Features — 07 December 2016 — by Assad Shoman
Fidel and African Americans

When the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959, blatant, legal racism was still very much alive in the US of A. Martin Luther King was well known, loved by black people and persecuted by the FBI. The civil rights movement was just getting strong, and still had a long way to go. When black people in the US learnt of how Cuba had been equally racist before the Revolution and that Fidel had changed all that, they naturally felt an attraction for him.

As Bill Fletcher Jr. put it, “For many of us in Black America, Castro represented the audacity that we have desired and sought in the face of imperial and racial arrogance. When it came to matching words with deeds on the topic of racial equality, the most stalwart leader of the Western hemisphere, over the course of the 20th century, was Fidel Castro”.

This admiration for Fidel was evident during his legendary stay at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem in 1960, where he was jubilantly hailed by hundreds of Harlemites on the streets outside. Several civil rights leaders visited him there, among them, famously, Malcolm X, with whom Fidel exchanged views for some time, and both men clearly appreciated each other’s ideas.

As Steven Cohen has written, “This notion that Third World revolutionaries and American civil rights activists were allies in the same essential conflict—that racism and global capitalism were part and parcel of a single oppressive system, presided over by the United States—was a source of tremendous fear in Washington. And the last thing anyone needed was for radical blacks to start getting ideas directly from the Cuban guerrillas”.

The fear was real. In 1961, after the CIA’s failed attempt to invade Cuba by CIA mercenaries, Martin Luther King, Jr. denounced the invasion as “a disservice to the whole of humanity” and called on the United States to “join the revolution” against “colonialism, reactionary dictatorship, and systems of exploitation” the world over.

And when the US cut Cuba’s sugar quota and some of that was allocated to apartheid South Africa, the American Negro Leadership Council on Africa, whose executive board included Martin Luther King, brought its objections directly to the Secretary of State. Dorothy Day, Bayard Rustin, and famous novelist James Baldwin were among those to violate the United States’ ban on food and drug shipments to Cuba. They have been followed for years by the Rev. Lucius Walker and other US missionaries, who as Pastors for Peace have defied the US blockade every year and taken convoys of buses to Cuba with medicines and educational materials.

Many prominent African Americans have praised Castro’s thought and work, and especially his struggle against racism everywhere, among them Harry Belafonte, who once said, “If you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy, you have no choice but to support Fidel Castro!” A man who fought consistently for the release of the five Cubans unjustly imprisoned in the US for close on 15 years for fighting terrorism, while the self-confessed terrorists were feted in Miami by US officials, was Danny Glover, famous actor in the Lethal Weapon series and in The Color Purple.

The Black American writer of The Color Purple, Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker, has said: “My admiration for Fidel Castro is well known. Whether one likes or dislikes what Fidel represents – and I like what he represents – he seems to me a truly extraordinary human being. Filled with love for the suffering beings of the world, and with a willingness to fight alongside them for their liberation . . . he has a fierce moral compass that makes him stand up and speak out while others are silent.”

After we thought the civil rights movement had won the battle and that it was now safe for Blacks to walk the streets of Amerikka, the 21st century has shown that racism is alive and well in the USA. More black people are in prison than ever before, more black youth are killed with impunity by the police. This gave rise, among other things, to Black Lives Matter, a movement formed after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and it has since become a movement denouncing police killings of Black people.

Leaders of the movement have declared after Fidel’s passing: “We are feeling many things as we awaken to a world without Fidel Castro. There is an overwhelming sense of loss, complicated by fear and anxiety . . . As Fidel ascends to the realm of the ancestors, we summon his guidance, strength, and power as we recommit ourselves to the struggle for universal freedom. Fidel Vive!”

As with everything one writes about Fidel, on any subject, one can only skim the surface, and hope that readers will seek out more information elsewhere. I cannot abuse the generosity of Evan X in allowing me space, but let me end with a poem by Alice Walker in reply to those who criticize Fidel:

But for us, it is a point of honor to say
that we have witnessed the flourishing
of a great sheltering tree
that would protect the world
should the world
throw off its fear
and rise
beneath its branches;
a tree rooted
not in ideology
but in human courage
soul and heart.

Assad Shoman, Havana, 1 December, 2016

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