In Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898, Ada Ferrer describes a nationalist revolutionary process in late Nineteenth Century Cuba that created new subject positions for African descended Cubans, enslaved and free, which in turn threatened the symbolic order such that social relations formed under a slave-society regime exercised a counter pressure that frustrated the most liberatory practices of the independence struggle. The threat to the social order in Cuba following the 1868 declaration of the independence struggle resulted in a propaganda offensive from the Spanish colonial government that initially succeeded by invoking the modern colonial symbolic order through the accusation of “race war”. The partnering of independence and emancipation first articulated by Carlos Manuel De Cespedes in 1868 produced a tension between what a Cuban nationality could mean in the face of a freed and armed Black population and a Hispano-Catholic cultural hegemony. The power of the symbolic order emerges always and already asserting itself under any historical condition. Defined as language, the attempt to describe and assign meaning to the experience of “the real,” and enacted through the formal and informal uses of language by institutions and individuals, people perform the symbolic order through custom and habit. We reproduce the symbolic order through law, education, commerce, customary behaviors, and the myriad conscious and unconscious retellings of the “…legends, stories, history, and above all historicity” (Fanon 112) that inhabit our understanding of how the world does and “should” work. The symbolic exerts a policing action on worldview, placing boundaries on what should be imagined. In other words, the symbolic order is the ideological ground upon which the subject figure acts.
The symbolic order under the regime of modern colonialism and slavery has posited the ontological difficulty of “blackness.” Blackness, as a human condition, has been constructed as a sign of both the absence and the negation of civilization. Indeed, the possibility of human blackness has even been brought into question as Western intellectuals have for centuries now seriously debated whether black peoples are members of the human species, or to what degree black people may be humans. Whereas the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century bourgeois revolutions of the Americas and Europe reformed the Western symbolic relationship among social classes, raising the citizen-subject to ontological equality with the traditional nobility, introducing new behaviors and new explanations for those behaviors, black revolutionary struggle, as in Haiti, threatens to overturn the symbolic order more fundamentally, that is, from its foundation. For example, in response to the colonial state invoking “race war” as the proper representation of the independence struggle, Cuban nationalists of the 1880s and 1890s invoked a policy of “racelessness.” The nationalists invented racelessness specifically to erase the blackness of the independence struggle while avoiding an open appeal to whiteness. But racelessness, as Ada Ferrer shows, means different things from different subject positions. An attempt to shift the terrain of the symbolic, “racelessness” remains trapped in the language of race and the practice of white privilege, thus reproducing the ruling ideology.
Another aspect of the symbolic order, gender, also complicates the meaning of independence and national character. In their own representation of the emerging Cuban nation, the Cuban nationalists of the late Nineteenth Century constructed an emphatically masculine image of the nation. Governance remained the domain of men, black and/or white, those who through their struggle and sacrifice made independence possible. The nationalist writers erase the contributions of women, without whom the war for independence could not succeed. They erase the women from their representations of the struggle, thus excluding women from the public sphere of an independent Cuba. On the gender question, the rebel army and nationalist intellectuals reproduced the symbolic order apparently without question, and this was despite the very active cadres of women forming revolutionary clubs, support committees and raising funds for the fight as Nancy Mirabal describes in “No Country but the One We Must Fight For” (62). These tensions produced by challenges to the symbolic order and recourses to the symbolic order coalesce in the court martial of Quintin Bandera, a successful Black general of the rebel army, discussed below.
Struggle transforms. When Carlos Manuel De Cespedes freed his slaves, declared them co-citizens and exhorted them to join him and other Cuban patriots in an armed struggle against the Spanish colonizer, he invited those African men into new subject positions, namely into a new claim to a Black subjectivity in the public sphere. The call to independence and emancipation, the two being constructed as necessary for the realization of each other, and the call for African men to participate in the practice of independence and emancipation, created a sanctioned public space for Black subjectivity within a symbolic order that denies or at best doubts the possibility of a public Black subjectivity. The Black body is already marked as an object, the body par excellence, if not exclusively, that can be enslaved. The constructed pre-condition of the enslaved/enslaveable Black body made the certificate of freedom necessary for free Africans in slave societies, the authority of the master represented through the law embodied in the text of the certificate, here invoked to supersede the symbolic order of custom. Unlike the unsanctioned public subjectivity of the maroon communities, the palenques, De Cespedes’ call to revolution and emancipation constructed Black armed resistance as a creative force in the forging of the nation, rather than the destructive element preventing the emergence of the nation. It was after all, Ferrer reports, the prominent African descent population that allowed Spain to represent Cuba as incapable of nationhood because the nation would be a Black nation, another Haiti, in a sense an anti-nation. I will return to this subject below.
African men expressed their new subject positions through new and open challenges to traditional social relations during the independence war. Ferrer offers the example of Emeterio Palacios, a free black tobacco worker from Santiago who was detained by the Spanish authorities for suspicion of supporting the rebel cause. What is of significant interest in his case has less to do with his actual or perceived support of the rebels, but rather with the manner in which he (allegedly) greeted a white man familiarly in a café. Ferrer reports Palacios as having withheld the honorific title Don from the white man, D. Jose Gilli, and instead calling Gilli ciudadanito [little citizen]: “Palacios thus not only denied him the don to address him as “citizen” and therefore as an equal, but he also opted for the diminutive form of the word, much in the same manner that non-blacks often addressed blacks as negrito” (41). Palacios’s familiarity was taken as a threat to public order of the same high order as any possible rebel activity. Indeed, they are of a piece, the leveling of social relations both through race, class, and the claim to citizenship.
Again, Ferrer offers Antonio Maceo as an illuminating example of the challenge to the symbolic order expressed through traditional social relations. When the Spanish commander Martinez Campos approached Maceo to bring him into the Pact of Zanjon, which inscribed the negotiated surrender of the Cuban rebels after ten years of war, Maceo, having already assumed a position in the symbolic order denied to him on at least two counts as colonial subject and a mulato, that of an honorable man, he also challenged Spain’s claim to being a civilized nation, equating civilization and progress with full emancipation and social equality. As long as Spain was a slave owning empire, which is to say an empire at all, colonialism being a species of slavery, the colonial state could not be characterized as civilized. Maceo turns the colonial symbolic order on its head (66).
Nonetheless, the symbolic order is resilient and adaptable. It frames the ideology of a culture and gives shape to the content of that ideology, reproducing the ideology through the embodied actions of people, including those cultural acts like speech acts or the exercise of politeness or courtesy. Even in the execution of the war, the tension created by the challenge to the symbolic order reveals the difficulty with which those invested in the maintenance of the order attempt to reproduce traditional social relations. Insurgent white officer Ignacio Mora’s specific criticisms about the transfer of power from the white Cuban Ignacio Agramonte to the black Dominican Maximo Gomez betray a cultural-racial-national anxiety. Ferrer reproduces this passage from his war diary:
“If [Gomez] has not destroyed the Camaguey division and converted it into bands, it is because its officer corps, formed by Agramonte, still remember the maxims and rules of their old leader. How jarring it is to see today’s camps! The noise, the gambling [el juego], the shooting of cattle, the tango of the blacks, the wild parties, and the filth of these camps warn us that their leader completed his apprenticeship in Santo Domingo. Everything reveals his poor upbringing and the society from which he comes.” (52)
Mora clearly experienced anxiety over the shifting cultural forms of recreation in the camps. War had been conducted as a “gentlemen’s” endeavor for centuries, reproducing the class structure of civilian society. His comments replicate the myths, stories and legends that cast African cultural forms as inherently immoral and antithetical to “the love of discipline, order, or morality” (52). Even his reference to “bands” may allude to unease with a shift to guerrilla tactics by Gomez. The culture of war came into tension with the shifting subjectivities that the rupture of the independence war allowed to emerge.
Under the modern colonial condition of white supremacy, the black body represents a troubling presence. The symbolic order under white supremacist colonialism demands that blackness, however widely or narrowly represented, to be defined as a problem. Thus, the pressure exerted by the hegemonic symbolic order rendered the notion of an African Cuba, another Haiti, unthinkable except as a nightmare by slave societies and their neo-slavery arrangements following emancipation throughout the Americas in the Nineteenth Century. Colonial Spain could therefore easily employ a propaganda war to exploit the fear of race war and the anxiety produced in the rebel camps by the darkening of the ranks and the officer corps. Mora, cited above, was not among those rebels who surrendered to Spain in 1871, but he agreed with those who surrendered that the “problem” with the rebel army, the reason for its de-moralization, could be found in its increasingly African descended character. Elite men asserted the old class hierarchies and racial hierarchies within the rebel army, and these assertions crashed against the new public faces of African men, Cuban citizens and patriots making claims to equality through shared armed struggle and the embrace of the values of the French Revolution: Liberte’, Egalite’, Fraternite’.
The representation of the independence struggle as a race war effectively demoralized white Cuban support for the war both within the rebel army and among the civilian population. To combat claims of race war by Blacks against whites during the period between La Guerra Chiquita and the final war for independence, 1880 to 1895, the Cuban nationalists on the island and in exile reconstructed the war under the rubric of racelessness. But racelessness is a tricky proposition. It remains within the semantic field of race language. The appeal to racelessness in the hands and from the pens of the most sympathetic of white Cubans could not transcend the “problem” of blackness. Racelessness as a position was necessary because the racist anxieties of the white population needed to be assuaged. In this way, racelessness reinforced a Eurocentric premise: the opinions and attitudes that mattered most were the opinions, fears and attitudes of whites, not blacks. Ferrer explains that the whitening of Cuba through increased Spanish immigration in the period helped the nationalists in this reconstruction of the discourse of the Ten Years’ War. Indeed, throughout Latin America, ruling elites encouraged and facilitated European immigration in order to whiten the overwhelmingly Mestizo/Mulato populations.
Even as the final war in the 1890s drew to a close, and before the United States’ intervention, another sort of whitening occurred with the moving of white Cubans, many late comers to the struggle, into the military administrative positions that would eventually become the local governance, and thus limited or eliminated the possibility of black leadership in the future civilian administration of the nation. Suitability for leadership became associated with “refinement” and “civility” and education, traits preconceived as nearly impossible in the black individual and monopolized by elite families. Consistent with early Spanish colonial policy regarding gentes de razon or “persons of reason,” namely those conversant in the Spanish language, the sign of a rational mind, the turn to refinement as the mark of suitability for leadership again reproduced the lie that on the one hand equates progress, modernity and civilization with European history and culture, and on the other alienates Spain’s (and other European and settler colonialists’) colonial subjects from their own histories and cultures in antagonistic relation to Europe and whiteness. Black majority threatens white existence and thus must remain controlled.
In contrast, in the hands and from the pens of black Cuban nationalists, the appeal to racelessness was an appeal to the democratic and egalitarian principles of the independence struggle. It should have meant the removal of traditional barriers to advancement or access to power. When it did not mean that, but instead denied access to African descended persons or facilitated the advancement of white individuals in order to remove the suggestion of favoritism toward blacks and mulattos, and thus remove charges of race war like those routinely aimed at Maceo, black Cuban intellectuals decried the practice as fundamentally treasonous, betraying the very ideals upon which the struggle was launched by Manuel de Cespedes in 1868, indeed antithetical to slogan of the French Revolution used freely by the Cubans: liberty, equality, fraternity.
Ferrer effectively demonstrates this in her comparative analysis of the writings of Juan Gualberto Gomez, a mulatto journalist, and Cuban patriot Jose Marti. Once again betraying the anxiety producing presence of the black body, the black insurgent was a prominent figure for reconstruction. Whereas the white reading audience needed to be reassured of the fidelity and even passivity of the black insurgent, grateful and deferential under arms, black and mulatto writers writing for a black press championed the black insurgents’ dedication to Cuban nationality, gratitude for the independence struggle that led to the end of slavery, but also the reminder of the nation’s debt of gratitude to the black insurgents. Black and white Cuban nationalists both represented race war waged by blacks against whites as unthinkable and the accusation as slanderous.
Finally, Ferrer effectively raises the problematic of gender in the representations of the independence struggle. The Cuban independence writers constructed a singularly masculine image of the nation. The descriptions of men, black and white, struggling as brothers in arms, suffering the hardships of camp life and war, dying in each other’s arms and carrying each other’s wounded bodies placed a claim on the public sphere of the emerging nation. These writers constructed the nation as the creation of modern Cuban men inventing a new kind of brotherhood in the world. This representation is, of course, a fiction. Ferrer mentions the participation of mambisas, Cuban women who fought in battle with the men (174). Susan D. Greenbaum discusses Paulina Pedroso, a black Cuban woman living in Tampa, Florida, during the independence struggle who among other activities organized locally in support of independence (53). Mirabal reports on organizations founded by Cuban and Puerto Rican women in support of the independence struggle when they were barred from joining the male revolutionary clubs formed by the exile communities in North America, organizations like La Hijas de Cuba that challenged the hegemony of all-male groups like Junta Revolucionaria de Cuba y Puerto Rico (62). Nonetheless, the masculinist language of the independence movements constrained access to power for women engaged in the struggle: “They remained, despite their efforts and relative power, outside of the decision-making body of what was quickly becoming the main exile nationalist organization, the PRC [Partido Revolucionario Cubano] (64). This masculinist discourse of nation doubly erased the contributions of African descended Cuban women.
Like the black presence, and with its own body of myths, stories, legends, histories and historicities, the female presence is also troubling in the masculinist symbolic order of patriarchal culture. To return to a point introduced above, Ferrer’s discussion of the court martial of Quintin Bandera focuses on the cultural differences that emerged in the accusations against him, namely his openness about his fraternization with women in the camp, even though what he was accused of was a widespread practice throughout the rebel army, if done under cover of dark, as it were. Among other things, the morality of his camp was impugned because of the presence of his female partner and those of his men in the camp, rather than at a remove as was the custom.
A “rustic” man, Bandera’s manner clashed with the expectations of the more “refined” Cuban leadership. Bandera broke with the expectations and the representation of the rebel camp as an exclusively masculine space. The broader, more inclusive and accurate model for the nation could have been taken from Bandera’s example, except that it too deeply upset the symbolic order that had been inscribed regarding the makers of the nation. I even wonder to what degree Bandera and the men and women in his army may have been conducting the practice of war in a maroon manner. That is mere speculation. But I am fascinated by the suggestion.
Ferrer’s use of the war diaries and memoirs of the rebels provide an illuminating view into the ways in which political and social struggle transforms social relations and public subjectivities. The African descended men (and women) who participated in this struggle in the thousands on the one hand seized upon this opportunity to abolish the slave society that held many of them and/or their family members as chattel, and on the other hand to participate in the forging of a new, independent modern nation, one that would owe them loyalty and gratitude for their service. Ferrer’s examination of the independence writers also offers another example the role of a discourse of nationalism and the press in inventing the nation. Nonetheless, the racialized symbolic order of modernity (re)imposed itself upon the Cuban struggle for independence, highlighting the difficulty involved in dismantling systems of hierarchy and oppression, however necessary the work, something to which contemporary Revolutionary Cuba attended early in its process when Fidel claimed African blood flowing freely through Cuban veins as constitutive of Cuban identity (qtd. in Cole 77). Revolutionary Cuba acted upon this heritage through internationalist solidarity with liberation and revolutionary movements and nations in Africa and the Africa Diaspora. Whereas Revolutionary Cuba has also inherited and promoted its own version of racelessness, and despite lingering racists attitudes and assumptions in Cuba, the revolution has at least seriously attempted to reconcile the African character of Cuban history, culture and genealogy with a contemporary Cuban national identity, another form of challenge to the modern symbolic order. Read Ada Ferrer’s Insurgent Cuba. She provides valuable lessons for us as some of us continue to work for a free world, for genuine African liberation.
Castro, Fidel. “We Stand with the People of Africa.” Venceremos Brigade Pamphlet. 1976. Quoted in “Afro-American Solidarity with Cuba. Johnetta B. Cole. The Black Scholar: Report from Cuba. Summer 1977.
Greenbaum, Susan D. “Afro-Cubans in Tampa.” The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Eds. Miriam Jimenez Roman and Juan Flores. Duke University Press: Durham, 2010. Pp. 51-61.
Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. Grove Press: New York, 1967. Pp. 109-140.
Ferrer, Ada. Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1999.
Mirabal, Nancy, Raquel. “No Country but the One We Fight For: The Emergence of an Antillean Nation and Community in New York City, 1860-1901.” Mambo Montage. Eds. Agustin Lao-Montes and Arlene Davila. Columbia University Press: New York, 2001. Pp. 57-72.