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The Story of Why I Am Here

Or, A Woman Connects Oppressions

Alice Walker

Photo Credit: "Alice Walker says about Cuba", CubaDebate.

Alice Walker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, poet, and activist. Her most recent book is The World Will Follow Joy (New Press, 2013).

This article was originally a speech delivered at a Peace for Cuba Rally on February 1, 1992, and first published in MR in June 1994. Walker’s words remain as relevant today as when they were first spoken.

Last January when the war against Iraq was started, I was in Mexico writing a novel about a woman who is genitally mutilated in a ritual of female circumcision that her society imposes on all females. Genital mutilation is a mental and physical health hazard that directly affects some 100 million women and girls worldwide, alive today, to whom it has been done. It affects the children to whom they give birth. Indirectly, because of its linkage to the spread of AIDS, especially among women and children, it affects the health and well-being of everyone on the planet.

With no television or radio, and no real eagerness to see or hear arrogant Western males discussing their military prowess, their delight in their own “cleanhanded,” not at all brave destructiveness, I relied on a friend’s phone calls to his son in San Francisco to keep me informed. His son told us about the huge resistance to the war in San Francisco, which made me love the city even more than I already did, and informed us too that he had been one of those demonstrators so outraged they’d closed down the Bay Bridge.

What to do? Go home and join the demonstrations, or continue to write about the fact that little girls’ bodies are daily “bombed” by dull knives, rusty tin can tops and scissors, shards of unwashed glass—and that this is done to them not by a foreign power, but by their own parents? I decided to stay put—to continue this story about genital mutilation, a.k.a. “female circumcision,” which I believe is vital for the world to hear. But of course I could not forget the war being waged against the earth and the people of Iraq.

Because I was thinking so hard about the suffering of little girls, while grieving over the frightened people trying to flee our government’s bombs, my unconscious, in trying to help me balance my thoughts, did quite a wonderful thing. Instead of Saddam Hussein being the “demon” on whom the U.S. military’s bombs were falling, I was given a substitute. Her name was Sadie Hussein, and she was three years old. So as the bombs were falling, I thought about Sadie Hussein, with her bright dark eyes and chubby cheeks, her shiny black curls and her dainty pink dress, and I put my arms around her. I could not, however, save her.

As it turned out, this was the truth. Saddam Hussein still reigns, at least as secure in his power over the Iraqis, according to some media sources, as George Bush is over North Americans. It is Sadie Hussein who has been destroyed, and who, along with 900,000 other Iraqi children under the age of five, is dying of cholera, malnutrition, infection, and diarrhea. Since the war, 50,000 such children have died. It is Sadie Hussein who starves daily on less than half her body’s nutritional needs, while Saddam Hussein actually appears to have gained weight.

This is the story of why I am here today. I am here because I pay taxes. More money in taxes in one year than my sharecropping parents, descendants of enslaved Africans and Indians, earned in a lifetime. My taxes helped pay for Sadie Hussein’s suffering and death. The grief I felt about this will accompany me to my grave. I believe war is a weapon of persons without personal power, and that to go to war with an enemy who is weaker than you is to admit you possess no resources within yourself to bring to bear on your own fate. I will think of George Bush vomiting once into the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister and will immediately see hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, cold, hungry, dying of fever, dysentery, typhoid, and every other sickness, vomiting endlessly into the laps of their mothers—who are also emaciated, starving, terrorized, and so illiterate they are unable to read Saddam Hussein’s name no matter how large he writes it.

The slaughter of Iraqis and the destruction of so much of the earth deeply disturbed the world. Many of us could not ignore the pain in our hearts when we heard various U.S. government rumblings of: Cuba is next.

It is difficult to think of Cuba without also thinking of Fidel Castro. In fact, I cannot entirely do it, for I do not think of him at all as the demon he has been set up to be, over the past thirty-one years. Whereas I recognize Saddam Hussein as a victim of gross child abuse who grew up to abuse and victimize his people in the same way he was terrorized and tortured as a child, I recognize in Fidel Castro the Jesuit scholar and socially activist lawyer, the priest who finally picked up the gun. Though an attempt is constantly made to equate these two men, and this is visually easy because they are both “dark” and wear uniforms, I feel we must be vigilant about noting differences, and affirming them. Just for our own clarity and human integrity.

However, what is more important is that we remember that wars—whether waged through military strikes, as against Iraq, or through trade embargoes and blockades, as in the case of Cuba—are fought not against leaders only, but against the people, who may or may not even like the leader. And that children are the most devastated victims.

Thirteen years ago I went to Cuba, and the radiant health, intelligence, generosity, and joyousness of the people made it a sacred place for me. Ironically, in a place where there was very little church, I felt the most God.

Having been born among the poorest, least powerful, most despised population of the United States, spoken to as if I were a dog for asking to use a library or eat in a restaurant, the revelation that black people, who make up between 40 and 60 percent of Cuba’s population, and women, who make up half, can share in all the fruits of their labors, was a major gift Cuba gave to me, a major encouragement to struggle for equality and justice, and one I shall never forget.

I refuse to be responsible for the suffering and death of hundreds or thousands of Fidelitos and Fidelitas. My ego is not stroked by the thought of sick and hungry Cuban children throwing up in their tired, scared, ill mothers’ arms. What gives me pleasure is the thought that all children everywhere can be safe from deliberate brutality and cruelty; deliberate enslavement, ignorance, and genocide.

Rather than envy—as I think the U.S. government does—and therefore despise Cuba for its dedication to the health of its citizens and its elevation of black people, women, and the poor, I believe it has important lessons to teach our gadget-rich but spiritually bankrupt country: That the earth on which we live is the body of God. All people and living things are the body and soul of God. And that we do not serve God by making the earth and its people suffer, but by making the earth and its people whole. This is why I have always believed Fidel Castro is really a priest. We can look at the sound teeth, shining eyes, straight limbs, and strong minds of the Cuban people today and know that thirty-one years ago these same people would have been null and void. After thirty-one years of racism, sexism, poverty, assassinations, and despair in the United States, great numbers of my own generation—because of homelessness, joblessness, drugs—are certainly null and void.

I am far from blind to Cuba’s imperfections. There are days when I think: How noble, how graceful it would be if Fidel Castro would simply retire. I think: doesn’t he have a ton of grandchildren to snuggle and jiggle on his knee before he dies? I also think this about George Bush and all the rest of the rich white male dictatorship we in North America suffer under. And have suffered under since the arrival of these men, 500 years ago. I am also highly skeptical of a revolution that has not produced younger men and women to lead it. But one thing is clear: Whatever its imperfections, in Cuba the poor have not been held in contempt; they have been empowered. Which is different from being made wealthy in a capitalist sense, and more lasting. A healthy body, a well-trained mind, a sense of solidarity with one’s people is harder to lose than a million dollars and offers more security. This empowerment of the poor: literacy, good health, adequate housing, freedom from ignorance, is the work of everyone of conscience in the coming century. Cuba has led the way, and is an object lesson to us. For if the poor are not empowered—by any means at their disposal—they will continue to be devoured by the rich. Just as women, if not empowered, will continue to be the slaves of men.

I have heard that rich Cubans in Miami (whose old money was no doubt made off the backs of slaves and the vulvas of women), and others who see Cuba as real estate, intend to buy Cuba, as if it is still the North American-owned plantation it was before the revolution. This is obscene. What has been paid for in blood, tears, and backbreaking work by the people of Cuba cannot be bought; especially not by rich white Cubans in Miami, or by those North American profiteers who raped Cuba shamelessly over hundreds of years, and who, returning to that land, would hardly recognize it. Certainly it would surprise them not to encounter any of their former slaves, serfs, drug addicts, and prostitutes. Though prostitution may have returned, as Cuba’s economic situation has worsened and disproportionate emphasis has been placed on tourism.

What can I tell you? Cubans always speak of defending The Revolution. I speak of defending ourselves from the grief and heartbreak of being accomplices to evil acts done in our name and with our hard-earned cash. I speak of defending our right not to be murderers. If I would rather die myself than run over a child in the street, how can I possibly accept squashing a million children from forty-five thousand feet? And to celebrate such a feat, I assure you, is quite impossible. To see the anti-abortion forces, including Bush, rage against poor and scared women, some of them homeless, who refuse to give life to a child they cannot support, while not even planting symbolic crosses for the actual children bombed to death in Iraq, is to witness cynicism in its most unconscionable form. I speak of defending our right to praise and uphold what is good about any other people’s way of life, even as we recognize and criticize what is bad. To Cuba I would say your poets are the heartbeat of the revolution: Because that is what, by definition, poets are. If you force them to eat their words it is the revolution that will suffer indigestion and massive heart attack. Bread is not everything, after all, as women have always stressed: there must be roses too. And the roses of any revolution are the uncertainties one dares to share.

I speak of defending the Earth, our Mother God. I speak of defending and loving the Earth’s children: All of us.

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