To Be Black—and American—in Cuba

By Selena Lilly

Old Havana is breathtaking at night: orange light from the wrought-iron lamps illuminates the colorful hues of Cuban baroque and neoclassical architecture; the narrow sidewalks and the cobblestone streets harken back to the Spanish colonial era. But it is a beauty in decay, and the families living there suffer from the crumbling infrastructure.

These were my thoughts when I heard a man’s voice utter something to me in Spanish. “Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish,” I replied with a smile and continued on my way.

“Oh? You are American,” he said. I turned to look at him. His face was a few shades darker than my own coffee-colored skin. He said his name was Nelson, that he was Ghanaian and that he had taught Swahili and Zulu for the Cuban government for the last 15 years.

Behind the facades of Old Havana, which attracts many tourists, is highly coveted housing where current residents are able to remain only because laws protect them from eviction (Photo by Yulia Rock).

“Do you know what it means to be black in Cuba?” he asked me. I was taken aback not just by his question, but by his tone, which suggested that any answer other than “No” would be incorrect.

Cuba shares with the United States a history built on the backs of African slaves. Cuba abolished slavery in 1886 but even after it ended, the dominance of the sugar industry kept alive American-style racism. Affluent plantation owners wove institutionalized racism into the culture through prejudice and economic divisions similar to those of the United States. Blacks in Cuba were relegated to the slums in Central and Old Havana, where we were standing, and remain in this now highly coveted, and expensive, neighborhood only because laws protect some–though not all–from being evicted.

“In Cuba you are an American before you are considered black,” Nelson went on to say, surprising me.  Little did I realize that the comfort and ease I felt in Cuba was American privilege, something that I had never been privy to before. In every other city that I have visited or lived in, even in New York City, being black has always diminished the power of being an American.

But in Cuba, Americans, black or otherwise, are considered to have a lot of money, a notion likely stemming from the fact that 2 to 5 percent of Cuba’s gross domestic product stems from remittances sent from the United States. As Nelson and I walked through the slums, I began taking note of the people, people who looked very much like me. I saw people of color; they saw a person of affluence.

My guided tour ended at a restaurant where our conversation continued over food and drink. It was nice to have built a rapport with another person of color from a different country. After we finished our meal, he said “Why don’t you get these things and we can continue elsewhere.” I did not understand him; what did he mean by “get?”

Then it dawned on me; he wanted me to pay for the food.

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

Of course. I was an American first, then a person of color.