The Road Less Traveled: Cuba and Black America

The stories of the United States and Cuba are intertwined in many ways and forms. Cubans and Americans have lived and learned much from each other. And this…

The stories of the United States and Cuba are intertwined in many ways and forms. Cubans and Americans have lived and learned much from each other. And this has been true not only in culture, but also in politics, economy, and society. It’s a long history.

In 1953, Cuban revolutionaries attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. In those days, a school in Tennessee [Highlander Folk School] was starting classes to organize and train civil rights workers, most of them Black. The citizen mobilization in Cuba in the 1950s was an expression of the same, parallel struggle for civil rights in the southern and northern United States. At the same time, the social and political struggles at the grassroots level in Cuba and the United States, although separate, were in turn an expression of the decolonization processes in Africa and Asia after World War II. The arguments that Fidel Castro used in his defense were very similar to the concepts of citizen rights that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Brown v. Board of Education, prohibiting the segregation of schools. These two traditions referred to 18th and 19th century thinkers, part of a clearly revolutionary culture.

Cubans, like Americans, confronted the authorities of their respective countries for violating their respective Constitutions.

The action of a small group of revolutionaries in Cuba, like that of Rosa Parks and her associates in Montgomery, Alabama, incited greater actions that would be considered radical, illegal and revolutionary. The Cuban revolutionary movement began with legal demands and soon after adopted armed methods. In the United States, the civil rights movement would use peaceful methods, even when violently attacked by the state. And, little by little, a greater number of social institutions, including the churches, increasingly supported their respective movements in defense of the population’s civil rights. In both countries, leading figures in the judicial system came to identify with these increasingly popular movements. While in the United States, the civil and political rights movement had a constitutional and religious foundation like that of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in the Cuban case it was purely political, although many participants were Catholics, Presbyterians and Baptists.

On the one hand, state governors in the southern United States — in Arkansas and Mississippi, for example — and the FBI, as well as the government of Fulgencio Batista, are trying [should be: tried] to dismantle this growing opposition by various means. Both repressive apparatuses used the same military technology and the same methods (high-pressure water hoses, for example). And yet, in both countries, charismatic leaders are emerging to unite the nascent mass movement: Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States and Fidel Castro in Cuba.

In Cuba, the movement triumphed and comes to power in 1959, but not in the United States. The civil and political rights movement first, and the student and anti-colonial war movement later, only won some civil and political concessions. But that struggle continued in the U.S. and some of the reformist and radical youth population in the North went to the Deep South to help gain social and political rights. The revolutionary triumph in Cuba has an enormous impact on the civil rights fighters. And, even though they used different methods — nonviolence — they recognized the contributions and changes made by the Cubans.

The Cuban triumph was assumed as their own by the fighters and revolutionaries of the United States. In addition, civil rights fighters in the United States pressured the government not to aid the dictatorship, “The United States government is a partner of Cuba’s dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in the murder of nearly 4,000 Cubans so far, and the time has come to walk away now,” said Congressman [Representative] Adam Clayton Powell, a Black American, on March 20, 1958, before the U.S. House of Representatives.

The triumph of the Cuban rebellion had a particular impact on the Black American population. During the first months of 1959, many Black intellectuals, journalists, labor leaders, congressmen, actors and writers went to Cuba and defended the newly initiated social process. Among these were William Worthy and Richard Gibson [journalists], James Baldwin, James Oliver, Julian Mayfield, Leroi Jones [later Amiri Baraka], Harold Cruse [writers], John Henrik Clarke [historian], Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X [politicians], among others.

In September 1960, Fidel Castro traveled to New York to represent the Cuban Revolution at the United Nations. Under pressure from the US State Department under the Dwight Eisenhower administration ,the hotel establishment denied the Cuban delegation access to hotels. But Harlem’s Black community opened its heart and space to Cuban revolutionaries. It was not just the Hotel Teresa that took that initiative. The Black community, which at that precise moment was fighting on numerous fronts against racism, social exclusion, poverty and exploitation, also understood that its Black, mulatto and white brothers on the island were beginning a whole process of destroying the racist, segregationist and exploitative instruments that had taken root on the “island of freedom”. Denying the Cuban revolutionary leader access to a hotel was an act similar to that confronting the Black population in general in the United States.

The struggle for civil rights, which has a very long history in the United States, saw its illusions and hopes reflected in the new Cuba. Although many do not remember or have wanted to forget or do not know about it. The reality was that the movement for civil, political, cultural, economic and human rights that was developing in the south of the United States had many links and connections with what was happening in Cuba. Even more illustrative is that by September 1960, the Cuban Revolution had nationalized a large proportion of U.S. corporations. And yet, Malcolm X stated in Harlem: “The Teresa [Hotel] is today better known as the place where Fidel Castro went during his visit to the United Nations, and [where]he achieved a psychological victory against the US State Department when he was confined to Manhattan. They never dreamed that Fidel would stay “uptown” in Harlem, where he would leave a huge and positive impression on Black people.

An American author wrote.  “Moreover, thousands were delighted to see Comandante Juan Almeida among the revolutionaries. On September 22, all of Harlem was around the Hotel Teresa congratulating, greeting, and shouting for Fidel, his comrades, and the revolution.   Almeida and the other members of the Rebel Army walked 20 whole blocks in Harlem.  On September 22 Fidel Castro had lunch with the hotel workers. And he met with Malcolm X at the Hotel Teresa. Malcolm wrote then: “The Teresa is now much better known as the place where Fidel Castro went during his visit to the United Nations, and it dealt a psychological blow to the U.S. State Department when it confined him to Manhattan alone. They never dreamed that he would stay in Harlem where he would leave a huge impression on the Blacks.” [1]

And another writer informs us that “… Harlem activists suggested, that the difficulties in finding a place to stay would be transformed into a unique opportunity to express cultural and political expressions of solidarity and anti-racism. When the Cuban delegation accepted a friendly welcome from the owner of the Teresa Hotel, Love B. Woods, the ideological and political ties between African-American progressives and Cuban revolutionaries were cultivated…. The meeting of Malcolm X and Fidel Castro in Harlem symbolized a post-World War II era of anti-colonial and human rights movements for Black and Third World peoples. One newspaper, the New York Citizen Call, declared in those days: “To the oppressed people of Harlem, Castro was the bearded revolutionary who had driven out the rogues and told the white people of the United States to go to hell. “[2]

The movement for civil and democratic rights of Americans, particularly Blacks, saw the revolutionary process in Cuba in a positive light. The same was true of the university student movement that was taking shape. An alliance of the island’s revolutionaries with the revolutionaries and reformists of the United States was becoming a major concern for the American power structure.  And in a short time, both sides were cooperating more.

In 1960 several left-wing Americans established the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in favor of the Cuban Revolution and in opposition to the Eisenhower administration’s policy. Many of its members also belonged to the civil rights struggle of Blacks, whites, and workers, including writer James Baldwin. Ralph Featherstone, one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), considered Cuba “a liberated zone. The Black left-wing poet LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) wrote, “The Cubans, and the other new peoples (in Asia, Africa, South America) of the world do not need us, and the best we can do is not to block their way.” [Cuba Libre, 1960]. In other words, a significant sector of the US Black population recognized and supported self-determination, a concept that was already being defended in the US South as well. The solidarity organization Fair Play for Cuba Committee existed against injustice, and in turn included Americans of all colors.  In itself, “fair play” is what the neediest sectors were asking for themselves and for the world.

But the relationship and cooperation between the US progressive movements and the Cuban Revolution was under attack from the very beginning. Both movements were confronting the same enemy.

Little by little, these two forces were isolated by the invasion organized by the US government on April 17, 1961 to Cuba. The systematic persecution of the left by Congress [such as the House Un-American Activities Committee[HUAC]], the FBI and many other state institutions also had an effect on that relationship. The US liberals themselves ran in the opposite direction from the revolution. Meanwhile, the struggle for justice and for equal democratic rights continued in the United States, although increasingly separated from Cuban reality. The Missile Crisis of October 1962 was a watershed that opened a greater gap between the two movements. Revolutionary Cuba was already defined as an enemy of the United States, while the Democratic US government of John Kennedy identified with a reformist sector of the civil rights movement. However, the relationship continued at lesser known levels. But there is no doubt that the Cuban Revolution and the struggle for the rights of Americans have a long and close relationship.

That history, which we have only touched upon briefly, reveals that the relationship between Cuban revolutionaries and progressive forces in the United States has a very long history. José Martí lived for years in New York City and Tampa. He explored, like few others,the history of the United States and that of Cuba, separately and in relation to the two countries. He understood like few others the real sense of what national independence means. The Black progressive movement in the United States also understood that struggle. Martin Luther King was classified by the FBI as a “dangerous man”. The U.S. government also gave that same classification to Fidel Castro. Both understood the close relationship between national independence and civil and political rights. An imperial country cannot be respectful of human and civil rights.  Nor does a colony respect them.

On October 22, 1995, Fidel Castro visited Harlem again. He said: “Here in Harlem, I met Malcolm X and many other personalities.  Those were difficult days, the days are always difficult, but ahead was a very big struggle: the great battles of Martin Luther King, Jr. for civil rights; the great struggles of the Black, Latino, and Latin American minorities everywhere, to improve their living conditions; the struggle of the elderly, the sick, everyone. [3]

The US Congressional Black Caucus [CBC] has taken a friendly and supportive stance towards the Cuban political and social process.  And it has represented the most progressive and favorable sector for the normalization of relations between the two countries.  Since 1999 delegations and representatives of the CBC have visited Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. Cuba, in turn, has provided scholarships to American students at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) in support of the CBC’s Congress members. Fidel Castro had already pointed out that circumstances were conducive to the improvement of relations because “it was necessary to use this historic moment when a Black president is in the White House and a current of opinion in favor of the normalization of relations coincide.” [4]

How the president of the United States and former president Fidel Castro should talk about the history of both countries. Already one of them said: “in the good will and disposition of people there are infinite resources that do not keep or fit in the vaults of a bank. They do not emanate from the single policy of an empire.” [5] It is worth remembering Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a forest and I, /I took the one less traveled, /And that made all the difference.”

Notes.

1] See: Joy James, Review: Harlem Hospitality and Political History: Malcolm x and Fidel Castro at the Hotel Theresa, Contributions in Black Studies, Vol. 12, Article 12, 1994, Article No. 12. [http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi? article=1088&context=cibshttps://youtu.be/UAcgbsPgCbo

2] L. Ralph, Fidel Castro and Harlem: Political, Diplomatic, and Social Influences of the 1960 Visit to the Hotel Theresa,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. See: https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1P3-494766291/fidel-castro-and-harlem-political-diplomatic-

3] http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/1995/esp/f221095e.html

4] Fidel Castro, “Los 7 congresistas que nos visitan,” Cubadebate (Havana), March 11, 2014. http://www.granma.cu/granmad/secciones/ref-fidel/art113.html

5] http://www.granma.cu/granmad/secciones/ref-fidel/art20.html

Reading suggestions.

Lisa Brock and Digna Castañeda Fuentes, Between Race and Empire: African-Americans and Cubans before the Cuban revolution, 1998.

Rosemari Meali, Fidel and Malcolm X; Memories of a Meeting. Ocean Press, 1993


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