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Book Excerpt: More Than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa
© 2002 by Susan D. Greenbaum
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More Than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa

© 2002, by Susan D. Greenbaum. Gainesville: University Press of Florida


Worldwide dusk of dear dark faces
Driven by an alien wind;
Scattered like seed in far off places,
Growing in soil that is strange and thin.


Langston Hughes, Black Seed, 1930
Africans forced across the ocean into new lives in the Americas faced a common ordeal with multiple pathways. Those who landed in Cuba entered a slightly different realm of oppression than Africans disembarked in Virginia or South Carolina. From these and other major ports of entry, enslaved Africans of diverse linguistic and tribal identities fanned out into the Americas and were incorporated into virtually all nations emergent on the hemisphere. In colonies controlled by competing imperial powers, within varied local ecologies, and in the context of national liberation struggles of widely different character, uprooted Africans constructed new communities and identities in the grudging soil of slavery.

This chapter is about Africans in Cuba and Florida, two career paths from among the multiple trajectories of the diaspora. These two populations, descendants of contrasting but linked systems of slavery, encountered each other in the late nineteenth century. Tampa's Afro-Cuban community was created from that meeting, forged in the common and distinctive circumstances both groups confronted over the next few generations. Shared roots in slavery and the scorn heaped on its progeny were powerful factors in the equation. It is impossible to understand Afro-Cuban identity in Tampa without taking into account African Americans who also have lived there – their parallel involvements in antislavery and antiracist struggles, the divergent fields whereon they fought and negotiated, and the ideological and institutional formations emergent from these two African American peoples.

A related purpose is to engage questions about the nature of racism, and myths of racial democracy” (Ferre 1998; de la Fuente 1999; Helg 1997; Sheriff 2000; Skidmore 1993). In comparing race relations in Latin America to conditions in the United States, the conventional wisdom 9implicitly challenged by labeling it a “myth”) has favored the former. More fluid racial categories, fewer impediments to miscegenation, and fuller incorporation into wars for national independence, it is claimed, resulted in significantly more harmonious and democratic race relations (Degler 1971; Harris 1964). Brazil, with its infinitely divisible racial spectrum, is the most frequent exemplar, but these same assertions frequently attach to discussions of race in Cuba. Claims that Cuba is/was a "racial democracy" are expressed on both ends of the political spectrum. Recent scholarship on race in Cuban history, however, disputes the validity of such claims. In particular, Helg (1995) argues that racism in Cuba was scarcely less venomous than in the United States, and that pretenses about democracy were a weapon used to smother dissent. Similar arguments have been made about Brazil (Twine1998; Sheriff 2000; Skidmore 1993)

Categorization vis-à-vis African versus European ancestry, in which a person is given one or more of a number of official and unofficial labels designating degrees of blackness, is regarded as a key variable. According to Skidmore (1993), the United States is considered the classic biracial society, where “one drop” of African blood directs assignment in the Negro category, drawing a hard boundary between white and nonwhite. Multiracial societies, where mulattos have a distinct status and multiple gradations of color may be salient, have been presented as inherently more open. They offer what Degler (1971) labeled the “mulatto escape hatch,” a way up and out for those with lighter skin.

Skidmore (1993) challenges Degler’s assumption that the existence of intermediate categories has promoted greater economic mobility among Afro-Brazilians, noting that objective data fail to support the thesis (see also Sheriff 2000; Andrews 1992). Skidmore further argues that the organizational strength mobilized by blacks in the United States, a solidarity engendered by rigid categories, was largely responsible for overturning the Jim Crow regime. In comparison, Afro-Brazilians have been less able to pursue similar strategies because they are divided against themselves in the intricate niches of a color class hierarchy. He concludes that multiracialism, with its multiple distinctions, has ironically disabling effects on the capacity to mobilize resistance. Strong organizations are difficult to achieve, and the lighter, more prosperous African descendants are prone to defection.

Public discourse and political rhetoric in Brazil also conspire against mobilizing racial discontent (Skidmore 1993; Twine 1998; Sheriff 2000). Complaints about racial discrimination are considered offensive, a calumny linking whites in Brazil with those in the United States, and a threat to national harmony. Very similar arguments have been offered about historical patterns in Cuba, where color-blindness has been a patriotic doctrine (de la Fuente 1999; Helg 1997; Ferrer 1998). Silence about race is viewed as a form of social control, a subtle hegemonic deception that enables racial inequality by pretending it does not exist. This is the “mythic” property – meaning fictitious and fraudulent – behind claims of racial democracy in Brazil and Cuba.

Has racism in Cuba been no better, and possibly worse, than that in the United States? Was polarization an unlikely ally in fashioning black resistance in the United States? If the cordiality fabricated in relations between black and white Cubans merely a masked discrimination, and did not confer real economic progress, then perhaps African Americans were better off. At least they did not have to steer a maze of hypocrisies and false promises. Segregation of blacks in the United States, it is suggested, instead fostered self-determination. Separatism, which made no distinction for degrees of blackness, structured a broad collective “race” consciousness that made the organization of resistance ultimately more successful.

This is a paradoxical conclusion. A harsher classification system in the United States engendered greater solidarity, which better enabled the oppressed to challenge the oppressor. The frame has shifted to include internal structures of self-help and organized resistance, the habitus from which action was fashioned. Have Afro-Cubans been less able to combat discrimination, because the ideology of cubanidad prevents them from organizing along racial lines, or voicing complaints about racial discrimination? In turn, what happened in Florida? Did black and brown people there band together against the extremities of Jim Crow, forming strong associations of mutual assistance and collective agitation? Are the properties attributed to the different systems of rhetoric and categories (multiracial versus biracial) actually evident in the resulting action on the ground?

African in Cuba and Florida, from the very early arrivals to the modern descendants, exemplify in concrete terms the abstract dualities of race in the Americas. A close inspection of these contrasting systems and their parallels and divergences across time helps focus the inquiry and frame theoretical questions for which there are empirical answers. How did African descendants organize and articulate their respective and varied identities? What kinds of institutions did they develop, and what did they do with them? What is the relevance of historical variables like demography, economy, and politics? Ideological themes that emerged in these respective contexts, authorized patterns of hegemonic control and violent repression, are also of interest. The relationship between silence and violence, alternative weapons for reproducing power, is set against the reciprocal contrast between acquiescence and resistance, alternative models of subaltern reaction.

Slaves and Free People of Color

Cuba and Florida are separated by ninety miles of water between Havana and Key West. Geography has drawn these two places together through time, but the space in between has large political importance. For Africans and their descendants in the nineteenth century, the differences were especially striking. Early in that period, when both were still under Spanish rule, and Florida’s population was less than 1 percent of Cuba’s, the main distinctions were between metropolis and hinterland. Later, after the United States gained possession of Florida, the contrasts were much more profound. The contest over Florida – a multilateral conflict that involved Indians and Africans in various alliances with Britain, Spain, and the United States – set the stage for a highly repressive slave regime in Florida after U.S. possession in the 1820s. This was a change from the previous conditions and different from Cuba in significant ways. Cuba also underwent substantial changes in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The rebellion in Haiti (which ended in 1804) indirectly transformed Cuba from a settler into a plantation society, greatly expanding dependence on sugar and resulting in large increases in the numbers of African slaves.

Looking north from Havana, Florida was a remote untamed territory, a long peninsula with dense palmetto and impenetrable swamps covering much of its southern extension. The principal Spanish settlements, at St. Augustine and Pensacola, were in the far northern part of the territory, deliberately within reach of Britain’s colonies in the Carolinas. Thinly populated and poorly defended, these were beleaguered outposts, especially compared with Havana, which was a major port city in the middle of the Caribbean empire.

In 1814, during the final years of Spanish control, Florida enumerated only 3,075 residents, 1,651 of whom (54 percent) were black slaves (Landers 1995:37). In that same period (1817), Cuba’s population count was 635,604, of whom 38 percent were black slaves (Martinez-Alier 1974:3). In between enslaved blacks and free whites was another category, designated free blacks; 19 percent of Cuba’s population were free people of color, compared with only 4 percent of the population in Florida. This distinction grew wider over the next several decades: in Cuba the percentage of free blacks fluctuated but was never lower than 14 percent, whereas it steadily declined in Florida, from 4 percent in 1814 to 2.4 percent in 1830, and down to less than 0.7 percent by 1860. The overall proportions of African descendants in Cuba and Florida were similar throughout this period, both places teetering on either side of a black majority.

The existence of a large cohort of free Afro-Cubans, some descended from the earliest settlers, had major implications for the structure of Cuban society and the embedded meaning of race. Similar, although contradictory, implications can be drawn from the scarcity verging on total absence of free people of color in Florida. Freedom conferred some capacity to earn wealth, gain an education, own property, and openly devise collective strategies to improve existing conditions. Free colored populations, especially in the larger towns and cities of Cuba, had sufficient size to allow the development of complex communities. They were licensed by the Crown to operate mutual aid societies, called cabildos, in which they organized religious rituals and festivities that were explicitly African. Separate militias were composed of free Afro-Cubans who carried arms and received military training. Afro-Cubans were able to enter a number of trades and occupations, and a small number were professionals or writers. In 1861, Havana alone had 37,765 free people of color (Rushing 1992:246). Occupations were listed for 6,974 adults; 4,425 (63 percent) were day laborers, but the remainder had skilled trades. Cigarmaking had the largest representation (1,611; 23 percent), more than twice as many as there were carpenters (721), the second most numerous trade.

In Florida, by contrast, fewer than a thousand free blacks were dispersed among several sections of the state, most in the vicinity of older Spanish settlements. In Pensacola, there was a group of “Creoles” (African-French-Spanish descent) predating U.S. ownership of the area. Relatively prosperous and accustomed to privileges attached to an intermediate status that disappeared, many Creoles left the state in a group in 1857 (Garvin 1967:11). For all African descendants who lived in Florida prior to U.S. occupation, life had changed dramatically. New laws greatly curtailed their rights to move about, carry arms, behave assertively, or gather in groups. Black churches were prohibited; blacks could worship in separate sections of white churches, or itinerant white preachers led them in prayer. Manumission was made extremely difficult, and free people of color were effectively barred from settling in the territory. They had no standing in court proceedings, and if convicted of a felony could be reenslaved. In all respects, they operated under severe political and economic handicaps and were in constant jeopardy of losing their freedom. Most worked as farmers or servants, although artisans of various crafts were included among Florida’s free blacks.

The greater degree of latitude granted free Afro-Cubans and their greater degree of incorporation into the mainstream economy are consistent with images of “racial democracy” in Cuba. Antebellum conditions in Florida represented the general lack of freedom attainable by free people of color in the South, the negative standard against which “democracy” is measured. In assessing life’s chances, it would seem far preferable to have been black and free in Cuba than black and free in Florida; and statistically, a black person in Cuba was far more likely to have been free. Slaves suffered in both places, especially on plantations, where conditions in Cuba were arguably no better than in Florida (Moreno-Fraginals 1987; Scott 1985; Knight 1970).

In Cuba, however, the free black population was far larger, both in proportion and absolute numbers, and their circumstances permitted institution building and the development of leadership cadres to a far greater degree. The foundation upon which subsequent civil relations were constructed in Cuba, the basis of interaction across racial boundaries, would seem to have been wider and deeper, and generative of far less antagonism, that that laid down in Florida. The existence in Cuba of intermediate categories – stepping stones that allowed those fortunately born with lighter skin to find greater degrees of acceptance, and those with talent to earn status in spite of color – appears to offer a more likely structure for the gradual elimination of racial antagonism. At least, these assumptions have constituted the prevailing logic, until recent challenges issued against the “myth of racial democracy.”

In part, the challenge is based on increasingly clear evidence that people of color in Cuba (and Brazil) have not achieved parity, and that racist beliefs have not vanished from the discourse of daily life. Rethinking also reflects critical inquiry into the meanings of race and color, the subtleties with which expanded categories also reproduce power and perpetrate white domination. Multiracial schemes, it is argued, still allocate rewards on the basis of color, idealizing whiteness and despising blackness no less than the dichotomous variety.

“Aside from using overarching classifications of negro, mulato, and blanco, (black, mulatto, and white), Cubans make further distinctions that betray a strong bias against physical features considered African-derived in favor of those of European origin. Racial terms heard in everyday conversation include mulato adelantado (evolved mulatto), used to describe light-skinned mulattoes with predominantly Caucasian features; mulato blanconazo (very white mulatto), a mulatto with so few African-derived physical features as to pass for white; a person of light skin color but overtly Negroid features; trigueno (wheat colored), a relatively light-skinned mulatto or Hispanic with pelo bueno (good hair), negro azul (blue black), a Negro so dark that skin appears to have a blue cast; and indio (Indian), a mulatto with physical features and/or skin tone that suggests descent from the island’s indigenous population” (Moore 1997:14).

Cuban racial nomenclature elaborates rather than diminishes the phenotypic traits of African ancestry, is intricately pejorative rather than generously inclusive. Woe to those with pelo malo (bad hair), or other unfortunate features that nurture hatred of self and thing African. For Afro-Cubans on the darkest end of the continuum, the fact that Cuban pardos were treated better than mulattos in the United States was of little material consequence. And for those who were lighter, even those with traces of African ancestry were barely discernible, the “stain” of slavery posed lingering disabilities. As well for those who were free during slavery, whose status in society would have been on par with other nonslaves but for the color of their skin, the mark of Africa inscribed limits. Why this obsession with blackness?

Racism, Rebellion, and Social Control

The social distinction between slave and free was mitigated by associations presumed to exist among all who share common blood. People of color never could be fully trusted. What if they sided with the slaves in a general uprising? What if they used their positions and resources to help promote, or even lead, such enterprises? Haiti, the emblem of dread for white slaveholders in the Caribbean and lower South, offered an early demonstration that such fears had substance. The specter of black rule, of ruthless reprisals and inverted power, ever agitated the anxieties of whites (Sheller 1999). In places where blacks outnumbered them, where greed had ballooned the slave population, the plantocracy looked towards Haiti as proof of the need to ensure strong control. And there were examples closer at hand that further emphasized the hazards posed by free blacks.

In 1812, a free Afro-Cuban named Aponte directed a conspiracy to overthrow the colonial government (Paquette 1988:123-25). Instigated in Havana and referred to as La Conspiracion de Aponte, this revolt spread to the eastern end of the island and posed a palpable threat very soon after the Haitian revolution. Again in 1835, free Afro-Cubans in Havana launched an abortive uprising. Nine years later (in 1844), another plot was uncovered, called the Conspiracy of the Ladder (La Escalera). This last uprising sparked massive repression against free Afro-Cubans and slaves; 1844 came to be known as the Year of the Whip (Barreda 1979:25; Paquette 1988).

Each of these incidents invited more restrictions on the lives of free people of color. Cabildos were more tightly regulated, and in the aftermath of La Escalera the colored militias were temporarily disbanded. These conspiracies indicated that a great many free Afro-Cubans linked their own interests to ending slavery, which ultimately meant ending Spanish rule. Although the Crown was doubly afraid of such prospects, the extremely large free Afro-Cuban population, most of which predated the expansion of sugar and slavery, limited options to respond. Colonial administrators experimented with combinations of seduction, repression, and ethnic divisiveness based on color, status and tribal origin. The cabildos, which will be discussed at length below, exemplify these efforts at manipulation. They also exemplify the unintended consequences that flowed from this desultory policy.

In Florida, there was far less equivocation. The U.S. incursion into Florida was part of a broad military action, led by Andrew Jackson, intended to vanquish the British, crush the last vestiges of Indian resistance in the southeast, and staunch the flow of runaway slaves across the border. Included among Jackson’s enemies in this war were more than a thousand black maroons living in Florida and allied with the Seminole Indians (Mulroy 1993; Porter 1996). Not counted by the census of 1814, these were truly free people of color who fled across the frontier into Spanish territory, often in direct association with Seminoles, who were also escaping south from Georgia and Alabama. Africans among the Seminoles were treated as a tributary group, following familiar patterns of incorporation in the Creek Confederacy, of which the Seminoles had been a part. Known as “Black Seminoles,” the Africans lived in separate villages under their own leadership, but with ties of “vassalage” to particular Seminole town chiefs (miccos) (Mulroy 1993:18). These arrangements were mutually advantageous, both economically and militarily.

When Jackson invaded Florida in 1818, the combined Seminole forces proved to be his most intractable foe. The British were routed, and the Spanish were forced to surrender their colony, but the blacks and Indians fought in the most costly and prolonged war the United States had ever waged. Black involvement was not limited to the Seminole maroons. Slaves on plantations in north and central Florida were known to have aided the rebels, hardly surprising in view of their deteriorating rights under the U.S. occupation. They, too could, and did, run away and join the Black Seminole colonies (Garvin 1967). Patterns of dissemblance emerged, in which trusted house servants and respectable free people of color feigned allegiance to the whites, while using their positions to aid African and Indian foes. At least two black scouts employed by the United States were accused, apparently with reason, of betraying the troops. One incident of presumed double agency resulted in the massacre of 105 U.S. soldiers, one of the worst losses of the war (Porter 1943). The eventual pacification of Florida established new lines of antagonism against blacks, both free and enslaved, that corresponded to their status as vanquished enemies.

The vast majority of Black Seminoles were deported at the end of the war, although some who had switched sides and fought with the United States were permitted to remain. For the most part, however, the legacy of this period resides in its subsequent repressive impact. Black Seminoles were to Florida what Aponte and La Escalera were to Cuba. Unlike the regime in Cuba, where the large size of the free Afro-Cuban population required a more negotiated solution to the dangers of future insurrection, the regime in Florida ruthlessly eradicated all vestiges of power held by free blacks. This was easily done because there were so few remaining free blacks to contend with, and the laws of the territory left them little room to maneuver. In Cuba, on the other hand, free Afro-Cubans were integrated into the society and economy to a far greater extent. Ties of patron-clientage, affection, and even kinship complicated the situation. Although free Afro-Cubans had been involved in slave revolts, there was no automatic presumption that all were disloyal to the Crown. And in any case, the Crown had other enemies among the people of Cuba. Shared propensities for insurrection nurtured alliances with white creoles who were hatching schemes of independence.

During the 1850s, a lull in both places, diametrically opposite tendencies were at work in relations between blacks and whites in Cuba and Florida. As the white people of Florida consolidated their affinity with the slave states to the north and prepared to join in secession, white creoles in Cuba were incubating their own plans to secede from Spain. In these gathering national contests, black and white Cubans were lining up together, while black and white Floridians were on opposing sides. The belligerence associated with race relations in Florida, and other parts of the U.S. South, was nurtured by mutual perceptions as enemies. Similar perceptions in colonial Cuba were greatly mitigated, although scarcely eliminated, by the pragmatic need for cordiality between black and white allies in the independence movement. These divergent tendencies arose out of intercolonial intrigues and warfare, structures of domination aimed at upholding slavery, and restive stirrings for independence and self-rule. Conditions for Africans in Cuba and Florida were shaped by larger interconnected dramas, in intelligibly different ways, but in response to the same underlying contingencies and tensions.

Slavery that excuses itself in the name of racial superiority births contradictions that cannot be easily tamed or swallowed. The very properties that make human chattel so valuable, intelligence and the capacity for coordinated effort, are the same traits that make this commodity inherently unmanageable. More slaves meant more wealth, but also greater dangers. The calculus of color and demography, in which collective fears were vitiated by individual greed, produced societies with perilously large numbers of captive humans. The end of slavery in Cuba and Florida was hastened by the active engagement of slaves acting out of a concerted desire to gain their freedom. Because the defense of slavery rested on beliefs about African ancestry, free people of color also had a stake in its abolition. Their collective aspirations found opportune alliances with other disaffected groups in these respective arenas – Seminoles in Florida and independence-minded white Creoles in Cuba. State and colonial administrators were challenged in devising ways to prevent such aggregations. Repression, the solution of choice for Florida, was less practical as an overall strategy in Cuba. There, the more complex problem of managing a large free black population with links to both black slaves and poor whites was reflected in a version of indirect rule.

Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
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About the Author

The word anthropology itself reveals most of it from the Greek anthropos ("human") and logia ("study") those who study it, study humankind, connecting the dots from our beginnings millions of years ago to the present day.

Though easy to define, anthropology is difficult to make engaging. USF researcher and anthropologist, Dr. Susan D. Greenbaum, through words, dives into Tampa’s own backyards and neighborhoods to reveal the magnetism of our own local culture. With little trouble, she advances knowledge of who we are, how we came to be that way--and where we may go in the future.

Susan Greenbaum received her BA in Sociology from the University of Kansas and later went on to pursue her Masters and Ph.D. in Anthropology at the same institution. She is currently a Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate Director of the Masters and Ph.D. programs in Applied Anthropology and President of the Faculty Senate at the University of South Florida.

Coming to USF in 1981, she has held the position of Department Chair, Graduate Director, and has served on numerous department, college, and university committees. Her research specialties include Community Development, Urban Ethnicity, Native American Policies, Social Networks, Neighborhood Revitalization, and Ethnohistory; she has published one book and over 50 articles, book chapters, and reviews. Greenbaum also serves on the Board of Trustees, dealing with the Academic and Campus Environment and working with the University Engagement workgroups. In 2004, the Research Office presented her with the Outstanding Faculty Research Achievement Award for her work on Afro-Cubans in Ybor City.

Greenbaum’s current research interests include community development, urban ethnicity, Native American policies, social networks, neighborhood revitalization and ethnohistory. She has studied the history of Afro-Cubans in Ybor City, and the conflict between historical preservation and development in Ybor City and related issues. She also addresses issues of Native American policy that deals with gambling rights and genealogical concerns. Greenbaum is a member of several professional organizations such as the American Anthropological Association, the International Network for Social Network Analysis and the Native American Policy Network.

Her book, More Than Black is the winner of the 2002 Theodore Saloutos Book Prize presented by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society to the best book in the nation on immigration studies and the Florida Historical Society’s 2003 Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Award for the best ethnographic history of Florida.

This engaging ethnography follows Cuban exiles from Jose Marti's revolution to the Jim Crow South in Tampa, Florida, as they shape an Afro-Cuban-American identity over a span of five generations. Unlike most studies of the Cuban exodus to the United States, which focus on the white, middle-class, conservative exiles from Castro's Cuba, More Than Black is peopled with Afro-Cubans of more modest means and more liberal ideology.

Greenbaum spent over fifteen years collaborating with members of Tampa's century-old Marti-Maceo Society, a mutual-aid and Cuban independence group, to yield a work that combines the intimacy of ethnography with the reach of oral and archival history. The book weaves rich historical and ethnographic materials to re-create and examine the developing community of black immigrants in Ybor City and West Tampa, the old cigar-making neighborhoods of the city.

It is a story of unfolding consequences that begins when the black and white solidarity of emigrating Cubans comes up against Jim Crow racism and progresses through a painful renegotiation of allegiances and identities. Building on Marti's declaration that being Cuban was "more than white, more than black," this study views, from the vantage of a community unique in time and place, the joint effects of ethnicity and gender in shaping racial identities.

Visit Dr. Susan Greenbaum's homepage at the USF Collaborative for Children, Families and Community

Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.