An American in Cuba

VISITING CUBA last week for the first time, I immediately noticed something both startling and reassuring: Just about everyone looks like me.

People are black. And black in an American way, with a range of skin color and features and that I see every day from Leimert Park to Compton. I know folks like these, have family like them. Ninety miles offshore from my native country, I am home.

But I am not. People of color here identify first with their country, not with their race; Cuba and the state of its revolucion are a discussion everyone has in common. Before this trip, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, I read about this nationalism and admired it. But it was difficult to believe.

Surely, my American consciousness told me, race trumps everything -- undermines the best political intentions the world over. The racial situation in Cuba, I expected, would be no different, or not different enough, from the hard lines of racial separatism that still define the U.S. I was ready to embrace my suffering brethren -- give them the benefit of my experience.


They didn’t need me to. Race in Cuba is different, though hardly in the way I expected. People I met did tend to talk ideology first, but it was more mundane things that stood out: the casual, confident way people walked and talked, the lack of tension in the streets (which also lacked decent cars and were lined with decrepit buildings). Where I saw ghettos, Cubans simply saw the places they had always lived, a byproduct of a 50-year social experiment that had worked in their favor. They had literacy and life expectancy and college attendance rates on a par with, if not greater than, those in the U.S.

Despite the grim visuals, in other words, some crucial things worked for them. It struck me that in the U.S., blacks often have great visuals -- a nice car, clothes -- but the crucial things are still missing. Cuba struggles, but with a payoff and with a sense that everyone struggles together. In the U.S., for all our talk of diversity, we struggle apart. And blacks struggle apart most of all.

Yet color does matter here; a common history of slavery assures that. Digna Castaneda, a diminutive, decidedly black woman who teaches history at the University of Havana, said both countries have the infamous one-drop rule, though it is differently applied. “In the U.S., one drop of black blood makes you black,” she explained. “But here in Cuba, it’s the reverse -- one drop of white blood makes you white.”

Which is to say, people with any bit of black ancestry like to identify themselves as white or mulatto, not black. This color aversion is awfully familiar to me. But Cuba’s law is that there is no institutional racism. It is officially and culturally a mestizo nation. Still, I wonder: Where do they draw the line between mulatto and black? At what point is whiteness undetectable and blackness inarguable? And who draws that line?

Our tour guide, Abel, was young, stern looking and wiry. He looked black. He said he was, but his ID card said mulatto. Another guide and fellow journalist, Alicia, looked similarly black; she also considered herself mulatto. When I suggested that dark-skinned people have it worst here, she didn’t disagree. But when I criticized the dolls with big lips and black skin that populate the souvenir stands, she shrugged. “They’re just funny to us,” she said.

Funny? I’m not sure if that’s denial or liberation. I think it’s the first, but I can’t transcend the American paradigm in order to know. What I know for certain is that even in a mestizo society, it’s clearly better to be mestizo than not. Though it may not have the same effect, the racial math here is calculated the same way it is at home.

It’s an uneasy kind of solidarity, not the sort I was expecting. Not surprisingly, I was mistaken for Cuban more than once. “You look Cuban,” people told me. I felt for a fleeting moment the thrill of nationalism that I’d never quite known. Wrong country, though. “You look American” -- I’m still waiting for that one.