Miscelanea II of studies dedicated to Fernando Ortiz
|ON THE RELATIONS BETWEEN BLACKS AND WHITESFernando Ortiz -- (1943)|
It has been forty years since I, impelled by my early curiosity regarding human problems and especially by my interest in sociological studies, which were then quite a novelty where I studied, found myself involved in close observation of the social problems of my country.
I had hardly returned from my years of foreign university study when I began to investigate Cuban life, and this led me at once to the Negro. This was entirely natural. Without the Negro, Cuba would not be Cuba. He could not therefore be ignored. It was imperative then to study this integral element of Cuban life; but no one had ever studied him, and, indeed, it appeared that no one cared to study him. Some did not consider him worth the trouble; still others felt that to do so would arouse conflicts and unpleasantness; still others probably believed that such a study would cause the erstwhile silent voice of a guilty conscience to be heard. The least that can be said is that the study of the Negro was a heavy and laborious task, open to ridicule and yielding no profit. There was an abundant literature on slavery and its abolition and much discussion of this tragic subject, but the whole thing was clouded by hatred, myths, politics, guesswork, and flights of fancy. There were also writings in praise of Aponte, Manzano, Plácido, Maceo,1
(1) José Antonio Aponte, slave martyr to Spanish tyranny, executed for conspiracy in Cuba in 1812. Juan Francisco Manzano, 1797-1854, slave and poet, implicated in the Escalera conspiracy (1844). Plácido, 1809-1896, Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés, illegitimate Cuban mulatto. Romantic poet, executed for treason by Spain. Antonio Maceo, 1845-1896, the Bronze Titan, greatest Cuban military hero of the successful War of Independence against Spain. and other colored men who had achieved national renown in letters or in the struggle for freedom; but about the Negro as a human being, his mind, his history, his ancestral background, his languages, his arts--his positive values and social possibilities--there was nothing. It was dangerous even to speak in public about the Negro and this could be done only on the sly and under cover. It even seemed that the Negro, and especially the mulatto, wished to forget himself and to abhor his race so as not to recall its martyrdom and frustration, very much as the leper tries to conceal his misfortune. But I reaffirmed my determination and, proceeding to my study, essayed the first steps through the black jungle of what seemed to me the most characteristic of the colored element in Cuba, that is the mystery of the secret societies of African origin which still survive in our land.
Everyone talked about this, but no one really knew the truth. It seemed to be a shady business, about which there were many macabre fables and bloody tales, all of which served to spur my own interest. I even offered to a publisher, a friend of mine, a book I was to write
For forty years then, I have been an explorer engaged in classification and analysis, working with this intricate jungle of African cultural roots that have sprouted anew in Cuba, and from time to time I have published some of the results of this work as samples of what can be done and as an indication of the great deal that still remains to be done in this field of research.
I published my first volume in 1906. This was a brief tentative study of the religious and black magic survivals of African cultures in Cuba. I revealed them as they were and not as they were thought to be: an extravagant variation of the white man's witchcraft, i.e., the thousand-year-old dealings with demons or evil spirits whose classic examples are the horrible practices of European witches who sucked children's blood and soared to their haunts on brooms. Of all this we are assured by the records of trials of the Holy Inquisition and the works of very learned theologians. The Jesuit father, Martín del Río, speaks for all of them in his famous work which is as scholarly in its form as it is barbarous in content. We were indeed fortunate in Cuba to learn through the first investigation of witchcraft and its mysteries that there never existed such diabolic aeronautics here, and that the so-called witchcraft in Cuba was mostly a jumble of religious practices and African magic, hagiographic legends and superstitions of Christian origin added to the vestiges of pre-Christian paganism.
In this book I introduced the expression "Afro-Cuban," thereby avoiding the risk of using designations tainted with prejudice and moreover exactly defining the dual origin of the social phenomena I had set out to study. This word had already been used in Cuba in 1847 by Antonio de Veitía, but it had not been incorporated into common parlance as is the case today. My first book was generally received by the whites with benevolence, accompanied by the same condescending or disdainful smile which is often the reaction to Bertoldo's anecdotes, bar-room stories and off-color jokes, while among the colored people the only reaction was an ominous silence broken only by expressions of a restrained hostility; all this in spite of the fact that the book, written with objectivity and guided by a positivist criterion, was honored with a prologue signed by Cesare Lombroso.
So far as the whites were concerned, this book on Negro religions was not a factual study, but simply "picturesque" reading, amusing at times, which even poked gentle fun at them. The Negroes looked upon it as a work written deliberately against them, since it
The years went by and I continued to work, constantly writing in kindred themes. Inasmuch as there was no evidence of prejudice or contempt in my analyses and commentaries but only observations on things as they were and explanations of their ethnic origin and sociological meaning, and, since I made a point of establishing a comparison with identical or similar phenomena to be found in typical white cultures at various times and in various lands, the hostility of the colored people gradually wore off, giving way to a cautious silence and courtesy in which there was a mixture of timidity, apology, and desire to ingratiate me. They did not like the idea of my publishing such things, but they offered no tangible opposition.
"What's up this little white fellow's sleeve?" I heard this many times behind my back. Often they asked me to my face, "Why do you butt in on this Negro business? What is it to you? Wouldn't it be better not to bother with it?" About that time I had the misfortune of getting mixed up in politics. During those ten or twelve years I became very well known and popular to some extent; but every time I went to Marianao, Regla, Guanabacoa and certain neighborhoods in Havana, poking around meeting-places, religious gatherings, ñáñigo ceremonies, carnival processions, singing groups, dances, revivals and other get-togethers where the ancestral traditions of the Negro world still survive, I heard some strange new interpretation placed upon my persistent search. A liberal said, "This doctor is an opportunist who wishes to flatter the Negroes in order to get their votes!" A mulatto conservative, who pretended to be white, contributed this remark: "This liberal is doing a lot of harm to Cuba by bringing back unpleasant memories of the days of slavery." There was even a highbrow society woman who said that I frequented Negro religious gatherings attracted by the pretty devotees of Our Lady of Regla rather than by the ceremonies of her cult.
Today confidence in ethnographic research is growing in Cuba and we already have a select, conscientious, capable and farsighted minority which understands that the only sure path to complete freedom from prejudices is an acquaintance with reality based on scientific investigation and on the just appreciation of facts and circumstances.
() This speech was delivered by Fernando Ortiz on the evening of December 12, 1942, at the Club Atenas of Havana, on receiving the title Socio de Honor (Honorary Member) from the Club. It was published originally as "Por la integración cubana de blancos y negros" in the January 1943 edition of Ultra [1943g]. This English translation by Dr. Ben Frederick Carruthers first appeared in the Pan-American Union's October 1943 special edition of Points of View [1943r].