March 8, 2016

On slavery and literature in Cuba

 

Cuban poet and slave Juan Francisco Manzano (1797–1854) and his 1839 “Autobiografía de un esclavo,” the only slave narrative to surface in the Spanish-speaking world, are the starting point of an examination of 19th-century Cuban literature and social politics in Gerard Aching’s recent book, “Freedom from Liberation: Slavery, Sentiment, and Literature in Cuba.”

Published in 2015 by Indiana University Press in its “Blacks in the Diaspora” series, the book explores the birth of a national literature in Cuba, through a social and psychological study that combines historical narrative and literary criticism. Aching, M.A. ’90, Ph.D. ’91, is director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell, a professor of Spanish and French literature in the Department of Romance Studies, and a professor of Africana studies.

Aching examines the complexities of slavery, seen through Manzano’s account of his enslavement, how it was interpreted, and the motivations of anticolonial activists and abolitionists in Cuba during and following Manzano’s lifetime. Cuban reformist Creoles – who were also seeking their own freedom from Spanish colonial rule – and an abolitionist translator each appropriated Manzano’s narrative for their respective political agendas.

Distinguishing between self-defined freedom and the action of being liberated from bondage by others, Aching challenges established notions of liberation and emancipation, as well as the assumption that a slave’s foremost desire is to be free.

Aching is a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century Caribbean literature and modernist theories in Latin America, and contemporary Caribbean popular culture and politics. His research interests include Afro-Hispanic, Francophone and 19th-century colonial literature in the Caribbean; with a focus on the relations between slavery, literary sensibility and philosophy.

The recipient of fellowships from the Howard Foundation and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Aching also is the author of “The Politics of Spanish American Modernismo: By Exquisite Design” (1997) and “Masking and Power: Carnival and Popular Culture in the Caribbean” (2002).