Medical Anthropologist, University of Houston
Program Chair, Association of Black Anthropologists conference in Cuba
As program organizer for the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA), the conference in Cuba is a project that I really began thinking about some three or four years ago. When I became president two years ago we began talking about having a conference separate from the National Association, because we needed an avenue and space where we could not only network but also share our work that sometimes, at the national meetings with 15 minutes to present a paper, is somewhat confining. We wanted to create a different format in which we could share our work with one another and, at the same time, we could learn about the culture of another country. So we decided to start having our conference outside of the United States every two years.
This is the first ABA conference in Cuba and it’s been a great conference. We had two days of formal presentations of papers that were wonderful – things that you don’t usually hear in the States. Some of the papers were about writers, a lot about history. The whole conference focused on the African Diaspora in every aspect possible – history, music, food, culture, folklore, etc., and we’ve heard papers about all of those things. It’s also been enjoyable to hear from our Cuban colleagues – they’ve really given us, I think, a feel and a better understanding of the history of Cuba, as well as what’s going on in contemporary Cuba. In addition to the formal presentations we went on various excursions and tours, seeing places, learning about the revolution and also what happened before the revolution, and bringing it into the present. At the same time, we were able to go out and see what people were actually doing, and so we were able to compare what we’ve heard in the States, what we’ve heard from tourists, and what we’ve heard from people in Cuba.
It’s been a real learning experience for me, and I’m sure, for everyone else as well. before we came we heard certain things like “you’re going to see only old cars” and “you’re not going to be able to find food outside of the hotel”. We’ve found that a lot of that is simply not true. People are learning that we’ve had a certain view in the United States. I was not aware, for example, that there were so many black people in Cuba – a large percentage of black people. Usually in the US, on the news, in the movies and those kinds of things, we’ve been treated mainly to Ricky Ricardo – those images of what a Cuban is, now we find that Cuban’s are much more than that. It’s a rich culture, a very diverse culture, and that diversity is something I didn’t expect. I think I expected a more homogeneous population. Cuba has its problems, of course, and it looks like they’re working on them; how long it’ll take to get out of them – who knows?