Two weeks before President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would reopen embassies that had been shuttered for more than 50 years, I was embarking on a bit of diplomacy of my own.
Abel Contreras, a black Cuban I first met in 2009 on a reporting trip to Cuba and who served as our guide on subsequent trips, wound up staying at my home in Jacksonville, Fla., for a couple of days.
The experience was surreal.
I call the experience surreal because it’s not every day that a black Cuban gets to chill out in the home of a black American; to sip Absolut mango vodka and orange juice and soak in a steamy summer evening on a porch in an inner city outside an atmosphere of officialdom, and to chat with passersby.
I call it surreal because after years of Contreras escorting me and my colleagues to sessions on race relations in Cuba with black Cuban scholars, I returned the favor. I took him to dinner with two veterans of this nation’s civil rights movement.
One of those veterans was Rodney Hurst, who, as president of the youth council of Jacksonville’s NAACP in 1960, was arrested numerous times as he sat in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter downtown; a veteran of Jacksonville’s “Ax Handle Saturday,” in which sit-in protesters were beaten bloody by racists armed with ax handles.
The other was Charles Cobb Jr., one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who spent summers in the 1960s being arrested and brutalized by racists in Mississippi.
They were both anxious to talk to Contreras because voices such as his have, for decades, been drowned out in the din of exile politics and Cold War isolation.
Hurst went first. He wanted to know how much Contreras knew about racism in the U.S.
Contreras explained that while he learned a little about that subject in the Cuban schools, he also learned more about it from the black travelers he escorts.
But, he said, “while you get a lot of the bad things about the Cuban society [through U.S. media], we get in the Cuban media and the Cuban propaganda a lot of the bad things about America … some things are really bad but aren’t true.”
Cobb went next.
He told Contreras that part of the reason he believes Obama and others are opposed to the embargo is that it would be easier to make Cubans adopt American values without it.
“Let’s have an influx of American influence and American goods … well, let me really make it simple and raw: The best way to corrupt Cuba is to open up Cuba,” Cobb said, as everyone laughed.
He asked Contreras whether Cubans were worried about that—what happens to the revolution when everyone wants cable television and the latest automobiles.
“Well, I’m going to answer with something that Che Guevara said a long time ago,” Contreras said. “From the imperialists, you can expect nothing good.
“But then again, we’re not living in the 1960s … we’re trying to live in a unilateral world, so we have to adjust to live in this modern world,” he continued. “Hopefully, the Cuban government will be focused and creative enough to maintain the values that we fought for … for the changes that came to be the Cuban Revolution.”
The gathering was, in a sense, like picking up where we left off more than 50 years ago. That’s because before the U.S. embargo and Cold War politics impeded ties between Cubans and Americans in 1961, black Americans and black Cubans knew more about each other through our shared kinship of culture and struggle.
Our ties go back to slavery, which ended in Cuba in 1886, to the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898 in Santiago de Cuba, in which buffalo soldiers led the charge in winning the most decisive battle of the Spanish American War, which led to Cuba’s liberation from Spain.
We also share painful pasts: Just as the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists lynched and terrorized black people in the U.S. to maintain their dominance, more than 6,000 black Cubans were slaughtered by the Cuban military in 1912 when they formed a party—the Independents of Color—to deal with racism and discrimination.
Then there are the cultural ties.
The first black professional baseball team, which was established in the 1880s, was established in Cuba. The name of the team was the Cuban Giants.
There are the ties between those who represented African-American voices and those who represented Afro-Cuban voices.
Langston Hughes was our social poet, and a leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance. He was born in 1902 and found inspiration in the struggles, the pain and the rhythms of black life. It was those rhythms that inspired Hughes to write classics like The Weary Blues and The Negro Speaks of Rivers. But Hughes was also inspired by Cuba and his contemporary, Cuban national poet Nicolás Guillén—an inspiration that can be found in many of his works, such as Havana Dreams.
So as the Obama administration takes the historic step of reopening the embassies, it is my hope that even if African Americans can’t host a Cuban in their home—Contreras was visiting by way of a sponsored trip—these changes will make more black people pursue licensed trips to Cuba.
It is my hope that black Americans who travel to Cuba won’t make the mistake of seeing it solely as a place with people living in crumbling buildings and poverty, or as a place of rum, cigars, 1950s cars and beautiful dancing girls with bare bellies, but as a country rich with the stories of our struggles and triumphs, and even our collective futures.
They should see it as a chance to do as I did with Contreras, Hurst and Cobb; a chance to have a new conversation.
One that is decades overdue.