The symbolism of the meeting between Fidel Castro and Malcolm X is being ignored, mocked — and it should not be
Because their meeting symbolizes the victory of Black people and the hope for change.
As a young Black woman, I know and am aware that the struggle that my ancestors and great Black people have been waging for centuries and centuries is far from over. I know and am fully aware that the road for me and my other Black brothers and sisters will be long and fraught with obstacles—that, in my lifetime, I will experience and be victimized by situations where my skin color, and more than my gender, will be the center of problems.
I was (and am) lucky enough to have parents and relatives who never stop reminding me where I come from, who I am. My roots, my skin color brings me back and indicate that I am an African, a Black woman. For centuries and centuries, the struggle for the Black cause has never ceased—it has even, I think, grown, become more important, bigger, more… significant. The Black Lives Matter movement, which was born in 2013, but which has grown and spread (in my opinion) around the world, in June 2020, with the tragic death—or should I say murder, assassination—of George Floyd (may he rest in peace), is the perfect proof and demonstration of this.
Hundreds and hundreds of activists, known and unknown, around the world and through the years, have been making our cause, our color, our value as Black people and as humans. Through books, interviews, demonstrations, songs, speeches that have gone down in history. For example, in 1980, Bob Marley, in his song ‘Redemption Song’, sang « How long shall they kill our prophets, While we stand aside and look? Ooh! Some say it’s just a part of it, we’ve got to fulfill the Book. »—prophets, including Malcolm X.
I have always greatly admired, with immense passion, these two great men, Malcolm X and Fidel Castro. One was a strong fighter for our rights and the other was able to liberate his country and have it reaffirmed, by overthrowing the ruling power that was entirely run and controlled by the United States—what they had in common, and I love it, was that they were both waging an all-out war against Uncle Sam.
And their symbolic and historical meeting made it clear to me why I admired them so much. The symbolism and strength they both represented was something I had never seen before. The support in the struggle for Black rights was at the heart of their meeting, both of them expressed their common admiration for each other, and that is very beautiful. It was a unique encounter, but one that forever forged the myth and alliance that these two men formed.
On 19 September 1960, Fidel Castro, who had recently come to power in Cuba, was due to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York. His seizure of power on the small Caribbean island did not please the Americans and there was a strong anti-Cuban feeling. So much so that many New York hotels refused to accommodate the Cuban delegation, and the only hotel that would accept them demanded the most humiliating conditions.
The solidarity of the Afro-American and Latino peoples with the Cuban leader was immediate when he declared, with determination, that he was ready to camp out in the gardens of the organization, turning up unannounced at the UN. He was offered accommodation at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, a poor neighborhood of Black people, with his entire delegation—the instigator of this offer was Malcolm X, then leader of Nations of Islam.
The two met in Fidel’s room, and their exchanges mixed philosophy and politics. They talked about Cuba, the Afro-American people, Lumumba and Africa, racism, and solidarity. And it was very inspiring. A phrase from Castro sealed and marked the significance of this meeting : « We fight for the oppressed. »—a journalist from the New York Citizen-Call, Ralph D. Matthews, was present and reported the event for an article that was published on 24 September 1960.
Fidel Castro expressed himself in hesitant English, searching for his words, and using the help of his translator, but Malcolm X was admiring and managed to understand what his guest was trying to say. When Castro asked : « Is there any news about Lumumba ? », X smiled at the name of the Congolese independence figure. Castro added, raising his hand : « We will try to defend him (Lumumba) energetically. » He also hoped that the Congolese leader « will stay here at the Theresa », « there are 14 African nations entering the Assembly. We are Latin Americans. We are their brothers. »
Malcolm X remarked that « Castro is fighting discrimination in Cuba, everywhere », to which Fidel replied that the Cuban people are « changing », that they are « now one of the freest people in the world. » He also noted that the African-American people are « deprived » of their « rights » and are demanding them. He noted : « In the United States, Blacks have more political awareness, a clearer view of things than anyone else. » But it is to the historic and true (for much of it) phrase pronounced by X, « as long as Uncle Sam is against you, you know you’re a good guy », that history will remember, that Castro retorted, « Not Uncle Sam, but those who control the magazines and newspapers here. »
It was their only meeting, but it left its mark on history. I see it as the symbol and the hope that we will win the fight. Two revolutionaries, two philosophers, two great people who understood what life was, what suffering was. And who wanted change.
When I see X’s huge smile, wrapped up in his trench coat, I can see and detect the hope that makes me want to not give up. Their meeting was a message, a symbol, a way of saying “STOP” to imperialism, to suffering. Two characters, two giants that the world brought together for a common and clear reason : to continue the fight.
Their meeting was what the world needed. An unexpected meeting, perhaps thought to be “unimaginable”, but which served and serves as a hope and symbol of a victory for Black people.