Notes on the Revolution / Column #33
November 20, 2019
The teachings of José Martí on race
By Charles McKelvey
In the program “The Voice of José Martí,” my colleague Gerwyn Jones last week read the article “My Race,” written by Marti and published La Patria Libre on April 16, 1893. Martí expressed what would become the dominant view of the Cuban Revolution on race during the course of the twentieth century. He wrote: “No man has any special rights because he belongs to one race or another. . . . The black man . . . is not inferior or superior to any other man. . . Anything that divides men from each other, that separates them, singles them out, or hems them in, is a sin against humanity.” He further maintains that blacks are right in maintaining and demonstrating that skin color does not deprive them of any of the capacities and rights of the human race. But when blacks trumpet their race, they authorize and provoke the white racist. And this becomes a vicious cycle. “The white who isolates himself isolates the Negro. The Negro who isolates himself drives the white to isolate himself.”
For Martí, emancipation from the vicious cycle is through forging unity in struggle. “In Cuba there is no fear whatsoever of a race war. ‘Cuban’ means more than white, more than mulatto, more than Negro. On the battlefields, the souls of whites and blacks who died for Cuba have risen together through the air. In that daily life of defense, loyalty, brotherhood, and shrewdness, there was always a black man at the side of every white.”
As a result of this unity forged through struggle, “Many whites have already forgotten their color; and many blacks have, too. Together they work, black and white, for the cultivation of the mind, the dissemination of virtue, and the triumph of creative work and sublime charity. . . . There is much greatness in Cuba, in blacks and whites.”
In accordance with the teachings of Martí and the experience of blacks and whites in common struggle, Afro-Cubans did not form, as a general pattern, separate black political organizations during the neocolonial republic. Rather, there was significant Afro-Cuban leadership and participation in multiracial organizations, which included important organizations that were successful in mobilizing the people and in attaining popular support.
In popular movements, there often are competing strategies being proposed, with internal debates among the leadership concerning what strategies are going to be most effective. Often, these debates are resolved by the success of some strategies. This occurred with respect to the issue of autonomous black organizations. The revolution triumphed with multiracial organizations that represented various popular sectors, who were organized by employment in various occupational, professional, and student organizations and in the rebel army, rather than by race or color. This experience led to the interpretation that multiracial popular organization is ultimately the necessary strategy for prevailing against powerful forces, even though there was recognition that separate black organizations in some cases constituted a progressive dynamic that in a particular historical moment contributed to the advance of the Cuban revolutionary project.
This interpretation in support of interracial organizations shaped the strategy of the triumphant revolution as it faced powerful counterrevolutionary forces. The people were organized as urban workers (including professionals), agricultural workers, small farmers, students, women and neighborhoods; but not according to race or color. The revolutionary narrative maintained that to organize the people according to race or color would ignore the lessons learned in the long popular struggle, and it would undermine the necessary unity of the people. The revolutionary narrative was so overwhelming and so compelling following the triumph of the revolution that the renewed formation of separate black political organizations had very few advocates among Afro-Cubans.
Fidel, in his discourses following the triumph of the revolution, spoke of the problems of unemployment, inadequate land for peasants, woefully inadequate rural and urban housing, insufficient and highly priced electricity, and the lack of health care, without mentioning their impact by race; and he proposed specific policies for the resolution of each these problems, without regard for race. That is, his strategy was a political discourse of commitment to the providing of land, housing, electricity, and health for all those who need it, be they black or white.
In the Cuban popular revolutionary struggle of 1868 to the present, something significant occurred, namely, the Cuban peoples became a single people. Whether African or European blood flowed in their veins, all were actors in an historically and universally significant social process that dislodged from power those who were indifferent to the human needs of the people and who violated the dignity and sovereignty of the nation. Cubans became, above all, Cuban, determined to defend at any price what they had sacrificed to attain.
The contrasts of the Cuban experience with the United States are striking. Especially important in creating contrasting experiences was the position of white Cubans, whose historic position was fundamentally different from that of whites in the United States. The great majority of whites in the United States economically benefitted from conquest, slavery, and the imperialist penetration of other lands. But in Cuba, only the national bourgeoisie benefitted from neocolonial economic structures. White small entrepreneurs, white workers, and white small farmers found that the colonial and neocolonial situations restricted possibilities for the protection of their fundamental social and economic rights. The great majority of Cuban whites, like Cuban blacks, had an economic interest in bringing colonialism and neocolonialism to an end. The colonial and neocolonial conditions of Cuba created something not seen in the United States, namely, a committed and informed radical petit bourgeoisie, composed of intellectuals, students, and professionals, which played an important role in leading a multiracial popular revolution against the neocolonial republic. In the United States during the period 1955 to 1972, white allies of the African-American movement turned out to be unreliable; in Cuba, by contrast, white students, professionals, workers and peasants became committed, reliable and even heroic allies of Afro-Cubans.
In the black experience in the United States, white racism is always present, either in a blatant or subtle form. On the basis of this experience, one could look at Cuba with a model of racism, seeing racial inequality and white prejudice. As with any social scientific model, there is an element of truth in this, and one can see signs of white prejudice and racial inequality, although much less than previously, and much less than in other nations. But models shape what we see, and they can sometimes cause us to overlook profound truths.
For understanding Cuba, an alternative scientific model, also born from the black experience in the United States, may be more useful. In the black power period of 1966 to 1972 in the United States, black nationalist intellectuals formulated a colonial model, which sees racism as one dimension of colonial and neocolonial structures of domination, characterized by white control of the political, economic and cultural institutions of the communities and nations of the colonized. The colonial model provides a more multidimensional and global vision of race relations in the United States and the neocolonial situation of Third World nations. Seen from this colonial perspective, the Cuban Revolution and the African-American movement are allies in a common struggle. Indeed, all of the colonized peoples of the world, including Latin Americans of various colors as well as the people of Ireland, are allies in a common anti-colonial struggle, and they all have formed movements that seek to transform colonial and neocolonial structures and establish the foundation for a more just, democratic and sustainable world.
The United States government discerns that revolutionary Cuba is a dangerous example and a threat to the neocolonial world-system. It seeks to undermine the Cuban Revolution with various strategies, including seeking to discredit it with a model of white racism. The white racist model is a useful tool for the USA, for it represents white liberal reformism, as against the revolutionary transformation of fundamental structures of the European-dominated neocolonial world-system.
Rather than looking critically at Cuba from the vantage point of a white racist model, it would be more fruitful for academics, intellectuals, and activists from the United States to learn from the Cuban example, applying its politically effective strategies with respect to race, but adapting them to the particular conditions of the United States. These conditions include the fact that whites, blacks, Latinos, and indigenous persons are distinct peoples, and not one people. This means that the necessary popular unity must be forged as a coalition of peoples, forged in mutual respect, and allied on the basis of common principles, a common reformulation of the American narrative, and a common platform, continually forming cadres and educating the peoples, a coalition of peoples that seeks the taking of political power by the people from the corporate elite and their political lackeys.
This is Charles McKelvey, reflecting on the unfolding global popular socialist revolution forged by our peoples in defense of humanity.
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