BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Black Islanders, Mainlanders

Race to Revolution: The United States and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow by Gerald Horne (Monthly Review Press, June 2014) inters a crucial, if little known, period of chattel bondage and its aftermath for islanders and mainlanders. What people of African descent do and say to be free is his special focus.

Horne leaves mainstream history in the starting blocks. His book is a guided tour of people freeing themselves on both sides of the Florida Straits. He fleshes out that history. It should inform the current phase of relations between Uncle Sam and Cuba.

The book’s context flows from the centrality of the slave trade and traders to what Immanuel Wallerstein calls the “world-system.” In Spanish Florida and Cuba, antebellum and post-bellum America, skin color signifies class status, creating and challenging the dominant political economy.

Racial animus varies over place and time, as Horne makes clear. American and Spanish plantations, where the owning of human beings as beasts of burden is a source of power and wealth, sets into motion a process of blacks’ resistance.

Colonialism, imperialism and racism advance and retreat in the US and Cuba. The abolition of slavery is a major victory, as was the end of feudalism. What replaced both systems was capitalism, employers’ rental of workers’ labor services.

Horne’s narrative unfolds chronologically. Spain, England and the US clash over plunder of the African continent and the so-called new world. Slavery and the slave trade propel the projection of imperial commerce and force. US interests wax as London’s and Lisbon’s wane.

The Confederacy’s bid to secede from Washington’s orbit as Spain loses its grip on Cuba occupies no small part of Horne’s book. Though slavery ends in Cuba after its abolition stateside, the presence of armed black Cubans, including army generals such as Antonio Maceo, strikes fear and loathing into the hearts and minds of plantation owners and their political representatives. Peaceful overthrow of tyranny has its limits.

Suffice it to say differences exist in the entry and exit points of the “peculiar institution” of slavery under Anglo-American and Spanish rule. US attempts to impose white supremacy after invading the island nation in 1898, prevailing over Spain, and acquiring Guantanamo Bay, encounter resistance from Cuban and American blacks.

The US’s annexation of Spanish Florida and Cuba, and the American Civil War shape and are shaped by Africans’ active involvement in freedom struggles for full citizenship. Meanwhile, the “Africanization” of Cuba poses a threat to the US slave-holding class, and later to Jim Crow social control.

This “racist appeal that barely shrouded class and ideological interests,” Horne writes, is overcome with blacks’ deeds and words, a protracted struggle involving allies and enemies. The importance of global solidarity to Africans’ liberation battles recurs throughout the book.

Blacks on the mainland and island build on their historical ties. These concrete realities nurture anti-Jim Crow activism.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 also gives wind to the sails of ending Jim Crow, as Horne fleshes out. A bit like enslaved Africans’ successful armed revolt in Haiti against French rule, this 20th century revolution strengthened forces pushing for black equality, stifled from the days of the American Revolution against the Britain.

Imposing American-style Jim Crow in Cuba went over like wet socks on a winter day among black islanders and African Americans who visited there.

Complicating this equation was the African ancestry of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batsista, whose 25-year reign gave rise to revolution.

Horne shows how the war against fascism after the Great Depression “created fertile conditions for cross-straits progressivism and African solidarity.” US elites, embedded in “Cold War competition with Moscow,” failed to comprehend how that conflict reduced the legitimacy of Jim Crow stateside. Red baiters and race haters share common ground in favoring a two-tier society.

Black Cubans’ ties to their American brethren blossomed, educationally and journalistically. Horne spices his narrative with accounts from the African-American press. He amplifies the tales in Soldiers Without Swords, a film by Stanley Nelson.

In an introduction, 11 chapters, notes, and index, Horne brings solid analysis and insight on race and class in the US and Cuba.

In sum, his book is an eye-opener in part about why Cuba’s revolution draws strong support from its black citizens. Readers in and out of classrooms, take note.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento-based journalist. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2015

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652