By Skylar Mitchell, C’2019
When I think about Cuba, I think about music. During the Spelman College education department’s global exchange trip recently, we had an opportunity to analyze the country’s education system, but it seemed as if all of our stops were accented with the sounds of rumba, mambo, jazz and the other styles that comprise Cuban culture. Each day, we saw different forms of artistic expression portraying Cuba in a light radically different from the one often shown to American students.
In high school, I was taught that Cuba was a Communist and “third-world” country. Both statuses were meant as insults based on Westernized convention on development. Not only was the Caribbean island “politically and economically backwards,” I was told, but they were a hostile enemy to the United States. When reflecting on these type of perceptions now, I realize they clearly sound biased. However, it was not until I was able to visit Cuba for myself that I realized the extent of my false impressions.
Growing up, PowerPoint presentations shown in my history classes described the events of the Bay of Pigs, Castro’s alliance with the USSR, and even the continuing protection of wanted American revolutionary Assata Shakur. However, the justification behind the continuation of our Cold War was not as clear. Nor was any further detail about Cuba’s history separate from the United States. Although former President Barack Obama announced a beginning to normalized relations, Congress has yet to approve an end to the embargo. In a recent United Nations vote, the United States and Israel abstained from a vote to finally condemn the transnational enmity.
Gaining an Appreciation for a Country and its Leader
Clearly, there is a lot of information about Cuban culture that is lost in the shuffle of its political history — a history that is not always portrayed fairly. To hear our hosts tell it, Fidel Castro was a vocal ally to marginalized groups worldwide. His support of pro-Black revolutionaries such as the Black Panthers and the 100 percent literacy rate he achieved post-revolution were among the many parts in Cuban history often excluded from American syllabi.
In the month following his death at the age of ninety, the nation he left behind still remembers this legacy. We arrived in Cuba just as the country finished their nine days of mourning for their leader, and the sadness was still very tangible.
At one point, our guide from the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples wept as she discussed her love of her nation’s principles. “Equity, justice, and education. These are the values for which Cuba stands,” we were told. Although this view may differ from those of Cuban Americans less than 100 miles away, citizens’ views of their deceased leader were overwhelmingly positive — at least during our Spelman travel experience.
Connecting Art, Music, Politics and Power
Many tributes in Castro’s honor were expressed through song. While visiting Todos las Manos Community project, an organization dedicated to artistic community outreach, we were serenaded with a nationalist song espousing the joys of Cuban life. Several songs were poems written by AfroCuban poet laureate Nicholás Guillén and set beautifully to the music of guitars and maracas.
Cuban art and the revolutionary ideals for which the country stands are inseparable. In the name of preserving AfroCuban traditions, rumba, son, and mambo are upheld as some of the nation’s primary genres. These styles were birthed by Cuba’s Black population, which at the height of the slave trade was second only to Brazil because Cuba was the largest and most profitable sugar cane colony importing enslaved African people at astronomical rates.
During the Revolution, Fidel Castro openly discussed the country’s history of bondage and called for the liberation of Black people worldwide. Cuba became an ally to decolonizing African states and suppressed groups throughout the African Diaspora. Understandably so, then, Cuban music has deep roots in African rhythm. in fact, during our trip, we learned that Yoruba spirituality is expressed through music and dance rituals.
I believe the intensity of Cuban Afrocentricity reveals how the country — which we have been given limited access for years — is actually among the world’s few safe spaces for Black students. I am excited to see more and more Spelman women visit and see how closely linked our ancestries are.
Study Trip to Cuba
The 2016 trip outlined above was Spelman’s second faculty-led study trip to Havana, Cuba. Sponsored by the Education Department, the academic tour is in support of the College’s Quality Enhancement Plan, which is designed to enhance student learning with global travel experiences. The Spelman group was guided by Global Exchange, an international human rights organization that promotes social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Andrea Lewis, Ph.D., assistant professor and chair of the Education Department, directs the Cuba initiative. The trip complements the EDU 222 Global Education course, which examines the historical, cultural, economic, sociological, philosophical, and political understandings of schooling and education from a global perspective.