By Osita Okagbue
Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World. Solimar Otero. Rochester University Press & Boydell and Brewer Limited, Rochester, NY and Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2010. Pp. 247. ISBN. 13-978-1-58046-326-3 (hb). £40.
Solimar Otero’s Afro-Cuban Diasporas in the Atlantic World surprises with the refreshing and updating information which it provides on a major period of the history of Lagos, the transatlantic slave trade and the subsequent circum-Atlantic African diasporas. Having for many years been an avid student of transatlantic slavery and in particular the diasporas which came in the wake of this historical event, this book was a revelation in terms of the new insight which it provides of the relationship between Africa and the Atlantic world of the Caribbean and the Americas. The book’s focus on the Lagosian Cubans and the Aguda (made up of Cuban Lagosians and Brazilian Lagosians) reveals the unbroken chain of movement between Africa and Cuba, Africa and Brazil, as well as with her other diasporas in the Caribbean and North America, and in doing so, the book updates the dynamic and completely changes the understanding of the idea of the African diasporas. Otero talks about “the layered language of diaspora” as being one of “hope, longing and memory”:
The longing for a home that one cannot readily encounter inspires feelings of pride and nostalgia. (22)
In consonance with this, the book also argues, is an undiminished longing for a return to Africa, and so it was for the Yoruba Cubans and the Yoruba Brazilians who eventually became the Aguda when they finally returned to Lagos in the nineteenth century. Although they had mostly gone across the Atlantic as slaves, these African peoples (the Aguda) had hoped and worked tirelessly to buy their freedom and passage back to Lagos as the case studies of Havana’s Lagosians such as Dolores Real (p.23), Lorenzo Clarke, Miguel Marino, Margarita Cabrera, Gabriel Crusati, Lucas Marino, Telesforo Saavedra, Manuel Vidau, Maria Luisa Picard (pp.40-48), and the seven other returnees whose case studies are in the appendix (pp.156-161).
The book establishes for the reader, contrary perhaps to the widely held view, that the movement between the different points of the Afro-Atlantic world of this period had not been in one direction only - from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas - but rather that the transatlantic diasporas had been and still are on both sides of the Atlantic. As the author points out, returnees from Brazil and Cuba in their journeys to and from Africa created “new African societies in both regions”. (60) They also played crucial roles in forming - culturally, economically and politically - the very societies they were returning to. Afro-Cubans (Lucumi) in Havana and Afro-Brazilians in Bahia represented the African diasporas of the New World, while the Aguda ( or Amaros), who made the journey in the opposite direction to Lagos, represented another diaspora – the Aguda were a mix of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian – an Afro-Latino diaspora in Africa. In between the two were the Saros (liberated or repatriated African slaves from various parts of West Africa, mainly Sierra Leone and Ouidah) and Brazil and Cuba who formed another category that moved between the different points on the West African coast. All these made up the Afro-Atlantic diasporic landscape that developed in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What Afro-Cuban Diasporas … also highlights is the instability which attaches to the notions of home within diasporic contexts and discourses, especially with regard to the Afro-Latino returnees such as the Hilario Campos family in Lagos. As the book touchingly points out:
Though Campos was born in Cuba, he felt strongly about his African roots that he took his two sisters back to Lagos with him in the late nineteenth century. Yet, in Lagos, Campos began to feel a sense of nostalgia for Cuba… (21)
Thus, and from the interviews the author conducted with surviving members of the Campos family, family members felt and still feel Cubans in Lagos and Lagosians in Cuba, a feeling aptly summarized by the author when she asserts that home is “both a place left behind and a place of new beginning”. (63)
What emerges ultimately from the book is a strong sense that Africa’s connection to her various diasporas from the eighteenth century onwards has been very strong and that for the Lagos Aguda, on the one hand, and the Lagosian Cubans (Lucumi, Afro-Cubans), the Nago in Bahia (Brazil), on the other, what was central and which had helped the respective communities to fabricate and maintain their Afro-centred diasporic identities was a shared orisha worship. What emerges also is the fact that their shared Yoruba culture with its tendency to be eclectic, flexible and incorporative in the way it created community helped to engender in these diasporas, ideas or a sense of belonging and identity that was highly mobile, yet always connecting and pointing them towards Africa.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 137-138]