What I didn’t know – and loved – about Cuba

HAVANA _ You don’t know a place until you’ve been to a place.

I didn’t know Cuba.

Now I know a little more. And I’ll never do justice to everything I saw and learned. But here’s a little: I was stunned by the cosmopolitan and wealthy. I was stunned by the grand boulevards and mansions. I was stunned by museums and fancy restaurants and how much Havana appreciates and preserves its history in the care and nurturing of its oldest buildings, its books and history – and its art. I was mostly stunned by how stunned I was. What did I think was happening in Havana? Did I expect to find the poor on corners begging for food? Did I not expect upscale restaurants where I ate amazing food every day?

And oh, the creativity!

I visited the gallery of Eduardo “Choco” Roca, who looks a little like Brock Peters, has a voice like James Earl Jones – and is brilliant. He uses crushed cans from beer, soda pop, to capture the lives and faces of Cuba. I’d never seen anything like it.

We dined at the El Aljibe palodar (one of many, many private restaurants in Havana), where the chicken that everyone raved about tasted like my grandmother’s perfectly seasoned, kind-of-stewed, kind-of-baked chicken with rice and beans.

We strolled through Fusterlandia, the wild, wacky and wonderful complex created by painter and sculptor, José Fuster. He tiled his home, nearby homes and neighborhood businesses in a colorful burst of mosaic fun. (It reminded me of what Tyree Guyton did here in Detroit with the Heidelberg Project).

We drank a few mojitos at the Hotel Nacionale; it was the best mojito I’ve ever, ever, ever had.

I had my photo made by a photographer using a 100-year-old camera in Havana’s Central Park. The camera, which featured a jeans pants leg and was put together with mostly duct tape, processed the near-instant black-and-white print in a matter of minutes. The photographer created a negative, put it in solution, then I watched the magic happen.

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Get thee behind me, 2016; I’m focusing on blessings!

There is only one way to say it: 2016 was a helluva year. And until this moment, I didn’t mean that in a good way.

Sometimes it snows in April, and it was a cold, hellish day when we got the news on April 21 that Prince had died. I didn’t feel the way I felt when Michael Jackson died seven years before. That day, I was sad but I was a journalist. I was standing at an airport gate, ready to board a plane, nearly missing a flight as I composed a column.

Last April, I was numb. Prince’s seeming immortality was neither Peter Pan-ish nor grounded in the belief that he would always be around. My mind and heart just couldn’t imagine a world without him in it. It was like I’d lost a family member.

Even as the accolades poured in from the rich and famous and talented, I recalled being at Paisley Park during the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in Minneapolis the summer before. He had invited us out to party, and we did. And 10 journalists got a private audience with him. I wasn’t among them, but Kelley L. Carter put me there in her Buzzfeed story after the fact:

CHANHASSEN, Minnesota — The room was a bit too dark. Prince turned to a member of his staff and said, “Turn up the lights so the doves can see.”

By spring, we had no idea how much 2016 would kick our butts. Six weeks after Prince’s death, we lost The Greatest. It is impossible to fully explain the global impact that a young boxer who became so much more had on the world. I won’t try now. He was the subject of my first column. He will be the subject of my last.  But when I write it, I’ll tell you about when I first meet him in 1994, and the time I visited his farm in Berrien Springs, Michigan before all the media came to call. His death rocked me to my core – until two days later when my mother, the most courageous woman I’ve ever known, joined him on another plane.She finally said goodbye after a life-long battle with multiple sclerosis. The disease won many battles, but she won the war.

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