Emory professor discusses racial representation in Cuba

Professor Mark Sanders reflects on black contributions to the freedom of Cuba during the Cuban War of Independence


Mark Sanders speaks on Cuba. Photo by Maya Lora, ‘20.

Maya Lora

African-American Studies and English professor Mark Sanders from Emory University discussed Ricardo Batrell and an overarching theme of the Cuban racial narrative in his lecture at Washington and Lee on Thursday.

During his speech, Sanders focused on Ricardo Batrell, an Afro-Cuban fighter during the Cuban War of Independence. Batrell is the only known black Cuban soldier who wrote his own narrative instead of dictating it to a professional.

He wrote his narrative to expose the lack of acknowledgement for black contributions to the freedom of Cuba and the subsequent mistreatment of black Cubans after the war, which was in direct contrast to the concept of “Cuba Libre,” the war’s rallying cry.

Sanders said he discovered Batrell and his revolutionary tale while visiting Cuba in 2004, during which he said he became enamored with Afro-Cuban history.

“Batrell places race at the center of his memoir, indeed at the center of the revolution narrative,” Sanders said.

Sanders focused on the fact that Batrell felt that through his story, he had to represent not only himself, but all black Cubans in order to make themselves worthy of praise for that sacrifice. Cuba Libre had promised to include Afro-Cubans in Cuba’s future, but after the war, they were reduced to second-class citizenship, according to Sanders.

This stemmed from white superiority in Cuba, which assumed the inferiority of black citizens, justified slavery, and promoted white elites to the top of Cuban society over Afro-Cubans who had actually fought in the war.

The lecture also touched on important parts about deliberately erased history and racial discrimination in parts beyond America or Europe, and how rare, impactful, previously hidden voices can help connect us to that history.

Sanders made sure to include some Spanish into his presentation, making it clear that this was an Afro- Cuban narrative. While he clarified the meaning of his words to the audience, his effect was well-executed. He tied his lecture to its appropriate historical background and demonstrated his mastery of the Spanish language, which he uses in his research.

This lecture and its focus is part of a larger emerging field of Afro-Latino literature.

“Black writers across Latin America have been writing and publishing for centuries, but we are just now beginning to pay close attention to these writings,” Sanders said.

Students in attendance said they gained insight from Sanders’ lecture.

“My favorite part of the lecture was when Sanders compared the images of Batrell’s photo with those of Cuban elite officials, to put into perspective the role Batrell was attempting to take on,” said Anna Litvak, ‘20.

Sofia Cuadra, ‘20, agreed. “The lecture made me realize the presence of important Latino and black figures in history and why we

have these months to celebrate and recognize them,” she said. Sanders visited W&L to share his expertise as part of a collection of lectures this month concerning

black history. He stayed with locals and was shown around campus by a few students in the African American studies department.

He is a published author, recipient of a Fullbright scholarship and the former African American Studies chair at Emory University. He has translated and edited several Spanish texts.

Sanders exposing the Washington and Lee campus to these stories was already starting to have an effect by the time his lecture was finished.