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Liberation Through Reading In Cuba

Literacy campaigns targeting African (Black) youth in Africa and across the diaspora have played a crucial role in fostering educational empowerment. By promoting literacy among African youth, these campaigns help break down systemic barriers to education, offering avenues for self-expression, critical thinking, community engagement, and self-determination. This is why national literacy campaigns are among the first projects developed for decolonized nations post-revolution, such as Cuba, Grenada, and Nicaragua.

“Liberation Through Reading” is a pay-it-forward book gifting program centered around African (Black) youth, established in August 2017. What distinguishes Liberation Through Reading is not just the act of giving books, but the deeper intentions behind it. Alongside providing a diverse range of African (Black)-centered literature by African (Black) authors that many may not be familiar with, I actively engage in meaningful conversations with both the youth and adults, delving into the authors, the essence of their works, and the profound impact of integrating diverse perspectives into educational curricula and library collections. Furthermore, I purposefully collaborate with organizations to host events, fostering community awareness about local issues while distributing books to children. 

When presented with the opportunity to attend The Second International Meeting of Theoretical Publications of Left Parties and Movements in Havana, Cuba, I contacted the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente, a prominent network of revolutionary Black educators, activists, artists, and workers across the island dedicated to sustaining the revolution by combating racism for Afrodescendant Cubans. During our discussions, I suggested the concept of distributing books in their communities to African youth. They concurred that initiatives like Liberation Through Reading empower young people to reclaim their narratives and envision a better future.

My intention behind extending the project to Cuba, transcending borders, was to connect the struggles of African communities in the Americas with those on the African continent during African Liberation Month, thereby serving as bridges for cross-national communal exchange. By fostering solidarity and shared experiences, these efforts contribute to the development of a Zone of Peace in the Americas where dialogue and collaboration.

I arrived in Havana with 25 books ordered by supporters of the program (including titles such as “Amor de pelo,” “Las bellas hijas de Mufaro,” “Porque Zumban los Mosquitos en los Oidos de la Gente,” “Milo imagina el mundo,” “El blues de Beale Street,” “Ojos Azules,” “Parentesco,” “La parábola del sembrador,” and “La Asombrosa Graciela”). After a brief meeting with members of the Red Barrial, they suggested that my comrades and I take a walk around the neighborhood to distribute the books. They believed it would be a good way for us to connect with the people we were gifting the books to. 

In that small Cuban neighborhood, with dirt roads basking in the sun’s golden glow, families gathered outside colorful homes, while playful children added to the scene, imbuing it with a sense of timeless charm and boundless joy. As we strolled around, despite my limited Spanish, I initiated conversations with adults about the program and their lives in Cuba, offering books for their children and a few novels for themselves. What struck me in interacting with the neighborhood and its residents was the same joy and delight that I’ve witnessed on the faces of African (Black) children in the U.S. in the numerous cities where I’ve conducted my program—places like Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Greenville, NC, and Anne Arundel County, MD. It was the joy of feeling acknowledged and valued; the idea that a stranger would visit their neighborhood to gift them with books authored by individuals who look like them, featuring characters who look like them, all in an effort to ensure they feel seen. This act serves as a gateway to developing a love for reading, encouraging individuals to embark on a journey of literary exploration, because I believe, as Malcolm X once noted, “a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”

Ultimately, literacy campaigns and initiatives promoting grounded representation are not only about providing access to books and education but also about empowering African youth to become agents of change in their communities and beyond. Moreover, grounding representation beyond postmodernist conceptions of race enables a more nuanced understanding of identity, acknowledging the complexities of historical and cultural narratives that shape African (Black) experiences globally. By gaining a deeper understanding of heritage, creating connections across borders, and promoting critical consciousness, taking Liberation Through Reading beyond the U.S. has been but one aspect of a foundation for a more inclusive and equitable world where all voices are heard and valued.

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.

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