Reflections from my Sojourn to Miami, March 2009
“El Chocolate Caliente” Surveys New Habana!
Although I grew up in the Sunshine State I had never ventured down to Miami before. In spite of the fact that all the dudes from down here called it “The Magic City” when I went up on “The Hill” to attend college at Florida A&M in 1959, I never ventured down to check it out for myself. I guess it’s because it was south of St. Augustine, the ancient city where I came of age, and whenever I traveled from my home town I was catching the first thing smoking headed north. I hated southern crackers and I must have concluded the further south you went the worse the crackers got. Yet there is no proof that it was ever thus; it could have been all in my head. And from what I have learned about life in Miami back in the day, chances are it was just a figment of my imagination – they may not have been worse but they were bad enough!
From what I was able to tell from the impressions I gathered during my brief sojourn as a drive by sociologist: It is the best and the worse of times for black folks in this southernmost American metropolis. Like many places in the south, black community life as such has deteriorated since the demise of the system of American apartheid popularly known as “segregation.” For one thing, just as I have observed in northern Florida, black community based businesses have virtually disappeared and other community institutions have fizzled.
The one exception to this rule is the church; yet even this venerable institution – our rock in stormy seas and the light that illuminated the dark days of white supremacy – does not have the influence it once had: especially among the youths! And all of these problems are aggravated by the fact that the black community is splintered along class lines due to the expanded freedom offered to the affluent stratum of Afro-Americans. Whereas Afro-Americans in the south were forced to live together in a racially restricted community regardless of class, which had the unintended consequence of forging a community of interests between blacks across class lines, now that unity is broken as the wealthy classes choose where to reside based on their financial means. And more often than not, that is as far away from poor blacks as the distance rich whites have always maintained from poor southern rednecks. The ever insightful Dr. DuBois spotted this trend developing in the late 1950’s and denounced it in his stirring 1958 essay “Interpretations.”
Yet this is in the nature of things, and it is by no means peculiar to Afro-American experience. It appears to be axiomatic, a sort of sociological law, that as excluded minority groups gain entry into the mainstream society many of its unique institutions and even cultural characteristics will disappear. After all, they only existed in the first place because the minorities were discriminated against by the larger society. Hence we can observe this phenomenon in other ethnic groups who have traveled this route. And it appears to hold true whether we confine our observations to the US or examine the process of cultural assimilation and resistance world wide.
Sometimes the cultural impact of the majority group is so powerful that even when they are conquered by powerful invaders the conquerors are swallowed up by the dominant culture. For instance: the Mongol king Ghengis Khan conquered ancient China, but Chinese culture was so powerful that his son Kubla Khan was as much a “Chinese Emperor” as anyone in the Ming Dynasty. But the classic pattern of assimilation can be observed among the Jews living in Christian societies, whether it was the Catholic and Lutheran societies of Poland and Germany, or the predominately Anglo-Saxon Protestant society of the USA. In each case the educated upper stratum among the Jews who received higher education in the Christian universities abandoned much of their “Jewishness.”
Often this alienation from the ethnic culture is sub-conscious; the inevitable consequence of being exposed to the wider world of learning and opportunity offered by a modern university education, especially the personal contacts and even intimate relationships the heretofore excluded minority citizen forms with their counterparts in the dominant group. But there are numerous instances when a minority group member makes a conscious decision to assimilate into the larger group – often at considerable psychological damage to themselves. For instance, in her learned and insightful book ‘Love Across Color Lines,” Professor Maria Dedtrict, a German scholar, tells the story of a German Jewish lawyer/poet who marries a Christian actress and converts to Lutheranism to escape his Jewishness; but later commits suicide when his neighbors and business associates refer to him as “the Lutheran Jew.”
The experience of the Jews is an excellent model to use in an attempt to fully understand this model of assimilation because they are history’s quintessential outsiders. Which is largely due to their religion and the cultural practices mandated by it; a highly complex set of beliefs and practices that sets them apart from the beliefs, values and cultural mores of the majority and makes them conspicuous outsiders. We can observe specific examples of this process at work in a variety of Jewish experiences. But let us confine our analysis to the experience of Jewish assimilation in Poland, Germany and the US.
In his fictive autobiography “A Young Man in Search of Love,” the Polish Jewish writer Isaac Beschevitz Singer, the only scribe to win the much coveted Nobel Prize for works written in Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European “ghetto” – a term invented by Eastern European Jews and later employed to describe the Afro-American condition – we get a first hand account of the trials and tribulations of educated Polish Jews struggling with the problem of a dual identity as Poles and Jews.
This is clearly the same class of phenomenon that Dr. W.E.B. DuBois described as “double consciousness” among Afro-Americans in his 1903 masterpiece “The Souls of Black Folk.” When I read Singer’s book I was immediately struck by the similarity of many of the Polish Jewish issues to the perennial Afro-American struggles with identity. One of the issues that impressed me most profoundly was the struggle of university students over the question of language: whether the educated Jew should speak Polish or Yiddish for instance.
He Won the Nobel Prize Writing In Yiddish!
An Assimilated Polish Hasidic Jew In Manhattan
Some of the university students denied that Yiddish was a language at all – simply ghetto slang spoken by the untutored Jewish mob without benefit of exposure to the wider world of learning and culture. This was a direct result of their alienation from ghetto life as a result of matriculation in the Polish university, which was a repository of the ideas and values of modern western civilization – the dominant culture of the contemporary world. Although this argument had taken place in the 1920’s and 30’s – before the holocaust – it bore an uncanny resemblance to the arguments that were presently raging among black Americans about the use of “Black English” or “Ebonics” half a century later.
Another question that troubled Eastern European Jewish intellectuals which remains a burning concern for black Americans is the role of the creative artist – especially those who produce recorded music with lyrics, fiction and drama: the story telling arts. Reading the passages where Singer describes his dilemma as a novelist fascinated by the canon of modern European literature that he discovered at the University of Warsaw, but was expected to reject in favor of the Yiddish tradition of morality plays as exemplified by its most famous writer, the dramatist Shalom Aliekum, I am reminded of the dilemma of black creative artists in America. Who are also expected to bear the cross of uplifting the race when other materials may be far more interesting as subjects for artistic exploration. And this was doubly so in the case of Beshevitzs Singer because his father was a Hassidic Rabbi who saw the world in stark contrasts of good and evil, thus he viewed secular writing as a waste of a God given gift and therefore an abomination!
To make matters worse, while the modern European writer employed his art as a mirror held up to his society to expose their flaws – hypocrisies, avarice, treachery, adulteries, etc – the Jewish community expected their writers to speak only in terms that dignified the Jewish personality and glorified Jewish traditions. An attitude that is also prevalent in the Afro-American community. But Singer saw the world and his role as a writer differently. After pointing out that in his father’s world everything was pure and orderly and thus all writing worthy of the reading should be religiously inspired and have a clear moral purpose; and that the Jewish bourgeoisie thought he should write only of Jewish doctors, lawyers, businessmen and other such respectable Jewish characters, Singer observes that having discovered the freedom offered by Modern literature he was far more interested in exploring the world of “Jewish pimps and whores in Argentina.” This is clearly a moral conundrum that confronts Afro-American writers even as I write.
There are many parallels between the black and Jewish experience in coming to terms with their proper place in modern western civilization – a civilization that committed genocide against both groups, preceded by every variety of man’s inhumanity to man – obviously a comprehensive comparative analysis is far beyond the scope of this essay; so one final example will have to suffice. The age old oppression of blacks and Jews in modern western civilizations has been such that both groups sought an escape to a promised land somewhere beyond the pale of oppression. Somewhere that could offer freedom for their bodies and refuge for their battered spirits. For the Jews of Eastern Europe the answer was Zionism; for Afro-Americans it was Pan- Africanism. In fact, the African Emigrationist movement among Afro-Americans predates the Zionist movement among the Jews.
The upshot of this comparative analysis between the historical experience of European Jews and Afro-Americans is to shed light on the contemporary experience of physical integration and cultural assimilation of black Americans in a predominantly white society. However the difference between how those two experiences culminated is, to say the least, dramatic. For the Jews of Europe it was the ovens and gas chambers of the holocaust that killed half the Jews of that continent; it took a world war to end this horror. For African Americans it took a Ghandian type mass passive resistance movement led by inspired Christian visionaries tutored by a modern day prophet and apostle of peace and brotherly love named Martin Luther King, whose namesake was a renegade Catholic Priest who founded the Protestant Church: Martin Luther, a vicious anti-Semite whose teachings help fire the anti-Jewish madness of the Nazis!
Hence it is the experience of the Jews in modern American society – i.e. post world War II – that holds the greatest relevance for us. For it was here to “The Golden Land” that the survivors of the European holocaust retreated in the greatest numbers. And although they began as outsiders too, they had something going for them that Afro-Americans didn’t – they had pale skins! And unlike Europe, in the American pigmentocracy color trumps religious differences. There is no greater evidence for this assertion than the fact that the average white Catholic would rather see their sons and daughters marry a white Jew than a black Catholic!
Furthermore, the Jews wisely played upon Christian guilt about the godless atrocity of the holocaust and gained the sympathy of many powerful WASPS. Added to these advantages was the reverence for learning promoted by the Jewish Talmudic tradition of disciplined study and critical thinking. When taken together these factors served to propel the Jews ahead of Afro-Americans in the USA, and thus they successfully assimilated into the middle and upper classes of the larger white protestant society at a faster rate than African Americans even though we had a longer tenure in this land. In fact, Africans had been in America since the beginning of it’s colonization by Europeans – especially in Florida – and the United States of America as we know it is unimaginable without the input of African-Americans!
Yet by the 1950’s American Jews had become so entrenched in the American Middle and upper classes, and had amassed such great wealth through the acumen of their business class, they could build their own recreational palace on Miami Beach, the Fontambleu, which rivaled the Kenilworth, a bastion of opulence reserved for white Christian big shots. And by the 1960’s even Jews of comparatively recent American provenance had become so comfortably assimilated that Norman Podhoretz, a New York Jewish intellectual of Eastern European background, could confidently write of the need for Afro-Americans to forget about being “Negroes” and assimilate into “American society.” However the irony, absurdity and impertinence of Mr. Podhoretz’s prescription for Afro-American deliverance didn’t escape black intellectuals, such as the broadly learned and uniquely insightful aesthetic theoretician and often caustic cultural critic, Albert Murray, who dismissed Podhoretz’s claim as the confused light-weight prattle that it is.
The fact is that a great part of the problem which remains in American Race relations has much to do with the failure of non-black Americans to fully recognize the long tenure and critical role African Americans have played in that unique experiment in the wilderness of North America that has evolved into the United States of America. After all, black men from whom I descended not only enlisted and fought in the American Revolution by the thousands, but many were veterans of the French and Indian wars – in which they had fought side by side with their Anglo-Saxon countrymen. The heroes of the battles of Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord, the initial skirmishes of the Revolution, were both black men: Peter Salem and Salem Poor. And the first man to die by British fire in defense of the Revolutionary ideal was Chrispus Attucks, a Bostonian of African/Native American heritage.
This failure to recognize the critical role of African Americans in the making of the United States is often the case with the immigrant population in the US, and is at the root of the Afro-American/Cuban tensions in Miami. Afro-Americans I talk to on all levels agree that most white, and Mestizo wannabe white, Cubans are racist toward them. But anyone who is familiar with the patterns of race relations in pre-revolutionary Cuba, where the founders of the Miami Cuban community were born and socialized, will not be surprised by this charge. They know that Cuba was a very racist place before the revolution; wealth and status were very closely related to color, with Cuban whites forming an oligarchy. And even a half century after the triumph of the revolution power is still monopolized by an white elite – in spite of radical changes in the racial status and life chances of Afro-Cubans.
The unmistakable lesson the Cuban Revolution has taught us about racism is that it is culturally rooted and cannot be simply legislated away. I have no doubt that Fidel Castro wished racism in Cuba would disappear; but you cannot wish racism away, even if you are as all powerful as Fidel Castro was. Carlos Moore, an Afro-Cuban political scientist of Jamaican heritage, has written poignantly about white racism in Cuba in several scholarly works, but none more powerfully than his new memoir “Pechung.” In this work Moore delves deeply into the racial morass in Cuba. Unlike the white Cuban dissidents, Carlos does not deny that Cuba needed a revolution against the self-indulgent racist oligarchy that ruled the country with an iron fist.
Telling The Truth About Color In Cuba
A Marked Man!
His problem is that even fifty years after the revolution the new white rulers continue to give lip service in behalf of racial equality, and even pass laws banning racist practices and policies: But they refuse to engage in an honest discourse with black Cuban intellectuals on the question of the persistence of racism in revolutionary Cuba! This is the same thing I have heard from other Afro-Cubans, and it is reflected in the poetry of their hip/hop artists; which is the voice of young black Cubans even more so than among Afro-American youths who invented the art form.
“Discussion of race was taboo in Cuba before the revolution,” says Carlos, “and it became even more even so after the revolution!” Yet the history of Cuba is such that “It is impossible to separate race from class.” And he notes that this is the case throughout South America: “In Latin America…you cannot deal with one without discussing the other.” Carlos points out that the raison d’etre for his family’s relocation to Cuba in the early twentieth century was the anti-black genocide of 1912, which slaughtered “thousands of blacks: men, women and children!”
This mass slaughter created a shortage of agricultural workers in the cane fields and forced the white Cuban government to recruit black workers from other islands. But once there these foreign blacks were the target of racial animus by white and mestizo Cubans who referred to them as “Peschung, which means foreign excrement” says Carlos, “It was worse than being called nigger on the US mainland. “I grew up fighting against that term,” he says. This was the racial system that existed in Cuba before the Revolution; it was so racially exclusive and devoted to white supremacy that even Fulgencia Batista, the mulatto strong man who ruled Cuba before the revolution, was refused entry into white social clubs and his children were barred from swimming on white beaches.
Carlos’s insistence on raising the race question in the days following the revolution got him in big trouble: first landing him in jail as a counter-revolutionary, then exile. Yet in spite of it all this he continues to defend the revolution as a good and necessary thing, in spite of the way the Cuban government trashes his name by accusing him of being a traitor and CIA snitch. Anyone seeking to understand the complex problem of race in Cuba should begin by reading the works of Carlos Moore; the preeminent authority on the subject. And only after gaining an understanding the history of race and class in Cuba can one hope to make sense of the character of the Cuban community in Miami and how they relate to Afro-Americans, who are an integral part of the original peoples who built the American nation.
I however learned about the realities of race and class in Cuba much earlier, and my education came through personal interactions with Afro-Cubans. I first became aware of the black population of Cuba when I was a student at Florida A&M University in 1959, the year that the revolutionaries took power on that island just 90 miles off the Florida coast. There were foreign students from all over the black world on campus at the time, but the Afro-Cubans stood out to me because of their marvelous music. This was no small achievement because great musicians were common fare on campus; many of the great jazz orchestras were breaking up and gifted musicians who had opted for careers as performers were now returning to college to get their degrees and become music teachers and band masters in the black schools throughout the south.
Many of these artists were attracted to Florida A&M because great musicians like Julian “Cannonball Adderly – who was playing alto saxophone with the seminal Miles Davis Septet, which featured John Coltrane on tenor sax – and his trumpeter brother Nat Adderly, who was featured with the legendary Lionel Hampton Orchestra, had made A&M’s music program world famous. During the time I was there A&M had a performance space in the student union building called “The Ebony Lounge,” where some legendary jam sessions were held. That’s where I first heard the Afro-Cubans play their music and I was swept away by their dynamic and exotic sound.
Strangely enough, although I was a drummer it was not the drums that originally caught my ear, rather it was the piano with its wonderful montunos, those rhythmic figures that shape the character of the musical form known as the Son Montuno, the Typica Afro-Cuban orchestral form. Then, as now, the sound of the piano drove me into paroxysms of pleasure. However a couple of years later I fell in love with a beautiful Puerto Rican dancer and she introduced me to the Conga drums and took me to see Francisco “Mongo” Santamaria, a great Afro-Cuban virtuoso of the conga and bongo drums. I couldn’t believe the complex rhythms and various timbres and textures of sound Mongo was able to produce from those wooden drums with cow skin heads played with the naked hand. I was smitten!
Mongo and I became fast friends and our relationship grew to the point that we became like brothers. He became my teacher and by the time I was 25 I had become accomplished enough on the conga drums to actually substitute for him in a concert with his great band; A band which included the gifted saxophonist Bobby Capers, and Hubert Laws, one of the greatest Flutist and piccolo players of the twentieth century. For instance, when Hubert left Mongo’s band he held down the first chair in the woodwind section of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Maestro Leonard Bernstein, the most famous symphony orchestra in the world! I fell in love with everything Cuban: the music; the cuisine; the women. In fact I even married a beautiful Afro-Cuban senorita!
This all happened in the mid 1960’s, but I have continued to study and write about Cuba and I just played a gig with Zon del Barrio, one of the hottest Latin bands in New York – the capital of Afro-Cuban music, the claims of Miami notwithstanding – just recently. And the performance can be viewed on You Tube.
Playing with the Mongo Santamaria Orchestra circa 1967
Hubert Laws, Bobby Capers and trumpeter Marty Scheller
Me and my Cuban Wife!
A brilliant psychologist and my favorite Mambo partner
As a result of these personal relationships with Afro-Cubans I got a first hand education about racism in Cuba. My first lesson came when I invited Mongo to a lecture I was presenting at a school in Philadelphia, and I sat him among a group of light skin Hispanics. But when I looked up he had removed himself and sat among Afro-Americans. When I later told him that I had placed him there because I thought he would be more comfortable sitting among his people, he replied simply: “I am among my people.” Carlos Moore also makes the point that he feels far more at home among black Americans than amidst white, mulatto or mestizo Cubans. “I never felt any discrimination among Afro-Americans,” says Carlos.
My wife Dorothy’s father was jet black but her mother looked almost white, however she was Jamaican – an island that also has a history of serious color problems between its light and dark skinned citizens. One day I asked her father about race relations in Cuba, and he said: ”Rich white Cubans treated their dogs better than us! Since the Cubans I knew were mostly blacks, mulattos and mestizos who loved Afro-Cuban music, I had never actually experienced the racist attitudes they were all talking about – although there are plenty of those types in northern Jersey towns like Union City, which was the headquarters of white anti-Castro Cuban organizations such as Alpha 66.
The Queen Of Latin Song!
I can still see the anger and disgust on Mongo’s face when he talked about the great Afro-Cuban songstress Celia Cruse performing benefit concerts for them to raise money. His outrage was palpable when he’d say: “What can Celia be thinking bout Playthell…She knows what it was like for us in Cuba before the revolution!” It was with these images in mind that I set out from New York on my first visit to the Magic City. And these were buttressed by the reports of my younger daughter Makeda, a native New Yorker who has made several trips to Miami. A fitness competitor, Makeda first went to Miami to compete in the “Miss South Beach Bikini Fitness” contest.
After spending a coupleof days in Miami, Makeda called me and said: ‘Daddy I have met the first group of Hispanic people that I don’t like. I can’t stand these damn white Cubans down here. They are the most racist, arrogant group of people I have ever met! “Now, my daughter grew up with Hispanic kids in Manhattan, in fact I tease her by calling her “Oyea Keda!” She even dances with Hispanic folkloric companies; as I write she is in Puerto Rico dancing with a Bomba troupe. And my son was a baseball player all through high school and most of his close buddies are Hispanic. And I always had Hispanic friends.
Dancing The Mambo In Spanish Harlem
So this is a girl who has spent most of her life around Hispanic people. But she hates Miami – although part of this is a result of her New York chauvinism which inclines her to view Miami as a pretentious backwater New York wannabe. I also have friends from northern Florida – life long residents of the Sunshine State – who hate Miami too. One public official told me “I wouldn’t live in Miami for anything! And I have another friend from Atlanta who often travels to Miami to conduct business, where he stays in the finest hotels, but he hates Miami too. And I have numerous former classmates who settled in southern Florida: they like Miami but detest the Cubans, whom they view as “arrogant racist interlopers.” And unlike me they have no interest in Cuban culture. They just wish they would go back where they came from mucho pronto!
Suffice it to say that my take on Miami during my brief visit is quite different. I loved it! I think it is a kind of New York of the south. And since I love Cuban food and music I was in Nirvana. The contacts I had with Cubans occurred in hotels, restaurants and the night clubs of South Beach, a modern day Babylon where life is a bacchanal 24/7. My greatest disappointment was not being able to find a Mambo partner that who could dance on the level that I am accustomed to in New York!
This is How We do It!
At Gonzalez y Gonzales!
But I would later discover that the great bands and dancers are not on South Beach, which is over run with tourists, but in the Cuban night clubs such as Gloria Estefan’s spot in downtown Miami, and the clubs in Halieah. Yet in spite of being forced to stumble around the dance floor with graceless plodders who can’t even hear – let alone dance to – the clave: I achieved my objective of meeting with the legendary radio mogul Tom Joyner, who was hosting the mega concert Jazz in the Gardens, an annual event promoted by the City of Miami Gardens and produced by the legendary Leon “Kwaku” Saunders – who along with basket ball great Julius Dr. J. Irving and singer Natalie Cole – was once my student at the university of Massachusetts. Hence in spite of what them, thar, dem and dose say: Miami is still The Magic City to me!
* Cover photo by: Kwame Brathwaite
Photos of dancers and text by: Playthell Benjamin