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  • Cuban Literature in the Age of Black Insurrection: Manzano, Plácido, and Afro-Latino Religion by Matthew Pettway
  • Reggie Bess
Cuban Literature in the Age of Black Insurrection: Manzano, Plácido, and Afro-Latino Religion. By Matthew Pettway. University of Mississippi Press, 2020, p. 325, $30.00.

In six well-researched and well-crafted chapters, Matthew Pettway presents the life and times of two of Cuba’s most interesting and productive Afro-Cuban literarians. The book covers the years between Juan Francisco Manzano’s birth (1797–1854)) to Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés’s (also known and referred throughout the book as Plácido) death by firing squad (1809–1844). Both made very significant contributions to Cuban literature during the colonial period. Borrowing from the great Toni Morrison, Pettway “engage[s] this body of work as a sort of ‘literary archaeology’ to borrow a phrase from Toni Morrison. Jenny Sharpe explains that Morrison relied on historical knowledge and an ‘imaginative recreation of the past’ to write great works of fiction like her novel Beloved. But I perceive archaeology as apropos for the unearthing of black Cuban texts characterized by double-voicing, ostensible contradictions, silences, and the subservice use of Catholic, Romantic, and Neoclassical symbology. This book is literary analysis and part cultural history; so, I too am ‘piercing together a world that exists only in the archives.’” (37)

In the Introduction, Pettway asks the following questions: “How could writers with no formal humanistic training, no military expertise to speak of, and no experience in the diplomatic corps pose a political threat to one of the greatest empires in the world? What subversive writing practices did Plácido and Manzano employ in their poetry and prose? What role did religious discourse play in the creation of anticolonial literature? And what did they hope to accomplish by writing against the Spanish empire?” (6) Pettway then tells the reader the significance of this book to the field: “Cuban Literature contributes to Latin American Studies in several ways. This is the first book-length study of Juan Francisco Manzano and Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés, perhaps the most important writers of African descent in colonial Spanish American history. Moreover, my emphasis on African-inspired spirituality as a source of knowledge and a means to sacred authority for black Cuban writers contributes to our understanding of Manzano and Plácido not as mere imitators but as aesthetic and Political innovators. Finally, by reworking theories of transculturation from the angle of African epistemology,” Pettway “seek[s] to demonstrate that some of the processes of social transformation that cultural anthropologists have examined were also at work in literature in ways heretofore unknown.” (43) [End Page 169]

As important as these contributions are, equally significant is the way in which Pettway’s work “represents a paradigm shift in our thinking about black writers in colonial Latin America because it analyzes how they reconstructed Africa in America through an epistemological engagement with Bakongo- and Yoruba-inspired spiritualities.” Pettway argues that “it is an African Atlantic system of religious knowledge—not the strictures of Catholic doctrine—that provided Plácido and Manzano with the tools, both political and meta-physical, to conceive what African-descended liberation might look like.” (43)

Finally, Pettway notes: “Cuban ‘Literature contributes to the fields of Latin American Studies, Hispanic Cultural Studies, religious studies, Cuban and Caribbean History, and Africana Studies by suggesting a paradigm shift for the way scholars analyze Afro-Latin American colonial literature.” (44)

In the book Pettway lists the writers’ singular accomplishments. For example, Manzano’s Poesías líricas, published in 1821, marked “the first collection of Cuban verse published by anyone, black or white. (12) The reader also learns that in 1836, Juan Francisco Manzano was writing the only known autobiographical account (slave narrative) of slavery in Spanish America, his Autobiografía de un esclavo, originally titled La verdadera historia de mi vida. Pettway makes note of the fact that Manzano;s Cuban slave narrative preceded the work of black Abolitionists Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, and William Wells Brown’s Narrative of...


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