1 African Americans y el Mundo Latino 101 The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise: African Americans y el Mundo Latino Danny Widener ABOUT FOUR YEARS AGO, THE SUBJECT OF BLACK/LATINO RELATIONS TOOK ON A sudden urgency in my life. One lazy May afternoon, home from school and slapping bones on the boardwalk with a retired dockworker and a couple of local brothers from Venice, we got into one of those conversations about difference: L.A. and Oakland, Magic and Mike, Shoreline Crips and Venice 13. Several shootings had placed the last topic on the agenda, the most recent of which had taken place that very morning. Mid-game, a couple of vatos the oldest maybe 15 strolled past. One parted the folds of an oversized Ben Davis work shirt, flashing a piece. And goddamn if the two brothers I m sitting between didn t pull back their own shirts to flash the pistols they had. Well, I knew I didn t have a gat, looked at my waist anyway, and glanced back as the cholos continued on toward the handball courts and a spectator asked whose turn it was to play. That summer proved to be the bloodiest between Black and Mexican gang members in two decades. And if the violence has, to a degree, lost steam, it is nevertheless true that events of the past years point to an increasingly difficult and dangerous state of affairs between this nation s two largest nonwhite populations. A few examples must suffice. In 1990, several hundred aging remnants of Cuba s defeated bourgeoisie demonstrated noisily against the welcome extended to Nelson Mandela by Miami residents. Although vastly outnumbered by supporters of Azania s current head of state, exile groups successfully prevented representatives of the City of Miami including African-American members of the city and county commissions from attending Mandela s speech. Recent fights between Black and Latino/a youth have closed six Los Angeles area high schools. Interracial gang violence between Latino/a and Black gang sets has expanded to become, for the first time, a countywide phenomenon. Meanwhile, in Hawaiian Gardens, more than 30 hate crime incidents have taken place in a one square mile area in the last year alone. In New York, hard-won gains of Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) and African- Americans deteriorate as the racist assaults of the Ghouliani [Giuliani] adminis- DANNY WIDENER is a Ph.D. Candidate at New York University ( Social Justice Vol. 25, No
2 102 WIDENER tration fuel fires begun by middle-class politicians, renewed residential segregation, and a steep decline in the living standards of New York s Black and Brown majority. Competition eclipses cooperation in many city government agencies, as African-Americans and Puerto Ricans attempt not only to outmaneuver each other, but also Dominicans, Haitians, and English-speaking West Indians. These incidents, and others like them, have led too many African-American and Latino/a organizers, scholars, and community workers to wonder if the answer to the question do plátanos go with collard greens is a loud No! Neoconservatives such as Linda Chavez, who argue that successful integration on the part of Spanish-speakers requires distance from Blacks, exacerbate matters. At the same time, the inability of Black theoreticians to conceptualize the relationship between communities of color in anything other than hackneyed phrases has left a gaping mental, spiritual, and organizational vacuum. Moderate and conservative forces have been more than happy to fill that vacuum. Furthermore, a legacy of chauvinism on the part of Black activists who regard the antiracist struggle as our private political property increases our distance from potential allies. With this problem in mind, we all need to remember the long, proud, and complicated history of cooperation that exists between Black North Americans and Latino/as of various national backgrounds. Every one of the three largest Latino/a groups in this country Chicano/Mexicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans possesses a unique historical experience of contact, cooperation, and conflict with African-Americans. It is to some of these stories we turn. Judging from numerous scholarly works, one might think that before the last two decades, peoples of Latin and African descent hardly knew of each other s existence. Yet their connection lies at the heart of the West (in all senses of the word). Even leaving aside the question of Moorish Spain, the hundreds of thousands of Africans transported to Mexico included several individuals who formed the advance guard of Spanish colonialism. Twenty-six of the 44 Spanish founders of Los Angeles were Black. The first owner of the San Fernando Valley was an Afro-Mexican, as was California s last Mexican governor. Although few of California s current Black and Mexican residents trace their origins to such distant stock migration being another characteristic we share 20th-century history offers numerous examples of common cultural and political projects. Mexican and Black laborers joined labor struggles in the factory and fields. In California and Texas, a militant rural proletariat comprising Anglos, Mexicans, Boricuas, Blacks, and Filipinos battled growers throughout the 1930s. One of the strongest centers of rural militance was a labor camp at Corcoran, a San Joaquin Valley site now made infamous by a vicious supermaximum penitentiary. Black and Mexican workers fought discrimination within unions and without, from Chicago steelyards to California sweatshops.
3 African Americans y el Mundo Latino 103 The children of these migrants West and North formed a working-class youth culture all their own. Although distinctly Black and Mexican neighborhoods emerged relatively early on, substantial numbers of African-Americans lived in East Los Angeles, and thousands of Mexicans lived in what today is considered South-Central Los Angeles. Gangs formed as protection against marauding bands of whites, enforcing unwritten racial boundaries. At the same time that Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie (Bird) Parker, Machito and Chano Pozo were fusing African-American and Afro-Cuban sounds back East, Chicanos and Chicanas joined the Black faces jumping to the rhythms of Dexter Gordon, Baron Mingus, and Gerald Wilson at the Orpheum, Club Alabam, and the Down Beat Club in Los Angeles. Customized cars became vehicles for individual and neighborhood expression. A denim and khaki uniform which persists in some form to this day made its appearance, as did that emblem of World War II cool, the Zoot Suit. Political forces in Los Angeles boasted a similar history of unity and struggle. As early as 1942, the L.A. Urban League appointed Latinos to its advisory board in an effort to desegregate wartime industries. State Assemblyman Augustus Hawkins, Charlotta Bass, and Lena Horne joined Anthony Quinn and El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Española to prevent the legal lynching of Chicano youths unjustly accused of murder in the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon Case. The furor caused by this case reminded many local Blacks of the infamous Scottsboro trials. In both cases, unsupported accusations led to assaults upon an entire community. In both cases, an interracial progressive mobilization kept the issue in the spotlight long enough that an embarrassed court system set those arrested free. Mexican- American and African-American community organizations condemned the violence directed by soldiers, sailors, and thugs during the Zoot Suit Riots, which took place the following summer. Thus, it is hardly surprising that two decades later, the main organizations of the contemporary Black freedom struggle incorporated Latino/as into their strategies and tactics for change. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, and Ron Karenga s US organization all had either Chicano members or organizational links to Chicano freedom groups, or both. The high school blowouts, which proclaimed a new Latino militancy in Southern California, took place not only on the predominantly Latino East Side, but also in primarily African-American high schools such as Manual Arts and Crenshaw. Chicano revolutionary nationalists like the Brown Berets and socialists such as the August Twenty-ninth Movement (ATM) pursued dialogues with the Black Left, while cultural activists left a legacy that can be seen on project walls and heard in the records of Horace Tapscott, Poncho Sanchez, and others. Soul music? How the song Lowrider, by the predominantly African-American band War, became a Chicano anthem is a sonic fact that testifies to the cultural affinity between Black and Brown in the City of Angels.
4 104 WIDENER Rhythm and Resistance: African-Americans and Boricuas An intimate series of ties bind African-American and Puerto Rican communities, New York City s largest nonwhite populations. Close proximity and similar social conditions from the deindustrialization of the South Bronx to the hell we re catching from the Ghouliani administration today explains something of the links between African-Americans and Puerto Ricans. Also, every Black scholar active in or around New York is aware of the tremendous debt Black intellectuals owe to Arturo Schomburg, the Black Boricua whose collection of manuscripts, newspapers, and books formed the basis of the New York Public Library s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Schomburg was dedicated to the preservation of Black history and the expansion of Black pride. The 1917 Jones Act consolidated American colonialism and imposed U.S. citizenship on Puerto Ricans. Passed one month before the entry of the U.S. into World War I, newly draft-eligible Boricuas found themselves placed in segregated military units alongside African-Americans. The wartime Black orchestras that introduced Paris to jazz included substantial numbers of Puerto Rican reed and brass players, an example of Black American/Caribbean musical exchange that occurred well before Diz and Bird s celebrated Cuban collaborations. Political support for Puerto Rican causes came out of the Black community as well. The NAACP hardly the most radical of Black organizations repeatedly condemned American colonial occupation of Puerto Rico. During the immediate aftermath of World War II, Black activists in Harlem and San Francisco hosted broad meetings of anticolonial forces that brought together Puerto Rican, West African, Ugandan, Korean, Indian, Indonesian, and Burmese revolutionaries. Black American activists such as James Early made organizing in favor of Puerto Rican independence a mainstay of their political activity. Chicago s original Rainbow Coalition, the brainchild of murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton, sought to link African-American and Puerto Rican street organizations and contributed directly to the founding of the Young Lords Party (YLP). Moreover, organizational ties between the YLP and the Black Panther Party became so close that Denise Oliver served as an official in both organizations. The YLP deserves singular praise for their effort to assess the role of machismo in the Puerto Rican struggle. It challenged masculine privilege within both the organization and the Puerto Rican community as a central problem for revolutionaries, at a time when many African-American activists continued to support positions that reinforced women s oppression. Such ideas took many forms, from the alleged need of Black men to recapture their manhood through violent struggle to the supposed absence of gender conflict (and therefore feminism) among Africans. Most, if not all, revolutionary African-American organizations eventually addressed the question of sexism and women s oppression, but it is
5 African Americans y el Mundo Latino 105 significant that the YLP did so early and from a standpoint that was willing to view Puerto Rican culture with a critical eye. Today, Black and Puerto Rican people are joined in the struggle to liberate our remaining political prisoners. Black and Puerto Rican street organizations continue to explore their relationship with each other. Recognizing the key role played by Boricuas in the development of hip-hop would further strengthen our understanding of the political and cultural links between our communities. From Harlem to Havana A conscious Black affiliation with Cuba dates back to the days of slavery. Writing in 1859, pan-african pioneer Martin Delaney published Blake: Or, the Huts of America, A Tale of the Mississippi Valley, the Southern United States and Cuba, in which he describes the efforts of one man to organize a series of slave revolts culminating in an eventual return to Africa. Delaney prefigured the sentiments voiced by Black Americans who heeded Frederick Douglass call to join the Cuban war of independence against Spain. However, not politics but baseball thrust Cuba into the consciousness of African-Americans. Cuba figured prominently in the names of teams meant to evoke Black pride. Alongside the Hannibals, Toussaints, and Monarchs came the Cuban X-Giants and Cuban Stars. Games in Havana became regular road dates for Black American ball clubs, as did winter gigs on Dominican and Cuban professional squads. During the 1930s, Harlem and Havana joined Haiti and Martinique as major sites of Black cultural revolution. Négritude, the Harlem Renaissance, Haitian Noirisme, and Cuban Afro-Cubanismo linked artists across thousands of miles. Poets Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillón, one in Harlem and the other in Havana, were both concerned with evocations of Black beauty and social struggle. Comrades in the fight against Spanish fascism as well, the two remained lifelong friends. Like Mexicanos and Boricuas, African-Americans and Cubans met on dance floors. As early as the ragtime era, Black musicians incorporated elements of Cuban music into their compositions. During the bebop revolution, Afro-Cuban jazz launched by Diz and Bird, as well as by bandleader Frank Machito Grillo, trumpeter Mario Bauza, and percussionist Chano Pozo placed Africa and African culture center stage. Machito s arrangement of the musical standard, The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise, testifies in part to the new cultural and political spirit in the air. Even the distinct dissonance and syncopation of postwar free jazz a music often connected to Black nationalism can be heard as early as 1949 in the music of Cuban bandleader Dámaso Pérez-Prado. The contemporary popularity of hip-hop in Cuba and the incorporation of hip-hop moves into current Cuban dance suggest that this fruitful relationship is far from over.
6 106 WIDENER Echando Pa lante Moving Forward African-Americans and Latinos thus possess a long and varied history of interaction and collective action. From the limited examples given above, perhaps a few conclusions might be drawn. There exists too great a history of common aesthetic and artistic production for us to explain the growing discord between our communities by cultural differences. From music to dance to dress, much of contemporary Black culture owes a Latin debt and the converse is also true. The source of our divisions must therefore be located elsewhere. Similarly, too storied a history of political cooperation exists for us to entertain the idea that competition from Spanish-speakers or political empowerment on the part of Latinos constitutes a threat to African-Americans. Whether one s ultimate political goal is a separate state, socialist transformation, or simply the further erosion of structural discrimination, the increasingly complex ethnic landscape in the United States today forces all of us to reassess our vision of Black radicalism. Common sense compels us to move beyond an idea of races that includes only Black and white. Black and Brown people in struggle in this country have been hamstrung by our failure to understand the role played by sexism in race and class oppression. The gendered nature of contemporary oppression is particularly vicious and evident. Reflected in the faces of domestic workers waiting at bus stops, behind sewing machines in windowless rooms, and beyond the silent glass screens that trap their sons and daughters in penitentiary visiting rooms, the pressures on workers of color increasingly rest on the shoulders of women. Welfare reform, the erosion of wages, and the legislative exclusion of working people from universities hit hardest at those on the bottom, and those at the bottom remain disproportionately female. Although the Black and Latino/a Left recognizes the legacy of women revolutionaries, there has been a dearth of organizations that unite Black American women and Latinas. Also, the main historical figures linking our communities have been male. The effect of this on our perceptions of the Black/Latino/a relationship must be taken into account. The idea that Black unity must be achieved before alliances can be pursued with other groups is historically false, patently untrue, and dangerously ignorant. Black unity is not a bus that will someday arrive, but a process requiring constant strategies of innovation. Unity is consolidated through struggle and it is only through such struggle that the trust necessary to overcome inevitable repression can be forged. None of this is to suggest that African-American political spaces should necessarily be open at all times to other groups, but only to argue that waiting until a distant day before devoting serious attention to alliance-building will be disastrous.
7 African Americans y el Mundo Latino 107 Common political projects and the quest for greater unity must rest on more than the notion that Blacks and Latino/as suffer from common forms of oppression. At the most basic level, we all understand the devastating effects of a patriarchal and racist capitalism. The forms this oppression takes, however, are distinct. African-Americans must recognize the particularly virulent anti-mexican racism pervading California. Yet, we and we alone can look back on centuries as the most disdained and hated of Americans not indigenous to this hemisphere. At the same time, we must recognize, for example, that Puerto Ricans continue to suffer under a direct colonialism like that which existed in Africa decades ago, one that mercilessly extracts the lives and labor of an entire island, oftentimes in a language that only a fraction of the nation speaks. As our neighborhoods change, we might follow the advice proffered by Marcus Garvey in 1928 and learn to speak Spanish. Whatever the case may be, Black and Latino activists must continue to engage in dialogue about the particular forms our oppression takes, in the hopes of producing a desire to work together that is grounded in our sense of where we want to go, rather than bound by hostility to a common foe. Black activists must make an effort to understand and support emerging struggles. Indigenous groups on the move across the world deserve our support, from the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas to the Native Australian groups who have long looked upon the Black struggle here as one with their own. The environmental justice movement, which includes many people of color (unlike the traditional environmental movements), should be an arena of activity on the part of Black radicals. Support for the movement against homophobia is also vital, as a struggle against an evil that not only debilitates our own movement, but also contributes to anti-human, anti-progressive practice everywhere. Black activists should strive to redouble our support for causes familiar to us, such as the defense of the Cuban Revolution and support for the independence of Puerto Rico. In Colombia, Brazil, and other nations where leftist and Black consciousness movements are in dialogue, we might ask what lessons our own experiences with this subject might provide. If necessity is the mother of invention, it is high time to get downright imaginative. Local initiatives will prove to be the most important in advancing Black and Brown unity. Many examples could be given here. Rather than produce a shopping list, let me note one such effort, that of Michael Zinzun and the activists of the Committee Against Police Abuse, whose gang truce work has served as a model for the local/national/global nexus. Based in Los Angeles, its work has reached from Compton, Watts, and Long Beach to Brooklyn and the Bronx, Philly, Paris, and São Paulo. Yet it is the work they have done to open a dialogue between Venice 13 and the Shoreline Crips for which I am personally thankful. Fewer bullets are flying, leaving the domino games a little bit calmer, unless I go out again with you holding that big six.