|Pedro Pérez Sarduy||
An Open Letter to Carlos
Mooreby Pedro Pérez Sarduy in Cuba Update, Summer 1990
It took me a while to respond to CUBA Updates request for a review of your new book Castro, the Blacks and Africa. There was so much to respond to. In the end, I decided instead to write this open letter, in the hopes that it reaches you in your Caribbean retreat of Fort-de-France or Pointe-a-Pitre.
Im sorry we didnt get to see each other again after that heated discussion at your first New York presentation of the book in February this year, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in the heart of Harlem. I wasnt able to be at New York University, and then the New School Graduate Faculty Academic Press Bookstore party was canceled. I subsequently learned this was due to the furor caused in academic circles over a Cuba event organized at the New School by Professor Heriberto Dixon (also organizer of your Schomburg and New School appearances), with speakers openly requesting support for extreme right-wing exile Cuban terrorist groups. Are these groups, who want to see Cuba return to being the Little Alabama that was in the making before 1959, the people you (and Professor Dixon) are aligning with in your hopes for "the beginnings of the end of the Castro dictatorship"?
I remember it was fall 1960 when I first met you in Vidal Park, Santa Clara, provincial capital of what was Las Villas at the time. A little less than a year earlier Id taken part in a mass rally, headed by one of the rebel commandantes from the Sierra Maestra, to hack down the other walls segregating blacks, mulattos and whites in the citys only public boulevard. You hadnt been in Cuba at the time, Carlos. You talked to me about the racism youd experienced in your hometown, Camaguey. Youd just come from the United States, where youd been living for some years. We were 16 or 17 at the time and were both euphoric - exchanging ideas, frustrations and hopes for a better world for our people.
If my memory serves me well, you were at a conference with young Latin American Progressives who were traveling the country with others who had been invited from several countries, including the United States. Do you remember how we walked through the park talking about things that had happened to us in our young lives, you in North America and me in my hometown? I didnt know then that earlier the same year youd acted as an impromptu interpreter between Castro and Hotel Theresa manager, Love B. Woods." The Cuban leaders visit to that hotel had caused a stir in political and diplomatic circles. That unexpected gesture of solidarity with the black civil rights struggle - what you call the "Harlem Show" never seen before in that Upper Manhattan neighborhood, was perhaps what spurred you to return "au pays natal."
Walking along 125th Street in Harlem was also what made me decide to write these lines. My friends and hosts, two of whom have lived in the area for years, had taken me to dinner at Sylvias soul food restaurant. Around the comer, looking over at what was once the Hotel Theresa, in a few words they recalled the emotion of those days: "Oh boy ... everyone wanted to see Castro, it was the first time a leader of his political stature had done such a thing. He didnt have to go to Harlem, if they didnt want him in the hotel where he was staying he could have gone to another, but nobody ever thought hed come to Harlem.... People came from all over to see Castro ... streets were blocked, there was partying in all of Harlem because Castro came to speak to us and share with us his problems, which were similar... For months people were talking about his visit.... I remember it like yesterday!"
The next time you and I saw each other was 1962-63, in Havana, where I went on to university. Of almost 250 students in the Department of Literature and History, not 15 were "of color," and that included a handful of Africans. You were working as a translator for a news agency and seemed to be running up against white creole racial intolerance, which, I presume, caused you some strong altercations with government officials. Then you disappeared, as if by magic, and it was 1965 when I next read about your saga in an article you wrote with great detail and irony in Presence Africaine (52.1964): "Le peuple noir a-t-il sa place dans la Revolution Cubaine?" - "Is There a Place for Black People in the Cuban Revolution? One aspect of this article was your insistence on demonstrating that in Cuba no revolution has taken place." (p.228)
My first trip abroad was for personal reasons. I went to Western Europe, in January 1981. From London I went to Paris in April and there we were really pleased to see each other, even though in your paranoia you mistrusted me. First we met at Jeune Afrique, where you were working as a journalists and then we went to your place in the Quartier Latin. We were still talking about the same things, the black struggle in the diaspora, Cuba included. You listened to me attentively. You were writing your book This Bitch of a Life, about the controversial Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. But youd already decided what would be your next step.
I returned to London and in 1982 we met again in the Notting Hill Gate apartment of our Ghanaian friend Akua, editor of your book on the musician from our Yoruba ancestral home. We talked again, and youll remember how taken aback Akua was by our heated discussion and how we tried to change the subject but couldnt. That was when you told me about the great project you were involved in, your obra magna, which is the reason for this letter.
I didnt hide my amazement at your multiple, out-dated, warped theories, that were both contradictory and decontextualized, governed less by reason than passion, as the Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor would have said.
I, too, can be very impassioned in my writing, and I think passion is necessary to defend our ideas, especially when were of the "wretched of the earth." It was precisely on approach that we couldnt agree, and we had to declare a truce. I said I felt proud to be black in a country in revolution with a leader of Iberian ancestry who had launched Operation Carlota, in one of the hardest terrains on the African continent, an operation that was to shatter South Africas effort to prevent the consolidation of Angolan independence. The name for that operation came from Black Carlota, a slave woman who in 1843 took up the machete to lead a slave uprising at the Triunvirato sugar mill, in Matanzas, and was killed in the rebellion.
I read you parts of my poemCumbite, written in the aftermath of that bold tropical venture, which tells the epic of a "cumbite" between one Caribbean and three African leaders, and some of the orishas in the Yoruba pantheon most important to that meeting, which would decide on what was to be done, when and how, without rhetoric, to help end the system of apartheid, a scourge on modem times.
I told you that the initiative of our government had the backing of the great majority of Cubans, especially those of us of African origin, who saw it as an act of redemption. And why not? We approached the centennial of the abolition of slavery in Cuba with the rebel spirit of Carlota. The decision to get involved, when our African brothers and sisters called Out to us, was 100 percent Product of Cuba, Carlos!
Although in my poem Cumbite the supreme god of all the orishas had been in agreement that they would "send quartz and cobalt, corallite and vanadium ore, lava of copper and titanium crashing down on the heads of those ambitious mortals" (of apartheid), the defeat of the South Africans was then nowhere on the horizon. The historic battle of Cuito Cuanavale is something you didnt or couldnt foresee in your book. Yet, after 13 years of war, it brought the various sides to the negotiating table. The rest, including Namibias independence and the release of Nelson Mandela, is, with only a little political imagination, not the chance outcome of that "cumbite."
After that April 1981 Paris visit, we didnt see each other again for a number of years. I went back to Havana in January 1983, and you were thinking of settling in the French Caribbean. We did meet again briefly in London in 1988. You were preparing for an International Congress of Black Writers to be held in Philadelphia. As one of the organizers, you invited me to take part, but then I didnt hear from you again.
I arrived in New York last October as a writer in residence at Columbia University, on a grant from the Ford Foundation, which coincidentally also funded you. In less than two weeks, I was reading your book. Friends sent me a copy because, among other things, my name was there as one of a group of "talented novelists and poets" (p. 309) who were given small jobs in various government agencies" after what you dramatize exceptionally well as the failed "Black Manifesto Plot."
And since, after 20 years, you brought all that back at the Schomburg Center, I might say, in the first place, the jobs were neither "small" nor "given," and it never occurred to us to be part of any manifesto. Eight or nine of us wrote a short paper for a forum prior to the congress [of intellectuals, in 1962]. Speaking for myself, there were many of us taking part in that symposium and not all of us coincided on the structure of what was being put forward but rather the basic objectives including the desegregation of national culture and the dismantling of folkiorism solely as a category of what smelled, tasted and sounded black. Although my friend Walterio Carbonell took part in that meeting, not all of us coincided in his concept of Cuban culture as being eminently bantu in origin, and having to be recognized as such. That thesis was elaborated years after the publication of On National Culture, a slim volume we subscribed to then and still subscribe to today. You werent there, Carlos. Neither were some of those you mention in that chapter, and some you dont mention were, and one who was, you mention twice under a different name.
I dont deny the fact that many of us expected something more constructive from your writing, no matter what the discrepancies, no matter how critical, precisely because you were a black born in Cuba though you have lived three quarters of your life abroad and because of your intellectual credentials in the Afro-American world, as "bien leido y escribido". But my conclusions from reading your book are that what could have been an academically important work becomes just one more piece of irrational diatribe to be hurled against us, presenting us as intellectual maroons.
The singlemost virtue of the book, that of filling lacunae in the English-language historiography, highlights the intellectual mediocrity that has surrounded us and cuts a wound that is to our detriment. When we read your earlier piece, a certain apathy and negligence had conspired against a timely response. It finally fell to the Haitian writer Rend Depestre, whose article in CASA was reproduced in Presence Africaine, under the title "Letter from Cuba". Depestre was a logical editorial choice: a prestigious foreign writer living in Cuba at the time, and himself an the CASA editorial board. But we felt then, and still feel, that we, too, should have made our voice heard in reply.
For years now, Cuban scholars black and white some better than others, have been bent on the enormous task of rewriting major parts of another, hidden history. They have been reconstructing the lives of "people without a history," to borrow a title from one of the black Cuban scholars, Pedro Deschamps Chapeaux. Fighting bureaucratic editorial indifference to more innovative areas, they have produced landmark interpretative studies of the Afro-Cuban diaspora or Cubas return to Africa movement after abolition in the 1880s; of new literary and artistic concerns to ethnomusicology, that can transcend "cultured" circles to become popular cultural events, in the form of a Rumba Saturday or an art-dance-ritual bay crossing from Regla to Havana. Its not the Cubans fault if youre not aware of this work.
Thats why I was the first to respond to you and Professor Dixon at the Schomburg. I thank you for your effusive greeting when I took the floor, surprised as you were to see me there, but I wasnt about to hold back from making my point of view public. I lost my fears on that count back in New Year 1959, at the Battle of Santa Clara, when the rebels belied what many white Cubans in the city had been saying: "when the barbudos come, Fidel will sink all the blacks on a boat out at sea." Dont forget that Cuba had been what anthropologist Sydney Mintz described as "the most prejudiced country in the Hispanic - speaking Caribbean." I wasnt the one to sink. They were the ones to cross the Florida Strait to reinvent their social codes of conduct and recycle hopes of their return, like corsairs, as before. No way, Carlos!
The problems have been many, and are still many, though not the same as before. The problems are perhaps many more than you imagine, but not the type of problems Ive seen in train stations, bus terminals, subways, streets, schools and neighborhoods of US cities. There the poor, the sick, the neglected, those who havent found that "American dream," in their great majority black, are humiliated by a system that convinces them of their own inferiority, assimilates them into the very philosophy that scorns them, and implacably eliminates those who would dare challenge their second-class citizenship until the next generation comes along to take up their ideals.
A slow but persistent process of elimination, it is not without its dose of philanthropy, yet it begins with the high infant mortality among the black population of this country.
To a greater or lesser degree, this was also the Cuba we left behind in 1959, one I remember so well. We Cubans, and especially black Cubans about whom your book is written, have found a dignity that is reaffirmed precisely by our actions in Third World countries that request our help. Examples would be in education and health, and not just with so-called Third countries, for Cuba has offered to take 10 000 Chernobyl children, the first of whom are already arriving, for medical treatment.
What Cubans, and especially black Cubans, have achieved in Cuba, through sweat, blood and tears, are not handouts, as you would have your uninformed reader believe. I cant go along with that. Were winning for ourselves the "human identity" that has been James Baldwins great obsession and was denied us for so long.
I arrived in the United States while last summers Bensonhurst case was still hot in the news. A 16-year-old black youth was hunted down, beaten and shot "bountyhunter-style" in a white part of Brooklyn. Hed gone to look at a used car he was interested in buying, and suddenly fatally found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On a downtown Manhattan street, Ive seen a young man drop the zipper of his torn pants to piss and insult a crowd that just passed on by. In broad daylight, in a midtown Manhattan bus, Ive seen an old man trying to get out his token and lose hold of his pants, leaving his bare buttocks exposed. Ive watched "crack" pass hands when Ive crossed Washington Square, in Greenwich Village with my two children. The protagonists of these random scenes, inconceivable in Cuba today, were black, Carlos, as black as you and I.
We Cubans, especially black Cubans, who defend the revolution, at home and abroad, know full well who we are and why we do so. Were not about to trade in our gains for international bank credit. And I find it hard to swallow how a writer of the caliber of Maya Angelou can categorically say that your "brave analysis of racism in Cuba throws light on the conditions of racism everywhere in the world." Mcyan believe it! Or how Alex Haley, whose televised Roots was shown and nationally applauded in Cuba, refers to you as "uniquely qualified to provide this unprecedented insight into the little known racial facets of Cuban polities." To my knowledge, neither is familiar with Cuba or its history. A little more caution comes from your would-be ethnic enemy, the white Cuban American scholar Jorge Dominguez, who does visit his "pays natal." He sees your book as addressing "a classic non-topic in Cuban history the race factor" yet questions the tone and substance to parts of your analysis and conclusions. I recommend that you and he (who do read Spanish) take a closer look at the historiography published in Cuba over the last 10 to 15 years.
True, it has been more comfortable to deal with race historically or culturally, but is this not one of the ways to home in more on the present-day? A reformulation of 19th century independence struggles as not the patrimony of the patricians but a popular history of resistance, whose protagonists were slaves, freed blacks and coloreds, peasants, workers, men, women and children, has obvious parallels for the 1950s insurrection and beyond. Race, class, gender and religion have become crucial categories of analysis for contemporary civil society and polity. You might see the current icon of Baragua as yet another manipulation, but one has to ask what has made it acceptable in the thinking of white and black Cubans for Maceo (not Marti) to be the current national symbol of non-capitulation. Similarly, as Cuba enters the 1990s, affirmative action programs in place for blacks, women and religious believers (Catholics, Protestants, Santeros, Paleros) have to be seen as indicative of new social and political forces in an ongoing struggle.
Theres already a reaction to your book and the easy wit of its chapter headings. African-Americans are voicing their concerns over the purpose behind it, as well you know. The reaction of Africans will be different, and in their own good time, as you must know, too. It already started with another cumbite of Namibia, Nelson Mandela and Cuba at independence day for that newest of African nations.
Your initial blatant affirmations at the Schomburg were that Cuba was the worlds "last militarized regime," so militarized as to be threatening a holocaust for Black Cubans, worse than Romania." Three months later, we read your New York Times (5:13:90) affirmation that "under Mr. Castro Cubas Blacks have materially benefited and slowly climbed the social ladder" and "would rally around Mr. Castro, or a successor regime, if it appeared that the financially powerful, predominantly white Cubans of Miami were a serious threat to their social position." Had you seen the multicolor million out on the streets of Havana to celebrate May Day? Or is it the bitter taste of rebuttal to your out-of-touch account? Why the seemingly opportunistic volte-face?
May Olorum lighten your path, Carlos!
Pedro Pérez Sarduy
Published in Cuba Update, Summer 1990, p34-36. Posted by permission of the Center for Cuban Studies.
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