Three days preceding my leaving New Orleans for Cuba, Alton Sterling was murdered in Baton Rouge. Not 24 hours later, we were reeling from the aftermath of yet another police murder. This time the heinous scene was streamed via Facebook Live, thanks to the quick thinking of the victim’s partner. By the time I reached my layover destination, my social-media timelines were bathed in blood and confusion, as news of the Dallas police shootings and the misnaming of suspects (who were later cleared) began to surface. Baton Rouge morphed into an eerily familiar scene: a gas station’s small convenience store the setting of a brutal killing by law enforcement, militarized police, and a protest complete with well-known activist Deray McKesson making his presence known. Meanwhile in La Habana, the first trade delegation from Louisiana in over 50 years is due to arrive any minute. Times are serious and deadly. The coinciding of these events in La Habana with those in Baton Rouge must be examined with clarity and deep concern for how they will affect the most vulnerable among us.
In Brent Hayes Edwards’s The Practice of Diaspora, Edwards introduces the reader to the French term décalage, referring to a shift in space or time or the gap that results from it, and applies the term to describe the way in which members of the black diaspora share similar conditions of oppression yet often find ourselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum—for example, black writers seeking solace from Jim Crow in Paris, while simultaneously Africans were struggling against French colonialism. These countering political locations create tensions within our diaspora, but Edwards does not see these sites of difference as global movement killers. Citing the work of Stuart Hall on the practice of “articulation,” “a process of linking or connecting across gaps,” which (says Hall) always forms “a ‘complex structure’…in which things are related, as much through their differences as through their similarities,” Edwards says that these disparate locations are, like joints, sites of potential forward motion.
Walking through La Habana Vieja (the Old City), a few images stand out from all others: palm leaves over doorways, the miraculous San Lazaro, and the American flag—a somewhat curious sight in Cuba. I first noticed the Stars and Stripes in cars and then, as the days progressed, in patterns on bandannas, shorts, dresses, leggings, caps, etc. I also noticed that many of those wearing American-flag apparel were black.
I later learned that the trend was inspired by President Obama’s visit and the easing of relations between Cuba and the United States—an event much bemoaned in many black American social-justice circles as spelling impending doom for a revolution that has been idealized by many. And certainly, one cannot negate the devastating effects of globalization on marginalized populations, or sacrifice them on an altar of consumerism. However, those who have truly suffered the deprivation of poverty know that, when you are without, all you want is equal access to what other human beings possess with ease. And sometimes you are willing to make or accept dangerous compromises to attain it. In the case of many Afro-Cubans, and others, that desire is mobility, the right to see as much of the world as is desired or possible, and the right for their economic status to not be determined by virtue of their birth, race, or geographic location.
I have never been away from home when it mattered so much; I have spent the days since learning of Alton Sterling’s death wracked with guilt over my absence. Also, I have spent the days acutely aware of the mind-numbing contradiction of myself as a black New Orleanian, a Katrina refugee-survivor, and as a relatively privileged American visitor in Cuba. What, then, does it mean to see Afro-Cubans clad in American flags that represent, for them, a chance at upward mobility, while at home black Americans are being murdered with impunity under this same flag? For me, it is a chance to use the décalage of this moment to create a new movement. It is an opportunity to resist the propaganda of the opposing, yet symbiotic, economic systems of both communism and capitalism—these systems that are both choking the spiritual, economic, and cultural potential of the Afro-descended populations of the Caribbean and Gulf Coast.
Now is a chance to resist the propaganda that asks us only to skim the surface, to observe the slogans and symbols that perpetually leave us battling one another over semantics. Now is a time to look past the signage that consistently obscures a very simple fact that Stokely Carmichael made us aware of in a 1968 speech. We, the descendants of enslaved Africans, have been exploited, colonized, and oppressed. We are not merely fighting for a living wage, or a chance to buy name-brand goods, or even tickets in or out of Cuba. “We are fighting for our humanity,” Stokely said. Our humanity, and nothing else! And, God willing, I will be home soon to help.