Havana: On a small cut of land at the corner of 23rd Avenue and F Street in the Vedado section of this city stands a monument to two heroes of the Cuban people.
But the faces carved into the imposing marble-and-granite structure are not those of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, icons of the left-wing revolution that chased the right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista from power and spawned a U.S. economic embargo of this Caribbean island nation that is older than most Americans.
On the side of the monument that looks out onto 23rd Avenue—a wide thoroughfare that stretches across this city from the Almendares River to the Bay of Havana—is the image of Martin Luther King Jr. On its other side, the monument bears the likeness of Malcolm X.
For over half a century, Cuba has been a forbidden fruit of American diplomacy. Banned from traveling here by a foreign policy that was deeply rooted in domestic politics, most Americans had limited access to—and little real knowledge of—this island nation that is just 90 miles off the tip of Florida. So, not surprisingly, the perception of Cuba that many “North Americans” had during this time was shaped largely by politicians in Washington, D.C.; political activists in South Florida; and a U.S. media that did more repeating than reporting on Cuba.
In announcing his decision earlier this month to loosen travel restrictions and renew diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama opened up the possibility that many more Americans will make their way to Cuba. African Americans should be in the front ranks of this surge.
Today Cuba will officially open an embassy in Washington, and the United States will do the same in Havana. This exchange of normal diplomatic missions will generate a lot of media coverage and plenty of angry talk from Cuban-American politicians who will complain that Cuba is a terrorist state that shouldn’t be allowed to rake in the millions of dollars that increased travel of Americans to Cuba will generate for its Communist government.
What these protesters won’t tell you is that the biggest contributors of dollars to Cuba’s economy are the Cuban Americans who pack the daily charter flights from Miami to Havana. There are no restrictions on how often they can go to Cuba or how much money they can take with them when they visit this island.
And while opponents of increased travel to Cuba moan and groan that Cuba is giving refuge to people like Assata Shakur, a black woman who escaped a New Jersey prison after being convicted for her role in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper, they say nothing of Luis Posada Carriles, the anti-Castro activist who is widely believed to have played a role is planting a bomb on a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people in 1976. He’s living openly in the U.S.
The objections of these people should not keep African Americans from going to Cuba in droves—which a careful application of the new rules that govern American travel to Cuba will permit.
African Americans should go to Cuba because the link between Afro-Cubans and African Americans is much deeper than the 23rd Street monument. Like the Martin Luther King Center and Ebenezer Baptist Church that sit side by side in Havana’s Marianao district, the monument is a symbol of the rich historical ties that bind people of African descent in Cuba to those whose ancestors slave ships dropped off in North America.
There is much more that connects us to them.
In 1896, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation was legal, Cuba was fighting for its independence from Spain with an integrated army. The second-in-command of this interracial force was Antonio Maceo, a black man.
After the war, while the NAACP agitated for equal rights for African Americans during the first decade of the 20th century, black Cuban war veterans formed a political party to protest the segregationist practices that were forced upon Cuba by the American military force that went to Cuba in 1898 to help it defeat Spain. In 1912, while the Ku Klux Klan was busy lynching uppity blacks, the Cuban army massacred thousands of members of that black political party.
A lot of this history can be found in the files of the José Martí National Library, Cuba’s equivalent of the Library of Congress, and the House of Africa, a museum of African and slave-trade artifacts. It can also be culled from conversations with black artists and intellectuals—people like Esteban Morales Domínguez, Tomás Fernández Robaina and Gisela Arandia Covarrubias; poet Nancy Morejón; and filmmaker Gloria Rolando—all of whom are relatively easily found by people who are serious about exploring the connections between Afro-Cubans and African Americans.
But to do that, African Americans have to take advantage of the opening Obama has given us to visit this country and discover a chapter of black history that we have been denied access to for far too long.
DeWayne Wickham is a syndicated columnist, as well as a founding member and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. He is also dean of the School of Global Journalism & Communication at Morgan State University.