Nicolás Guillén: The Struggle against Two Racisms
Through the poetry of world-renowned Afro-Cuban poet, writer, and activist Nicolás Guillén (1902–1989), students can be introduced to the global impact of racism and also expressions of global solidarity.
Nicolás Guillén was born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1902. Guillén’s father, a journalist, was assassinated by the Cuban government. As he and his brothers and sister finished school in pre-revolutionary Cuba, they encountered the same racism African Americans faced in the United States. Guillén began writing about the social problems faced by Blacks; his first poems appeared in Camaguey Grafico in 1922.
In 1929,Guillén interviewed Langston Hughes in Havana and they became lifelong friends. In 1930 he created an international stir with the publication of Motivios de Son, eight short poems inspired by the son, a popular Afro-Cuban musical form, and the daily living conditions of Cuban Blacks. Composed in Afro-Cuban vernacular, the collection separated itself from the Spanish literary canon and established Black culture as a legitimate focus of Cuban literature.
In this essay, excerpted from a chapter on the history of Cuban social poetry, Gómez García introduces the reader to Guillén’s poetry about racism in the United States. This is an ideal text for classes on poetry, Spanish, 20th-century U.S. history, and Latin American history.
By Carmen Gómez García
Nicolás Guillén’s rise to influence was part and parcel of heightened revolutionary activities in Cuba during the 1930s. Cuba was politically oppressed by a dictatorial regime in the service of U.S. economic interests, and writers increasingly reacted to both the dictatorship and the American economic presence by expressing anti-imperialist sentiments. What is most surprising and probably little known is that many Cuban writers began to take an interest in the situation of Blacks in the United States, and the poetry of many writers contained violent denunciations of the racism that Blacks were subjected to in the United States. Thus, to their deepening anti-imperialism and socialism was added a greater awareness of how U.S. racism worked.
Guillén did not write in generalities when he wrote of racism but focused on specific indignities with which each human spirit could identify. The “Elegía a Jesús Menéndez,” in addition to stanzas that allude to the horrors of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and lynching, also refers to the Martinsville Seven in a fragment of beautiful and poetic prose. The Martinsville (Virginia) Seven were seven young black men who were accused in 1949 of raping a white woman. After a very public trial, they were convicted and sentenced to death. Unlike the Scottsboro case, these young men were indeed executed in the first week of February 1951.
Siete voces negras en Martinsville llaman siete veces a Jesús por su nombre y le piden en siete gritos de rabia, como siete lanzas, le piden en Martinsville, en siete golpes de azufre, come siete piedras volcánicas, le piden siete veces venganza.
(Seven black voices in Martinsville call seven times to Jesus by name and they ask him in seven cries of rage, like seven lances, they ask in Martinsville, in seven strikes of sulphur, like seven volcanic rocks, they ask seven times for revenge.)
When in 1952 the eminent actress Josephine Baker, born in the United States but naturalized as a French citizen, was refused service in an American nightclub, Guillén dedicated a poem to her. “Brindis” is a strong condemnation of U.S. claims to democracy:
La democracia Josefina
no anda en el Norte bien.
En el Sur Jim Crow y Lynch pasean del brazo,
se sienta juntos a comer,
en el Este, qué diablos
en el Este también
ser negro es un problema
de los que no se pueden resolver. En el Oeste un Negro tiene
menos de lo que un perro puede tener
En fin que allá la Rosa de los Vientos
hay que mandarla a componer
is not doing well in the North.
In the South Jim Crow and Lynch walk arm in arm,
they sit down together to eat,
in the East, what the devil
in the East also
being Black is a problem
of the kind with no solution.In the West a Black has
less than that which a dog might have
Which means that there the Rosa de los Vientos
needs to be sent to be fixed.
In 1956 Guillén wrote what is, at least for me, the loveliest of his poems against racial discrimination in the United States, entitled “Elegy to Emmett Till.” It originated in a brief news story published the year before in the magazine The Crisis, which, despite its brevity, filled Guillén with horror: “The mutilated body of Emmett Till, 14 years old, of Chicago, Illinois, was pulled out of the Tallahatchie River, near Greenwood, on August 31, three days after having been abducted by a group of whites armed with guns.” The original news clip in translation served as an introduction to the poem, which opens with great beauty and narrative force:
la Rosa de los Vientos
tiene el pétalo sur rojo de sangre.
In North America
the Rosa de los Vientos
has its southern petal red with blood.
The poem goes on to describe the horrifying scenes that the great river of the South, the Mississippi, the “old brother river of the blacks,” as Guillén says, contemplates impotently from its banks:
de donde cuelgan gritos ya maduros…
cruces de fuego amenazante…
y hombres de muerte y alarido…
y la nocturna hoguera
con un eterno negro ardiendo
un negro sujetándose
envuelto en humo el vientre desprendido,
los intestinos húmedos
el perseguido sexo,
allá en el Sur alcohólico,
allá en el Sur de afrenta y látigo,
el Mississippi cuando pasa.
from which hang already ripe screams..
burning crosses threatening…
and men of death and screams…
and the nocturnal bonfire
with an eternal black burning
a Black submitting himself
enveloped in smoke the belly falling out
the intestines moist
the sex organ persecuted,
there in the alcoholic South,
there in the South of insult and whip,
the Mississippi [sees] as it passes.
What the river contemplates as it passes by is all the brutality and the animosity that the racists take out against the black man, whom they hang from a tree or set alight in a bonfire for the “crime” of having a dark skin. In his poem Guillén stresses that in the case of Emmett Till, the incident seems even crueler when one realizes that the victim was not an adult but barely more than a child:
ahora un niño frágil
pequeña flor de tus riberas
no raíz todavía de tus árboles
no tronco de tus bosques,
no piedra de tu lecho
no caimán de tus aguas:
un niño apenas,
un niño muerto, asesinado y solo
now a fragile child
small flower of your banks
not yet a root of your trees
not yet a trunk in your forests
not a stone in your bed
not an alligator in your waters:
barely a child
a dead child, killed and only
The description Guillén offers of Emmett Till is moving and tender; he could have been any child in the United States if it were not for the color of his skin:
Un niño con su trompo
con sus amigos, con su barrio
con su camisa de Domingo
con su billete para el cine,
con su pupitre y su pizarra,
con su pomo de tinta,
con su guante de béisbol,
con su programa de boxeo
con su retrato de Lincoln
con su bandera norteamericana,
A child with his spinning top
with his friends, with his neighborhood
with his Sunday best shirt
with his ticket for the movies,
with his school desk and slate,
with his bottle of ink,
with his baseball glove,
with his boxing program
with his portrait of Lincoln
with his American flag,
Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén met a number of times. As Keith Ellis explains in an essay about their friendship, “The reactions of both Hughes and Guillén to the harshly adverse conditions of their respective societies for a long time created similarities in their poetry and strengthened the bonds between the two men.” Also, both poets connected their respective peoples’ musical heritage to their poetry. Hughes connected with jazz and blues, and Guillén with the son, which was a blending of African and Spanish instruments.
It is to the [Mississippi River] that Guillén expresses his anger, demanding justice that he knows for the moment to be illusory:
¡Oh viejo Mississippi,
oh rey, oh río de profundo manto!
detén aquí tu procesión de espumas,
tu azul carroza de tracción oceánica,
mira este cuerpo leve,
angel adoloescente que llevaba
no bien cerradas todavía
las cicatrices en los hombros
donde tuvo las alas;
mira este rostro de perfil ausente,
deshecho a piedra y piedra,
a plomo y piedra,
a insulto y piedra,
mira este abierto pecho
la sangre antigua ya de duro coágulo.
Ven y en la noche iluminada
por una luna de catástrofe,
la lenta noche de los negros
con sus fosforescencias subterráneas
ven, y en la noche iluminada
dime tú, Mississippi
si podrás contemplar con ojos de agua ciega
y brazos de titán indiferente,
este luto, este crimen,
este mínimo muerto sin venganza,
ese cadáver colosal y puro:
ven, y en la noche iluminada,
tú, cargado de puños y de pájaros,
de sueños y metales.
Ven y en la noche iluminada
Oh viejo río hermano de los negros,
ven y en la noche iluminada,
ven y en la noche iluminada,
dime tú, Mississippi…
Oh old Mississippi,
Oh king, oh river of deep cloak!
Hold back your procession of foam
your blue float of oceanic traction,
look at this light body,
adolescent angel who bore
not fully healed yet
the scars on his shoulders
where he had his wings;
look at this face without a profile,
destroyed by stone after stone,
with bullet and stone,
with insult and stone,
look at this open breast
the old blood already coagulated hard.
Come and in the night illuminated
by a moon of catastrophe,
the slow moon of the Blacks
with its underground phosphorescence
come, and in the illuminated night
tell me, Mississippi
if you can see with blind watery eyes
and the arms of an indifferent giant,
this mourning, this crime,
this minimal death without hope of revenge,
this colossal and pure corpse:
come and in the illuminated night,
you, loaded with fists and with birds,
with dreams and metal.
Come and in the illuminated night
Oh old brother river of the Blacks,
come and in the illuminated night,
come and in the illuminated night,
tell me, Mississippi…
Toward the end of the decade of the 1950s another racial incident renewed the opprobrium of world opinion. The landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education set aside the practice of racial segregation in public schools. Many black children made use of the court ruling to seek entry into schools that previously had admitted only whites. In response, more or less violent demonstrations took place in many cities, particularly in the South. White supremacist resistance to school integration culminated in September 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, when Governor Orval E. Faubus unleashed a violent campaign against nine black students who sought to attend Central High School.
Guillén responded to the events of 1957 with a poem entitled “Little Rock,” which was included in his book La paloma del vuelo popular. In that book the poet used the last name of the hateful governor as an adjective that concentrated all the injustice and inhumanity of American racism. It read:
En aquel mundo faubus
bajo aquel duro cielo faubus
los niños negros pueden
no ir junto a los blancos a la escuela.
In that Faubus world
under that hard Faubus sky
the black children can
not attend school together with whites.
President John F. Kennedy, in a vain attempt to counteract the example of the Cuban Revolution among other nations of the Third World, especially in the rest of Latin America, created the Alliance for Progress in 1961. Guillén’s response was a poem entitled “Crecen altas las flores” (“The Flowers Grow Tall”). In that poem Guillén mentioned the horrors of segregation and racism that characterized U.S. race relations and those which it threatened to spread to its economic vassals and dependencies in the Caribbean:
Adelante Jim Crow; no te detengas; lanza
tu grito de Victoria. Un ¡hurra! por la AlianzaLynch, adelante, corre, busca tus feotes. Eso eso es lo que urge… ¡Hurra por el Progreso!Así de día en día (aliados progresando
bajo la voz de Washington, que es una voz de mando)hacer de nuestras tierras el naziparaíso:
ni un indio, ni un mal blanco, ni un Negro, ni un mestizo.
Hurry on, Jim Crow; don’t hold back; raise
your cry of victory. A “hurrah” for the AllianceLynch, hurry on, run, look for your whips.
That is what is urgent. Hurrah for Progress!Thus from day to day (allies progressing
under the voice of Washington, which is a commanding voice)make a Nazi paradise of our lands:
not a single Indian, bad white, Black, or mestizo.
One of Guillén’s most significant poems of the post-revolutionary period written about American racial discrimination was “Está bien” (“It is All Very Well”), which appeared in October 1963 in Bohemia magazine. Two other brief poems also appeared in that issue, entitled “Gobernador” (“Governor”) and “Escolares” (“School Children”). The first poem was motivated by the nonviolent resistance movement that gained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s as a tactic for fighting against segregation in the United States. While Guillén recognized that nonviolent civil disobedience in response to racism was “all very well,” he also called on U.S. Blacks to consider the possibility of combating violence with armed struggle. Interestingly, with this poem Guillén entered into the heated debate then taking place in the United States between the traditional (nonviolent) Civil Rights Movement and Black Power advocates concerning which strategy was most effective.
Bien tus sermons en los templos dinamitados,
bien tu insistencia heroica
en estar junto a los blancos,
porque la ley—¿la ley?—proclama
la igualdad de todos los americanos.Bien
está muy bien
Requetebien,hermano negro del Sur crucificado.
Pero acuérdate de John Brown,
que no era negro y te defendió con un fusil
en las manos.Fusil: arma de fuego portátil
(es lo que dice el diccionario)
con que disparan los soldados
Hay que agregar: Fusil (en inglés “gun”)
arma también con que responden
All very well your sermons in dynamited churches,
well your heroic insistence on
being together with the whites,
because the law—the law?—proclaims
the equality of all Americans.Well
it is all well
it is all very well,black brother of the crucified South.
But don’t forget John Brown,
who was not Black and who defended
you, fusil in hand.Fusil: a portable firearm
(that’s what the dictionary says)
with which soldiers shoot.
One should add: Fusil (in English “gun”)
also a weapon with which slaves
In summary, Guillén was the Cuban poet who most energetically combated racial discrimination wherever it might occur, most especially in Cuba and the United States.
Copyright © 1998 by Temple University Press. Reprinted with permission from Carmen Gómez García, “Cuban Social Poetry and the Struggle against Two Racisms,” Between Race and Empire: African Americans and Cubans before the Revolution, ed. Lisa Brock and Digna Castañeda Fuertes (Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1998).
Political and Economic Context
Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1898 after decades of struggle, only to have the United States step in with a series of military occupations, political influence, and financial domination. As the high school text Resistance in Paradise: Rethinking 100 Years of U.S. Involvement in the Caribbean and the Pacific explains: “U.S. firms controlled many businesses, especially the sugar industry, the backbone of Cuba’s economy. Their holdings included more than 70 percent of Cuba’s farmland. From the 1930s onward, Fulgencio Batista became increasingly powerful in Cuban politics. Until the 1950s he worked behind the scenes to manipulate the results of Cuban elections. Then in 1952 he seized power as a dictator. His dictatorship was supported by the United States. He protected U.S. business interests, while most Cubans lived in grinding poverty.” Nicolás Guillén’s poem, “Caña,” provides a very short yet profound description of the relationship between the Cuban people, the U.S. government, and industry at the time:
El negro junto al cañaveral
El yanqui sobre el cañaveral
La tierra bajo el cañaveral
¡Sangre que nos va!
The black man next to the canefield
The Yankee over the canefield
The earth under the canefield
Blood that is draining away from us!
Gray, Kathryn. The Influence of Musical Folk Traditions in the Poetry of Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén, a lesson for grades 8-12. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.
The Gateway to Cuban Culture (in Spanish)
Brock, Lisa and Digna Castañeda Fuertes. Between Race and Empire: African Americans and Cubans before the Revolution. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1988.