“Sometimes we revolutionaries are alone; even
our children see us as strangers.”– Che Guevara
The “guest speaker” was coming; and the Party bosses were at it again. Hush-hush everything seemed, or sounded. But I also wanted it to be different, despite the talk of ideology that we cogitated on or mused about. Always talk about key strategy and tactics, imperialism and exploitation at our fingertips, indeed. And our being who we were, and kept becoming, in our country. It must end!
“What must end?”
I grew sceptical.
More hardcover books – tomes–came our way from distant places like the Soviet Union. Now who among us would attend Patrice Lumumba University or the People’s University in Russia? Magazines, booklets, also came from Cuba: the postman dropping them off at our doorstep; but before long he hopped onto his Raleigh bicycle and rode off again, but not before turning back to look at me.
Really me? Maybe he knew of my interests, my wanting political change.
The jasmine-scented air I inhaled with Cuba’s Granma newspaper in my hand. Poinsettia and hibiscus filled a corner of my eyes. Yes, I watched the postman pedal off; and Cuba wasn’t far from our shores, I knew. The poetry of Nicolás Guillén in Granma’s gremlin-stained pages I read and figured I no longer lived in an isolated place with cane-fields and silk-cotton trees all around. Other trees shook alongside the coconut palm as a strong gust of wind came.
Macaws scooted in the air. I also kept thinking of the visitor, the guest speaker, who would come.
Really who? My heart beat faster. And our family’s KB radio, a prized possession, crackled with distinct voices. Nkrumah, Nyerere, Kaunda and Kenyatta from the African continent. More voices kept echoing.
What else did I believe? Mao Zedong, also…mixed in with talk of the balance of forces the world over changing? I balked, my rebellious spirit intact. More about scientific socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat it would be?
Did I also contemplate Lord Acton’s axiom: that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? What was I really thinking?
The Party bosses yet expected us to welcome the speaker who would put everything in perspective. He really would! And the Party members humoured me in my sometimes self-centred, if false, bourgeois way. But the Cuban missile crisis sent chills down the spine, didn’t it? Yes, the Sixties, with Kennedy and Khrushev being at it; and now the guest speaker would tell us who the real “enemy” was.
The postman again ringing his bell. Granma with the latest news, latest poetry of Nicolas Guillen, ah. A picture of Jose Marti, father of the Cuban nation, was front and centre. Whose sphere of influence was I really in: in British Guiana? America’s voice on the radio too. Louisville’s Cassius Clay became heavyweight champion of the world; then he shifted gear as he became Muhammad Ali and stood alongside Elijah Mohammed. Malcolm X punched a fist in the air!
And movie-stars like Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, made us dizzy.
Elvis Presley kept up a frenzied rock-an’-roll amidst rhythm an’ blues. Soul music, everywhere. Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis crooned. The local boy Johnny Braff also crooned, being with us. Maybe nothing was as it seemed. Yes,
Fidel Castro. Ah, Che Guevara, he stirred us.
Really…him? Now the guest speaker would give us real answers.
“No,” I let out.
“What’s the matter wid you?”
“We are socialists!”
The KB radio at home blared out more news. Who would soon walk on the moon? Among party-workers there should be no dissembling, nothing reactionary.
“Who’s the speaker coming anyway?” I insisted on knowing.
“You already know who he is,” sniffed back at me.
More mysterious it kept being. I gleamed, sort of.
“Is he really coming?”
Not President John F Kennedy coming to our backwater place to speak about the Cuban missile crisis?
The guest speaker now palpably before me, I conjectured.
“We’ve been expecting you,” I said, voicelessly.
From Cuba, was he really? The small island with the big revolution, yes! He would forge belief in a genuine revolution among us. And going to Cuba was like stepping over a few boulders across the Caribbean archipelago, wasn’t it? My teenage mind kept being at it. A further gust of trade winds blew.
But soon a volcano would erupt…in Montserrat? Ah, I was living in a larger place where canefields spread out far and wide. Tell the postman, even as I imagined hearing tell me about Brazil and Venezuela…and going beyond Central and South America.
“If it’s not Castro coming, then who?” asked testily.
“The CIA would try to knock him off.”
“They will try to poison him… put arsenic in his cigar.”
Did I also want to go to America and wear zoot, and then take part in the civil-rights movement with Martin Luther King, Jr.? Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers kept being at it. I leant closer to our KB radio at home, as I yet imagined other places. The war in Vietnam raging, A Kent State University shooting hogged the headlines.
In the Party building’s wide yard jamoon and guava blossoms fell in dry August weather. I looked at one Party member in the eye, he who already called himself a national leader.
I heaved in with an almost false breath.
My heart raced.
The meeting hall in the old wooden building with rickety stairs shook as I climbed up. The night before I listened to Christian evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong on the same KB radio. Indeed religion kept being the opiate of the masses. My mind in a whirl. And the special guest speaker would tell us about our destiny and a socialist paradise yet to come. Would he really?
The postman dropped off another parcel with copies of more newspapers as he grew alarmed. Che Guevara’s face stared at me from Granma. His seductive-looking eyes: Che’s, he who would soon be in the Bolivian mountains among the workers and peasants to stir up revolution. A dream turning into a nightmare?
Workers in the silver mines in Bolivia kept being exploited, didn’t I know?
I turned more of Granma’s pages and read about the apartheid system in South Africa. The page wavered in my hand. Growing turmoil in Angola and in entire southern Africa. Jomo Kenyatta was indeed the “The Burning Spear” with his Mau-Maus. Nigeria’s fated tribal war next? Colonel Ojukwu really in the offing. What would novelist Chinua Achebe write about of the Igbo people’s struggles? About more Things Falling Apart? Yes, in Zimbabwe there was someone who called himself Mugabe. Another was Nkomo…in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. Who really were the Rhodies but white foreigners?
Did I still have the stomach for revolution? A Guevara look-alike stared back at me from the poduum. Hush-hush in the speakers’ narrow hall. “We belong to the working classes only,” said a “comrade” near me.
Anxiously, I looked around in the Party building. How tense was I becoming? “We will soon have our own dictatorship of the proletariat,” I heard, in a tremor. Lenin’s words thrown at me, like a celebration. Yes, Fidel Castro dangled a fat cigar from his lips, even among well-wishers in Harlem after addressing the UN General Assembly.
What else did I think about, in my own frenzy or political-cum-poetical haze? “Who’s really coming?” Earlier I slapped the ping-pong ball on a makeshift table in the same Party Building. And how my eyes moved in different directions, all at once. The ball whizzed past in the air.
Comrades and friends, all. The speaker addressing who really?
I began feeling a strange sense of alienation maybe because I sawmyself as an artist, but without socialist realism in my veins.
I envisaged cows grazing outside and white cranes kept hopping onto their backs and picking away at ticks…in our tropics. Our time and place: a new reality awaited us. The guest speaker was still anonymous, was he? If not Fidel Castro, then…who?
He seemed a shrouded or solitary figure, looking like a monk. Not like a Hindu sadhu, in my dreamer’s maze? He wore dark glasses as he stood before us…being introduced before a packed hall. Che he was addressed as.
He began talking about the need for a genuine revolution. He’d been to Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union; and to other countries far and near, what we must know. Africa he’d recently returned from, like a mirage, as he talked about the struggle in Angola. He was hoping to start a revolution all across Latin America. Bolivia yet to come? My head spun.
He looked at me sharply. Yes, he made a special trip to be with us: such was his commitment to the revolutionary struggle. We must also be in the vanguard of change. “Is it really him?” I whispered.
But I yet wore zoot in Harlem and Motown, didn’t I? Maybe I no longer wanted to be in the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary. I was an artist, remember. The Cuban missile crisis would soon be over. The Vietnam War also soon over? Tell Jane Fonda still strident on campuses across America. Now another freedom march was on the way. Civil Rights kept being all.
“It’s him,” I heard.
“Don’t you know?”
The almost shrouded one continued on speaking, urging us to it. Could the CIA be close by listening in? The postman who handed me Granma also listening in? Not Britain’s Coldstream Guards sent to keep watch over us?
Now did someone say Blacks must be compensated for the great wrong done to them: for having been brought as slaves to work in the New World sugar plantations? History yet in the making, or unmaking.
The speaker’s eyes were focused on me. He talked about the heroic Cuban people’s struggle; and José Martí was indeed the father of the Cuban revolution.
Did Martí really say all men are good save those who do not work? Work in the Gulag too? Yes, according to Comrade Stalin.
The guest speaker’s eyes etched in steel.
He touched his beret, then passed a hand across his beard or goatee, more Lenin-like. Again he referred to the Bolivian people’s struggle somewhere in the Andean mountains, like time yet to come. Really…what’s to come?
A condor flying far overhead, the rarest of birds.
With an almost raspy voice the speaker brought up the history of Cuba with Batista, and also dwelled on superstitions plaguing us. Like what also plagued the Cuban people, the Santeria religion with earth-spirits. I lapped it all up.
Did Che also travel to the region of the Black Sea and addressed Communist leaders by their first names, didn’t he?
I was tongue-tied. The Party bosses looked around, at me?
At how I was taking the guest speaker’s words? Who among us were still with the reactionary bourgeoisie? But freedom I longed for, more than art for art’s sake, I figured. The guest speaker kept his beret at an angle across his forehead. And maybe I kept wanting to come to America…or Canada, if only to attend Sir George Williams University in Montreal…and, yes, take part in a student riot.
The speaker warned us about imperialist indoctrination being everywhere around us. We must be on our guard. Yes, another heavy tome the postman handed me…at home. Who said: There could be no revolution without a revolutionary philosophy?
Then the speaker quietly left, as mysteriously as he came. Maybe he would file a report with Fidel Castro in Cuba. I saw them both lighting cigars and inhaling…exhaling. Sweet-smelling cigar smoke rose in the air around me. Instinctively I too inhaled, and figured the guest speaker would answer my burning questions about socialist realism; and it all had to do with revolutionary change. But he was gone.
“It was really him?” Who yet asking?
I fantasized trekking across a wide terrain in the Bolivian mountainside with meagre rations on my back. And Mao Zedong had talked about making disturbances in the east while attacking in the west, then of appearing in the south and later in the north all at the same time. Guerilla warfare, see!
But weary, dog tired, I was. I also imagined sleeping in a hammock full of holes. Haggard-looking peasants kept bringing food: brown-looking bananas and plantains and weevil-filled rice. Maybe I didn’t want revolution any longer. Yet it was a life-and-death struggle. With my inchoate spirit of rebellion, or youthful zeal, I kept it up. Guns firing. I cocked an ear. Comrades around me kept nodding, agreeably.“Was it really Che who’d come to speak?”
“Who else?” countered a Party faithful.
I sighed, and again breathed in hard.
Once more the postman handed me Granma with news that Che had indeed been killed in the Bolivian mountains. Now it was almost like taking my last breath; as if I had a hand in it. I continued to read the poetry of Nicolás Guillén, in the imagination’s leap and spirited blood.
Transformation everywhere. Voices kept calling out, even choking me in my sleep…yet wide awake I was.
And no-one would ever know. No-one could really tell.
Once more I walked up the Party Building’s rickety stairs. And voices of the past I began thinking about and thinking nothing’s ever lost. The postman had a jaded look in his eyes. Yes, Jose Marti: I once more thought about. A condor kept flying high above the Andean mountains: what I longed to see or read about in a National Geographic magazine, with instincts my own. The image being all. As I contemplated a wider space, the four corners of the world, because of what kept being mysterious all the time…nothing less.