Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Looking for Assata Shakur, But Finding Me, Instead

I'm long past the days of jumping airplanes on the spur on the moment. My ready bag was not ready. I was no longer working for anyone other than myself and I was now traveling on my own dime, so while I have always wanted to go to Cuba, there was a new caution in my step.

Cuba is still embargoed for Americans, basically, meaning I couldn't just go and enjoy myself. I had to ally myself with a tour group, Insight Cuba, something that I have always tried to avoid at every opportunity. Tour groups are okay, but I always feel like a kid having to ask the babysitter if I can go to the bathroom, when I'm on a tour. Insight Cuba is the best of the best. I was very pleased and would travel with them again, despite my innate reservations about tours.

I love being able to make decisions about where, when and how to go, on my own. On a tour it is hurry up and get someplace with no time to savor the moment. I need to taste my food, my drink. I need to smell the place. I need time to trip over the curb and to stumble over the cobblestones in the roadway. I need to talk to the people in my path, pet the dogs who venture near, and watch the street play happening around me.

Looking out at El Malecon from Melia Cohiba Hotel

I don't know when or even if President Obama will lift travel restrictions, so I decided to go now, with a tour, because I can always return, if I like it.

Like it!” Ha! Cuba felt like going home. I exhaled. It felt like I'd been born there, just returning after a lifetime trip into the outer world. My Spanish sucks, but it didn't matter. I understood what was going on around me as if I was simply walking around my own neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio.

And I was greeted like a native, starting on the plane from Miami. My seat mate was an old man in a brown suit, vest and tie, wearing four hats piled on top of his head. It was an easy way to carry so many hats. He also had a couple of others in each hand. He didn't talk at all until we landed at Jose Marti International Airport, when he turned to me and asked me if I was home to visit family. He said this in Spanish. Since he spoke slowly I was able to understand completely, what he said to me.

I told him in my broken Spanish that I was an American on vacation and not Cuban. He turned and looked squarely at me and said, “but your family is here, you are Cuban?” I told him “no.” The look in his eyes told me he didn't believe me, but he was polite about it, and we parted to gather our belongings.
Downtown balcony view from Hemingway House

My friend Marie smiled at the exchange. It was the first of many times per day that I would have to explain that I was away from home, not returning home.
It was also the first indication, here on this trip, that Black Americans don't travel. We tend not to leave our neighborhoods to even cross the street. As Marie and I wandered from Havana to Bayamo and back again, we found Americans, excluding the ones we were traveling with, but not one of them was a Black American.

For the past several years Black Americans have been obsessed with finding their ancestral roots in order to determine where they came from, meaning what tribe in Africa. Our genealogical search takes us from America to Africa with no stops in between. However, judging from what I've seen and heard, maybe more of us should stop first in Cuba before going all the way back to Africa. African culture, religion and history was not erased in Cuba.

The Spanish and Europeans tried. However they were not successful in quieting or shushing the “African-Native Indian noise,” as they were in the United States. Cuba was birthed by a Black woman said historian and professor Alberto Faya and it shows in all aspects of Cuban life. It is the culture of Cuba, fused from Native Indian, African, Spanish and European roots.

To quote Professor Faya, a noted historian, teacher, performer and musician, “preserving culture is preserving life! It is African. We are all African, here.”

Dr. Faya teaches history without “holes.” In America, history is taught to make the European look powerful and dignified while denigrating non Europeans, casting them as less than human, unworthy of historical mention.

I nearly cried as his lecture progressed. I'd waited all my life to hear all of history, inclusive, colorful, equal, an out loud “black and proud” moment that is still reverberating inside me.

More to come..

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