Avery Faculty Member Visits Cuba
James Eber Campbell was one of the leading socialist thinkers to come out of Charleston, South Carolina, in the 20th century. A self-described dialectical materialist and card-carrying Communist, he amassed one of the most extensive and complete Marxist libraries over the course of nearly a century of life. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to be mentored by him as a graduate student working at the Avery Research Center from 2007-2010 and beyond. Many of the theories and concepts he shared with me went over my head and it was not until the last year of his life, which corresponded with a period in which I dedicated significant time to the development of my own political education and ideology, did the lessons he attempted to instill in me begin to make sense. For example, Mr. Campbell was an advocate for Cuba and always shared opportunities with me about caravans to Cuba.
Beginning in the 1950’s Cuba, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, underwent a successful, Black-led revolution to overthrow US capitalist domination of the island and institute a socialist government. The US began dominating the Cuban economy, especially the sugar industry, after Cuba’s independence from Spain in the late 1890s. Since 1961 the Cuban government and people have been suffering under a deadly economic blockade imposed by the US government in retaliation for being kicked out of the island. Conditions in Cuba have deteriorated significantly under the current and previous US administrations. Necessities are limited and hard to access due to the blockade and the Cuban people depend on gifts (ex., medicines, toiletries, clothing, etc.) brought to the island from abroad. Caravans and brigades, like those Mr. Campbell promoted, have been essential to Cuban livelihood since the onset of the blockade.
Through the sponsorship of the Avery Research Center’s board, the Avery Institute for Afro-American History and Culture, I joined a brigade to Cuba in August 2022. My group collected medical supplies, including syringes, hand sanitizer, wipes, etc. as well as toiletries, beauty products, clothing, and more to gift to the Cuban people. While there, I had the honor and privilege of being hosted by community organizers from the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (Black Neighborhood Network) in both Habana and Matanzas (the Black cultural capital of Cuba). As a majority Black nation, African religions and spiritual practices are alive and well in Cuba and organizers with the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (RBA) integrate their spirituality and organizing work seamlessly. They took my delegation to numerous museums and institutions like the Avery Research Center, in that they were sites dedicated to interpreting the history of Black Cuba that also served as radical community spaces for organizers.
We met with organizers, artists (ex. dancers, musicians, painter, sculptors, architects, drag performers), medical doctors, university professors, museum professionals, veterans, LGBTQIA+ advocates, spiritual leaders, cultural history interpreters, and more. Certain things were consistent among them all—dedication to community, a sense of social responsibility, actively seeking scientific solutions to issues impacting Black Cubans; and a revolutionary fervor and strong sense of spirituality underpinning all the work they do both individually and collectively. Though Mr. Campbell passed away in January 2021, I am certain this is what he wanted me to experience and understand about Cuba and Cuban people as well as the potential to mirror this type of work in the US where Black communities live under a similar form of blockade on the part of our government where our basic needs are not met, we have little or no access to resources and disparities between black and white communities are gaping.
Anyone who calls themselves a socialist or believes in socialist ideals should make their best attempt to visit Cuba—the socialist capital of the Western Hemisphere. Cubans are living the Black-led socialist reality, many of us in the belly of the beast (the US) dream of this despite the conditions created by decades of living under an unjust and deadly blockade. Cubans have been forced to learn how to do a lot with very little, from carrying on centuries-old African traditions to developing state-of-the-art medical treatments, eradicating houselessness, and illiteracy to redefining what it means to be a family. One cannot visit such a place and break bread with such people without being changed forever.