Students of color at elite universities are fed up with on-campus racism and lately they’re taking their defiance beyond the ivory tower. Before this month’s “I, Too, Am Harvard” went viral there was last fall’s #BBUM or “Being Black At Michigan” and now there’s, “I, too, am Oxford.” They all belong to a rich tradition of student activism around race and inequality. Yale University is entering the mix with the release of a new documentary film, “Black and Cuba.” Shot in 2002 when the United States was muscling up for war in Iraq, nine graduate students, mainly of color, left their isolation-among-privilege in New Haven for Cuba. They went looking for revolution. Did they find it? Colorlines talked with filmmaker Robin J. Hayes,* now a professor at The New School in New York City and founder of civic participation nonprofit,Progressive Pupil
There’s been a lot of highly publicized campus activity lately. What do you think about “I, Too, Am Harvard” and “Being Black at Michigan?”
They’re continuing a long struggle for unconditional acceptance and inclusion on the part of students of color in higher education. That’s part of why I framed “Black and Cuba” as a multi-generational story that asks, “How are we truly going to move forward from what social movements accomplished in the late 1960s and early ’70s?” Back then we broke the hard color line. But how we move forward from there hasn’t yet been fully resolved. I think we’re seeing a generation of students with higher expectations.
Higher than the previous generation’s?
Yes. I think the expectations among students, now, are higher and, in a way, so are the institutions.’ And I’m speaking now only for a fraction of us who’ve been able to access institutions like Harvard or Yale. Those institutions, our families and communities all expect us to seize these opportunities and go for it. We’re told there’s no limit if we’re willing to work hard and put in the effort. But what we often encounter is concrete hostility and observable marginalization, actions and statements that are degrading and dehumanizing. We’re seeing that conflict rise to the surface with acts like, “I, Too, Am Harvard.”
It’s also really interesting to see that conflict in an international context with, “I, too, am Oxford.” So you see micro-aggressions, for example, towards someone from Pakistan who’s being told, “Wow, You speak really good English.” This is the reality of what we’re faced with, after being told, “Work hard!” and “Anything is possible!” “Black and Cuba” shows what we, as students in one historical context, have done to address those contradictions.
What were you looking for in Cuba? Did you find it?
I’ll speak for myself. I was looking for hope that change driven by the needs of everyday people was really possible. Those are people who are working to live, people who do not have a surplus of wealth. Can their needs and desires be the engine of change?
And did you find that in Cuba?
I did. But not just in the “Cuba is the ideal” example. Cuba is a place with a lot of contradictions like everywhere. It’s made important gains, no doubt about that. But they also are still struggling with certain things—like, freedom of speech and ongoing racial tension—just as we’ve made gains and are still struggling in U.S. I guess I found what I was looking for, in the connections we made with each other as a group, and also in our connection with the Cubans we met during the trip.
It was hard to tell at the end of the film whether you or the group had indeed found revolution.
I made a choice not to tie the story up extra neatly because I hope people will leave the film thinking about what they’re looking for and how they can find it. Cuba was a way for me to start that path. And I think everyone else in the group is also still figuring and working that out in different ways. It’s not something you can just decide, like Fidel and Che going off to the mountains to create revolution. It’s day-to-day decision-making and it’s important to keep looking.
You shot the Cuba footage in 2002 around the same time that the U.S. invaded Iraq for the second time. How did that impact your trip?
Actually, the day we were returning to the U.S. is the day Bush announced restrictions on travel to Cuba. I remember sitting in José Martí airport [and this is] after we’d been in Cuba and were really relating to Afro-Cubans telling us their own struggles to have more freedom of expression and economic opportunity and thinking, We’re on the same page. And then we sat and watched the news reporting that Cuba was part of the so-called Axis of Evil and that they were the enemy? I’m looking around the airport at families enjoying cubano sandwiches and thinking, “Are we talking about the same place?” I see people who’re trying to make way for their families, the best way they can.
Does Cuba treat their “everyday people” better than the U.S. treats its own?
It’s difficult to compare directly because there are so many things enjoyed by Cubans that’re the wildest dreams for us, like universal health care, universal public education, a real jobs program. These things are being threatened now by economic realities and free market reforms. For me, the fact that there’s no difference in life expectancy based on race between Afro-Cubans and other Cubans is huge. But it’s also clear that racial discrimination plays out in terms of access to jobs and employment advancement.
In tourism for example, there’s a presumption that foreigners, mainly white Europeans and South Americans, prefer to interact with white Cubans when it comes to front desk or management positions. We also heard complaints that the highest echelons of government are still white. Our [dark-skinned, male] tour guide complained about racial profiling and stereotypes, too—I’m sad to report that there are common stereotypes about black people being lazy or criminal all over the world. There never was a racial utopia in Cuba but some activists do say that something about economic competition is worsening the racial divide.
Consider too, Cuba is a developing country. There are things that even lower income Americans have access to that’s difficult for Cubans to get, like basic toiletries or electronics. I think it’s always difficult when comparing America to a developing country. There’s much less violence there, but I’m sure Cubans would look at Chicago’s South Side and think, You guys are living the high life.
Do you see an opening for the embargo to end, now?
Absolutely. It’s a policy that is completely out of steam politically. Even half of Cuban-Americans think it’s time for normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. It’s part of our privilege that we’re not encouraged to think about how the embargo is impacting Cuba. But everyone in Cuba thinks about it every day. The question now is about when it’s going to happen and whether the autonomy of Cuba and Cubans will be respected in the process.
We’ll be bringing “Black and Cuba” to as many campuses and community organizations as we can and, we’re also fundraising to bring it Cuba.
And before we go, what’s good reading for those who’re “seeking” like you were back then? What helped you?
For people who don’t read for a living like me, this is a classic for a reason: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Also, read “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde and “The Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon. Start with those three. And stick with “Wretched”; the language isn’t easy but if you’re already interested in social justice and anti-racist practice, you’ll get it.
*Post has been updated since publication.