- "Our America" That Is Not One:Transnational Black Atlantic Disclosures in Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes
In the past two decades, discontent with the exclusions operative in nationalist frameworks of American and Latin American Studies has placed issues of transnationalism, hybridization, and a diasporic view of cultures at the center of attention. As a provisional academic base for this desire to think more globally, scholars have invented a new tradition, so to speak—the transnational and burgeoning field of hemispheric American Studies. Thus, the recent collection, José Martí's "Our America": From National to Hemispheric Cultural Studies, calls for such a change of paradigms. In their introduction, the editors single out Cuba, the birthplace of poet and revolutionary José Martí, as a fertile location for their project:
For Cuba lies at the intersection of Our America's two principal transnational cultural formations: the geocultural system we have come to know as the Black Atlantic and the complex region of interactions among the Spanish, Native American, and English peoples (extending from the Caribbean to California) that we have come to call the Latino Borderlands.(Belnap and Fernández 11)
Cuba's nationalism, from José Martí and Cuba's late-19th century Wars of Independence to post-1959 formations under Castro, has always been a mestizo and mulato nationalism. One reason was that [End Page 87] in Cuba abolition was not a consequence, but a condition of independence (Sommer, Foundational Fictions 125): in contrast to the U.S. and most of Latin America with the exception of Puerto Rico, Cuba achieved independence only in 1898, thanks to the full participation of Afro-Cubans in the anti-colonial wars against Spain, whose investment in Cuban independence was motivated by their desire for racial justice. Indeed, Cuba's population in the modern era, "slightly over half Spanish in origin and slightly under half black or mulatto, with a small number of Chinese" (Bethell 20), suggests an encounter of the two distinct New World diasporas known as the "Black Atlantic" and Martí's Spanish-speaking "Our America"—on equal terms.
While the discourse of mestizaje and racial amalgamation nourishes Cuba's nationalism, and while the notion of cubanidad is built on the myth of racial synthesis, this symbolic reconciliation has repressed actual and continuing conflicts of race and their memory. Indeed, 20th century Cuban history, culture, and literature bear testimony to the uncanny reassertion of resistant diasporic black voices sublated into the dominant mestizaje nationalism. One major purpose of this essay is to examine the relationship between the Black Atlantic and José Martí's "Our America"—cultural formations intersecting in Cuba, as pointed out in the passage quoted above—as a troubled and unstable one. Whereas "Our America" stands for the homecoming of Blacks in the interracial nationalism of Martí's Latin America, the Black Atlantic stands for the continuing homelessness of Blacks in the Americas, and the memory of exile, displacement, and the violence of the Middle Passage.
In his study The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Paul Gilroy deconstructs the notion that Black traditions in diaspora can be imagined as solid "roots," suggesting instead that Blacks have a transnational and nomadic tradition he calls the Black Atlantic. According to Gilroy, it is "routes" (the diasporic memory of the rupture of the middle passage), not "roots" (the nationalist memory of a historichomeland) that matter most: "English and African-American versions of cultural studies," Gilroy writes, "share a nationalistic focus that is antithetical to the rhizomatic, fractal structure of the transcultural, international formation that I call the Black Atlantic" (Gilroy 4). The essence of the Black tradition in the Americas, i.e. the Black Atlantic, defies conventional identification of "tradition" with "roots," the stable and arboreal metaphor for the beginnings of nations and nationalisms.
Gilroy's thesis posits a new and thought-provoking relationship between modernity and tradition. Rather than imagining a rupture between the old and the new, a duality between past roots and their [End Page 88] modern break-up and loss, as is conventionally suggested, Gilroy argues that, as far as diasporic Black culture (in the Americas as well as Europe) is concerned, the...