- Cuban Literature in the Age of Black Insurrection: Manzano, Plácido, and Afro-Latino Religion by Mathew Pettway
Cuba, Slavery, Afro-Latin America, Black Atlantic, Diaspora, Religion, Catholicism, Yoruba, Bakongo, Santeria, Poetry, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Slave Narrative, Matthew Pettway, R. J. Boutelle, Juan Francisco Manzano, Plácido, La Escalera
The lives of two of Cuba's most renowned Afro-descended poets—Juan Francisco Manzano and Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (Plácido)—converged during the plotting of and spectacularly violent response to a failed 1844 slave rebellion (la Conspiración de la Escalera). Despite their proximity to this overtly racial liberation movement, though, the near consensus among literary critics is that these writers (usually referred to as mulato and pardo, respectively) largely used their poetry to dissociate themselves from Blackness and ingratiate themselves with white Cuban audiences. Manzano, for example, consistently asserts his privileged status and education to differentiate himself from the negros on the sugar plantation where he grew up, while Plácido's prolific verses challenging Spanish authority are marked by a seemingly deliberate circumlocution of race and slavery.
Matthew Pettway's Cuban Literature in the Age of Black Insurrection: Manzano, Plácido, and Afro-Latino Religion (2020) issues a broadside against this prevailing interpretation. He contends that their verses' ostensibly assimilationist aesthetics (neoclassicism, natural imagery, and especially Catholic dogma) belie subversive syncretisms. Through riveting, bilingual close readings of poetry, colonial archives, cultural anthropology, and religious texts (especially the 1796 slave catechism), he deciphers coded engagements with Yoruba and Bakongo cosmologies, often smuggled into their poems under the guise of Catholic fealty. What emerges, then, [End Page 115] is not only a much-needed examination of religion in these canonical poets' works, but also a wholly new understanding of their politics. Pettway reframes their self-distancing from abolitionism and Africanist cabildos de nación as strategy rather than apathy, reintroducing them as nimble code-switchers who poetically professed loyalty to the Catholic Church and Spanish government, while surreptitiously fostering an Afrocentric political consciousness among their auditors and readers. Drawing on Fernando Ortiz, he theorizes these tactics as "transculturated colonial literature."
Pettway's argument charges him with a daunting task: to surface patterns of signification that were deliberately designed to evade detection from meticulous censors eager to suppress anticolonial sentiment (Plácido) and white benefactors eager to control political messaging (Manzano). Executing this argument, moreover, requires reliance on an often partial and frequently fraught historical archive, including racist ethnographies and colonial records of a plotted slave rebellion explicitly constructed to justify draconian violence in response. Sensitive to these challenges, Pettway reads carefully and makes informed, well-signposted speculations when necessary, usually to great effect.
The study alternates chapters dedicated to each author. The first two chapters focus on the poets' navigation of Catholicism, whiteness, and colonial censorship. Chapter two deftly historicizes Manzano's indoctrination into Catholicism to contend that despite the robust repertoire of imitatio cristi imagery in his writings, he ultimately became disillusioned with Catholicism's capacity to liberate him (spiritually or from slavery). Educated and baptized, Manzano "benefited from the privileges that the Catholic Church and his status as a mulatto afforded him" (47), but was continually frustrated by their limitations and therefore began working to "expose the racial confines of the Christian redemption narrative" (83) in his autobiography and poems. Chapter three summarizes how historical and biographical accounts of Plácido whitewashed the poet in the decades following his execution. Through readings of his religious poetry and more overtly racialist verses, Pettway contends that Plácido's "Catholic self-portrait was largely a politically motivated representation" (90) and a savvy navigation of respectability politics. Problematizing the eagerness of Plácido's biographers to accept such self-imaging at face value, Pettway reframes this performative posturing as genuflection to the priesthood and a satirical assault on ideologies of whiteness.
While these first two sections trace the poets' tactical invocations of Catholicism, chapters four and five—perhaps the book's most compelling—finally turn to the...