By Miguel Arnedo-Gómez
University of Virginia Press
There are some archetypal images of Cuban culture, particularly the beautiful rumba dancer, that continue to have romantic resonance for those attracted to the island nation’s music and culture. Such images held great appeal to the Afrocubanista cultural movement of 1920’s and 1930’s Cuba, whose poetry comes in for a critical re-evaluation in Arnedo-Gómez’s Writing Rumba.
At the time, the Afrocubanista movement was championed as a movement towards a culturally unified Cuba, beyond race or ethnicity. It received strong theoretical underpinning from Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz. However, critical notions of identity and authenticity are quickly introduced in Writing Rumba, as many of the Afrocubanistas were of white Spanish descent, but used Afrocuban elements in their poems, particularly music and rumba. For instance, Arnedo-Gómez cites critic Richard L. Jackson:
“Jackson divides afrocubanista poetry into ‘false black poetry,’ written by white negrista poets, and ‘authentic black poetry’ . . . For Jackson, what characterizes the former is the representation of qualities often associated with Cuban culture of African origins, such as song, dance, rhythm, and sexuality. He argues that negrista poets were only interested in ‘black folklore and rituals,’ in beating ‘black-drums in poetry’ and making use of African sounding words.” (p. 11)
Yet, questions of authenticity persist beyond racial lines in Arnedo-Gómez’s survey. Despite poet Nicolás Guillén’s Afro-Cuban heritage and the legitimacy which it grants him in the eyes of some critics, his upper-class upbringing leads the author to question his personal connection to the lives and traditions of average Afro-Cubans:
“His father was a journalist and a prestigious politician who served as a senator from 1909 to 1912 under the liberal government of José Miguel Gómez. . . There is no indication in Angel Augier’s biography of the poet that Afro-Cuban traditions were practiced in the Guillén’s family home.” (p. 55)
Clearly, Afro-Cuban musical forms were a common source of inspiration for the Afrocubnistas. One example Arnedo -Gómez cites for its “European device of personification” is Alfonso Hernández Catá’s “Rumba:”
“While the string complains,
the cornet shouts.
. . . . . . .
The galloping of the timbales
steps over all restraint.
. . . . . . . . .
The bongo has gone crazy.” (p. 132)
Regardless of notions of race and class, the Afrocubanistas poets arguably helped shape the romantic perceptions of Cuba and its music. Arnedo-Gómez does seem inclined to give the Afrocubanista poets a qualified defense against some critical charges, arguing often that they were, in fact, more faithfully representing elements of Afro-Cuban life then commonly believed. However, he has very little to say about their work in an aesthetic sense. Ultimately, Writing Rumba is overly concerned with how its subjects are perceived and other such issues of identity politics, and not interested enough in the work they actually wrote.