Jesús Chucho García with Roberto Almanza. (Nhorelsy Twinson photo)

The Casa de las Américas award is one of the most important recognitions a writer from the Caribbean can receive during his or her career. This award was created during the Cuban Revolution in 1960, just one year after Fidel Castro came to power on the island. 

To analyze the works of contestants, the Casa de las Américas board of directors, led by the writer Abel Prieto, selected a group of researchers for the contest’s various categories such as poetry, testimonials, essays, literature and for some time now the “Black Presence in the Caribbean” award.

For the “Black Presence in the Caribbean” award, more than 100 works were submitted. The expert jury of Prof. Yuderkys Espinoza (Dominican Republic), Prof. Alberto Curbelo (Cuba) and Jesús García carefully read and analyzed them all. After a week of discussions, we decided on the essay by Roberto Almanza, a professor at the University of Magdalena (Colombia), entitled “La Orilla de Caliban: El Rastro de la filosofia Afrocaribe en el siglo XXI (The Land of Caliban: The trail of Afro-Caribbean philosophy in the 21st century).”

Recently we were in Santa Marta, Colombia at the University of Magdalena to participate in a forum on juridical pluralism, organized by Prof. Johanne Mosquera. After my lecture I met Prof. Roberto Almanza and we began to talk about his work where he mentions the great Manuel Zapata Olivella, a writer and researcher of the African diaspora in Colombia and the Américas, who unfortunately passed away a decade ago.

Roberto is a young anthropologist who later got his doctorate in Mexico, he likes salsa, calypso and traditional Afro Colombian currulao music. He is currently a professor of anthropology at the University of Magdalena, he agreed to answer two questions we asked him about his work.

What does the Caribbean space mean to you?

It is, first of all, a historical and socio-cultural experience. The Caribbean was a laboratory, a great modern-colonial, racist-capitalist civilizing plantation. A plantation that would later become global and systemic. The world converged in this space, and that is personified in the diversity of ethnicities/nations that were part of this collision: Europeans, Africans, Asians and the native Abya Yala nations, which gave shape to diverse Creole societies of astonishing cultural exuberance. 

What happened in the Caribbean has an evolutionary significance, because it shook the experience of the world. Because the type of imperial thinking that unfolded there built the world we live in today. The philosopher Nelson Maldonado-Torres likes to speak of it as a catastrophe because of its demographic, environmental, and metaphysical impact, which makes perfect sense. What is crucial is not to lose sight of the fact that despite the alienating nature of these colonial plantations and their catastrophic impact on the existence of racialized populations, there has always been resistance, from the most imperceptible to those that shook the system structurally, such as the Haitian Revolution. 

The Caribbean is also a geography of the imagination that creates identifications, and individuals who think of themselves as inhabiting this great nation without any colonial and linguistic frontiers. On this level, the arts and Afro-diasporic spiritualities have been fundamental in creating this idea of a Caribbean identity, without detracting from the role of intellectuals and politicians in this endeavor. Finally, the Caribbean is a disputed space, David Scott calls it an area of “geopolitics of the intellectual imagination” to draw attention to the ideological dimension of the discourses and representations we speak of when we talk about the Caribbean. Something like, give me your definition of the Caribbean and I will tell you where you stand on the political spectrum. In that same sense, I think of the Caribbean as a floating signifier, coining Stuart Hall’s conceptualization, because it resists being fixed in a definitive way. 

Since its inception, it has had many meanings. The term ‘karib’ appears for the first time in the first chronicle of Columbus’ voyage, first it was used to name some brave and untamed natives, then the Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-American Creoles turned to it to name an inland sea the Caribbean Sea and its territories were called Caribby Island. The Caribbean returned in 1898 in the framework of the theater of war when the United States undertook its imperialist project in the Caribbean. Since then, the Caribbean has been a common term to describe the geopolitics of the region and its particularities. Currently the Caribbean is used to reaffirm resistance to the system. It is often associated with anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-colonial activism.

Who was Caliban in the past and how do you see him in the 21st century?

Caliban is a maroon. As a metaphor he can always be revisited, endowed with new meanings, he is always escaping attempts to fix him in the straitjacket of an ultimate meaning. This secondary character from Williams Shakespeare’s last play, “The Tempest” (1611), has had a fascinating longevity in the political and cultural imagination of Our America since the end of the 19th century. 

Rubén Darío is one of the first to refer to Caliban in the Americas to describe the cannibalistic, immoral and expansionist spirit of the United States. At first, he was seen as a figure alien to Latin American values. But George Lamming in his essay “The Pleasures of Exile” (1960), rescues Caliban. Lamming’s Caliban is Indigenous and Black. I find this identification supremely powerful, as it puts his gaze on the racialized and subhumanized populations who have been dumped at the bottom of the pit of the hierarchy of humanity since the dawn of the modern age. As the Cameroonian historian Achile Mbembe has pointed out, in the 21st century, a large part of humanity is becoming “Black” as it is being dehumanized by the expansive logic of capital and its neoliberal formality. 

What I suggest is that the Caliban of the 21st century is no longer only Indigenous and Black. As a monstrosity that destabilizes the whiteness erected by modernity, he embodies all beings dehumanized by this type of rationality and by neoliberal logic. Caliban’s power is his rebelliousness, his double consciousness, and his poetics to face the storms of this century.

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Roberto Almanza’s answers are reminiscent of speeches I’ve heard in Puerto Rico––and also in Panama and in Maracaibo. In short, it is the voice of the insular and territorial Caribbean. Facing the Caribbean Sea we say goodbye with every intention of continuing to look for Caliban in the spirits of Aime Cesaire, Zapata Olivella, Ismael Rivera, Joe Arrollolo …. I move away to the rhythm of two Cuban son beats.

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