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An African Palenque: Cuba and Global Black Solidarity

When Black nationalist and poet Amiri Baraka returned from Cuba in 1959, his life was completely transformed. While there he met Afro Cubans, Black Americans such as Robert Williams and Cuban President Fidel Castro. The trip proved to be instrumental not only in developing his black international consciousness but also in mobilizing local political power. Baraka, Williams, Harold Cruse, Sarah Wright, and other Black Nationalists had visited Cuba before the establishment of The Black Arts Repertory Theater/School which helped them build the stage for the coming together of Black artists. Baraka talks about the “growing need to fully express our soul and mind connection with the Black struggle in our art and in the street.”1 The same can be said about the streets of Havana and Matanzas Cuba today. 

In August 2022, a Black activist delegation2 from Atlanta, Charleston, and Washington, D.C. followed this tradition during a nine-day trip to Cuba. It was there that we not only learned from Afro Cuban organizers, but we also learned from the streets. From the murals along the buildings in Havana, to the rumba dancing and drumming, art connects and gives a voice to our global struggle. 

The delegation was between members of Community Movement Builders (CMB) from Atlanta, GA, and the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (RBA) in Havana and Matanzas, CU. The Red Barrial is a group of Black women across Cuba who came together to create the RBA in November 2012. The group consists of grassroot organizers who are also artists, educators, writers, and academics. Through Paulo Freire’s method of popular education and community outreach the RBA focuses on issues of race, racism, gender, sexuality, and discrimination in Cuba. 3

In organizing and creating the itinerary for the nine-day trip, Devyn Springer wrote,

“A recent propaganda narrative in the U.S. seeks to paint Black Cubans as the face of regime change, claiming that Black Cubans are interested in U.S. and Miami-backed schemes against the Cuban government. However, Black Cuban culture and community organizing on the ground tells a much different story, one of self-sustainability, struggle, and sustaining a revolution within a revolution. This trip will explore these themes and highlight key lessons from Black Cuban culture, history, and community organizing.”4

Not only did we dive into lessons on Black Cuban culture and history, but we also forged a new network of solidarity with everyone we encountered. By being in solidarity with oppressed peoples throughout the world, specifically with African/Black people in Cuba, we continue the tradition of ancestors of the Black Radical Tradition. As Cedric Robinson maintains in his conception of the Black radical tradition, this effort not only displays resistance against structures rooted in slavery, imperialism, and capitalism, but asserts an ontology (cultural traditions, beliefs, values). Ancestors like Malcolm X, Eslanda Robeson, and Queen Mother Moore who practiced Black Internationalism off the strength and history of the Haitian Revolution, Garvey movement, and Communist International movement, and Black Power movement. 

For Black Americans, Cuba can be considered an African Palenque, Maroon space, or a fortified escaped slave village. For instance, many prominent Black Americans have visited Cuba including Jesse Jackson, Joe Louis, and Sonia Sanchez. While the United States continuously shows its disdain to the creation of a communist state just miles away from its boarder, Black American opinions about communist Cuba have shown to be rather different. Historically, American and European fears of the spread of Communism was used as a justification for suppressing African nationalist movements regardless of real or imagined Communist influence. Black activists who adopted Communist ideologies became aware of the anti-communist surveillance and propaganda that existed as a tool to dismantle political development.

Black communist like Claudia Jones, Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, Harry Haywood, and Louise Thompson Patterson found the Communist Party presented a tool for combating the global oppression of Black people. The Communist Party USA presented itself as one such option in Claudia Jones’ eyes.  The emphasis on worker solidarity that transcended geographic boundaries strengthened Jones’ platform in defense of Black women living throughout the Diaspora and contributed to the Pan African unity she envisioned. Jones saw Socialism as a movement to liberate women globally. On International Women’s Day in 1950 she wrote, “Complete emancipation of women is possible only under Socialism.” Jones used writing as a tool to express the need of Socialism throughout the world, but especially the needs of working class Black women.

Black Americans have always engaged in their own fight against racism in the US and were particularly interested in nations whose national leaders were vocal about undoing imperialism and racism. Cuba has played a vital role in Black Power solidarity and has often been a safe haven for revolutionary Black exiles from the United States. For instance, from August 1974 through June 1977, Cuba was a political sanctuary for Huey Newton who fled the U.S. to avoid charges of murder. Assata Shakur was granted political asylum in Cuba after escaping from the Clinton Correctional Facility. Within Shakur’s writing she shared, “Cuba’s unwavering support of Shakur and other Black Power activists in the midst of American political and economic pressure continues to demonstrate the nation’s commitment to international solidarity.” 

The United States government has constantly tried to persuade Castro and other Cuban officials to deport Shakur back to the U.S., thus far without success. While currently residing in Cuba under the protection of the Cuban government, her life has been an inspirational triumph for political prisoners and other victims of the criminal justice system who are still residing in the United States. In a 1998 open letter to Pope John Paul II, Shakur wrote of Cuba: “This is not a country that is rich in material wealth, but it is a country that is rich in human wealth, spiritual wealth and moral wealth.” In 2005, Fidel Castro publicly defended Shakur as a “fighter,” saying that she had been “lynched by an all-white jury.” 5 

In addition to Assata Shakur, numerous other activists who claimed they were targeted with political persecution in the United States also took refuge in Cuba. These have included political activist and rapper Nehanda Abiodun, who passed away in 2019, and was accused of helping with Shakur’s prison break. 

Our stay in Cuba felt much like Newton’s and Shakur’s. It was a brief but needed escape from the day-to-day imperialist regime. A moment to listen, be in community, and just be. A few cultural highlights from the trip include seeing and learning about the Callejon de Hamel in Havana, created by the late artist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona. It truly represents the various identities of Cuban people including the Cuban religions with African roots like Las Reglas de Congo, Abakwa from South Nigerian, and Santeria. We also visited the newly opened Fidel Castro Ruz Center where we viewed unseen photos of Fidel, learned about his various military pursuits and the law that bans the erecting of any monuments, statues, or naming public spaces after him. That was the most selfless and community centered attitude I learned about a revolutionary to date. We also toured the Museo de Los Orishas (Museum of the Orishas), Old Havana, Casa De Africa, and spent a great deal of time with our hosts Maritza Lopez McBean and our new Cuban family. 

Matanzas, Cuba is the center of the Black world. It was familiar and felt like home. As we walked through the streets of La Marina, the African-descended neighborhood, we felt a strong sense of community. People sat and talked on the street, doors and windows stayed open, and drumming was heard throughout the neighborhood. It was beautiful. One of the most exciting experiences in Matanzas was hearing Los Muñequitos de Matanzas Cuban rumba ensemble. The drumming, congas, singing, and dance was spiritual. Dancing with them was even better. Although some of us had never danced to authentic rumba there was still something recognizable about it. The sound, rhythm, spiritual component, call and response all blended to create a rich and filling sound. Much like the African Diaspora. As I glanced around the room, to take in and embrace the joy we were experiencing, I could not help but think of Maya Angelou’s book All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. Angelou writes about Malcolm X’s trip to Ghana and his organizing efforts to meet with President Kwame Nkrumah. While there The Ghana Press Club gave him a party. During his speech he stated,

“First, Brothers and Sisters, thank you for inviting me to the Ghana Press Club. I do not want you to think that because I have been sitting quietly, that I do not appreciate your invitation. The fact is, I am in no mood to dance. I think of our brothers and sisters in the Congo, squirming under the heel of imperialist invasion, and I do not care to dance. I think of our brothers and sisters in Southern Africa squirming under the heel of apartheid and I do not care to dance.”6

For those brief moments, we felt freedom, maroonage, but we were quickly reminded of our own reality and our brothers and sisters back home who may never get to experience Cuba. Our people who are consistently harmed by police brutality, LGBTQ hate, and reproductive injustices. Those realities make it even more vital that we internationalize our struggle because we need everybody. 

The topic of race and racism in Cuba and the experiences of Afro-Cubans today is an ongoing discussion. Castro’s 2000 speech in New York acknowledged the issues facing the Black and mestizo communities since the Revolution. Black women formed Organizations like the RBA to address race, racism, gender, and sexuality issues within Afro-Cuban communities. Literacy campaigns, agrarian land reforms, and increased employment opportunities were initiatives extended to Afro-Cubans as a way to transform Cuba into an “anti-racist” country.

Black Americans and Black people from across the African Diaspora can learn a great deal about grassroots organizing and international Black solidarity from Cuba. Cuba has a love of humanity. Despite being met with rejection, Cuba offers to send doctors to the United States for disaster, in the local communities there is one doctor for every 125 families, and during Fidel’s governance, they provided military support to Angola. Castro and the Cuban army were major figures in the efforts to support Angola in their struggle for independence. Since Cuba had recently gone through a fierce independence struggle of their own, Castro was quite sympathetic, and had sent in military materials, workers, medical doctors and soldiers to Angola in 1961.7

As the August 2022 delegation returned to our respective organizations, we returned inspired to continue the work and deeply informed about the state of the US and all the ways imperialism affects the Cuban people. We gained a great deal of perspective during the trip. We were thankful to be able to donate fabric, coffee, feminine and healthcare items to RBA and the community. It was the least we could do to support the Cuban people. We have a revived commitment in the struggle towards global Black Liberation. Now, let’s end the Blockade.

Endnotes

1.  The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader edited by William J. Harris pig 497

2.  The following organizations were also represented within the delegation: Pan-African Community Action (PACA) of Washington D.C., Decolonial Feminist Collective, Lowcountry Action Committee of Charleston, SC, The Black Alliance for Peace, and Endstate ATL (ESA). ASERE and Afrodiverso (Cuba).

3.  Geoffroy de Laforcade & Musa Springer (2019) The Red Barrial Afrodescendiente: A Cuban Experiment in Black Community Empowerment, Souls, 21:4, 339-346

4.  From Cuba Itinerary: Red Barrial Afrodescendiente x Community Movement Builders x ASERE created by Musa Springer and member of CMB.

5.  Assata Shakur, In Her Own Words, 18.

6.  Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. 7.  Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. (The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 16.

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