can only ever be the violence of bombings, assassination attempts, and economic sanctions. We are in the midst of war, with touch oscillating between confrontational and benevolent, violent and nourishing, disembodied and intelligently erotic, between friend and foe. As a nigga in living in Amerikkka, I live amongst foes and can, thus, spot them well. And I can say there weren’t any in Cuba amongst the niggas I was fortunate to smoke a cigarette with. In their hugs, in their daps, and in their smiles I felt a warmth that challenged the Caribbean sun’s own. There’s a power they are punished for possessing but that they nonetheless continue to emit in order to continue living, struggling, and serving a source of Spirit for one another in unimaginable conditions for absurd lengths of time. But they shouldn’t have to power one another like batteries because Amerikkka prevents the egalitarian flow of energy. The same is true of us in the belly of the beast. We are running on fumes and are understandably scared of the potential violence that awaits us for attempting the impossible. But we can’t turn our cheek or effectively flee the scene of the crime. To do so is to be complicit in the death-dealing agenda of this state that does to others what it will eventually do to us if it hasn’t already. We owe it to ourselves to see beyond what our eyes can register. We owe it to one another to ask how we feel and then to ask how we feel about those feelings. We deserve the ecstasy of collectivity, of riotous touch. We deserve it all simply because we say so and we say so simply because we can.

…we lift the needle. End the blockade. End the World.


More from this Writer

zuri arman is a writer and PhD student in black studies. Their research and creative writing is currently interested in interrogating the function of religion within Western society and constructing a black philosophy of music. His work that can be found in Collision Literary Magazine, Alluvia Magazine, Rock the Bells Hip Hop Magazine, and in a forthcoming anthology on the topic of queer militance entitled Surviving the Future: Abolitionist Queer Strategies to be published by PM Press. He is also the co-founder and co-editor of (De)Cypher: Black Notes on Culture and Criticism (decypherednotes.com). arman is the descendant of sharecroppers, which informs his orientation towards his work and the world.

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