Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 224-225
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Afro-Cuban Literature: Critical Juncture, by Edward J. Mullen. Westport: Greenwood, 1998. 256 pp. ISBN 0-313-30408-4 cloth.
Two interrelated concerns are interwoven in Edward Mullen's measured new analysis of Afro-Hispanism in Cuba, an important contribution to the deconstruction of Julio Le Riverend's literary "black zone" stretching from Virginia to Rio. He aims both to explore the African element in Hispanic literary production, from the moment blacks enter the peninsular literary canon, and to address Afro-Cubanism as an intellectual movement [End Page 224] in the twentieth century. Surveying this movement in his introduction, Mullen shows that Afro-Cubanism, stimulated by the rediscovery of the region's African heritage in the1920s, in many ways bore the cultural imprint of its European and Creole origins. Not all, by any means, shared the racial prejudice expressed in Francisco Calcagno's 1887 novel Los Crímenes de Concha ("The race has a natural proclivity for indolence and vice . . . .[T]hey are thieves."), but there is broad self-reflection even when examining the Other. Variously inspired by avant-garde sensibilities, Cuban nationalism, and in the case of Fernando Ortiz, a desire to stamp out the criminal underworld of Black Witch Doctors (ch. 4), these critics recall Marco Polo's confession in Calvino's Invisible Cities: "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice." Although integrationist poetics have, since the late 1960s, vied with the celebration of black uniqueness (ch. 1: "The Critical Axis"), racialist preoccupations have been hard to shake. As Roberto González Echeverría writes of Nicolás Guillén's poetry, "no matter what the real color of the critic, he has been the object of exclusively 'white' readings" (41).
Nonetheless, the emphasis on cultural miscegenation and hybridity as desirable and thoroughly Cuban qualities, expressed by Ortiz and Luís Amado Blanco, assumes particular significance in view of the hardening of racial and ethnic lines bequeathed by imperial Spain. Mullen points out in chapter 2 ("Peninsular Origins: Simón Aguado's Entremés de los negros"), Spanish culture had acquired an accentuated sense of the gulf between white and black, between Spain and Africa—and an endemic fear of transgression, one might add—which was enshrined in slavery. Slavery is the backdrop both for Aguado's Entremés (1602), in which black characters play an ambivalent role as figures of fun and subversion, and indeed for the genesis of black expression in Cuba, Juan Francisco Manzano's textually problematic Autobiography of a Slave, discussed in chapter 3. Yet for many Afro-Cubanists, the "genesis of an authentic Cuban art form" would have to await the social and cultural self-awareness, and the lyrical brilliance, of Guillén's eight poems on the lives of blacks in the urban slums, Son Motifs (1930), the subject of chapter 5. Their electrifying effect on both white and black audiences gave the poems canonical status within the corpus of Afro-Cuban literature. Yet, what happens to the broader Latin American canon? In his closing chapter, Mullen suggests that anthologists, with their formative influence on canonical tastes, have come some distance since Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo's paradigmatically conservative Antología de poetas hispano-americanos (1893-95). But despite anthologies that aim to radicalize the traditional canon, "their ability to penetrate the generalist anthology has been minimal" (166). From Cuba to Equatorial Guinea, it is imperative that the anthologists of Hispanic literature respond.
Benita Sampedro is Assistant Professor of Colonial Latin American Literature at Hofstra University in New York.