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Our Feminist Poet on Che

Bernardine Dohrn, activist, academic, and child advocate, is a retired Clinical Professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and was the founding director of the Children and Family Justice Center for two decades. Dohrn was a national leader of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the Weather Underground, and is co-author, with Bill Ayers, of Race Course: Against White Supremacy.
Margaret Randall, Che on My Mind (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 160 pages, $19.95, paperback.

If you have not been thinking about Che, now you will. Our gifted poet, feminist author, and revolutionary thinker has given us a spare and ethical meditation on the lingering life and death of Ernesto Che Guevara. With infinite care and honesty, Margaret Randall circles deeper and more fully into the liberation ideas and actions that she, and our era, were inspired by and sought—as manifest in the young doctor from Argentina who joined the revolutionary struggle for a liberated Cuba, encouraged and supported rebel forces across the continents of South America and Africa, embodied the hope and anti-imperialism of the third world project, and improbably initiated and fought guerilla armed conflict in the Congo and then Bolivia, where he was killed.

In sixteen slim, elegant, dense chapters, Margaret Randall reflectively interrogates the man, the speeches, the writings, and the actions, seeking a more nuanced view, remembering the then, peeling away the reactionary cant, rethinking from now. She takes us with her on a journey to ponder and inquire, seemingly without agenda or grist.

Each chapter opens with a black and white photograph, familiar to most, but somehow freshly arresting, encouraging the reader to linger. The murdered Che surrounded by his executioners at the schoolhouse in Vallegrande, Bolivia; in the Sierra Maestra with Fidel; the flirty cigar; Che with his mother; on a raft in the Congo; with Aleida March and their four children.

Ernesto becomes Che when he meets the Cuban exiles in Mexico, when they give him the common, gendered nickname of hundreds of thousands of Argentine males: guy, dude, man, buddy, bro. “In English, all one has to do with the visual iconography is to remove the C; what remains is he: he, him, the male pronoun.”

Thus he is the foreigner as well as the familiar; “In Che—the name as well as the man—the ordinary becomes extraordinary.” He is the revolutionary who dies young, thirty-nine, in combat; the strategist of “two, three, many Vietnams.” But this reflection is evoked with love and a feminist’s critical eye, not sentiment.

During the past year, other brilliant revolutionary heroes have died—Vo Nguyen Giap and Nelson Mandela, for example. With each, and particularly with Madiba (Mandela’s traditional Xhosa clan name), the neoliberal myth-making machine was busy denying history, promoting a caricature of the cuddly old man of peace and reconciliation—much like the defanged and now sacred caricature of Martin Luther King, Jr., that prevails in U.S. media. Mandela was valorized as the singular great man, enshrined apart from his context, time, and the movement of which he was a part, free from conflict and strife, a superhuman figure, papering over the fiercely strategic, courageous, learning and growing warrior. The talking heads characterized Mandela as the good non-violent proponent of reconciliation—which indeed he was, in context. As the U.S. political establishment rushed to eulogize Mandela, a unique global conversation, an extended and animated exchange, a public call and response developed.

Not just a passive man of peace, wrote activists and bloggers from across the globe; at the Rivonia trial, Mandela was the defiant defender of the necessity of armed conflict to uproot apartheid, one of a cohort who founded and fought with uMkhonto weSizwe (MK—the armed wing of the African National Congress), and remained so throughout the twenty-seven years of his imprisonment—eighteen of them at Robben Island. The U.S. government and its politicians were economic, political, and military allies of South African apartheid right through the half century of struggle to overthrow it. It was not until the inventive and energized movement against apartheid forged the international boycott, mobilized the divestment movement, and strategized the targeting of corporate collusion (such as Polaroid and Anglo American), not until the Black Freedom Movement at home took up the struggle for solidarity with the ANC and other anti-apartheid forces, that the U.S. government was belatedly—and at great human cost—compelled to change course.

But no again, Mandela was not the example, as President Obama claimed, of how one great man can change history. Rather, the decades of movements made Mandela and his comrades, as much as Mandela and his comrades made the movement. They were living a flesh and blood history: they modified and shaped their perspective of who were friends and who were enemies, of global alliances, of the significance of the rebellions of young people from within the apartheid state who were defying its repressive control in Soweto and had cracked open what would be the last phase of the resistance. They recognized that the collapse of the Soviet Union required fresh consideration of their options, incomplete settlement. Mandela triumphantly touring eight U.S. cities upon his release in 1990, well before the first democratic, non-racial election in South Africa, thanked those who passed local ordinances calling for divestment of stocks in American companies doing business in South Africa, and regional longshoremen who refused to unload South African goods. Yet Mandela rejected repeated invitations to repudiate his Cuban allies, or his solidarity with Palestine.

Che on My Mind is akin to this global call and response about Mandela, but in this book, it is the revolutionary feminist poet talking with herself—drawing upon her years living in Cuba, knowing Che’s family but not him, contemplating her friendship with Haydée Santamaría and the luminous, continuing work of Casa des las Américas in promoting revolutionary artists throughout the continent. She is the wise and reflective narrator, telling stories and conjuring up history, but with the intelligence and political development of her subsequent fifty years.

Most exhilarating about Margaret Randall’s writing and thinking, is her vibrant and revolutionary feminism, which saturates the framework of this inquiry. She carefully reviews all the biographies and literature about Che, his detractors and comrades, his relationship with Fidel Castro, but ultimately is less interested in the myths about Che than in the intimacy he continues to inspire, the wellspring of our dreams, of what might be possible.

In her journey back to Che, Randall finds the man of principle and austerity who consistently lived what he believed, the severe moralist who rejected benefits for himself and his family, a man of great love. And she ponders the call to armed struggle, the valorizing of revolutionary war alongside the clarity of his internationalism, with the excesses of romanticism and idealism, with his valor. With great affection, she notes, “The classic male archetype may have run its course in terms of usefulness,” pointing toward feminism and other (LGBTQ? anarchist?), more horizontal models of organization and leadership.

In her lovely discussion of Che’s iconic letter “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” Randall relishes his discussion of the role of art, the ravages of capitalism, the perils of dogmatism, and happily she cannot resist railing about the title. She concedes Che’s historical era was before consciousness of gendered language; yet Randall insists on being disappointed that Che was speaking to only half of the human race, although he would have vigorously denied it. And she equally laments that she (at that time) failed to notice that she was being ignored, written out of history. This exchange with her younger self, and her longing to spar with Che about his language excluding women, are among her most inspiring, analytical writing and reflection.

Put aside your concerns about dogma or hagiography. Che on My Mind will invigorate and deepen your own thinking.

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