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January 21, 2005

Slavery scholar compares Cuba and Louisiana

Cuba and Louisiana might not seem to possess many commonalities. But to Rebecca Scott, an eminent historian from the University of Michigan, the two are a perfect pair.

In a Latin American history workshop, co-sponsored by the University's Center for Latin American Studies, Scott presented a chapter from her forthcoming book: "Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba After Slavery" (to be released in fall 2005 by Harvard University Press) to a gathering of students and faculty.

Emilio Kourí, associate professor of history at the University, introduced Scott, and called her "without a doubt, one of the most distinguished scholars in the United States." Among her list of honors is a coveted MacArthur "Genius" Grant, issued in 1990.

The thrust of Scott's work is a comparative analysis of two sugar production-based societies, both of which had slavery abolished by war in the middle part of 19th century.

The problem with historical works comparing slavery in Latin and Anglo cultures, she explained, is that the differences were too great to make any conclusion about the roots of racism in contemporary society. In order to avoid a similar difficulty, she narrowed her focus to two places—Cuba and Louisiana—that yielded as many similarities between the culturally different societies as possible.

The book traces the diverging paths of Cuba and Louisiana with regard to the emancipation of people of color. "The war for Cuban independence began 30 years before the United States entered the conflict, so struggles were taking place at the same time as Louisiana was undergoing Reconstruction," Scott said.

While both societies were engaged in armed struggles to end slavery, the distinct natures of the wars may have led each society to develop along a different path.

The United States was a nation divided by conflict; Cuba was a nation united in a war for liberation. In Cuba, soldiers of color fought alongside their white brethren, and although the same situation played out with former slaves fighting with the Union in the Civil War, Scott noted that, "The strongest solvent of racial conflict is shared activity towards a shared goal." Scott observed that some of the most important generals in Cuba were of color, and that the military units were integrated by 1868. Such integration did not take place in the United States until the Korean War in the 1950s.

Scott also spoke of the legislation passed in the U.S. during Reconstruction, asserting that the 14th and 15th amendments were ultimately "fragile guarantees" of civil rights. "The sectional reconciliation after Reconstruction in the United States reduced civil gains and political rights to a bare minimum," said Scott, citing the use of the 14th amendment to justify the "separate but equal" ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson.

After a decade of racial democracy during which African-Americans filled congressional seats, the system collapsed, proving that the institutional changes made following the civil war could, indeed, be rolled back.

In Cuba, by contrast, the colored population was not relegated to suffering in silence. Citing the racial conflict in 1912 that culminated in a massacre of 3000 people of African descent, Scott said that such a struggle would have been unthinkable in Louisiana, where dissidents "wouldn't even have been able to hold the first meeting."

Scott recounted the tale of Andrea Quesada, a former slave and a woman, who brought a lawsuit to the Cuban Supreme Court. Such an event reflects a very different power dynamic in Cuba than in the United States, Scott observed.

Scott weaves a series of personal histories in her book, using an approach she called "microhistorical."

"The value of microhistory is that not only does it allow one to zoom in on a particular area of study, but it also gives one the flexibility to focus in and out, which affords a glimpse of mechanisms that would otherwise remain hidden," Scott said.

Scott's research is no less remarkable for the conditions under which she carried it out. After exhaustive archival research, Scott took her investigation to Cuba to track down oral history as far as possible. This led her to a rural part of the country where she followed the physical route that a Cuban woman had taken more than a century earlier. Arriving at one village, Scott recounted how she had asked, "Does anyone know someone by the name of Quesada?" The question facilitated her meeting the daughter of a former slave and soldier, whom she had researched in her archives.

Scott's book highlights how closely the struggle for citizenship in the South, and

Louisiana in particular, resembled the same struggle in Cuba, posing the question of why the two developed along such different lines. "The distinct paths on which the countries embarked were not determined by a legacy of slavery, but for some other reasons," Scott said. "It draws our attention to why racial democracy failed in the United States, and points us to the weak legal framework that supported equal rights. It also shows us that extraordinary periods of revolutionary achievement can be undone."