My late father was born nine days before New Year’s’ Day of 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, to the son of a slave, who fled the Jim Crow South for the Midwestern job market near the turn of the last century. The old man worked so much when I was young–by day making engine blocks at the Chrysler factory on Indianapolis west side, then as a night janitor cleaning up at a Nabisco cookie factory—that I seldom saw him during the week, and got to know him, really, by lazing with him on weekend afternoons in the tiny bedroom I shared with my older brother, watching him watch our small black-and-white television with a misshapen clothes hanger for an antenna.
What I remember, vividly is how bone-tired he typically was, and while he seldom seemed to actually sleep, he laid there, on my brother’s twin bed, still as a stone. But no matter how weary he appeared, he would sit up, with a start, whenever either of two people materialized on the miniature screen, scramble to his feet, and approach the chest-high, unfinished pine dresser upon which the tv was perched. Then, leaning in close as though he was either half-blind or hard of hearing, he he would cheer them on, mumbling unintelligibly and laughing, almost maniacally, in that guttural, baritone howl of his that seemed to rumble through his body and the ground below.
One was a funny, fast-talking boxer I later came to know as Muhammad Ali, and the other was a bearded, cigar-chomping soldier who spoke with an accent named Fidel Castro. He seemed so happy to see both men that I remember wondering if my father knew both men personally.
His affection for Castro and Ali endured until he died nearly six years ago. When I was a teenager in the early 1980s during the Reagan era, I remember asking my father once why he liked Castro so much. At once the coarsest and gentlest man I have ever known, my father smiled slyly, raised the middle finger of his right hand to me, and said: “Because Casto has been doing this to the white man for 20 years.”
Like most African-Americans of his generation who were radicalized by post war independence movements at home and abroad, my father was politically astute if formally uneducated. And having endured practically every humiliation a man could suffer at the hands of other men, he found some measure of redemption in Castro’s triumph.
“Cuba,’ says the narrator of the splendid 2007 documentary Cuba: An African Odyssey, “ was living proof that David could beat Goliath.”
Thumb through the photo album of Africans’ global struggle for dignity and self-determination over the past half-century, and you are bound to see the avuncular smile, the unkempt beard, the military fatigues, the half-bitten cigar hovering somewhere in the frame: from Angola to Zimbabwe, Maurice Bishop to Amilcar Cabral, the Black Power Movement to the Bolivarian Revolution, Castro’s Cuba has been the sun around which Black revolution orbits.
To be sure, a big part of my father’s fondness for Castro lay in the aesthetics, and the almost casual symbolic gestures that conferred upon Blacks a humanity that white settler states typically reserved for their own: the ease with which he checked into Harlem’s Hotel Theresa Hotel when none of the midtown hotels would have him; the warmth with which he would embrace Mandela, or the ferocity with which he vowed to protect Assata Shakur, or how comfortable he appeared in the company of Malcolm X, as though the two were childhood friends who’d bumped into one another unexpectedly at the neighborhood barber shop.
And then there was his fearlessness; Castro didn’t just confront the villainous rogues gallery of white settler villainy, he taunted them, like schoolyard bullies put on blast: Reagan, Rhodesia’s Ian Smith, South Africa’s P.W. Botha.
“The history of Africa is at a turning point,” he said in 1987 after famously sending more than 3,000 Cuban soldiers to defend a key Angolan stronghold from an onslaught by U.S.-supported rebels and apartheid South African Defense Forces. “They will write about ‘before Cuito Cuanavale’ and ‘after Cuito Cuanavale’ because the power of South Africa, the whites, the ‘superior race’ has come unstuck in a little parcel of land defended by blacks and mulattoes . . .I believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the apartheid.”
He was right. Not even three years later, South Africa’s white minority government freed Nelson Mandela from prison and rescinded its ban on the African National Congress, and three years after that, it was a wrap, when voters of all races went to the polls for the first time.
Years later, Mandela and others would point to the battle of Cuito Cuanavale as a turning point–and perhaps the turning point after the 1976 Soweto riots which revived a moribund struggle–because it demonstrated that the apartheid military was not invincible, and that the dragon, could indeed be slain.
As the South African writer, Sean Jacobs wrote in Wednesday’s Guardian newspaper:
The cold war ended a long time ago, but Cuba continues its involvement on the African continent, including training Africans in Cuban universities. During the Ebola outbreak in three west African countries, even Cuba’s US critics had to acknowledge the Cuban contribution to alleviating the crisis. At one point during the Ebola crisis, Cuba – a country with only 11 million people – had supplied the largest contingent of foreign medical personnel by any single nation working alongside African medics.
Despite its profanity, the hip-hop classic, One Mic, by the rapper Nas, has always reminded me of Fidel’s legacy:
I let this shit slide for too many years, too many times
Now I’m strapped with a couple of MACs, too many 9’s
If y’all niggas really with me, get busy, load up the semis
Do more than just hold it, explode the clip until you’re empty
There’s nothing in our way,
They bust, we bust, they rush, we rush
Lead flying, feel it, I feel it in my gut
That we take these bitches to war, lie ‘em down
Cause we stronger now, my nigga, the time is now
This was Castro’s essence. In the context of a global revolutionary struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed, it was Castro’s deeds, not his words, that explain his towering, iconography, and imbues it with meaning; that explains why the very thought of Castro animated my weary father with a pride, and a joy that I seldom saw, and why across the world today, the people of African descent, as much as anyone, are mourning his death.
Seven years ago, I attended a panel discussion in Harlem with a delegation of Cuban women who were in New York City for a United Nations conference. The mostly-Black crowd was welcoming for the most part–there was one father who reported that his daughter had just graduated from a Havana medical school without buying so much as a single textbook– but there was one middle-aged Black man who angrily demanded the panelists explain why racism still existed in Castro’s Cuba.
After a rant about his personal experiences during a trip to Cuba, one of the women took the microphone, and as best I can remember, politely said: “It is true that there is still racism in Cuba. We have not quite managed to eliminate in 50 years what has existed for 500 years previously. But having said that, I would say that with all its flaws, Cuba has created the most socially advanced society in the world today, for women, and for all people of color.”
The room fell so silent that you could’ve heard the proverbial gnat piss on cotton in Georgia. A few weeks later, I had lunch uptown with a Black woman friend of mine who had attended the event, and we were discussing Castro, and how one of the things that most endeared him to Blacks was his acknowledgment of his failures, and his adherence to Amilcar Cabral’s dictum, Claim No Easy Victories.
At one point, she said this:
“You know, going back to the (Brazilian) quilombos and the abolitionists, there have always been whites who have articulated a kind of class solidarity with Blacks. Here in the U.S. we’ve got John Brown, and people like Marlon Brando back in the day. Black South Africans had Joe Slovo, and Caribbean Blacks had Simon Bolivar. And (assassinated Swedish Prime Minister) Olof Palme was a great man.
But to my knowledge, the African Diaspora has never, ever, since the first white man stepped foot on the continent 500 years ago, seen a white man quite like Fidel Castro.”