Review of Blackface Cuba 1840-1895

JILL LANE. Blackface Cuba 1840-1895. Rethinking the Americas Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. xi +274.

What it means to be Cuban is a question that has consistently and, one could argue, aggressively haunted the nation and its people. The failure of the query is not only that it usually demands a singular answer. Rather, the question's assertiveness can often flatten the historical violences and conflicts, tensions and collaborations, pleasures and injuries at work in its conjuring. It is refreshing and comforting, then, that Jill Lane's Blackface Cuba 1840-1895 doubly challenges the historical approaches to this entreaty and models alternative ways to engage its demands. It must be stated from the outset: the book should not be isolated for its Cuban specificity. The text's resourcefulness to critics will no doubt prove meaningful, and not merely as a vital resource for the hemispheric study of blackface performance. Lane's indispensable work offers a rich and nuanced understanding on how processes of racial formations are lived, felt and contested in the broader Americas.

The book investigates the development of teatro bufo, Cuba's vernacular theater, as a pivotal intersection of national being and belonging in the final decades of the island's Spanish occupation. By following this influential performative thread, Lane imaginatively moves through one of the more undertheorized periods of Cuban history. Its contribution in this regard is extraordinary. The book takes place in an era of cataclysmic events, including the massacre of hundreds of free blacks and slaves in 1844, and the first failed attempt at independence known as the Ten Years' War. Her chapters capture the irresolute sentiments uniquely brought about by the project of nation building. By situating her archive through Partha Chatterjee's conception of the "anticolonial," Lane slows down those direct routes used to analyze Cuba's transition from colony to post colony—a forced discursive progression. By doing so, Lane embraces those difficult moments—indeed, some of the most contradictory and fascinating in Cuban history—too often lost to historians and cultural theorists alike.

Blackface Cuba offers evocative readings of teatro bufo plays and their available ephemera, including (but not limited to) newspaper reviews, pamphlets and programs. Through this universe of primary materials that orbited and ultimately modified the conditions of its performance and spectatorship, Lane engages vast receptive worlds—from Spanish colonial authorities, white criollos, to Cuban feminists of color. One can only imagine the considerable challenges in excavating these diverse materials. What's more, Lane offers their original translations with astute care. However, it is what the author does not translate into Englishthat reveals a deep integrity to the era's dynamics, particularly in her attention to the linguistic emergence of racial euphemisms. At the same time, she refuses to reproduce the graphic violences often forced upon "black" Cuban speech, even as it was then rendered by white writers. Her critical discussion on the specificity and complexity of terms such as bozal, mulata, and guajiro in itself constitutes a much-needed intervention in Cuban scholarship in the United States. Through the watchful deployment of their usage and performance from the stage to the page, Lane's mode of translation does nothing less than demand different paradigms for thinking about race. That Lane addresses this process in a stunning preface titled "On the Translation of Race" reveals its profound importance to her larger project.

Lane traces the development of these racialized stock roles (in addition to the blackface negro catedrático and recently arrived gallego) in the teatro bufo. The circulation and repetition of these characters, however divergent, positioned an emergent Cubanness, or what it could mean to be Cuban, as something that could be known, adapted, and played out through racial impersonations. For Lane, however, teatro bufo should not be mistaken as a genre that sought to stage contact or alliances between the races. Nor was it reflective of the supposedly harmonious mixing of Cuba's diverse populations. Her excellent and much-needed treatise on the dance form of the danzón, a practice that requires and depends upon bodily contact, is especially poignant in this regard. Instead, she argues that it was racial impersonation itself—its process, practice, and necessary desire—that would determine the contours of a Cuban national community. Which is to say, white criollos would seize upon African Cuba, both real and imagined, to create ideas of "Cubanness" (147). By troubling the terms of its early ideological seedlings through the inclusion of these performance histories, Lane disrupts the discourse of Cuban mestizaje both past and present.

Lane points out the mutually formative relationship between theatrical performance and national consciousness by moving into other sites, such as print culture. She foregrounds her analysis of teatro bufo with a look to the literary in the chapter "Blackface Costumbrismo." Here Lane looks at Cuba's own pursuit of the costumbrista tradition, by examining an "African" persona—marked or "blacked up" with imagined racial speech characteristics and patterns—turned into a periodical novelty by the white writer José Crespo y Borbón. And yet, the differences, or as Lane terms them, "the distortions of the so-called 'African'" produced by this racist characterization of speech was reconstituted as a way of speaking that was not peninsular Spanish, but decidedly "Cuban" (59). According to Lane, this version of "discursive blackface" worked to "organize and bolster claims for an 'authentic' and 'new' Cuban voice" (20).

As evidenced by the above examples, Blackface Cuba does not reduce its interrogation of these performed personas to representational accuracy or toxicity. For example, in her chapter "Anticolonial Blackface," Lane looks closer at blackface performance as a vehicle for white criollos to express anticolonial outrage under the repressive Spanish authority. Lane powerfully calls this practice "anticolonial ventriloquism" (81). The early teatro bufo plays saw a persistence of the negro catedrático character, perceived as an urban and falsely erudite free man of color. It was within this "nonserious" or "nonthreatening" performance of blackness that the negro catedrático would often launch small critiques about colonial wrongs. To add to this seeming paradox, it must be remembered that this persona reigned dominant on the bufo stage as fears of a race war loomed large in the racist imaginary.

It is undeniable that teatro bufo had an intended audience—one that Lane argues helped to coalesce an anticolonial public sphere. But it was also confronted with counterpublics. While the debate about what it means to be Cuban has been perceived as a whites-only domain, Blackface Cuba considers where Cubans of color were actively subverting, contesting, and most importantly, anticipating the terms of their representation in the national imaginary. The book demonstrates that a recovery of these instrumental factors cannot be neglected for reason of archival scarcity. This rhetoric of access in scholarship has too often prevented close attention to the labor of Cubans of color. Although the illegality of literacy for many slaves and free blacks and the lack of documentation of actual performances do present a whole host of demands, Lane nevertheless engages the deep, performative lives of its surviving objects. Her thoughtful reflections on a program from a velada (a lengthy performance event presented by a black mutual aid society) are especially commanding.

As the book progresses, Lane also (and necessarily) examines the "tautological embrace" between the Cuban theater and the rise of social science, specifically anthropology, as another means to articulate a Cuban futurity. The author argues that "Cuban" anthropology "would stake its originality, indeed its claim to authenticity and legitimacy, on its particular access to and representation of mestizaje" (186). Lane scrutinizes these links through the variant renderings of the mulata, which took hold of the bufo stage and medical studies in tandem. However, these grotesque conceptions were met with backtalk by its apparent objects of inquiry. In her chapter "Racial Ethnography and the Literate Sex, 1888," Lane includes one of the most powerful and jaw-dropping moments of activism to emerge in the Americas: a set of manifestos, critiques and outcries from the fundamental Minerva: Revista Quincenal Dedicada a la Mujer de Color. Lane's lively work with writers such as Cecilia and África Céspedes underscores their importance as some of the first American critics to discursively link race, gender, the conditions of colonialism, and knowledge production.

Stylistically, Lane moves her primary materials through various theoretical tropes and sites throughout the text. While Blackface Cuba underscores the relevance of Cuban critics such as the theater historian Rine Leal to performance studies, it also adapts and alters the terms of the Habermasian theory of the public sphere and Anderson's "imagined communities." Even for all its disciplinary complexity, Blackface Cuba does not rely on teatro bufo as mere backdrop. The meticulous care she bestows on this specific archive reaffirms the urgency of performance as a key locus of historical recovery and reimagining. Lane writes, "[i]n Cuba, performance offered a useful, perhaps necessary, alternative technology for mobilizing, organizing, and otherwise constituting anticolonial public subjectivity" (143). This argument reaches a crux in her chapter titled "Black (face) Public Spheres, 1880-1895," the cohesive and unifying force of the book.

As Blackface Cuba insists, where teatro bufo "begins" and where the Cuban national imaginary "ends" is impossible to discern. The study of performance is thus not a matter of privileging embodied practice over the written, but presumes that these processes inform and codetermine one another. In this way, Lane's Blackface Cuba is a necessary and welcome counterpart to such foundational texts as Ada Ferrer's Insurgent Cuba and Vera Kutzinski's Sugar's Secrets. As an investigation of racialization and empire, it is further compelling when positioned alongside works about 19th-century Afro-American performance such as Saidiya Hartman's Scenes of Subjection, and cross-racial performance as examined by Gayle Wald's Crossing the Line.

From its opening pages, it is clear that Lane is not interested in writing a corrective to the island's historical record. Instead, the author inaugurates the text with the following: "we must explore the very process of incomplete forgetting and strategic remembering that informed the making of Cuban national imaginaries during the anticolonial period" (17). By demonstrating that the history of Cuba is the history of its racial formations, she intervenes in the ways that record gets repeated, circulated, and of course, lived by actual bodies. Overall, Blackface Cuba 1840-1895 positions Lane as a fierce and inventive critic from the new generation of performance studies scholars. We have much to look forward to, especially the ways in which she rephrases the questions.

Alexandra Vazquez
Yale University