This year, the limited changes made to President Obama’s executive orders on Cuba policy made noise. Less visible were the significant migration and citizenship reforms announced by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez facilitating the return and reincorporation of exiles and expatriates, and his recent meetings with U.S. entrepreneurs and corporations invested in the island’s economic future.
As for the stirrings of independent voices and organizations, the issues pertaining to race and racism in Cuba, they are downright ignored. This is to the detriment of historic patterns of cooperation and mutual reinforcement between African-Americans and Afro-Cubans dating back to the friendship between Langston Hughes and Cuban poet laureate Nicolás Guillén. Solidarity with black movements for equality in Cuba by Arthur Schomburg, and the revolution’s support of the U.S. struggle for civil rights are noted examples.
Since 2010, several of the most prominent voices for anti-racism and independent black activism in Cuba have visited Norfolk State University: documentary filmmakers Gloria Rolando and Amilcar Ortiz; historian Tomás Fernández Robaina; LGBT activist Norma Guillard Limonta; feminist scholar Rosa Campoalegre Septién; educators and community organizers Maritza López McBean and Hildelisa Leal Díaz; and artist Salvador González Escalona, whose historic mural tribute to the African diaspora in the Americas was commissioned by the City of Petersburg for its second annual Juneteenth celebration in 2015.
This past October, I was privileged, as a professor, to represent NSU for a groundbreaking post-graduate seminar in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Latin American Council for Social Sciences (CLACSO). Students from 15 Latin American countries and the United States debated the most salient issues of black activism, equal rights and citizenship in the hemisphere. Every Cuban advocate for a public debate on the resurgence of anti-black racism since the crisis-ridden 1990s has heard of Norfolk State. Over a period of six years, more than fifty NSU students have traveled to Cuba for study abroad programs in which these issues were studied in historical and contemporary perspective.
The objectives of the CLACSO seminar were to develop quality programs of study in history, post-colonial criticism and comparative feminism from diverse black perspectives; compare and contrast academic and community-driven proposals for the advancement of equal rights in education, work, politics and society; and produce books and teaching materials advancing democratic debate and scholarly exchanges on racism and anti-racism.
Overcoming racial stereotypes and a centuries-old inheritance of discrimination and marginalization of black people in the Americas is an international undertaking. Cuba is currently a hub of contradictory debates on how the persistence of these problems should be addressed.
The conversation has generated scores of public forums, critical publications, grass-roots initiatives for institutional reform, and transnational dialogues with Cubans living in the United States,
As Virginia’s largest public HBCU, Norfolk State has a duty to capitalize on its recent presence in Cuba to internationalize its curriculum, and extend a hand to the black men and women of the Americas who face daunting obstacles in advancing their rights and promoting their achievements in the struggle for freedom.
The approaching 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in Jamestown in 1619, which has energized the Department of History and Interdisciplinary Studies in which I teach, is an opportunity to reflect on how to raise consciousness regarding the global dimensions of these endeavors.
It is vital that the African-American community of Hampton Roads be aware not just of the local and state-wide significance of this commemoration, but also of the opportunities for international awareness and cooperation across the Americas it provides.
It is not just a tangential coincidence that recent advances in the open discussion of race in Cuba have occurred with the engagement of Norfolk State scholars and students. The community must also let Norfolk State know that these initiatives contribute to constructive people-to-people exchanges.
It contributes also to the enrichment of our cultural and political repertoire of citizen involvement in the 21st century battle against the infamous color line, of which that prominent Pan-Africanist and advocate of internationalization, W.E.B. Du Bois, spoke so eloquently.
Dr. Geoffroy de Laforcade is a Professor of Latin American and Caribbean History, Norfolk State University.