Top Menu

Race to Revolution reviewed in Dialectical Anthropology

Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow

‘Race to Revolution’ by Gerald Horne

Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow
Monthly Review Press, 2014. 368 pp.
ISBN 9781583674451

Reviewed by Suzanne Gardinier

Among the strengths of Gerald Horne’s Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow is its timing; it arrives at the moment of the first real movement in US–Cuban diplomatic relations since the imposition of the blockade in 1962, and at the beginnings of what some are calling the third major US civil rights movement, in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. With his exigent, inventive research and his engaging, accessible voice, Horne argues that the arrival in Cuba of Made-in-the-USA Jim Crow at the end of the nineteenth century helped spark the organized fury and resistance that led to the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959. The book was published in 2014, and Horne couldn’t have known during the writing that he was resting his fingers on the vital pulses of uprising and cross-Straits connection that August 9 and December 17 would bring into the open; but his historian’s sense of the incipient power in the patterns of the past has served him well here, and is a gift to his readers, whether seasoned observers studying familiar events in light of new information, or young activists looking for bridges of solidarity, where US policies like the blockade have attempted to wash them away. If the blockade has tried to insist that the USA and Cuba are not connected, this book provides ample evidence to the contrary: in its portrait of pre-revolutionary Cuba as an outpost of US-controlled race-based counterrevolution, and in its many descriptions of radical Black solidarity between the two nations.

“The Africans were apprehensive” (p. 1), Horne begins, jostling conventions not only of history from the point of view of the powerful, but also of the terms used to describe peoples and nations; the year is 1862, and “the United States” isn’t the historical actor here but “the nation in which they resided” (p. 1). Throughout the book, “the Africans” act together in ways not widely known or discussed either in Cuba or the USA: fighting Spain beside Native allies in Florida and Oriente, planning anti-colonial rebellions on both sides of the Florida Straits, listening to Black leaders like Lázaro Peña and W.E.B. DuBois in New York and Havana, mourning the death of Black Cuban general Antonio Maceo together (Ida B. Wells lamented his killing from the pulpit of Chicago’s Bethel Church in 1896, Horne notes), protesting the sham arrest of the Scottsboro Boys. Horne’s meticulous research reveals evocative details, like the fact that both Brooklyn Dodger Roy Campanella and writer and activist James Weldon Johnson spoke fluent Spanish, because of their connections to Cuba—and that great swaths of the African-American press in the late 1950s supported Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, because his skin was brown.

But then as now, what’s sometimes called “the black community” is full of complexities and contradictions; Horne adds that Langston Hughes found Batista “semi-fascistic” and that “Jim Crow on the mainland was so asphyxiating that it cut off oxygen to the brain” (p. 236). The role of the Communist Party was key here—Horne calls racism and anti-communism “these twins”—and the fact that the Black Communists Horne mentions are still household names in Cuba and almost unknown in the US provides sad evidence of some of the erasures Horne is restoring. It was the undeceived Black press of the Left in the 1930s that described the Spanish Falange as “Francisco Franco’s Ku Klux Klan” (p. 250) and that asked in the 1940s, “Will Cuba be the first Communist republic in the world?” (p. 249)—resurrecting that North American fear as old as the Haitian revolution, what Horne calls “their worst nightmare: Black and Red” (p. 24).

The disturbing counterpoint to Horne’s portrait of US–Cuban Black solidarity is his portrait of pre-revolutionary Cuba as a kind of offshore Confederacy. “By 1865,” he writes, “a flood of US Southerners were heading to Havana and Matanzas”; (p. 278) in a spirit of “opening” unfortunately still familiar, he quotes Confederate Navy officer Raphael Semmes: “Cuba, I thought, would make us a couple of very respectable States, with her staples of sugar and tobacco and with her similar system of labor” (p. 101). He cites the direct participation of US diplomats in the illegal slave trade (p. 106) and notes that Confederate President Jefferson Davis retreated to Cuba in May of 1865 and was residing at the Hotel Cubano in Havana as late as 1869 (p. 112). “Cuba had become a colony in exile,” Horne writes, “for those who held slavery dear and harbored deep resentment of Washington” (p. 111).

Dozens more fascinating histories might be written based on the 126 pages of notes at this book’s end, some of them on questions whose complexities Horne doesn’t fully explore: What really happened in the bloody repression of the Cuban Partido Independiente de Color after the Cuban War of Independence, and what was the US role in it? Although some key Cuban revolutionaries like José Martí and Fidel Castro have been white, why have Cuban revolutionary movements always been openly anti-racist, however partially those goals may have been achieved? Why does US history lack a figure comparable to Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the white Cuban planter who freed his slaves and made the declaration of Cuban Independence, which included freedom for all Cubans, regardless of skin color? What were the currents in Cuban history that might have made a twentieth-century revolution whether or not the US had instituted the racist neocolonial “republic” in 1903?

The book’s weaknesses center around the lack of synthesis and interpretation of the abundance of fascinating information; its central idea is less developed than repeated. It’s sometimes confusing to understand which complex social currents are being referred to with phrases like “Havana was wise to ascertain” or “Havana may have known” (which Havana?), and which place is referred to as “the Peach State,” “the Palmetto State,” etc. For reasons that are unclear, the US is most often called “the republic,” leading to confusions like “republican slavery” (p. 33) (if that isn’t an oxymoron it should be) and “the growing revulsion toward the republic in Cuba” (p. 17), as Cubans watched the republic they had fought for turned into a neocolonial possession. “Polk was no nonentity either,” Horne writes about an exiled Confederate, “having graduated from Yale in 1831” (p. 113), leaving the nuanced exploration of the revolution made by and for many “nonentities” (shall we make this an oxymoron too?) to those who will come after him.

But these are minor cavils in the face of the clarity and force with which this book insists on restoring the interrupted dialog between Cubans and North Americans of African descent and exploring its revolutionary potentials. Yesterday at a protest a year after the unprosecuted police killing of Eric Garner, in Columbus Circle in New York, the people assembled, many of them young people who have been in the streets since the Ferguson uprisings, recited what they called the Assata chant, the words of exiled Black Panther and now habanera Assata Shakur. As Fats Navarro puts it toward the end of this book, “You breaking into whitey’s private vault when you start telling Negroes to wake up” (p. 257); in this time of so many simultaneous awakenings, a book like Race to Revolution is one of the many valuable tools in the hands of a new generation of activists moving beyond Cold War dictates and complacencies toward, as poet Margaret Walker memorably put it, a world that will hold all the people.

Suzanne Gardinier (sgard@slc.edu) teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives between Manhattan and Havana. Her most recent book is Iridium & Selected Poems 1986–2009 (Sheep Meadow Press, 2011).

Published online: 2 August 2015
© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Comments are closed.