Cuba: The Anthropology of Popular Opinion

Jorge Milanes Despaigne

A private barbershop in Havana.  Photo: Juan Suarez
A private barbershop in Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — No one in Cuba today is surprised to hear the various opinions that have traditionally surrounded the claim that “black people have bigger penises than white people,” so I assume no one will be too shocked by my comments on the subject below.

I release the delicate and moralistic from any commitment to read these lines. Although, no one really has to know that you read this, so, take advantage of this opportunity (it doesn’t come every day).

The issue of size here is not too dissimilar from the way one chooses a pair of shoes. You try them on and, if they’re comfortable…well…True, what I’m referring to is with you from the time you are born and grows over time, like our interest curves in life, with its ups and downs and new adventures here and there. Nothing in life in eternal, neither that which inspires you or that which you inspire.

When I was younger, the indirect and direct questions some women put to me were a source of both good and bad fortune. “You must carry a sword down there, right?” some would ask me tongue-in-cheek.

It was the stereotype doing its thing. They saw a tall black man and the rest was pure history and tradition (though there are always exceptions to the rule).

The myth of the healthy phallus comes to us from the times of slavery, when some women, defying the prevailing social taboos, would decide to satisfy their sexual cravings through secret relations with the strong and virile black slaves, whom they threatened to remain quiet about these.

Others contented themselves with looking and longing from a distance. They wouldn’t take it any further than that. White men, the masters, also slept with female slaves and later intimidated them to keep quiet. These women didn’t have to keep up any appearances before society, though some of them did occupy certain positions within the slave community. At any rate, they gradually created a new society, the Cuban society of today.

This opinion is no longer so widely held, but it remains as a result of certain noxious commercial tendencies, and some popular magazines and videos continue to depict black people in racist ways. It reflects latent or explicit opinions, and this sells, of course.

Societies today are far more integrated racially. Globalization pretty much imposes this and the myth has lost (and will continue to lose) some of its prevalence as a result of so much mingling among peoples.

This is also true of Cuba, of which our national poet, Nicolas Guillen, once said in his verses: “All of us mixed together, mixed together.”

5 thoughts on “Cuba: The Anthropology of Popular Opinion

  • Jorge, this is a myth that never seems to go away. Despite the Black Panthers, taking the myth and turning it on it’s head for political advantage, it is actually very damaging. The primary origin of the myth as political tool for revolution comes from the “reformed” rapist Eldridge Cleaver (I believe describing him thus provides important context, though I don’t dismiss his work). Huey Newton in later life said that Eldridge, who practiced raping “Black” women before moving on to “White” women, was “obsessed with being the stud” and demonstrated profound disrespect for “Black” women in general. Eldridge describes how the “Whites” conception of “race” fetishized “Black” males as the “super menial” whose only purpose was to work with their bodies, but rather than challenge this, he sought to promote it as an advantage over “White” males as the new “super masculine” with which the “White” males could not compete. This obsession with sexual prowess is actually very damaging as it takes away from the multitude of other aspects of life that are needed to be explored to create a developed being. Replacing physical labour by sex may seem attractive to the adolescent but it is far removed from the realities of a healthy life. In fact privileged “Whites” recognise the role of the myth in subjugating “Black” males which is why the “White” owned porn industry continues to perpetuate it with increased vigour. “White” porn director Billy Watson admits to this on Reddit in answer to the question whether porn promotes racist stereotypes: “I think that theme is what sells IR [“interracial” meaning “Black” men with “White” women] sex, and not only is it silly but it’s totally unfounded. It’s made-up, and I perpetuate that myth. Kinsey measured something like 15,000 penises during his career, and 5 to 7″ is the number, regardless of race.” Why the porn industry is allowed to get away with this blatant perpetuation of racist stereotypes is probably down to the fact that no one wants to talk about it in polite society.

  • This is a clash of two racist norms, Cuba and the U.S. In the U.S. the “one drop rule” means that you only have to have one “drop of black blood” (a meaningless sentence) and you are considered “Black”. In Cuba the “one drop rule” operates in reverse whereby you only have to have one “drop of white blood” and you are not considered “Black”. Which is the more racist? Both are predicated on notions of “White” superiority. Under these rules, the U.S. may have a “Black” president, but objectively, Cuba has less “racial” problems. Who are you to impose U.S. racist norms on Cuba? Do you think that by reversing the “one drop rule” you will solve the “racial” problems in Cuba? If a person self identifies as “Mulatto” or “White” and you say s/he is “Black” who is being the more insensitive? I have said “colour-blindness” can be just as racist as “colour-consciousness”. What is really needed is the destruction of notions of “White” superiority. In a global context, no Cuban who lives in Cuba should be considered “White”. Those who stayed opted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the non-“White” majority of the world and to live as they live. An Afro-Cuban may have the right to call a Galician-Cuban “White” but a “White” from the U.S. or Europe, has no right to, as if Galician-Cuban’s “Whiteness” somehow equates with U.S. or European “Whiteness”. What Cuba has shown is that the “racial” question is not just about playing with words but taking action towards equality.

  • Well George that is interesting. However let us just for a moment re-consider Question 6 and how it cleverly manipulates the figures.
    White has always been and is still recognized in Cuba as being superior with blacks being the descendents of slaves – Cuba being the last country to end slavery in 1886.
    Let us imagine for the moment that I have a very dark black skin but that one of my grandfathers was white. Because being light skinned is advantageous, I put down that I am Mulatto. Now let us imagine that I am very light skinned, but that my father was mulatto. I put down that I am white.
    You may suggest that I am merely saying that to support my view, but you would be incorrect. I am saying it following asking Cubansabout the responses they gave to the question. I know a Mulatto schoolteacher who has two sons by the same man. One is very light skinned and the other pretty dark. The light-skinned one responded to Question 6 by saying he was white – he is incidentally a professional baseball player. The darker brother responded by saying that he is mulatto – although in the US he would be described as black – he incidentally is a surgeon and operated on the now deceased President of Venezuela – with a car as reward.
    The only people describing themselves as black are those with no white blood and with very dark skins who either find it impossible to deny their heritage or have pride it it!
    As the official percentage of blacks in Cuba declines (It decreased from 10.1 to 9.9 between the 2002 and 2012 censuses) the regime can justify its habit of trying to appoint as few blacks as possible to managerial or administrative positions.
    Take a look at the photograph of the 2010 Party Congress. There is Fidel up in the back row on the right, but where are the black people apart from the token President of the Congress?
    Ask tourists to Cuba what their estimate is of the percentage of Cubans who are black. 9.9% is obviously bogus.
    As I wrote, back in 1843, Cuba had 660,000 inhabitants of whom 498,000 were slaves. The official 2012 census figures are that just over 1 million of Cubans are black, this despite the emigration of so many predominantly whites to the US and elsewhere. Take a look at Cuba’s sports teams – where are the whites?
    Why is Question 6 necessary in Cuba but not in other countries?
    I don’t think it has anything to do with Jose Marti – who was a hero to Batista who built the memorial in Santiago for Marti.
    As one who spends most of my time in Cuba, I should take the opportunity to quote him – but with application to Cuba:
    I have lived within the beast and know its entrails.
    With regard to your final sentence, its a bit late to be correcting the consequences.
    Esteban Morales was correct when he commented that in 1962 to claim that the problem of discrimination and racism had been solved was an error of idealism and wishful thinking – the same applies 53 years later. Why do the State Police stop my wife and I when going about our lawful business in Havana? That repetitive behaviour is racism – for we are black and white.

  • Carlyle, I think you are mistaken on this issue, “colour-blindness” can be just as racist as “colour-consciousness” and “colour-consciousness” can be less racist than “colour-blindness”. “Race” is fundamentally contradictory in that it is a social construct, and thus not real, but it has real repercussions through it’s historical and continued use. The policy of the Revolution from the outset was to follow Jose Marti in saying that “race” does not exist. But if “race” does not exist then how can there be “racism”. This contradiction has led many Cubans such as the eminent scholar Esteban Morales to call for government socio-economic statistics to be broken down by skin colour. Hence the inclusion of the question in the census. The following is an excerpt from an article he wrote where he outlines his reasons for demanding that government keep and analyse statistics on skin colour:
    “Proclaiming in 1962 that the problem of racial discrimination and racism had been solved was an error of idealism and wishful thinking. As a direct result of that, the subject of race has become the most avoided and ignored topic in our social reality. A significant segment of our intelligentsia pays it no attention and does not even deem it worthy of consideration, as a result of which there are even major differences among our intellectuals over where we stand in terms of the consolidation of the nation and its culture. However, speaking scientifically, I do not think there can be the slightest doubt that when we talk about “race” in Cuba – even though this is a social invention – we are talking about culture and nation.

    Moreover, turning the subject into a taboo, removing it from all social and political arenas, gave rise to a social environment that made it more difficult to refer to racism. Those who brought it up were ideologically and politically repressed. In the sphere of culture the subject of race was still broached to a degree, but from the standpoint of the sciences it was impossible to do research on it, and especially to write about it. According to the prevailing view at that time, in the midst of the political confrontation of those years, anyone who critically analyzed racism was playing into the hands of those who wanted to socially divide Cubans, and it earned them the epithet of being a racist or a divider, or both.

    If you don’t deal with “skin color” as what it is, a historical variable of social differentiation among Cubans, you can forget that blacks, whites, and mestizos did not start from the same place in taking advantage of the opportunities that the Revolution provided them. So it was overlooked that many of the poor were black, which represents an additional disadvantage, even within present-day Cuban society.

    Color exerted its influence and even though blacks and mestizos were treated in exactly the same manner as poor whites, they remained at a greater disadvantage. Later it was shown that it was not enough to be born in the same hospital, to attend the same school and the same recreation center, if some children return to a tenement, to a marginal neighborhood, while others have a substantial house, parents earning good salaries and much better living conditions, conditions that do not characterize the immense majority of nonwhites, and especially blacks. The neighborhoods are different, as are the families and their living standards.

    And although black and white children may have the same opportunities, this does not mean that all will be equally capable of overcoming the historic starting points bequeathed by their family, living conditions, neighborhood, etc. Unfortunately, social policies at the time of the triumph of the Revolution did not take skin color into account, with consequences that must now be corrected. “

  • Official Census of Cuba 2012:
    Question 6.
    What is the colour of your skin?
    Whereas Nicolas Guillen may have thought that “All of us mixed together”, the Castro family regime wishes to record skin colour differences.
    Cuba has a history of concern about maintaining white supremacy starting as long ago as 1791 when Francisco de Arango y Parreno, Agent of the Municipality of Havana wrote:
    “We tolerate and have always tolerated the entry of Negro infidels, many of whom die infidels, but we cannot suffer the entry of white Catholics unless they be Spaniards.”
    In 1796, the Marques de Casa Penalver suggested maintaining equilibrium by limiting introduction of negroes and by importing whites, he suggested from the Canary Islands and Indians(!) from Vera Cruz.
    In 1814 a plot to free slaves by a free Negro Jose Antonio Aponte was uncovered and the leaders executed.
    In 1815 there was encouragement of white immigrants from a wider sphere:
    “Foreigners of the Catholic faith willing to take the oath of allegiance” with 1.59 acres of land for each member of the family and half the amount for each slave they imported, in addition those recruited would be exempt from tax for fifteen years.
    That same year, Alejandro Ramirez, Superintendencia de Real Hacienda organized the Junta de Poblacion Blanca.
    In 1817 the British persuaded Spain to sign a treaty for termination of the slave trade, so between 1818 and 1821, Spain in response imported 56,000 slaves
    In 1835 the British extracted a second treaty from Spain and in the same year Spain promoted white colonization.
    In 1843 Cuba had 660,000 inhabitants of whom 498,000 were slaves.
    As Spain had agreed not to import more slaves, in 1846 600 coolies were imported from China and by 1852 125,000 had entered..
    1880 to 1886 saw the gradual abolition of slavery with Spain continuing its policy of white immigration. Between 1882 and 1894, 224,000 immigrated from Spain of whom 142,000 returned to Spain.
    1895 brought the war for independence which ended in 1898 with American Military Authorities in control.
    Between 1899 and 1905 150,000 Spaniards immigrated.
    On July 11, 1906 the Government of Cuba (not the US) introduced the “Ley de Immigracion with One Million Dollars to encourage WHITE immigration.
    There followed the second US occupation which ended with a new Cuban Government on January 11, 1909.
    In 1913, the Government of Cuba paid a bonus of $5 for every person imported from Panama.
    In March 1914, President Mario G Menocal appointed Senator Manuel Fernandez Guevara as Special Commisioner to Spain to investigate “The best way to promote immigration of Spaniards to our Republic on a large scale.”
    In 1917 the same President signed a law permitting entry of “contract labourers” and 150.000 Chinese were admitted.
    The economic history of Cuba is of whites being superior to other peoples but dependent upon the labour of those other peoples predominantly black slaves and later Chinese coolies.
    When there already were hundreds of thousands of blacks in Cuba, all accustomed to hard agricultural work, the governments of Spain and later of Cuba were giving monetary and land gifts to whites from Spain without any thought or consideration for their fellow Cubans – because they were BLACK!
    Today the Castro family regime (the family was itself a beneficiary of Cuban government policies) seeks to persuade that less than 10% of Cubans are black.
    Nothing has changed in Cuba, skin colour remains – as indicated by Question 6, significant.
    But looking at the history of Cuba built upon the backs of black slaves, where is the equivalent of Martin Luther King Day. Why does the Castro family regime not recognize the critical role that the hard working blacks played in mitigating the lack of hard work by the white mainly Spanish slave owners?

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