Statues, Symbolism, and White Supremacy

Avenida de Los Presidentes/ Monumento a José Miguel Gómez (Photo: Sam Kelly, Wikimedia Commons)

Last month, protesters at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the state’s flagship campus, surprised the nation by toppling the controversial statue of Silent Sam. A confederate war memorial that had been funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy and erected on campus in 1913, this statue of an unnamed soldier had long been a fixture on campus connecting the university to its Civil War past. Residents, students, university officials, and onlookers have debated what should be done with the downed monument since the statue’s toppling. Should it be reinstated? Moved to a museum? Destroyed? Most recently Black faculty from UNC-Chapel Hill issued a public statement asking the university to “permanently remove” the statue. Noting that in 1913, the statue of Silent Sam did not contradict the university’s stated mission, but, “in 2018, it most certainly does.”

Historians have played a vital role in demystifying how the statue came to be. While initially proposed by the Daughters of the Confederacy, both the university and the Board of Governor’s helped fund Silent Sam. Some counter-protesters have argued that the statue represents and celebrates the lives of Southern men who fought and died in the Civil War, but Silent Sam did not go up immediately after the war. Instead, the university built it nearly five decades later at the height of the state’s rollback of African Americans’ gains under Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow segregation. Remarks made by alum and UNC Board of Governor’s member Julian Carr during the 1913 dedication ceremony make the intended meaning of the statue very clear. Recounting how he had beat a Black woman upon returning to Chapel Hill after the war and that the sacrifice of North Carolinians “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” Carr clearly linked the statue to white supremacy. These anti-Black statements from Silent Sam’s dedication—which had been “lost in history”—were recently recovered from UNC-Chapel Hill’s archives and used as a part of protests to remove the statue.

In many ways, the controversy at UNC-Chapel Hill mirrors debates happening across the country over how best to deal with our nation’s violent racial history and what role public space and commemorative statues play in the persistence of white supremacy. But the United States is not alone in this issue. Black activists in Cuba have been enmeshed in a battle over how the massacre of the Partido Independiente de Color (PIC)—Independent Party of Color—is both remembered and forgotten since it first occurred over a hundred years ago.

I’ve written previously about the circumstances that led the Cuban military to murder over 2,000 Afro-Cubans in 1912. Many of the men and women killed were veterans from the Cuban Wars of Independence (1868-1898), who had fought for the country’s freedom from Spain, only to find themselves sidelined within the ruling political parties at the start of the republic. When these Black veterans founded their own political party and refused to remove the “of Color” from its title, Cuban leaders, both white and Black, labeled the party racist because it contradicted Cuba’s supposed raceless national ideology, and ultimately passed a bill banning the PIC from participating in elections. The PIC staged a non-violent protest against their exclusion from the democratic process and then President José Miguel Gómez sent the Cuban military to squash what he saw as an uprising, leading to the killing of thousands of Black Cubans. It took nearly one hundred years for Cuba to openly dialogue about this event. Since the centennial in 2012, activists, scholars, artists, and revolutionary leaders have hosted a number of events recovering the forgotten history of the PIC.

The president who ordered the repression of the party, José Miguel Gómez, is not only remembered, but has been commemorated with a monument that holds the most prominent spot on Cuba’s Avenue of the Presidents—also known as Calle G. Italian artist Giovanni Nicolini designed the sculpture and it was inaugurated in 1936 to celebrate Gómez’s service to Cuba as a general in the Wars for Independence and later as the second President of the republic from 1909-1913. The public nicknamed Gómez “El Tiburón”—the shark—for his defense of Cuba’s national sovereignty and they raised the 125,000 pesos needed for the statue out of popular donations of 20 centavos each.

Despite this common narrative celebrating Gómez’s achievements, his monument did not go uncontested then or now. As historian Robert C. Nathan explores in his dissertation The Blood of Our Heroes: Race, Memory, and Iconography in Cuba, 1902-1962, Black and mulato members of the Afro-Cuban mutual aid society, the Club Atenas, fiercely opposed the building of the statue and deemed it racist. In an article titled, “El monumento al General José Miguel Gómez,” an unnamed author of Adelante’s newspaper noted that “In Cuba, a free people have the exclusive right to confer . . . the everlasting glory of marble or bronze . . .  [and since] Blacks constitute a bit more than one third of the Cuban population . . . the black wishes to record his protest against this monument.” The article reminds readers that constructing the statue would “constitute approval” for “racist declarations and the leader of massacres against black people” (202).

This was not the first time that Black Cubans had voiced their displeasure with Gómez. In his book, A Nation for All: Race Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba, Alejandro de la Fuente traces how in 1916, when Gómez considered running for another national office, “Manifestos calling for the ‘colored’ race to oppose the Liberal candidate were published by black voters in Matanzas, Guantánamo, and Santa Clara.” And “in Guantánamo the Afro-Cuban Club Moncada closed its doors when Gómez toured the city” (84). In each of these cases, Black and mulato Cubans mobilized against the ways Gómez and his supporters attempted to erase the former president’s role in the 1912 massacre and sought to highlight how, as one 1920 headline read, “Yes, Tiburón Is a Racist” (87).

Afro-Cuban activists were ultimately unsuccessful in halting the building of the monument to Gómez, which was raised with fanfare in 1936. But the spirit of their fight reemerged in 2012 as the island dialogued about how to best remember the lives lost in the massacre. In fact, much like recent demands by Silent Sam protesters this summer, the hip-hop duo Obsesión called for the removal and destruction of the Gómez statue in a song titled, “Calle G.” Afro-Cuban blogger Sandra Alvarez published the lyrics to “Calle G”:

¡Abajo José Miguel Gómez!
¡ABAJOOO!                           

Coro:
Y no me digan que eso patrimonio
Que no se pue’ tumbar porque es de Eusebio.

Esta solicitud no es pa’ escritorio.
¡Es una exigencia del pueblo!           

Down with José Miguel Gómez!

Down!

Chorus:

And, don’t tell me its patrimonio

That it can’t be torn down because it belongs to Eusebio

This request is not for a desk [to decide]
It is the people’s demand!

As Guadalupe García explains in Beyond the Walled City: Colonial Exclusion in Havana, “The reference is to Eusebio Leal, the city historian and director, of what is arguably one of the most powerful and independent government offices in Havana,” that oversees the renovation and renewal projects in the city (207). Defenders of the monument have repeatedly said that it, like so much of the Old City of Havana that Leal is restoring, is patrimonio or cultural heritage. But Obsesión’s lyrics make clear that the statue doesn’t represent them and that Gómez’s monument celebrates murder not culture.

If anything, the transnational nature of the heritage versus hate debate in the United States, Cuba, and beyond, suggests that historical narratives legitimizing and later commemorating anti-Black violence might be more universal than we think. But, in the face of these global phenomenon, it is important to note that the protesting voices from members of the African Diaspora ring loud and clear.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Devyn Spence Benson

Devyn Spence Benson is an Associate Professor of Africana and Latin American Studies and Chair of the Africana Studies Department at Davidson College. She is the author of 'Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution' (UNC Press, 2016). Benson received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the field of Latin American History, where her research focused on racial politics during the first three years of the Cuban revolution. Follow her on Twitter @BensonDevyn.