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Film Documents Different View of Black Life in Cuba

Robin Hayes felt out of place as a Yale graduate student.

In 2001, she and several Yale African-American studies students – most Black like herself – created a refuge in The Black Resistance Reading Group. The next year, the group went to Cuba.

For  a week, the group of nine, armed with video-cameras, left the predominantly White confines of New Haven, Ct., for the island nation that is 62 percent Black and Mulatto. The result is a documentary: “Beautiful Me(s): Finding our Revolutionary Selves in Black Cuba.”  

Hayes, the director and now an assistant professor of ethnic studies and political science at Santa Clara University, will screen the film Feb. 19 at The Community Folks Arts Center in Syracuse, NY. (See the trailer.)

The film mingles interviews of the students with whatever Cuba footage the non-professional videographers could salvage. It’s more about the group’s reaction to Cuba than Cuba itself.

“I think that, from the beginning, our objective was to document our experience,” Hayes said in an interview.

“Being scholars, we’re definitely sensitive to the fact that not having a background in Latin-American studies or Cuban studies and being there a week doesn’t put us in a position of being able to expose Afro-Cuban life. It was, ‘Let’s think about what these kinds of encounters in places that are struggling with issues we are struggling with can teach us.’”

Struggles with race were a central theme.

“We were all in some kind of odd way feeling alienated for similar reasons,” one of the travelers, Dalton Jones, says in the film. He now teaches at Ohio’s Bowling Green University.

Besenia Rodríguez, now an administrator at Pepperdine University, is Dominican-American.

“The one difference about Cuba in terms of issues of race is that people not of obviously African descent could talk about being of African descent because they’re in a mixed-race country,” Rodríguez says in the documentary. “There’s a kind of openness among non-Black people…to talk about race, about Africa…that there isn’t in the United States, that gives me a sense of hope.”

In one of many scenes featuring music – from street rap to sensual rumba to a schoolgirls’ dance recital – fellow traveler Erin Chapman also found hope in the adolescent dancers’ self-image.

“They seemed to feel secure in a way within themselves, within their bodies, within their identities in  a way that I don’t see American girls of any color, especially at that age,” Chapman says in the documentary. She is now an assistant professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Mississippi.

Joshua Guild, today an assistant professor of African-American history at Princeton, did find a bit of racial imbalance as the group relaxed at the renowned Varadero beach. While they encountered hip-hop in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, it was hard to come by in a beach resort catering to European and Canadian tourists.

Reclining poolside in the documentary, Guild asked a fellow traveler to urge the resort DJ to switch off the pounding European dance music.

“I offered Tucker $20 if he could get them to play Black Star CD: Talib Kweli and Mos Def. He returned, unsuccessful,” Guild said. “ Looks like that wasn’t the niche they were going for.”

Hayes said the Cuban Institute for Friendship included the day trip to show the island’s tourist industry. The hosts also arranged for the group to attend a festive block party in

Santiago de Cuba, sponsored by a local association called the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. In Spanish with English subtitles, a woman, voicing over scenes from the block party, described the CDR as an organization created to organize Cuban families and link them to doctors and educational centers.

But CDRs are widely renowned as groups that inform on neighbors who show dissent with the government. The film doesn’t mention that role.

“When we had a visit to the CDR, certainly our visit was planned and someone who was skeptical could say this was a show,” Hayes said in an interview. “But it was clear, the whole community was very open. We were free to talk to everyone…We felt there was a tremendous sense of openness and unity that you would be hard-pressed to see in working-class communities in the United States.”

In the film, Hayes contrasts predominantly Black U.S. neighborhoods with those in Cuba.

“There’s nowhere you can go in the United States and see a predominantly Black community that doesn’t have serious issues with poverty, with drugs, with violence,” Hayes said.

“In Cuba, not only do they not have these things, but look at the differences in people. (Here) it’s hard to convince yourselves that there can be another way. Cuba shows there can be another way.”

The trip is one that likely couldn’t be accomplished by academics today.

In 2004, two years after group made the one-week trek to Cuba, the Bush administration imposed new rules on academic travel to the island nation. Now, such trips are allowed under a specific Treasury Department license for more formal programs of study – at least 10 weeks long.

Recently, a coalition of groups sent a letter to President-elect Barack Obama, urging him to reverse the stricter travel policies for family and academic travel to Cuba. Among the signers: the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Association of International Educators and the Latin American Studies Association.

“Hopefully, we will be entering a period of new openness now after 50 years,” Hayes said. “And more people will be able to go and see for themselves.”

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