Transnational Legacies of Slavery and Revolution in ‘The Black Scholar’

Havana, Cuba (Flickr: Pedro Szekely)

Some months after visiting Havana, Cuba in late fall of 1976, Robert Chrisman — editor-in-chief of the journal The Black Scholar — remarked that he left Cuba “with the feeling [he] had travelled a long way back and forward in time.”1 Chrisman understood that he had seen a history of Black people “in the New World that was in fact a part of [his] history.”2 Chrisman’s essay appeared in a special issue of The Black Scholar, one of the leading Pan-Africanist journals of the Black Power era. The journal’s 1977 summer issue dedicated its pages to the recent delegation of Black artists who had returned from their sojourn to the island the year before. Like many others before them, this group of artists sought to experience a revolutionary space in which Black identity was at the core of national history.

If we fast forward four decades later, we arrive at The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 project series, an idea borne from the award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. In her essay, Jones poignantly highlights how enslaved Africans who were violently forced to cross the Atlantic Ocean built this nation and its democratic ideals: “… it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom.” It is important to note, of course, that 1619 was not the beginning of American slavery if we look to the histories of Latin America and the Caribbean, but it was the beginning (as Jones articulates) of what we now call the United States (while acknowledging that this land has also always been indigenous).

In taking a Du Boisian approach, Jones powerfully illustrates how US American history is (and should be) defined by the legacy of slavery and Black struggle. It is a historical vision that sheds some light into why The Black Scholar’s special issue on a Black delegation’s trip to Cuba in 1976 should be remembered. Perhaps, what Chrisman and his travelling friends were in search of was a space that made visible the pain but resilience of the descendants of enslaved Africans who remained in “the New World.” This point is not to say that revolutionary Cuba itself substantially or even correctly acknowledged its own colonial history of violence, white supremacy, and slavery. But it is to suggest that in the post-1959 era, many North Americans believed it was one of few national spaces in the western hemisphere to place its Black citizens at the center of struggle and history. As one artist put it, “… the magnificent statue of General Antonio Maceo forever guards the shores facing the Atlantic, his heroic essence caught in the proud cast of his head and rampant horse, and sealed in bronze.” The statue of Maceo — an Afro-Cuban national hero known for leading the fight for Cuban independence from the mid to late 1800s — in Havana reminded the delegation of the Cuban Wars of Independence, where Black revolutionary soldiers fought for both independence from Spain and for the abolition of slavery.

Black Soldiers Who Fought for Cuban Independence, 1899 (Library of Congress)

Like other Black Power and leftist magazines, newspapers, and journals of the 1970s era, The Black Scholar’s special issue presented its readers with first-hand accounts of what they believed was liberation at work. While today it may sound ludicrous, Stokely Carmichael’s quote that Fidel Castro was the “blackest man in the Americas” perhaps was reminiscent of the notion that the Cuban revolution made possible what so many Black North Americans imagined.

Anthropologist and scholar Johnnetta Betsch Cole asserted that Cuba’s “success” in eradicating racism resulted from the “integral participation of the racially oppressed throughout the revolutionary process.” Arguably, the official Cuban discourse did not necessarily place Black Cubans at the center of the nation’s history; instead, what developed was a “raceless” (and gendered) narrative in which national male leaders (including Maceo himself) declared that there were no white or Black Cubans. They were all only Cubans. This is not an argument too distinct from the idea that the United States is a “melting pot,” a myth that Jones demystifies in her essay as well. But what I believe The Black Scholar’s special dedication to Cuba’s ongoing anti-imperialist revolution does illustrate is the longing for a national history that does just what W.E.B. Du Bois and future intellectuals, such as Jones, put forth: that the legacies of slavery, the material exploitation of enslaved Africans and their descendants, and the active participation on the part of Black Americans to fight on behalf of oppressed communities would finally be accounted for. Indeed, throughout the mid to latter half of the twentieth century, many believed Cuba’s 1959 revolution had finally carved out a path to which the rest of the Americas could follow.

  1. Robert Chrisman, “National Culture in Revolutionary Cuba,” The Black Scholar, Summer 1977, 2-96.
  2. Ibid.
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Cristina Mislán

Cristina Mislán is an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on areas of media history, critical/cultural studies, and transnational/globalization studies. Mislán draws on critical/cultural studies to examine how various forms of advocacy media have influenced national and transnational dialogues around race, class, and gender politics. Some of her current work also examines media representation, particularly as it relates to race and gender identities. She is currently working on her first book project, which captures how the Black press constructed national and transnational ideas about liberation and Cuba post-1959.