In this interview for Black Perspectives, blogger Say Burgin interviews historian Simon Hall, a former Fox International Fellow at Yale, is currently Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds. His research interests focus on the civil rights and Black Power movements, the social movements of the ‘long 1960s’, and global protest during the Cold War. He has published widely on these topics, including several books: Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); American Patriotism, American Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement (Routledge, 2012); and 1956: The World in Revolt (Faber and Faber, 2016). Follow him on Twitter at @simonhallwriter.
Say Burgin: Why was Fidel Castro’s 10-day visit to Harlem and the UN General Assembly–to borrow from your words–“a foundational moment in the creation of what we think of as ‘the Sixties’”?
Simon Hall: It’s partly because it draws in so many threads – the Cold War intrigue over Cuba; the intensifying Black freedom struggle; the emerging counterculture; and the activism and ideas of the white New Left – that define the coming decade.
During his stay in New York, Fidel promoted the politics of anti-imperialism, racial equality and leftist revolution with a fervour and an audacity that helped to make him a Sixties icon. Meanwhile, his valorizing of Black freedom fighters, celebration of “Third World” revolutionaries and association with “radical chic” offer us an early glimpse of the kind of cultural politics – the fêting of Black Power activists, open support for the Viet Cong and an instinctive condemnation of American “empire” – that would soon become de rigueur for a generation of young leftists across the United States and Western Europe.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that these ten days have a slightly anarchic, rip-it-up quality that makes for a striking contrast with the supposed conformity and drabness of Eisenhower’s America. So, stylistically, the trip helps to usher in a new era of political, social and cultural tumult in a suitably irreverent and rebellious manner.
Say Burgin: And in Ten Days in Harlem, you show that Castro’s visit coincided with global decolonization efforts and movements. How did those on the African continent, especially in the Congo, shape Castro’s visit and his speech to the UN?
Simon Hall: 1960 was the so-called “Year of Africa”: sixteen of the seventeen countries admitted to the United Nations that year were newly independent African states. At this particular moment in world history, there was a real sense that the emerging countries of the “Global South” could have a real impact on the world stage. A few months after Fidel returned home the Fifteenth General Assembly passed Resolution 1514, which declared that “the process of liberation is irresistible and irreversible” and called for “a speedy and unconditional end [to] colonialism in all its forms and manifestations.” (The United States was one of a handful of countries that abstained in the vote).
At the same time, though, the crisis in the newly-independent Congo – where, just days before the opening of the UN General Assembly, Patrice Lumumba was overthrown in a coup that had the tacit support of the United States – showed that these hopes might not be fully realized. I think that one of the most prescient things that Fidel said during his landmark, 4 ½ hour speech at the UN, was that “it is very easy to raise a flag, choose a coat of arms, sing an anthem and put another color on the map,” but “there can be no political independence unless there is economic independence.”
Fidel devoted a large chunk of his UN speech to attacking colonialism, and one of his main motivations for going to New York in the first place was to rally the opponents of empire and stake his own claims as a leader of the global anti-imperialist movement. While in New York, Fidel went out of his way to meet with (and be photographed smiling alongside) some of the legends of the struggle – Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Kwame Nkrumah.
Say Burgin: You write about this fascinating moment when the Harlem Writers Guild was holding a meeting on Monday September 19th 1960, and they find out that Castro had defected from his midtown accommodations to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. So they run out into the night to make their way to the Theresa, and Maya Angelou recalls standing in the streets in the rain trying to find a cab at 11 pm, then finding her way to the hotel only to discover that thousands had gathered there to see Castro. What did Castro and Cuba represent to Angelou and the thousands of other Black New Yorkers who flocked to see him in September 1960?
Simon Hall: The folks of the Harlem Writers Guild – and Black New Yorkers more widely – were already amenable to Fidel Castro and his revolution, not least because of its early and bold commitment to racial equality. Within weeks of taking power, the new government in Havana had passed a flurry of laws that swept away racial segregation – on beaches, in private clubs, hotels, and in the workplace. And some members of the Writers Guild had already visited Cuba to see the revolution for themselves. With the Eisenhower administration continuing to counsel gradualism and patience in the face of rising civil rights activism, it was little wonder that the Cuban approach caught the Black imagination. As the pioneering Black historian John Henrik Clarke put it, Fidel’s revolution had “given hope to people still longing to be free.” But, whether they agreed with Fidel’s radical politics or not, many Black Harlemites simply took pride in the fact that the Cuban prime minister had paid them the compliment of staying in their community – an area of the city that was usually hidden away from public view, and viewed as a definite no-go area for international statesmen. There was particular satisfaction that, by moving uptown and causing such controversy, Fidel had stuck it to “The Man”: the rumour (sadly untrue) that the U.S. government had been so desperate to prevent the Cubans from moving to Harlem that they had offered to put the delegation up, for free, in midtown, was a source of much delight among the crowds that milled around outside the Theresa.
Simon Hall: The meeting with Fidel certainly made an impression on Malcolm – who described the Cuban leader as “the only white person that I have really liked.” And, as well as burnishing his national, and international, profile, the meeting at the Theresa was an early sign of Malcolm’s deepening conviction that the African American freedom struggle was an integral part of the wider revolt against colonialism and white supremacy.
Robert F. Williams, who had travelled to Cuba twice in the summer of 1960 (where, he said, he “learned for the first time in my life what it means to be respected as a fellow human being …”), also visited Fidel at the Theresa. His closeness to the Cuban government was on show a year later when, fleeing trumped up kidnapping charges, he escaped to Cuba, and then sought to use the island as a base from which to continue to support the Black freedom struggle, publishing his Crusader newsletter and broadcasting his inimitable blend of music, current affairs and political commentary on Radio Free Dixie.
Fidel’s stay in Harlem also had a powerful effect on the coming generation of Black freedom fighters. When Stokely Carmichael met the Cuban leader in Havana in August 1967, he took the opportunity to ask about a rumor that was still doing the rounds. It was said that, during a meeting with Black nationalists at the Theresa, “the brothers” had talked at length about their ambitious plans to “wage armed struggle in the belly of the beast,” right there in New York. After listening patiently Fidel had stood up, walked over to the window and peered out. Finally, after several minutes of awkward silence, they had asked the Cuban leader what he was looking at. Dismissing their rather naïve plans for armed insurrection, Fidel is supposed to have replied: “the Sierra Maestra, the mountains. I don’t see any mountains out there.” Now, rather than confirming or denying the truth of the story, the Cuban prime minister simply roared with laughter. “Verdad,” he said, “there were no mountains to be seen.”
Say Burgin: So Harlem, as you show in the book, is much more than just a backdrop to Castro’s visit. In addition to its rich history of cultural innovation, Harlem activists were pitching battles against unequal schooling and police brutality at the time. So, you write that “Fidel’s move to the Hotel Theresa was especially embarrassing for the US government” because of the ways in which it sought to frame racial discrimination “as a regional problem.” Why was that really important at this particular moment in the Cold War?
Simon Hall: As the self-styled leader of the “free world,” the United States was particularly vulnerable when it came to its own domestic record on race relations. The Soviet Union was – entirely understandably – very keen to seize on high-profile incidents of racial discrimination in order to discredit America in the eyes of the world. In 1960, with the pace of decolonization accelerating, this was a matter of genuine geopolitical significance, as each superpower sought to win the allegiance of the newly independent states. A key part of America’s response to its international ‘race problem’ was to frame institutionalized white supremacy as something that was largely confined for historic reasons to the South and – thanks to a combination of court rulings, federal legislation and carefully crafted government initiatives – that it was in the process of being eradicated in a peaceful and democratic manner, as mandated by the country’s constitutional form of government. But by shining the world’s media spotlight on Harlem, Fidel exposed this as little more than a self-serving myth: the stain of segregation was alive and well in the urban north, including in New York, one of the country’s most famous and important cities, and a citadel of mid-century American liberalism. After all, the city’s mayor, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., was a champion of organized labor, who supported affordable housing and healthcare, and presented the Big Apple as a thriving, tolerant and cosmopolitan city. And yet, as local NAACP leader Joe Overton put it, Harlem was a “police state.”
Say Burgin: Finally, and I mean this genuinely: Do you think Castro had a good time on his 10-day visit?
Simon Hall: I think he had a blast!