Nancy Morejon’s Collective Rememberence and the Prize of Black Flesh

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Still I smell the foam of the sea which they made me cross.

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The night, I cannot remember it.

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Not even the ocean itself could remember it.

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But I do not forget the first gannet I made out.

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High, the clouds, like innocent eyewitnesses.

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Perhaps I have not forgotten either my lost coast, or

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my  ancestral tongue.

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They left me here and here I have lived.

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And because I worked like a beast,

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Here I was born again.

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To many Mandinga epopeias did I try to have recourse.

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I rebelled.

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……………… 

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      Initially, Nancy Morejon’s celebrated poem “Mujer Negra/Black Woman” seems to be a general statement on all/any woman of the African Diaspora and the horrifying consequences of the European rape of Africa embodied in that woman. The poem being called “Black Woman”, not “The Black Woman” or “A Black Woman” (or “A Black Cuban Woman”, even) seems to suggest this Black Woman, as writer or speaker could be any Black woman. And, indeed, until the final stanza, the poem is a powerful illustration of a woman’s journey from Africa to enslavement in Europe and the Americas, suffering the horrible and total loss of identity and culture in hegemonic oppression, through rebellion and so-called emancipation. But the issue of absolute commonality in the African Diaspora is a tricky one. One often hears “Oh, s/he’s Black, they understand.” Which is true to a point. Certainly there are common traits particular to Africans and their descendents, as in any culture. And there are certain traits and a collective memory that binds Black people together, the Black Holocaust and all that means forever burned in each of us. But it is a mistake to assume that a Black person in Cuba will claim to understand everything that has made a person from the American South the way they are and vice versa. Also, for the most part, identifying as “Black” seems to be particular to African-American descendents of slaves. North American Blacks are peculiarly displaced, feeling no allegiance to the country that has enslaved them, yet wanting to take part in all the freedom the country’s founding fathers hypocritically claimed was for all. Africans in other nations (including countries in Central and Southern America), however, seem to always identify first with their country, then with their race. It is not uncommon to hear one say, “I’m Cuban [or any other country]first, Black second.” While it is tempting to lump all Black people together and, in the case of writers like Morejon, to frustratingly wish them to be “more Black” and write more about a more universal Black experience, one must not make these mistakes.

      Morejon has often been criticized for her “silence” and self-censorship regarding her feelings as a woman in general and a Black woman specifically. Many readers and critics alike wish her to speak more openly about oppression or, to put it simply, what it means to be Afro-Cuban more and less what it means to be Cuban. Then one is confronted with the changes the Revolution brought about, which Jean Andrews summarizes in the introduction to her anthology of Morejon’s poetry, Mujer Negra y otras poemas/ Black Woman and Other Poems: “When the Cuban Revolution took place in 1959, Cuba was the ‘most racist if the Hispanic Caribbean Territories’. It set out as one of its chief aims the elimination of the discrimination on the grounds of race and, with some caveats, has been successful in transforming Cuba into, arguably, the most racially integrated of the Caribbean nations.”

      On the one hand the frustrated reader can assume that, though disillusioned by the Revolution’s subtle contradictions and failures, many Afro-Cubans, Morejon included, have continued to “blindly” support it, in a way of saying “well, it’s not great, but it’s all we have.” Much in the way many North American Blacks seemed to acquiesce to the notion of “Separate but Equal.” But this assumption, too, would be the mistake of placing an outside context on the issue; of thinking of a distinctly Cuban matter through a North American filter. There is another way to see the issue, however…

      In an essay entitled “Cuban National Identity in Morejon, Rolando, and Ayon”, from the book Guarding Cultural Memory: Afro-Cuban Women in Literature and the Arts, Flora Gonzales Mandri explores this: 

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Castro’s much quoted words are “Within the Revolution everything, against the Revolution nothing”… Because in the new socialist revolution racism could not exist, discussion of race could not be tolerated…overall, Afro-Cubans who remained in Cuba, like Morejon, are critical of times, from the 1960s to the 1990s, when the institutional government supported black independence movements yet did not allow its black intellectuals to speak openly about their Afro-Cuban identity…I agree with Howe that Morejon’s ambivalent intellectual attitude may be seen as a personal survival mechanism given the fact that she has chosen to continue living in Cuba…it shows her to be an excellent mediator between her culture and her national identity.

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The question then to confront is whether Morejon consciously censors herself, recognizing the irony of a society born of a revolution that purports to have unified the races and classes in a single, all-inclusive identity when, in fact, that only brings a loss of identity in further denying a people the right to claim their dual heritage and unique culture. Or is she blindly buying into the ultimately unfulfilled promises of Communism where all people are equal along lines of gender, race, and class which essentially leaves one without a unique identity, as one has presumably become a tiny part of one huge homogenous group. By the end of “Black Woman”, one gets the jarring feeling that Morejon, before this point, has been digging deep, exploring what it means to be Black and inherit the legacy of slavery and the African holocaust and suddenly, to appease the powers that be, throws in a random laudatory stanza in which she thanks Communism for freeing her from that oppression by doing away with discrimination in that country: 

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Only a century later,

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together with my descendants,

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from a blue mountain,

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I came down from the Sierra

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to put an end to capitalists and usurers,

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to generals and bourgeois.

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Now I am: Only today do we have and create.

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Nothing is outside our reach.

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Ours the land.

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Ours the sea and sky.

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Ours magic and the chimera.

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My equals, here I watch them dance

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around the tree we planted for communism.

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Its prodigious wood already resounds. 

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This final stanza feels foreign to the rest of the poem, feels hastily added, as an afterthought or even a half-hearted inclusion of propoganda—a false happy ending, seemingly over-idealistic, to an epic tragedy. Why does Morejon add this? Does she truly believe this, is she that hopeful, that faithful to the ideals of the Revolution? Or is she simply finding a means to speak of her feelings as a Black Woman, skillfully and knowingly veiling it with this tongue in cheek supplement serving as what Mandri calls a “survival mechanism”? The trouble with Morejon is that one can never be quite sure.

      In her poem “Rebirth”, it seems much clearer that Morejon belives in her Cuba and certainly does “live and think” in and on the Revolution. Grateful for the struggle, indebted to her nation, she writes beautifully: 

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Daughter of the sea waters

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asleep in their entrails,

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I am reborn from the gunpowder

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which a guerilla rifle

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spread on the mountain

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so that the world would be reborn in its turn,

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that the whole sea would be reborn,

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all the dust,

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all the dust of Cuba. 

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She alludes to her ancestors’ journey through the Middle Passage and the strength of the descendants, inheriting their (hi)stories—those that survived, including herself and her generation, and those that didn’t. She doesn’t allow herself or the reader to mistake her as a daughter of anything else but Mother Africa first and, yes, the ocean where rests innumerable Africans’ bones. However, she quickly asserts herself as a reborn daughter of the Revolution, of Cuba, thankful for being part of the effort to liberate her people through Communist unity. She is, as Richard Jackson says in his article “Remembering the ‘dismembered’: modern black writers and slavery in Latin America”, “remember[ing]a double Middle Passage, the original Atlantic slave trade and the ‘new’ Middle Passage…from the Caribbean to Central America.” She even seems to suggest that the Cuban Revolution and its supposed success is only the beginning of a successful rebirth of the entire world, following the Communist example, in which Blacks that died in the cycle of injustice would be avenged. The dust that was their bones littering the floor of the Atlantic, the dust that was their bones making up the very American soil we walk upon, Morejon seems to suggest, converges to make up “all the dust of Cuba”, the country that, through the Revolution, avenges them. Morejon fares better, however, returning to make a more generalized statement on the state of men in the Diaspora in her poem “Negro/Black Man”, in which she confronts a more universally understood, and troubling, racist eroticization of the Black male.

      From the beginning, there has been a constant envy and inherent fear of the African mind and body.  Europeans knew the strength of the Africans, knew their knowledge and wealth. What the Europeans didn’t have, they stole from the so-called Dark Continent—the inventions of the people from electricity to embalming and brain surgery; gold, diamonds, land and other resources; even the people themselves, profiting from their physical strength, using them to build the New World they’d stolen, too, from the so-called Indians they nearly exterminated in gracious return. The primary goal to ensure maintenance of the people’s enslavement was to break them spiritually, to strip them of their history and culture and convince them they were inferior—to convince the world and the enslaved that they were animals. The Black man (and to some degree the Black woman) has been painted through history as a beast, a sexually ravenous predator, insatiable, ready at any moment to corrupt the white body—the prized white female body being the most sacred and, it was assumed, most threatened. As far back as the 16th century, we already had seemingly infinite proof that the myth of the Black male predator was widely accepted—Shakespeare’s Othello, for example is the tragic story of the moor, betrayed by the very whites who exalted him for his military prowess and, in the same instant, accused him of rape and unholy enchantment of his white wife, Desdemona. In the American South, thousands of Blacks were lynched (especially during and after Reconstruction), murdered horribly for crimes they never committed—nearly all of them having been accused of rape or the attempted rape of the supposed ‘Pure White Woman”. One must wonder, though, if this terrible trend was as commonly practiced among whites in Latin America and, more importantly, if this myth of Black sexuality was as persistent.

      Afro-Cuban photographer Rene Pena confirms and confronts this in his series “Ritos II/Rituals II”. Several of his photographs are uncomfortably close shots of a Black body—a nipple, teeth, even palm lines. These tight shots are disturbing, as if the photographer is the white observer, casting a cool, cruel eye over the Black body, examining it not as a human, but as an animal, a specimen, as some grotesque phenomenon, as an object. The photographs, as close as they are, make this Black body no longer a body and the images scarcely look human. We see skin cells, pores, wrinkles, turning into a sort of design, distanced from the body and, ultimately, the soul of the human they belong to. As if that wasn’t troubling enough, however, Pena includes two other prints that make the issue unmistakably clear, leaving no ambiguities—one, “Revolver en la boca/Gun in mouth”, showing a Black male with a pistol in his mouth, presumably to commit suicide; the other, “Cuchillo/Knife” is a fascinating shot of a Black man fingering the tip of a gleaming, sharp knife that substitutes as his penis. We have Black men, poised for their own deaths by their own sexuality. We do not have to explain the obvious phallic nature of the gun, nor do we have to explain the well-known myth that endures today concerning the power of the Black penis, and the Black man with the gun in his mouth reinforces the tragic reality of the African, attacked and feared and often murdered for the very sexual prowess he is glorified for. The subject of “Cuchillo” is in a similar predicament. The viewer watches his finger on the tip of the knife—is he stroking this deadly weapon of a penis, taking pride in it even as it inevitably destroys him, even as he is cut by it, killed by it? One continues to wonder….

      Morejon tackles the issue of the simultaneous, if contradictory, exoticism and demonism of the Black man, also a victim of lynching, in “Negro”: 

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Your hair,

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for some,

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was devilry from the Inferno;

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but the hummingbird built his nest

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there, with no misgivings,

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when you were hanging high on the gallows post,

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in from of the palace of the captains.

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………… 

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She begins very directly illuminating the trouble of European standards of beauty inherited by non-whites that leaves them insecure, unhappy with what their natural, unique beauty, longing to “better” themselves by looking white, damaging themselves with skin bleaching, harmful hair straightening products, and surgery. This Black man of Morejon’s poem, called ugly, called nigger, called animal, called monster, called unacceptable by white society, he is beautiful in nature. The bird nesting in his hair, calling him home, is at one with this Black body. This bird loves this Black body, just as the sky, sea, and earth love this Black body—all waiting to claim him, to welcome him. The sea that already holds the remains of the Black bodies that came before him, thrown away, unappreciated—that sea loves that Black body. The earth he will be buried in (if he’s lucky), the earth his body will soon decay and replace—that earth loves that Black body. The sky his soul will take flight in, leaving that unwanted skin—that sky loves that Black body. It is only the enemy, the enslaver, that hates and fears his body, his skin, his hair… Morejon continues, a few lines later: 

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Then dying

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they suspected your smile was salty

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and your moss impalpable for the encounter of love.

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Others affirmed that your swamp sticks

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brought us that somber damage

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which does not allow us to shine before Europe

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and which hurls us, in the ritual maelstrom,

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into that impossible rhythm

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of unnameable drums. 

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Here she acknowledges the arrogance, the insolence the Black man is accused of—but since when is claiming a bit of human dignity arrogance? The “salty” dying smile not one of lost hope, not one of submission, but one of knowing—refusing to concede and, although knowing he will die for his perceived threat, still trusting the struggle will continue and, one day, justice must come to his people. Morejon acknowledges that this skin the white man does not love has somehow been a curse that keeps them forever at the lowest levels of humanity, that “does not allow” them to “shine before Europe”, to be accepted as something worthy, something with a soul. That “impossible rhythm of unnameable drums” is the one they’ve forgotten, their native African tongues and songs, dances and gods, lost, stolen, forgotten. But this man and his memory will continue to live and be loved by Morejon and the rest of the Black women, mothers and lovers, who were denied this man’s presence in their lives as husband, father, son—the white man having divided him from his people, wreaked havoc and dissension amongst them, and, ultimately, killed him: 

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We will always love

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your tracks and your bronze spirit

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because you have brought that living light of the flowing past,

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that pain of having entered clean into the battle,

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that simple affection for bells and rivers,

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that rumor of breath free in the Spring

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which runs to the sea in order to return

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and leave all over again. 

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This effort to love the unloved, to call beautiful what the oppressor says is ugly, is approached in a similar way by African-American writer and Pulitzer prize-winner Toni Morrison, in her novel Beloved, where the protagonist’s mother-in-law and community minister (of sorts), Baby Suggs, holy, calls out to the community of runaway slaves: 

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“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands…stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth…they will see it broken and break it again… What you scream from it, they will not hear…they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them…and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” 

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It is here, in “Negro” that Morejon returns to a feeling common to all members of the diaspora—the need to unite, as Black people, and love what has been cursed, the common search for identity and purpose where history has literally been erased and re-written, the common ability to forge a new culture, a new spirit, a victory over the very repression that tried to annihilate the old spirit. Despite her Cuban peculiarity, Morejon still finds a comfortable place among other Black writers and continues a legacy African descendents all over the world can still hold claim to. 

 

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