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April 2014

Dominican diaspora in the U.S preserves Manuel del Cabral’s legacy

Professor Sarah Aponte would like to thank Syracuse University English Professor Silvio Torres-Saillant for donating a program from the Encuentro Manuel del Cabral [Manuel del Cabral Gathering] held in New York City in 1987 from October 9th to October 11th. The event was organized by Casa Cultural Dominicana. The three-day gathering in 1987 examined the legacy of Manuel del Cabral (1907- 1999), a Dominican poet who championed Afro-Dominican culture. The poet, who was celebrating his 80th birthday, attended the event.

This unique and important donation adds to our growing collection of material on cultural and civic activism of Dominicans in New York. We invite the public to browse our collection. The Dominican Library at CUNY/DSI has a large literature section including books by Manuel del Cabral as well as bibliographical and audiovisual material on all aspects of Afro-Dominican culture. For more information, you can visit our library during published hours or search the CUNY+ online library catalog.

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At the Schomburg Center

On March 21st, 2014 Professor Torres-Saillant evoked the 1987 Manuel del Cabral Gathering during his talk on the renowned Caribbean poet at a panel discussion held at the Schomburg Center for Research in BlackCulture

CAM00206      Sarah Aponte and Silvio Torres-Saillant posing with the program from the 1987 Manuel del Cabral Gathering in NYC [Photo: Nelson Santana].

Forging a Common Path: An Anthology of Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian Poetry, Culture and Thought celebrated Manuel del Cabral’s legacy. The event brought together three main panelists: Cheryl Sterling, Assistant Professor, Director of the Black Studies Program at City College of New York (CCNY) and author of African Roots, Brazilian Rites: Cultural and National Identity in Brazil; Manuel del Cabral’s son, the painter Alejandro Cabral from Fundación Manuel del Cabral [Manuel del Cabral Foundation] and Professor Silvio Torres- Saillant author of Caribbean Poetics: Towards an Aesthetic of West Indian Literature .(Saillant is the founding Director of CUNY/DSI).

Both the recent panel discussion at the prestigious Schomburg Center in Harlem and the historic 1987 Manuel del Cabral Gathering served to highlight the efforts of the Dominican community and others to preserve the legacy of this poetic voice that spoke truth to power.  These two gatherings not only introduced a new generation to his work, but helped disseminate afro-Dominican and afro-Caribbean cultural production.

Besides these literary gatherings and discussion panels, writers of Dominican descent in the U.S disseminate Manuel del Cabral’s poetry via English translation. One of these is Rhina P. Espaillat, a poet and translator who has rendered into English two of his poems:

[Manuel del Cabral poems translated by Rhina P. Espaillat].

Manuel_del_CabralManuel del Cabral [Photo:Wikipedia]

Forging a common path

Manuel del Cabral did not work in isolation. Indeed, by the 1940s his work shared commonalities with other like-minded writers, members of an intercontinental literary current in Latin-America and the U.S that drew attention to popular culture and in particular, cultural expressions by people of African descent.

He formed part of a “quartet of poetic creators” in the Caribbean, according to the organizers of the 1987 Manuel del Cabral literary gathering. These were the Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos (1898-1959), a pioneering writer within the afro-Antillean poetry movement in the Americas; the Martinican surrealist poet, theorist of the negritude movement, anti-colonialist activist and cultural networker Aimé Césaire (1913-2008); the Cuban poet, political activist and journalist Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989) as well as the Dominican poet, novelist and political activist Manuel del Cabral. While these were not the first writers to explore African motifs in the Caribbean, these poets innovated upon the rich, oral tradition of afro-Caribbean culture.

Sources of dissent and hope

Manuel del Cabral drew upon several sources that shaped his rebellious artistic spirit as a poet and as a human being. Among these were the oral histories of slave rebellions in his native country; the international impact of emancipatory struggles  such as the Haitian revolution and the 1863 independence war against the Spanish Empire fought by people of African descent; the anti-colonialist struggle in Africa and elsewhere; the subhuman working conditions of both West Indian and Haitian workers in the sugar cane industry; the oppressive first U.S occupation (1916-1924) and the subsequent Trujillo regime which used racism to create divisions among native and foreign workers; and the elite’s prevalent racism throughout the history of the country. (His open disdain for the elite explains in part why his work was ignored for a long time by traditional critics and writers).

But not all of Manuel del Cabral’s poems have an explicitly political bent. His poems also celebrate life. Eroticism, romance and love are some of the themes found in his poems. He even wrote a beautiful book of poems celebrating horses and their beauty. He was a poeta bullanguero:  equally at ease in the barrio and in the brothel. He was urban at heart. A poet of the city: beautiful, ugly and decadent. His work reflected the power relations of urban life. Perhaps this explains the disdain toward his writings by traditional critics. At the same time, it is refreshing to know that Dominican immigrants in the U.S are ahead of the game.

Amaury Rodriguez, Guest contributor