Black Slaves of Blacks

Dmitri Prieto

Havana Balcony - photo: Caridad

A few days ago, I was on a panel discussion dealing with the history of the Caribbean.  The panelists spoke about how each Caribbean country evolved its own distinct way of life, though the common characteristic to almost all these societies was the plantation slavery.

The international capitalist system used slaves, African slaves, which is to say blacks.  From that arose the need for slaveholder-capitalists to promote racism as a means of legitimizing this system in the eyes of their “labor force,” as well as in their own minds.

However, this was a system that was quite diverse in its local cultural features, such that Cuba today is hardly the same as Haiti, the Dominican Republic or Jamaica; there are important differences in ethnic composition, degrees of cultural integration, racial mixing and the political involvement of various races.

It caught my attention how —in a spirit of questioning certain stereotypes ingrained in people by the press, television and the simplistic rendering of history— one of the members of the panel called attention to the absence in our Cuban telenovelas of slaveholding blacks in the country’s colonial past.  He added that slaveholding blacks treated black slaves worse than did slaveholding whites.

I’d known for a long time there had existed black slaveholders in the Caribbean.  In fact, some of these owners of African captives played an important role in the destiny of the first social revolution in the Americas: the Haitian Revolution.

For this same reason, in 1844 in Cuba, Spanish colonial authorities unleashed repression primarily against the rapid social ascent of free blacks who had been able to obtain important positions in the cultural and social life of the island.  These were steps taken by the white colonial elite against the emerging competition “of color.”

The social and economic status of Caribbean plantation owners was measured by the holding of slaves, which is why the free African descendents felt the need to integrate themselves in that system.  They noted that the means to do this was first “to make money,” and later to buy slaves – slaves of their same color.  In fact, there even existed slaves of slaves.

These facts have been pointed out by noted Caribbean historians with no suspicions of racism of any type.  They insist that, among other elements, plantation slavery was a complete way of life, which is to say it incorporated everyone.

This helps to highlight the heroism of all people —blacks and whites, women and men— who had the courage to confront such a complete system and who finally demolished it (still when, as many specialists say, it continued being economically profitable in its final years).

Therefore, there is nothing racist in pointing out that there existed black slaveholders.  On the contrary, it is a point that affirms the anti-human nature of slavery and the necessity for its abolition in the 19th century.

But…why insist then that slaveholding blacks were worse than the whites?  Where is the historical evidence?  Does such evidence exist?

It seemed to some of us participants on the panel that the presenter was simply placing one stereotype over top of another.  What’s more, this was a stereotype that had a whiff of racism. It’s that all stereotypes are dominating and discriminatory per se.  Only their questioning sets us free.

Does it make sense to struggle against exclusionary stereotypes by inventing new ones?  Does it make sense erect preconceptions and prejudices without providing evidence?  And after all, are these really new?

I believe it is definitively indispensable in today’s Cuba that we uncover the history of those who have been excluded.