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Cuba's Racial Crucible: The Sexual Economy of Social Identities, 1750-2000

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Since the 19th century, assertions of a common, racially-mixed Cuban identity based on acceptance of African descent have challenged the view of Cubans as racially white. For the past two centuries, these competing views of Cuban racial identity have remained in continuous tension, while Cuban women and men make their own racially oriented choices in family formation. Cuba Since the 19th century, assertions of a common, racially-mixed Cuban identity based on acceptance of African descent have challenged the view of Cubans as racially white. For the past two centuries, these competing views of Cuban racial identity have remained in continuous tension, while Cuban women and men make their own racially oriented choices in family formation. Cuba's Racial Crucible explores the historical dynamics of Cuban race relations by highlighting the racially selective reproductive practices and genealogical memories associated with family formation. Karen Y. Morrison reads archival, oral-history, and literary sources to demonstrate the ideological centrality and inseparability of race, nation, and family, in definitions of Cuban identity. Morrison analyzes the conditions that supported the social advance and decline of notions of white racial superiority, nationalist projections of racial hybridity, and pride in African descent.


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Since the 19th century, assertions of a common, racially-mixed Cuban identity based on acceptance of African descent have challenged the view of Cubans as racially white. For the past two centuries, these competing views of Cuban racial identity have remained in continuous tension, while Cuban women and men make their own racially oriented choices in family formation. Cuba Since the 19th century, assertions of a common, racially-mixed Cuban identity based on acceptance of African descent have challenged the view of Cubans as racially white. For the past two centuries, these competing views of Cuban racial identity have remained in continuous tension, while Cuban women and men make their own racially oriented choices in family formation. Cuba's Racial Crucible explores the historical dynamics of Cuban race relations by highlighting the racially selective reproductive practices and genealogical memories associated with family formation. Karen Y. Morrison reads archival, oral-history, and literary sources to demonstrate the ideological centrality and inseparability of race, nation, and family, in definitions of Cuban identity. Morrison analyzes the conditions that supported the social advance and decline of notions of white racial superiority, nationalist projections of racial hybridity, and pride in African descent.

26 review for Cuba's Racial Crucible: The Sexual Economy of Social Identities, 1750-2000

  1. 5 out of 5

    Simon Purdue

    In Cuba’s Racial Crucible, Karen Morrison uses an intersectional feminist, social constructivist approach to explore the complex web of racial identity in Cuba. Looking beyond the traditional top-down lens that understood race through politics and policy, Morrison seeks to view race through the more nuanced familial and sexual lenses, examining the ways in which conceptions of race were constructed and controlled within the most personal of loci. Examining the inextricable links between family, In Cuba’s Racial Crucible, Karen Morrison uses an intersectional feminist, social constructivist approach to explore the complex web of racial identity in Cuba. Looking beyond the traditional top-down lens that understood race through politics and policy, Morrison seeks to view race through the more nuanced familial and sexual lenses, examining the ways in which conceptions of race were constructed and controlled within the most personal of loci. Examining the inextricable links between family, race, and nation, Morrison unpacks the question of identity and citizenship in Cuba, shedding light on the very changeable and ill-defined boundaries of race in the country. Morrison utilizes and reinterprets Frantz Fanon’s concept of a sexual economy of race to posit that in heterogeneous societies such as Cuba the concept and conflicts surrounding national identity, class and race can be seen most clearly in the sphere of sex, sexuality and reproduction. She argues like Fanon that all human bodies were ascribed with racialized meaning in Cuban society, and the endemic conflict of “Congo or Carabali” is built almost exclusively on this racial and sexual stratification. However her departure from Fanon’s fixed understanding of the sexual economy of race lies in the post-colonial intersection between sex and race. She argues that agency was often exercised and that Cubans deliberately and effectively sought to escape from the traditional race structure of their society through multi-generational reproductive strategies which disrupted the oppressive racial dichotomy that had been used for so long as a tool of colonialism. In conversation with the ideas put forward in Bryce and Sheinin’s recent study of citizenship in Argentina- which argues that elites had power and influence over social identity and citizenship- Morrison argues that citizenship and identity could be built from the ground up too. She explores the ways in which working-class individuals and non-elites could exercise agency and define their own national identity and social role, particularly through sexual and reproductive patterns. Taking a wider, longue durée approach she examines how national and racial ideas were manipulated through the last 250 years of Cuban history in order to secure better social standing and to define one’s own citizenship. In her early chapters, Morrison explores how and why a distinct Afro-Cuban identity failed to emerge in the immediate post-emancipation period, arguing that racial anxieties led to exogamous practices and rapid ‘hybridization’ of the previously dichotomous racial order in Cuba. She examines the ways in which whiteness could be ‘attained’ in the sexual economy of race, either through exogamy or through public profession of paternity by a white father. In an environment in which race was such an important determinant of social standing, black Cubans exercised their sexual and reproductive agency in order to escape oppression. Furthermore Cuban society as a whole adjusted its perceptions of whiteness, broadening its definition- thus the process that Morrison labels ‘whitening’ was not only biological but was at its very core social. Furthermore, Morrison argued that this created a fluid, traversable racial web, in which individuals could define and redefine their own identities and frame themselves in different ways in order to navigate the complex social structure. The author contends that while many Afro-Cubans sought to ‘pass’ as white, it was not unheard of for Euro-Cubans to self-identify and frame themselves as people of color, demonstrating the fluid and fickle nature of race in Cuba. In the latter half of her book, Morrison argues that through the latter half of the twentieth century Afro-Cuban men and women continued to exercise agency and shift and blur racial boundaries through marital and sexual means, often with a clear race-consciousness in mind. Making such a broad range of reproductive choices that varied from ‘intentional self-segregation’ all the way to ‘deliberate race mixture’ (191), black Cubans were able to define their own racial and national identity. Morrison’s work speaks to the discourse on the construction of race and whiteness, offering a new perspective on the porous nature of racial boundaries. Her exploration of the personal experience of race in a post-colonial, post-slavery society opens up new questions surrounding the sexual economy of race.

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