Blackface Cuba, 1840-1895

Blackface Cuba, 1840-1895 offers a critical history of the relation between racial impersonation, national sentiment, and an anticolonial public sphere in nineteenth-century Cuba.

Blackface Cuba, 1840-1895

Jill Lane

2005 | 288 pages | Cloth $59.95
Literature | African-American Studies/African Studies | Latin American Studies/Caribbean Studies
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Table of Contents

Preface. On the Translation of Race
Introduction. ImpersoNation in Our America

Chapter 1. Blackface Costumbrismo, 1840-1860
Chapter 2. Anticolonial Blackface, 1868
Chapter 3. Black(face) Public Spheres, 1880-1895
Chapter 4. National Rhythm, Racial Adulteration, and the Danzón, 1881-82
Chapter 5. Racial Ethnography and Literate Sex, 1888
Conclusion. Cubans on the Moon, and Other Imagined Communities


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

On the Translation of Race

The representation of race in writing is one of the principal concerns of this book: throughout, I lend attention to the relation between writing, blackface performance, and racialized national identities in nineteenth century Cuban vernacular culture. As a result, the pressures on my own translations of these representations from Spanish into English are particularly acute. In response to those pressures, I have made several strong translation choices of which readers should be aware.

Frequently, nineteenth century Cuban blackface writing (in plays, fiction, or press commentary) presented the speech of African or black figures through phonetic transcription of "distinct" speech patterns, accent, or inflection. Through such elaborate "transcriptions," African or black speech is emphatically marked as an incorrect, improper, and often comic performance of Castilian Spanish. The disfigurement of the written language is thus crucial to the ways these texts represent race and participate in broader processes of racialization. Yet I chose not to attempt to translate these distortions in the English translations I offer throughout the text. This racially marked language resists translation, and not only because it involves nonexistent words, or an array of misspellings and misuses of Spanish that have no English equivalent. The only model that might guide a hypothetical translation is the language of U.S. blackface minstrelsy. I have been reluctant to engage in such minstrelizing in the process of translation, and I have little confidence that minstrelsy actually is an appropriate model for such translation. Consider one minor example: in blackface Cuban performance, frequently the article "the" (el) is dropped, misconjugated, or offered in the wrong gender (becoming "e," "la," or "lo"); in comparable parodies in U.S. blackface minstrelsy, the word "the" often becomes "de" or "duh." In what way is "de" an accurate translation of "lo"? None, other than that both engage in racialized, and frequently racist, transcriptions of ostensibly "black" speech. Even more, to evoke the language and quality of U.S. minstrelsy would confuse rather than clarify the particular investments of Cuban blackface because readers of English would be tempted to hear false historical parallels between them. With all this in mind, I have chosen to offer literal translations of these texts throughout, and have only occasionally tried to evoke their effects.

In cases beyond these (mis)representations of "black" speech, my translations continue to be more often literal-event bluntly so-than not. Because I frequently engage in close readings of specific word choices and turns of phrase, my translations tend to honor the literal meanings and connotations of the Spanish, rather than attempt to reproduce the overall effect—aesthetic, political, or otherwise—of the original. Instead, I try to describe and engage those effects in my analysis. A case in point: some Cubans might object to my translation of the very widely used diminutive "-ito" into "little," especially in the keyword negrito, the name of Cuba's most famous blackface stage character, and a common racialized epithet in Cuban vernacular, both then and now. Throughout, I have translated negrito as "little black." While the diminutive "-ito" does in fact mean "little," it frequently carries the connotation of a term of endearment, the way one might use a diminutive with children or loved ones, as when "doll" becomes "dolly," or when "Tom" becomes "Tommy." Thus, "negrito" could be translated along the lines of "blacky" or better, "my blacky." However, even if the term can be (and today, often is) used as a vernacular term of endearment between white and especially black Cubans, its meaning—especially in the nineteenth century—is never free of the infantilizing, patronizing connotation that "little" carries when applied to an adult black male. A perfect translation would, of course, carry both connotations: the experience of deeply demeaning love encapsulates a century-long relationship between audiences and the popular stage figure of the negrito. Because the meanings of this word in particular become so overdetermined, I often chosen not to translate it at all.

Throughout this text I have also used the Spanish term criollo, in reference to people born in Cuba, rather than an English equivalent, "Creole." In doing so, I hope only to underscore the specificity of the Cuban criollo experience, and temporarily set aside the immediate Anglophone and French Caribbean associations with the term "Creole." A future project could do the opposite, and intentionally explore the connections and shared historical experiences of all American-born, "Creole," colonial subjects in the Caribbean basin with reference to race, representation, and anticolonial sentiment.

Cuba was famous in the nineteenth century for its carefully calibrated distinctions regarding race: words such as negro/a, pardo, moreno, and mulato each designated a specific interracial combination. There are no English equivalents for these terms, for historical rather than philological reasons: racial terminology in English emerges from a related but different history of white supremacy and racial identity in the United States, and has thus generated a different way of thinking and talking about racial categories. Within Cuba's racial matrix, key distinctions were made about place of birth, so that negro de nación, for example, refers to a black born in Africa, while negro criollo refers to a black born in Cuba. Further, as the century progressed, notions of a raza de color (literally, "race of color") were mobilized in antiracist and racist discourse to evoke sameness or solidarity between these different racial identities. Thus the available English terms such as "black," "mulatto," and "people of color" prove inadequate to the task. I invite the English reader to keep this complexity in mind when reading those words. For related reasons, I have seen no reason not to use the Spanish terms mulato and mulata throughout, rather than "translate" them into Anglicized spellings of these same Spanish terms (mulatto, mulatta). Unless clearly marked, I have not used the term "Afrocuban" to refer to black criollos, since the term Afrocubano postdates the history of racialized national identities told here, and its use remains controversial in Cuba even today.

In general, I have tried to listen carefully to the performances, texts, choreography and music I have analyzed. As I rule, I've offered ample citations from archival sources, so that other readers might hear the resonance and meaning of the original. I do so in part because the materials are little known in both English- and Spanish-speaking performance studies, and are particularly inaccessible to U.S. students and scholars, housed as most are in archives in Cuba. (I ask Spanish readers to be aware, too, that I have usually transcribed texts faithfully, even when the original does not use now standard spelling, grammar, or accentuation.) Ultimately, however, I am wary of acting as a mediator or translator between Anglo and Hispanic languages and cultural forms: not only is a great deal of the meaning of these texts lost in translation, but the texts very often consciously resist being known or captured by English. English was already the language of the threatening neocolonial neighbor to the north in nineteenth century Cuba; any translation between the two contexts drags the language across the painful social, political, and cultural divide that separates life on either side of the Florida Straits.

Finally, all translations are mine unless otherwise noted.