Mansa Mussa: Photography and Lecture at Newark library final

BY Tim Dingman


Feb. 20.  Newark Public Library.  “Africa,Oh Africa”  A Black History Celebration


Featured speakers were:

Mansa Mussa,  photographer(left-right), Wilma Grey, Executive Director of the Newark Public Library, Maisa Amen  Ph. D, and Benjamin Jones, Host and moderator.


Lecture and “slide show” discussing and dismissing misconceptions about modern day Cuba and the influences of African and American culture.  Essentially, African culture greatly influenced colonial Cuba from the late 1700’s to the mid 1950.  Thereafter, the greatest (perhaps not the best influence came at the hands of political forces in the USA.

Mr. Jones, the most frequent and regular visitor to Cuba, was eager to dispel American myths about life in Cuba, that everyone was poor and driving 1950’s automobiles. He expressed fears that the worst of capitalism, with the best intention might have unwanted impacts socially, politically and humanistically on the lives of the everyday Cubans.

Politics in Miami and Washington has impacted Cuba in various ways, although there remains some conservative position to maintain the nearly 50 year embargo.   Many in Miami, even starch conservatives, that once supported the economic blockage are saying it’s time to lift the embargo.  But simply lifting with the current trajectory will accelerate the emergence two class system.  Mr. Jones further stressed that his impression was that they are (the citizens of Cuba) people just like us, industrious, hard working, and seeking an improvement in the standard of living, and given the opportunity a bourgeoning entrepreneur community could emerge that if done right could be beneficial for all Cubans. However, his stressed, there is a growing inequality of resources (make that US Dollars) that is expressed as an inequality of class and wealth based on skin color as Europeans and North Americans bring cash to a cash starved country, and farer skin Cubans in the US sending US dollars to family members in Cuba. Racism is re emerging as the flows of “hard” currency moves to the lighter skinned people deemed by light skinned Europeans and North Americans as “more attractive” or more “worthy.”

Mussa, an internationally renowned photographer, shared here observation of Cuba.  He informed an attentive audience the following; ” During my twenty two years of travel in Cuba.   I have been able to observe a variety of economic changes on the island.  The most significant change occurred between main 1987 to 2009, when citizens was given the ability to own small restaurants and, individual artists now had the ability to sell their work in various public markets.  On the “race” issue however, Cuba remains a country that built it’s infrastructure with the efforts of enslaved Africans, and race disparities remain to be an issue.  Even though, the Cubans government equalized access to education and free healthcare for all of its residents, thats where the equality end”.


African Influences in Cuba.

Much of Cuban culture is definitely African in origin-music, folklore, dancing, some of the food. Music is a golden net which entangles the feet of every Cuban; blacks has given Cuban music a cachet recognized the world over. Father of our modern jazz, Cuban music has reached refined interpretation for both Cuban and Paris concert hall and operetta in the work of Moises Simón, who also has written some of the best danzón tunes, based on negro melodies, and is best known in this country for his Peanut Vender.
The Cuban intelligentsia took up fevently the vanguardista movement in sculpturing; this has influenced the work of such artists as Sicre but especially Navarro. Many of the vanguardistas who might not have been so receptive of the new tendencies had they been derived directly from African-Cuban sources, unwittingly hailed with enthusiasm African forms delivered via Paris; but the basic black inspiration in them has perhaps caused such work to be more intelligible, hence more at home in Cuba, than in other New World Latin countries.


According to a 2002 national census which surveyed 11.2 million Cubans, 1.1 million Cubans described themselves as Black, while 2.8 million considered themselves to be “mulatto” or “mestizo”.  The percentage of Afro-Cubans on the island increased after the 1959 Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro due to mass migration from the island of the largely white Cuban professional class.  Thus a significant proportion of those living on the island affirm some African ancestry. The matter is further complicated by the fact that a fair number of people still locate their origins in specific African ethnic groups or regions, particularly Yoruba (or Lucumi), Igbo and Congo, but also Arará, Carabalí, Mandingo, Fula, Makua, and others.

Although Afro-Cubans can be found throughout Cuba, Eastern Cuba has a higher concentration of blacks than other parts of the island, and Havana has the largest population of blacks of any city in Cuba.  Recently, many African immigrants have been coming to Cuba, especially from Angola. Also, immigrants from Jamaica and Haiti have been settling in Cuba, most of whom settle in the eastern part of the island, due to its proximity to their home country, further contributing to the already high percentage of blacks on that side of the island.

A group Black Cubans  has recently become literary conscious and are turning out interesting work. The journalist, Gustavo E. Urrutia, for the first time, has turned public attention to basic facts in the black problems of Cuba. The poems of Regino Pedroso, though inspired by the modern proletarian movement, have definite black roots, form and phraseology. Of them all, the most outstanding is Nicolás Guillén, whose slim but brilliant book of verse, Sóngoro Coson go, is a violent, singing, lilting outburst of the black’s heart. The lines swing to the rhythm of the rumba, of ñañigo dancing, to the beat of drums and rattles and dusky hands pounding out jungle music. Guillén represents a complete rupture with traditional Castilian verse-forms and a definite attempt to express black sentiments, thoughts and life in typical Afro-Cuban Spanish. Though not prolific, he has written the most vital poetry of modern Cuba.

Mansa will be traveling to Africa this spring and plans to return with new photographic and textual material in preparations for a book and lecture series in early 2015.


The struggle continues.




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