How Afro-Cuban culture and history shaped my memory and my blackness as a third generation Black European.

Afro-Cuban brothers and sisters and myself during my last trip to Cuba in March 2020. This was the last trip before the pandemic shut down everything for a year/Personal Archives/ VKY. Somos uno

I have extensively written about my maternal lineage and the fact that I am the product of the Black Arab/Israeli world through this side. I wrote about it in my books, my poetry and it is the main field of my research as well. I mostly grew up and was also raised by my mother’s family. Unfortunately, as the years went by, many of them have passed away and the people who gave me a sense of self, a sense of love are no longer by my side. My dear aunt Paula to whom I dedicate all my history books and my late uncle André were exquisite human beings. Paula was probably the most important pro-black figure in my entourage. If my mother also adopted the same discourse, I was exposed to her ambiguity, inner racism and conflicts she shared with blackness due to the harsh and horrific rejection they had experienced at the hands of Belgians in Brussels back then, as second generation Black Europeans.

Una linda abuela Afro-Cubana muy simpatica que habia encontrao en la Habana, antes de regresar rapidamente a Francia por causa de lockdown !

Though I do not want to indulge in accusations, writing made me understand that the people who preceded me were greatly impacted by the violence of colonialism. I relate to the issue of trauma, family secrets, broken lineages, mental illness and generational hurt in my books, the most important testimony being HOME. I am trying to rebuild the crashed, crushed and damaged black Arab heritage of mine everyday, but it is extremely hard. By the time I began to write my second work of research regarding Black Israelis and Palestinians, I almost had a nervous breakdown.

Myself along with two Afro-Cuban brothers. Somos uno.

Most of my life, I have always been misunderstood. I came from an Belgian-Congolese family culturally when it comes to the history of immigration. My point began in Belgium and my parents were culturally black Belgians yet, I never recognised myself in France among the diaspora. We were not the same, did not have the same mentality. The Belgian-Congolese were always more educated, engaged in postcolonial discussions but there was also this constant silence, taboo and lack of accessibility from the Belgians themselves. Horrible things had happened in the past but the Congolese who surrounded me as a child did not speak out and the Belgians were like a wall no one could penetrate. Though always extremely arrogant, the French were way more eager to engage in discussions regarding history, colonialism and brutality. Not the Belgians. Out of disdain. Being exposed to the brutality of northern white Europeans can be a huge trauma.

In other words, to the other Black African French, most of whom had just arrived from Africa, they saw my family and I as “white” and I was confused as a child as I failed to understand why their culture was focusing more on Lingala elements from Kinshasa, while my mother was speaking more French and Tshiluba with her family, singing Luba lullabies to me when I was seven. I did not understand that by that time, several different groups were already formed. In the constant paternal pressure of social success to please the Whites, I had just lost my main pillar, my mother’s little sister Paula, who was extremely pro-black and I hid this pain in me for my mother made me understand clearly that she was the only one who actually suffered from the loss and not us. I was always invisible to her.

In this case, like many neglected children, music and the surface you have been exposed to become your main influence. My aunt Paula was no longer there to explain me the whys and my mother had plunged into a huge depression which went out of control.

My parents, were Black Belgians, yes, but most importantly, they were the last children, the last generation to have experienced colonialism from the Belgians. They were the children of the independence. There was a before and after Congo by the time they reached the age of ten. That generation was extremely special culturally for they were attached to a specific Congolese culture which existed before the year 1960. And the latter was the cultural and historical alliance between the Afro-Cubans and the Congolese. As I wrote in my book UNE AFFAIRE DE FAMILLE (A Family Affair) which focused on the musical impact of the Congolese diaspora in both Belgium and France, a huge part of the enslaved Africans had been taken from the Kongo empire. Along with the West African Yorubas they gave birth to Cuban culture. Then, in the 1920s, under Belgian colonial rule, the colonizers imported music from Cuba by boat and re-introduced el son in Congo. The sound became the foundation of Congolese pop music known as “rumba”. And this back and forth movement is what made the culture so beautiful and deep. The same diaspora reconnected years later. Groups and singers such as OK Jazz, Franco, Sam Mangwana were greatly responsible for the perpetuation of this Afro-Cuban heritage.

Sam Mangwana-Africa

And this is the reason why Afro-Boricua and Afro-Cuban artists were always played in my parents’ house. Spanish Caribbean culture was also ours. The soundtrack to any last child of the independence.

Speech where Che Guevara mentions Patrice Lumumba

My parent’s generation represents the link between Latin America and Africa. Unfortunately, the younger generation ignores that El Che Guevara went to the Congo in 1964 to help start a revolution along with the Simba Rebels (though it failed as Guevara claimed that it had been impossible to start a revolution with a people whose leaders are not ready) and shouted out Patrice Lumumba’s name the same year at the United Nations. Fidel Castro, though imperfect, was a Panafricanist, and a huge supporter of Congo independence. Cuba and the Congo were one same bloc. The unity of two entities forever linked by slavery and in a fight against American imperialism. Though, I also discovered I am the descendant of Maroons from my father’s Ghanaian side (he had a Ghanaian mom and a Congolese dad), known as the returnees, this fact has nothing to do with blood, but rather heart and soul. Such specificity and part of history is disappearing in the spectrum of globalism where Congolese from their capital are Americanized too.

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Grupo de Mambis

Writing was always my prime way of expression. I began to share all the information I had about Afro-Cuban and Congolese culture in blogs by the time I was fourteen. My first pseudonym was carefully chosen: Mambi-Yemaya, a tribute to the Mambises, the anti-colonial Afro-Cuban group and the goddess of the seas who happened to be black. The second blog was created a year later and on this one, entitled DeCongoHastaCuba, I wrote down all the specific information I had read about the relations between Cuba and Congo too. I wanted to preserve and perpetuate this alliance between the two continents.

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Nicolas Guillen is still my main inspiration. His poetry helped shape my blackness.

The explosion of Caribbean culture by the early 00s, and reggaeton from back in the day which was STILL BLACK with legends such as Tego Calderon or Ivy Queen (black mixed), la Negra or The Rakas, also helped me shape my blackness, and my pride in it. Once again, it was through the Spanish Caribbean that the essence of my Negroid blood was reinforced.

Afro-Boricua, Tego Calderon helped me shape my blackness as a teenager
Los Rakas, Afro-Panamenos who also contributed to my life as a teenager
Boricua, Morena ! Big Pun was one of the first Boricuas to rap about the union of Black and Boricuas in hip-hop. He was also an Afro-Latino on his mother’s side and his wife Liza, is a Black Rican too.

Though the problematic of political resistance was heard in Colombia in the fight against political corruption, it is true that the 2000s were the last decade from which the preservation of one’s identity was still important. The election of Hugo Chavez was a revival of this faith and heritage of mine too. It was a special thing to have a rebellious Afro-Indigenous president expose the cruel imperialism of the USA but also express his pride in his African roots. If you are familiar with Latin American politics, most leaders in the Caribbean are of European descent and few were of Indigenous heritage. I can only think of Raffael Correia in Ecuador, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. Though brutal in their approach, it is true that Guevara and Castro directly encouraged me to read, to be educated in the importance of anti-colonialism. The amazing level of medecine of Cuba was also the main example for me. Resisting meant reading and being educated.

I went to Cuba for this reason, to walk after those who came before me a few generations ago, and taste the air of the people. To feel that oneness and honor the land where everything began. If I stood there, with pride, I owed it to Cuba, to Afro-Cubans. They were me and I was them too. I built and shaped my blackness through the existence of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, Spanish speaking one. Cuba was the land of my heart and my soul. Such preservation was kept on by the age I was a teenager, at 14, 15 by listening to groups such as Orishas, a band which reinforced my political consciousness. Puerto-Rican Tego Calderon was also a tremendous influence on me.

In Belgium, I befriended, as a teenager, Ecuadorians, Dominicans who taught me Spanish as we shared on different platforms and some of them were also proud of their African roots. I devoured Afro-Cuban literature and it is trough Nicolas Guillen and his poetry that I also found the same pride my aunt Paula wanted to share with me in my blackness. These days I spent at the library were the best of my life.

By the time I went to college, I enrolled in Spanish field and was disgusted by the disdain of both the white Spanish and French teachers for my interest. I wanted to study and write ONLY about BLACK CUBAN culture and they blocked me. After a year, though I had succeeded my first year, I left. However, one professor, a White Spaniard French with no real academic structure spent most of her days recalling her life in Latin America. She was a supporter of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and was a good influence on me. But, I never knew what happened to her after.

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Fidel Castro was not perfect. But I owe him the importance he put on education. It is through the discovery of Cuban history at 14, that I understood that the best way to resist was through education and reading. For this, I think I owe him a lot./Credit:Castro estate

I have always wanted to write to reunite the two continents, especially the Caribbean where I find my soul as well. Sharing the work of other scholars from the region is my biggest victory and a chance to be able to envision a future together. For many other Blacks from the West, the Black American culture, especially through rap music, was the main influence. How many have identified with Mobb Deep and the hip-hop movement from New-York? How many? They owe them a lot.

When it comes to me, the Spanish Caribbean gave me the pride I have in my Negroid heritage. I do belong to them and I will never be grateful enough for Cuba. For the legacy they left upon me.

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