Cuba & the US: Necessary Mirrors

Exponentially more enslaved Africans were forced to the lands that now make up Latin America rather than the United States. Where is their story?

In November 1898, white men in Wilmington, North Carolina, overturned the election of Black officials to local government, sparking a riot that led to the burning of the city’s Black business district and the murder of at least 60 Black people. At the very same time, congressmen in the United States were debating how to treat the Indigenous, Black, and mestizo citizens of their new Caribbean possessions following the Spanish American War: Cuba and Puerto Rico. In order to prove their ability to govern themselves—that is, in order to placate the US government—the light-skinned leaders of Cuba’s independence movement pushed aside some of the island’s Black citizens’ ideas about racial democracy and equality.

Thus, 1898 was like so many other moments in US and Cuban history: then, as now, it was impossible to fully understand the history of one nation without the other.

“We share the same blood,” Barack Obama told Cubans, when he visited Cuba in March 2016—the first US president in almost 100 years to do so. “We both live in a new world, colonized by Europeans. Cuba, like the United States, was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa. Like the United States, the Cuban people can trace their heritage to both slaves and slave-owners.”

The story of Obama’s speech is told by Ada Ferrer in the final pages of her new book, Cuba: An American History. For Ferrer, Obama’s visit to Cuba and his remarks there were a perfect example of a dynamic she describes throughout the book: Cuba and the United States hold up a mirror to one another. The history of the two countries has been intertwined. Cubans and Americans see themselves through each other’s eyes.

Looking into this mirror, Ferrer explained in a recent webinar about her book, allows us to see history “askew.” In other words, it has the effect of challenging the familiar stories Cubans and US Americans believe about their countries, enabling them to see the familiar from new angles. Obama’s speech, and the mirror that Ferrer writes of, underscore the profound connection between nations that, for the past few decades, have seen themselves, and have been seen by others, as antagonists.

To see history askew is likewise the goal of Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. Understanding the pivotal—indeed, central—role that African enslavement has played in the making of the United States necessarily transforms how we regard the treasured myths of our country’s founding in 1776.

Unlike Ferrer, Hannah-Jones doesn’t explicitly use the metaphor of the mirror; still, I suspect she would like it. In her preface to The 1619 Project, she suggests that the experiences of Black people have always been a kind of mirror the United States could hold up to itself, so as to reveal a much less perfect union. Non-Black citizens of this country might not like what they saw if they were able to look at the United States through the eyes of Black Americans.

Black people, Hannah-Jones writes, “are the stark reminders of some of [the United States’s] most damning truths.” One of these truths is that “eight in ten Black people would not be in the United States were it not for the institution of slavery in a society founded on ideals of freedom.” US Americans try to hide histories of slavery because it “shames us.” When Black people have used the rhetoric of freedom and rights that appears in the founding documents of the United States, it has been, at least in part, “to reveal this nation’s grave hypocrisies.”

If nations and their peoples hold up mirrors to one another, so, too, do Cuba and The 1619 Project. More to the point, Cuba offers yet another reflection of just how important The 1619 Project is; specifically, by demonstrating the centrality of slavery in the evolution of the Americas. In Cuba, too, the enslavement of Africans made possible the wealth of European empires; it fired the desires of US Americans to annex Cuba and maintain plantation slavery on the island, when they worried this institution would be abolished in their own country; and it animated independence movements against Spain in the 19th century. The afterlife of slavery is an urgent debate in Cuba today, just as it is in the United States.

And yet, Cuba also reflects how much more The 1619 Project could have been, and should have been. This is especially true if we’re to take seriously the book’s central historical claim: that we should view 1619 as a new origin story for the United States—an origin story that acknowledges the role slavery has played in the making of everything since that date. While Obama connected Cuba and the United States through their shared history of colonization and slavery, Hannah-Jones—judging by what she writes in this book—isn’t concerned with such ties.

Cuba and The 1619 Project are both essential books. Even so, The 1619 Project is simultaneously sweeping and narrow. It aims to offer a fundamental retelling of US history but focuses exclusively on the introduction of African enslavement by the British empire. In doing so, it myopically pushes aside the Spanish and Indigenous slaveries that also shaped the country we’re living in today. By contrast, Cuba is broad and expansive and inclusive, telling a hemisphere-wide story of colonialism, enslavement, and entangled empires, nations, and peoples—the legacies of which are still with us.

Over the course of the era of the transatlantic slave trade, as Ferrer shows, exponentially more enslaved Africans were brought to the lands that now make up Latin America than were brought to the British Colonies and the United States. These people were forced to participate in the patterns of capitalist exploitation that have since become a hallmark of the Americas; they “mixed” (a highly sanitized word, to be sure) with Indigenous and European populations; and they introduced linguistic, musical, and religious practices that endure today, including in the United States. The histories of Latin Americans, Latinos, and Black people—and, of course, Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-Latinos identify with more than one of these labels—have been intertwined in ways that one wouldn’t understand from reading The 1619 Project.

Ferrer’s narrative history of Cuba’s past 500 years is epic, authoritative, and deeply insightful. Our popular understanding of the island has been dominated by the Cuban Revolution of 1959; so, it is refreshing that—chronologically speaking at least—the years since that undeniably important historical event only account for some 10 percent of Ferrer’s story.

The island is much more than Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. In fact, it is impossible to understand the revolution without understanding its deep roots in Spanish colonialism and enslavement, as well as the 19th-century movements to upend those institutions by the likes of Afro-Cuban military leader Antonio Maceo or newspaper publisher, intellectual, and independence leader José Martí. Cubans continue to invoke the names of both figures as guiding lights in their struggles for justice today.

Throughout her book, Ferrer doesn’t let us lose sight of how important race and slavery have been in the making of Cuba. Nor does she allow us to cast aside as inconsequential the relationship between Cuba and the United States.

The history of African enslavement in the Americas did not begin in what would become the United States. It began with Spanish and Portuguese colonization.

The centrality of race and racism to the nation’s history is exactly what Hannah-Jones seems to want us to understand about the United States as well. Ever since 1619, the desire, or the felt need, to safeguard slavery in the United States motivated the building of institutions, establishment of laws, and development of habits and traditions designed to achieve this goal. Slavery may have been abolished in the 1860s, but that didn’t put an end to assertions of white supremacy through institutions, laws, habits, and traditions.

Moreover, the efforts by the “enslaved and their descendants” to combat white supremacy, Hannah-Jones writes, also “played a central role in shaping our institutions, intellectual traditions, culture, our very democracy.” This, then, is the story told by Hannah-Jones in her three essays (as well as by many of the nation’s leading thinkers, scholars, journalists, and writers in the other essays, poems, and short stories assembled in The 1619 Project): the racist roots of the United States, Black-led efforts to combat the discrimination stemming from this history, and the enduring legacies of both.

The 1619 Project makes a critical political intervention. We need to understand how race and slavery stood at the center of our nation’s history, and we need to remember that this legacy didn’t end with the Civil War, Reconstruction, desegregation, or the civil rights movement. Instead, race and slavery have continuously seeped into every corner of American life: economic mobility, health outcomes, white fears, police violence, mass incarceration, the infrastructure of cities, and a litany of legal injustices (despite claims—today, at any rate—that our laws are race neutral). This is just a partial list of the subjects The 1619 Project touches upon.

Of course, we should knock the founding fathers off the pedestals we’ve built for them. When we carve them in stone as infallible supporters of democracy, freedom, and equality, we are not telling the whole truth about them or any other human beings. But worst of all, when we lionize these figures from the past, as all of the critics of “Founders chic” have argued, we also erode our own ability to decide what is right and just in the present. Moreover, as Hannah-Jones suggests, enslaved Africans were also founders of this country—as were, I would argue, native peoples, Spaniards, and many others.

So, to hold up Cuba and The 1619 Project as mirrors to one another is not to offer the same critique of The 1619 Project as that articulated by the authors of The 1776 Report. Nor is it meant to rehash the arguments of the mainly older, mainly white historians whose cherished facts about the American Revolution Hannah-Jones has reframed.

No, the questions that keep lingering for me are different. Reading Cuba and The 1619 Project together made me wonder what the latter would have been had Hannah-Jones integrated into her analysis of race and slavery in the United States the perspective offered by Ferrer of race and slavery in Cuba and throughout the Americas. What if Hannah-Jones had integrated the history of slavery in other parts of the Americas before 1619 not simply as “more information,” as she writes in her preface, but as a core part of the book’s argument? And what would it have cost The 1619 Project to wrestle with and incorporate histories outside of its current frame?

To have expanded The 1619 Project’s incisive exposé from the United States to the Americas would only have strengthened the case Hannah-Jones makes. So, why wouldn’t she have told this expanded story; the story that Barack Obama told in Havana in 2016, that the Americas—Cuba and the United States, in particular—have a shared history of race and slavery, and that these histories are linked?


And Cuba Shall Lead Them

By Andrew Klein

For one, Hannah-Jones might have had to title her book “The 1492 Project” instead, even if that would have engaged in the same narrative mythmaking involved in the choosing of any single moment as original. The history of African enslavement in the Americas, after all, did not begin in what would become the United States. Instead, it began with Spanish and Portuguese colonization.

Enslaved Africans, Ferrer tells us, first arrived in Cuba during the mid-16th century. Indigenous communities were decimated by violence and disease, even as Spaniards, only after serious debate, concluded they were humans who had souls that were worthy of conversion. The decimation of Indigenous populations and the new letter of the law mandating that Indians be treated more humanely was, in part, what led Spaniards to bring enslaved Africans to the Americas.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the numbers of Africans in Cuba paled in comparison with what they became during the industrial boom of later centuries. Yet, however few there were, their presence instigated and embedded patterns of capitalist exploitation, racial inequality and violence, and cultural mixture and erasure—and did so decades before the arrival, in 1619, of more than 20 Africans off the coast of Virginia, on a vessel named the White Lion. And they weren’t only in Cuba. Enslaved Africans were also brought to Spanish territories that later became Mexico, Panama, Peru, and so on.

Maybe, just maybe, Americans are beginning to understand, largely through the work of Indigenous scholars and activists, as well as historians of colonial Latin America, that Christopher Columbus did not “discover” “America.” As Ferrer notes, he didn’t even set foot on the land that became the United States.

Yet many US Americans still consider Columbus’s arrival in the “New World” to have made possible the later settlement of the Americas by Europeans, including the British colonists who are at the center of The 1619 Project. Our entrenched understanding of Columbus as a harbinger of the United States is why many people in this country continue observing Columbus Day, instead of Indigenous Peoples Day, on October 12. He is the namesake for an early version of our national anthem, our federal district, a prestigious university, and so many other Columbias. Ferrer argues that at least part of why we see Columbus’s landing in the Americas as one of the first episodes of US history has to do with our nation’s imperialist ambitions from the very beginning.

Columbus did not so much discover a new world as stumble upon a very old one. Still, it is his arrival that launched centuries of harm to Indigenous societies, through disease, forced acculturation, forced labor, pillage, rape, and murder.

New World Africans include the Moroccan Estevanico, who accompanied Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca on his journey across the North American continent in the 1520s and 1530s, and who set foot on the lands that became Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. The numbers of New World Africans grew, especially after the writings of the Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, the first bishop of Chiapas, brought widespread attention to the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.

As captive Africans were traded within the Americas, some who spoke Spanish and Portuguese were brought to the British colonies, where they encountered English speakers. They are the ancestors of Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-Latinos living throughout the Americas today, who continue to be pushed to the margins of discourses on both Blackness and Latinidad—or, Latino-ness. A couple of the essays in The 1619 Project, most notably the ones by Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Tiya Miles, address these wider histories—but Hannah-Jones herself does not.

After the colonial period, The 1619 Project continues to sharply focus on Africans brought to the United States by the British empire. But a considerably broader, pan-American perspective is offered in Ferrer’s Cuba. Ferrer demonstrates how Thomas Jefferson always intended his “empire for liberty” to include the Caribbean isles. After the Spanish empire began to fall, he wanted to claim its former possessions “peice by peice [sic].” Here, again, one can’t fully understand the United States without understanding Cuba, and vice versa.

The United States, Ferrer writes, did try to annex Cuba in the early 19th century. But it was not to extend liberty. Instead, slaveowners wanted to extend Jefferson’s empire because they fretted over the future of slavery in the United States. They tried to protect the institution by moving it elsewhere. Putting slavery beyond the reach of abolitionists was their goal in Texas, the former Mexican territories, and Nicaragua as well. Some Cubans, Mexicans, and Nicaraguans supported slavery, or at least turned a blind eye to it, because they thought they might benefit financially.

Events in the United States echoed beyond its borders in other ways as well. When the 14th Amendment was ratified, in 1868, it made Black people citizens of the United States and gave them equal protection under the law. Soon after, enslaved Africans in Puerto Rico and Cuba initiated uprisings against Spain that over time led to the abolition of slavery on those islands. As with the anti-Black violence in 1898 that affected Black leaders in newly annexed Cuba, seeing beyond the state helps us understand what happened within it.

To be sure, it was not incumbent upon Hannah-Jones and The 1619 Project’s other contributors to include everything that Ferrer addresses in Cuba. All books have a focus, and no book can do everything.

But shouldn’t a book that asks us to embrace “a new origin story” for our country help as many of us as possible feel included in that story, especially in a country as diverse as ours? Shouldn’t a book like that have a more rigorous and wide-ranging approach to what’s included and what’s left out—to reconstitute the United States as a whole, rather than leaving it in atomized parts? Shouldn’t that be the goal for a truly multiracial democracy?

Mutuality and solidarity must flow in multiple directions. As the historian Frank Guridy, who teaches and writes about the connections between Afro-Cubans and African Americans and US social movements, told me, “Reading The 1619 Project obscures the fact that the Black freedom struggle, however substantial, is but one part of the larger struggles for freedom waged by Indigenous peoples, Asian Americans, Latinos of lighter and darker hues, and other marginalized people in this country.”

Understanding the experiences of different groups in relation to one another—and, in fact, how the lines between different groups could be more blurred than we often assume—certainly broadens and deepens how we think of injustices across American history. But it also expands the possibilities for the fight against injustice.

Consider the 1947 Méndez v. Westminster Supreme Court case, a school desegregation case involving Mexican American students in California that set a precedent for Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The head lawyer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thurgood Marshall, filed an amicus brief in Méndez v. Westminster; he then argued the Brown v. Board case before becoming a Supreme Court justice, in 1967.

Or, consider the case of the Black jazz drummer Chico Hamilton, from Los Angeles, who in 1965 recorded an album called El Chico, which featured songs titled “Conquistadores” (Conquerors) and “El Moors” (the Moors, although in Spanish it would be los Moros). This album by a Black musician was influenced by Latin jazz and the Brazilian bossa nova; in turn, it went on to influence the Chicano rock star Carlos Santana, who covered it at his famous 1968 concerts at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Likewise, the Afro-Cuban musician Chano Pozo wrote songs for Dizzie Gillespie and was a percussionist in Gillespie’s band. Pozo practiced the Afro-Cuban religion Santería, which has many thousands of devotees in the United States.

In her book’s final chapter, titled “Justice,” Hannah-Jones writes about how the “Black nationalist” Marcus Garvey supported reparations in the early 20th century. She doesn’t mention, however, that one of the ships in Garvey’s Black Star Line fleet, which he established so Black-led nations could trade with one another, was named the SS Antonio Maceo, after the Afro-Cuban hero who helped win Cuba’s independence from Spain. A Cuban chapter of Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, referred to Maceo as one of the greatest leaders of the Black race. There is a school in Jamaica today called Garvey Maceo High, highlighting the close association between these two leaders.

Toward the end of Cuba, Ferrer writes about a bust of Maceo that, during the 1940s at least, was displayed at Howard University—where Hannah-Jones works today. I don’t know if the bust of the fierce antislavery advocate is still on display, or if it’s stowed away somewhere, though I’ve tried to find out. Still, it is tempting to wonder if Hannah-Jones knows about the statue and what she thinks about how someone like Maceo might fit within her narrative of US history, and American history more broadly.


This article was commissioned by Marlene Dauticon

Featured Image: “Spanish Slaves Unloading Ice in Cuba,” from A Pictorial Geography of the World by Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1832) / Public Domain