Racism in the Republic: Marti and the Legacy of the U.S.
Lehman College & The Graduate Center, CUNY
The years Martí spent in the United States coincided with the period during which, in the words of historian Eric Foner, "the boundaries of nationhood, expanded so dramatically in the aftermath of the Civil War, contracted," contracted, that is, along lines defined by race and class (133). During the years he spent in the United States, 1880-1895, Martí witnessed this alarming contraction of civil liberties, a contraction that in the case of African-Americans turned into a veritable Reign of Terror. As the failures of Reconstruction crystallized into a segregated society, race hatred exploded across the land on many fronts, from the violent outbursts of white supremacists to the sometimes genteel yet entrenched racism of all public institutions. In the North, segregation in all spheres of society was taken for granted, while scholars published pseudo-scientific studies on the superiority of one "race" over another. In the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, Martí saw how an expanding web of racism destroyed the democratic ideals he admired. With unique insight, he recognized the relationship between the increasing expansionism of the United States and its domestic racism, a dreadful formula that might eventually engulf Cuba. In Martí’s chronicle of a celebration on Gettysburg, commemorating one of the Civil War’s most important battles, he inserts an account of a race riot in Louisiana. With uncommon honesty, Martí links the celebratory narrative of national union with the violent, divisive racism spreading throughout the United States.
In her pioneering studies of race hatred, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931), an African-American journalist, pointed out that the late eighteen eighties and early nineties were the years when lynching became a prominent feature of race relations in the South. During those same years, Martí also recognized troubling divisions along class lines. He saw how the increasing social inequities of the Gilded Age set one group against another, unhinging democratic institutions and forecasting a troubled future. Moreover, Martí feared that reductions and limitations of freedom’s scope in the United States, coupled with burgeoning imperial designs, would have dire consequences for Cuba and the Latin American nations.
In an article published in 1887, Martí contrasts the legacy of Lincoln with the racism of his own time. The article is Martí’s remarkable vision of the very same issues treated in David Blight’s recent work: Race and Reunion. The Civil War in American Memory, published in 2001. On the front page of the edition that published articles about the Fourth of July 1887 celebration in Gettysburg, both the New York Times and The Sun carried prominent stories about a bloody incident in Oak Ridge, a hamlet near New Orleans. Neither paper considered the relationship between the two incidents, one a celebration of national unity; the other, a racial incident in a remote corner of the nation. However, Martí eagerly seized on the contrast between the ideal of national unity, represented with great pageantry in Gettysburg and an example of the "Southern horrors" described just a few years later by Ida Wells-Barnett. On the front page of the edition that published articles about the Fourth of July 1887 celebration in Gettysburg, both the New York Times and The Sun carried prominent stories about a bloody incident in Oak Ridge, a hamlet near New Orleans. Neither paper considered the relationship between the two incidents, one a celebration of national unity; the other, a racial incident in a remote corner of the nation. However, Martí eagerly seized on the contrast between the ideal of national unity, represented with great pageantry in Gettysburg and an example of the "Southern horrors" described just a few years later by Ida Wells-Barnett." For the New York press, a celebration of national unity in Gettysburg and a skirmish in a race war in New Orleans had nothing to do with each other. For Martí, the two events represented two sides of the same coin.
In Race and Reunion, David Blight points out that by the 1880’s, the myth of national reconciliation was well on its way to widespread acceptance. It was, he points out, a white reconciliation that all but erased the realities of slavery and the participation of African-Americans in the war that officially ended it. Martí acknowledged the pathos of the 1887 reunion at Gettysburg. At the same time he superimposed on it the horrors of race prejudice, the very facts that the white establishment was trying to erase from national consciousness, despite the efforts of African American veterans and the embattled defenders of the legacy of emancipation.
The New York Times, July 5, 1887, published the story about Oak Ridge on its front page, beside an article about the celebration in Gettysburg. Martí’s article was written for Buenos Aires’s La Nación and published August 16, 1887, though the date on it shows that Martí wrote it on July 8 of the same year, just three days after the stories appeared in the New York press. Martí describes the "magnificent parade" during the Fourth of July celebration in the famous battlefield at Gettysburg. Martí’s article focuses on the grandeur of the occasion: a celebration of the nation’s unity on land that had been the site of the battle, July 1-3, 1863, that changed the course of the Civil War.
In his article on the Fourth of July at Gettysburg, Martí paints a memorable portrait of the event. Like a good journalist, he focuses on individuals to highlight the pathos of the situation. Veterans from both armies, the North’s and the South’s, visited the battlefield together, the place where "death reached as high as the sky." "Who does not remember the hopes of General Lee," Martí writes,
Martí writes that the same day of the parade in Gettysburg, men also marched in Oak Ridge, armed to the teeth as if ready for war. Their rifles are held high, their bullets ready to strike the enemy. They look like bandits, but they are the sheriff and his gang, who have come to kill the Negroes of Oak Ridge, to punish them because a black man from the town "lives in love", vive en amor, with a white woman. As already mentioned, details of the incident appeared in two articles published respectively by the New York Times and The Sun, both on July 5, 1887.
Significantly, the articles published in the New York press gave different reasons for the circumstances that unleashed the violence in Oak Ridge. The reporter for The Sun wrote that "A negro was accused of holding improper relations with a young white woman," suggesting that however "improper," the relationship was consensual. On the other hand, the Times noted that "a colored man [was] charged with assault on a white woman." "Improper relations" become an "assault," the sort of sleight-of-hand that often led to the torture and murder of black men. Martí rejects both versions and makes a significant change in presenting the alleged relationship between a black man and a white woman. In both articles, and in Martí’s version, however, the outcome is the same. As the accused man was being led by a posse toward the jail, a group of black men fired on them. A white man was killed, and others were wounded. A series of armed confrontations followed. In the end, the death toll included the white man and twelve black men, who were killed in the fighting or lynched after being captured.
In the newspaper articles and in Martí’s version, the different, and indeed contradictory terms used to describe the relationship between a black man and a white woman, are revealing. In Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century American South, Edward Ayers discusses radical changes in relations between the races. According to Ayers, in the early years of Reconstruction, whites feared that freed blacks would organize to demand justice, resorting to violence if necessary. He mentions a group of blacks organized into a "regular army company" to avenge the murder of a black man in 1867. By the late eighteen eighties, however, the fears of Southern whites began to focus on what Ayers calls a "a new crime," namely, the alleged assault and rape of white women by black men. Thus the alleged rape of white women by black men became a regional "phobia," Ayers’s term, which emerged rather suddenly in the late eighteen eighties. Supposed assaults on white women, or the perception of such assaults became the prime justification for the epidemic of lynchings that began in the final years of the nineteenth century.
As early as the studies of Wells-Barnett and in subsequent studies, the stereotype of the defenseless white woman, whose honor had to be protected by men, is linked to the lynch mob mentality of the period. In his version of the incident for his Latin readers, Martí transforms the white woman and the black man into a couple, who "live in love." For that love, not only was the black man murdered but all the blacks of Oak Ridge had to be punished. "The sheriff and his patrol have come to kill the blacks of Oak Ridge as punishment for the fact that a black man from that place lives in love with a white woman," Martí writes (11:237). No doubt Martí realized that whatever may have happened in Oak Ridge, in a climate of prejudice and hatred, a relationship between a black man and a white woman, whatever its character, could become the justification for mob violence. In these circumstances, lynching did not violate the law; it became the law. Only in the pioneering work of African-American critics and in subsequent historical research can one find a such a lucid reading of racism and its consequences in the United States.
Martí writes that in the South, "not a day goes by without bloodshed." In the North, the Republican Party pretended to defend the Negro, so that with their vote, they would be assured of victory in elections against the Southern states. Losing political ground because of the Republican strategy, the South seethed at the North. Martí writes that Lee, the governor of Virginia, had a solution: throw all the Negroes into a burning pire, "que de los negros todos haría una llamarada." Yet in Boston, a young black man read Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, "with a voice that rang in the air like the echo of a hammer on steel" (12:336). In these essays, Martí synthesizes the past, the present and the future of "the race question" in the United States. In the past, there were the horrors of slavery and the Great War that it unleashed. In the present, Martí’s present, there was reunion at Gettysburg, while elsewhere the most brutal forms of racism thrived and expanded. And for the future, there was the hope of a young man in Boston with a ringing, powerful voice, reading the Emancipation Proclamation.
Martí asks us, his readers today, to share his awe at the reconciliation on the Fourth of July at Gettysburg by directing our gaze to the human drama unfolding in the battlefield. He brings our attention to the image of the widow of Confederate General Pickett, who spearheaded the attack by leading 5400 hundred men, "los grises," in a doomed charge against the Union’s relentless cannons. Walking on the field where thousands lost their lives, the widow of the man who led the charge up to Cemetery Hill gathered some daisies and clover leaves and, like an aging Ophelia, handed them out in memory of the day, to Federal and Confederate soldiers alike.
From an image of sorrow, and sympathy for the defeated, the widow and her son, embracing and crying (lloraban abrazados), Martí takes us back to the incident in Oak Ridge and then to a brief yet charged summary of the situation of people of color in the United States. The dramatic force of the contrast suggested by Martí points at once to the greatness of Lincoln’s nation and to its tragic flaw: "En el albor de un problema formidable," ‘At the dawn of a formidable problem’ (11:238). Surely reconciliation at Gettysburg was a noble thing and eloquent words were spoken on the occasion. "Today, soldiers of the contending armies, we meet as citizens of a united country," said one of the speakers at the ceremony, as reported in The Sun, July 3, 1887. However, it is clear that this desired national unity was hardly inclusive, and that those whose exclusion was most glaring were African-Americans, consigned to a genteel invisibility, when they weren’t being lynched in Oak Ridge and hundreds of places like it.
By contrast, Martí considers the condition of African-Americans as central to the stability and prosperity of the nation. Their parents suffered the disgrace of slavery, Martí writes, but by now their children display the character and intelligence of a free people. In his article about the ceremony at Gettysburg, Martí even touches on a topic that has been recently resurrected: the question of reparation for the sufferings of slavery. Martí writes unequivocally that "they are owed, of course they are owed, reparation for the offense" (11:237). Martí writes that poverty not race makes people ignorant, and so black people must prosper and grow in strength in order to survive.
And what happened in Oak Ridge? Fire and gunpowder, deaths on both sides. Four black men lay dead in the field. Eight were lynched. And who will punish the sheriff, Martí asks rhetorically, since he is the law?: "He must be cleaning his rifle for another hunt" (11:238).
Voices for Cuba’s cultural and political independence persisted during the years of United States occupation and during the founding of the new republic. Yet such voices came to constitute an embattled, fragmented front.
The shreds of independence came to define the fringes of a republic whose "better" image mirrored the interests and desires of its powerful neighbor. It would be simplistic, if not altogether inaccurate, to suggest that such a fringe was silenced into oblivion by the forces of exclusion and oppression. On the contrary, those on the political, social and cultural fringes of the young Cuban republic staked their claims on many fronts, more or less powerful, more or less visible.
As national politics became locked in a sterile polarity between conservatives and liberals, between left and right, Martí’s wisdom endured underneath stilted eulogies to his martyrdom. Today the legacy of that wisdom may be the starting point for a reconsideration of what is truly progressive and just and what may offer a hopeful vision of equality and harmony. In a speech to a Cuban club in Tampa, on November 26, 1891, Martí presented one of the most memorable renderings of this vision. Martí’s speech was yet another call to arms, an impassioned plea for all to join in the struggle to free Cuba. As for "my Negro brother," Martí said, "others may fear him: I love him": ‘Otros le teman: yo lo amo’ (4:277).
It was that fear, not the historical reality of race, that Martí wanted to undermine. For Martí racism led to an uncivil, unnatural isolation. "The white who isolates himself, isolates the Negro," he writes in My Race, "The Negro who isolates himself, provokes the white into isolating himself" ‘El blanco que se aísla, aísla al negro. El negro que se aísla, provoca a aislarse al blanco’ (2:299). At a time when pseudo-scientists measured the proportions of human skulls to create racist categories, Martí deplored the proto-fascist notion that proclaimed the "purity" of one race or another. He spoke forcefully against the violence and oppression unleashed by the belief in a "racial" pantheon ruled by the whitewashed deity of a fraudulent antiquity. In the United States Martí bore witness to the horrors visited daily on people of color. At the same time, Martí knew that many white Cuban leaders, just as they had in the aftermath of the Ten Years’ War, would certainly hinder or at best delay the participation of black Cubans in a new republic. Against such odds, Martí unleashed a powerful anti-racist credo whose echo still resonates with compassion and hope.
No one would argue that after Martí’s death racism triumphed in Cuba. Martí’s words, when they were remembered at all, acquired the rigor mortis of a dead canon, fodder for ideologues of every stripe, all proclaiming a vague, self-serving patriotism. For some, Martí’s famous statement, "There are no races," became an excuse to ignore racism or to consign it to the realm of the invisible and the unspoken. Others saw it as a weakness in Martí’s thinking, an erasure of racial differences and the hatreds it provoked for the sake of a shaky ideal of national unity. Such an interpretation of Martí is not only unjust but inaccurate, surely based on a partial reading of his works or on no reading at all.
The statement "there are no races" is not an isolated, shortsighted affirmation. It is a vital part of a complex ideological strategy that also includes an unconditional belief in "the spiritual identity of all races," a level of human solidarity that certainly for Martí was not the sterile dream of a belated romantic but the real hope of a political visionary. Whether or not we can share that hope today is another story, or perhaps a series of stories where hope and despair mingle in unpredictable ways. And yet we might still learn from Martí that hope for the future is not a vapid abstraction but a concrete option and a way to influence the outcome of real events.
In the title of Paul Gilroy’s recent Against Race. Imagining Political
Culture beyond the Color Line, there is a remarkable echo of Martí’s
own writings "against race." In a climate of prejudice and race hatred,
Martí worked to suggest the power of a "strategic universalism,"
Gilroy’s term. Today that vision is perhaps no closer to reality than it
was in Martí’s time; yet it remains pertinent, indeed it is urgent,
to restate one’s faith in its potential.
Blight, David W. Race and Reunion. The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 2001. E468.9 .B58 2001
Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1998.
Gilroy, Paul. Against Race. Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.
Martí, José. Obras completas. Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975.
"Mrs. Pickett’s Reception. Honored on the Battlefield of Gettysburg. Union and Confederate Veterans Comparing Notes on the Scene of their Memorable Struggle." New York Times 5 July 1887:1
"The Oak Ridge Riot. Twelve Negroes and One White Man Killed." New York Times 5 July 1887: 1
"The Race Prejudice." Sun [New York] 7 July, 1887: 2. "Reunion at Gettysburg. Survivors of the Blue and the Gray Unite in a Camp Fire." Sun [New York] 3 Jul, 1887): 10.
"A War of Races. Six Louisiana Negroes Shot in a Battle with Whites, and Six Lynched." Sun [New York] 5 July, 1887: 2.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Southern horrors and other writings : the anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. Edited and with an introduction by Jacqueline Jones Royster. Boston : Bedford Books, 1997.