“Let me tell you how I met Fidel Castro,” Karen “Kym” Morrison says. A new assistant professor of History and author of the award-winning book Cuba’s Racial Crucible, she met the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela while doing research at University of Havana. Chavez was on campus giving a speech, and Castro was present. “I see some people moving over to what looks like a receiving line,” she says of that day in 1999, “and in [it] is Hugo Chavez, who was the president of Venezuela, and Fidel Castro. … So I get in the line and I shake their hand and I’m thinking ‘Well, that wasn’t hard. And the CIA says it’s really hard to get close to Castro. You stay around Havana long enough, you’re probably gonna run into him!’”
Morrison’s areas of interest are in the African diaspora and Latin American studies. A trilinguist, she has lectured internationally in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Cuba’s Racial Crucible (Indiana University Press, 2015) is a study on the competing perspectives of racial identity in Cuba, examined through familial, societal and gender relations. It recently won the New England Council of Latin American Studies’ Marysa Navarro Best Book Prize. A publication from eminent Yale University Professor Stuart Schwartz was the runner up.
‘We destroyed the world in simulation every day’
Academic research in Cuba is far from what Morrison pursued for her first career. She earned a degree from Duke University in electrical engineering and then worked in military systems weapon development.
“I was troubled by what I saw — my fellow engineers were very highly trained technically, but had very little awareness of a social world beyond their own,” she says, “and because we were working in nuclear weapons systems, I found that to be incredibly dangerous. … We destroyed the world in simulation every day. And to make those choices and be unaware of people outside of yourself I thought was extremely dangerous.”
Research in Latin America
As a result, she decided to go back to school to explore Latin American and African history based on her personal connections to Cuba. Morrison was born in Jamaica, but listening to her extended family’s stories about Cuba spearheaded her interest in how race and identity played a role socially, not only economically or politically. Her questions and research resulted in Cuba’s Racial Crucible — a project that Choice Reviews hails as a “rigorous yet accessible monograph” and “an excellent addition to undergraduate collections in African and African American studies, Latin American studies, women’s and gender studies, and history.”
In the book, Morrison rejects the dominant Fidel-dominant approach to Cuban history popularized by the United States, favoring anthropological, sociological and reproductive lenses to explore the lives of everyday Cubans.
“I tried to understand what did it mean to be Cuban like my relatives and what did it mean to be Afro-Cuban and what does ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ and all sorts of identities mean in that space. [The book] takes the perspective that race is socially constructed but … race is also built in intimate spaces,” Morrison emphasizes. “It’s also built in reproduction. It’s also built in what families say they are and describe their children as and offspring and other relationships so it’s a very social relationship to the political constructions of race.”
Morrison went to Brazil in 2015 on a Fulbright Fellowship to research her next book. She is interested in the country’s post-slavery era when “racism was removed from the public record, but it still lived as real.” She encountered challenges finding official documentation, so she investigated music, art, literature and oral tradition as alternative avenues of historical memory. Her book will explore these racial categories and how people decide to adopt their identities, whether in celebration or oppression.
‘Exploding heads’ in the classroom
Teaching history has been in Morrison’s cards since graduate school. Her objective is to “explode heads” and push her students to expand their worldview. Comparing her 15 years teaching in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, she says SF State students are “collectively more willing to hear conversations that are not their own.”
“Fewer people are shut down and fearful of difference, and that’s the diversity that’s California. So it comes into the classroom more readily,” she says.
Morrison says that “being in a classroom where [she] sees the light go off” is the best reward as a professor. She recalls a Chinese student having her own lightbulb moment in relation to racial oppression: “She said, ‘Wait, so that’s how Tibetans view us?’ It was this realization of racialization in a space that she hadn't thought of in her own experience as a Chinese national.”
Race discussions outside of the U.S. perspective
Morrison finds her non-U.S.-centric perspectives to be an advantage when discussing identity in America.
“I take Black Lives Matter very seriously,” Morrison states. She sees it in terms of community survival. “[But] the fight is not solely the quest for rights. It’s also a quest to live in a way that celebrates who one is, who one’s community is and one’s way of thinking.
“[Race] is not just a source of conflict, but a source of celebration and in order to get past the conflict, some of what we have to do is understand what it is people are celebrating about their racial identities.”
American voices have dominated conversations on race, but Morrison contends people can learn much from similar conversations facilitated by Latin American, Afro-Latin American and colonized people worldwide.
— Gospel Cruz
Photo by Gospel Cruz>