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Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left

Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left

by Cynthia A. Young

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Soul Power is a cultural history of those whom Cynthia A. Young calls “U.S. Third World Leftists,” activists of color who appropriated theories and strategies from Third World anticolonial struggles in their fight for social and economic justice in the United States during the “long 1960s.” Nearly thirty countries in Africa, Asia, and


Soul Power is a cultural history of those whom Cynthia A. Young calls “U.S. Third World Leftists,” activists of color who appropriated theories and strategies from Third World anticolonial struggles in their fight for social and economic justice in the United States during the “long 1960s.” Nearly thirty countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America declared formal independence in the 1960s alone. Arguing that the significance of this wave of decolonization to U.S. activists has been vastly underestimated, Young describes how literature, films, ideologies, and political movements that originated in the Third World were absorbed by U.S. activists of color. She shows how these transnational influences were then used to forge alliances, create new vocabularies and aesthetic forms, and describe race, class, and gender oppression in the United States in compelling terms.

Young analyzes a range of U.S. figures and organizations, examining how each deployed Third World discourse toward various cultural and political ends. She considers a trip that LeRoi Jones, Harold Cruse, and Robert F. Williams made to Cuba in 1960; traces key intellectual influences on Angela Y. Davis’s writing; and reveals the early history of the hospital workers’ 1199 union as a model of U.S. Third World activism. She investigates Newsreel, a late 1960s activist documentary film movement, and its successor, Third World Newsreel, which produced a seminal 1972 film on the Attica prison rebellion. She also considers the L.A. Rebellion, a group of African and African American artists who made films about conditions in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. By demonstrating the breadth, vitality, and legacy of the work of U.S. Third World Leftists, Soul Power firmly establishes their crucial place in the history of twentieth-century American struggles for social change.

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Duke University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8223-3679-2

Chapter One

Havana Up in Harlem and Down in Monroe

Armed Revolt and the Making of a Cultural Revolution

* * *

I came to realize that Fidel and Cuba's embrace of socialism was the key to understanding the protracted nature of the struggle, not only in the United States, but worldwide. -LeRoi Jones, "Cuba Libre"

The fault of our artists and intellectuals lies in their original sin: they are not truly revolutionary. -Ernesto "Che" Guevara, "Notes for the Study of Man and Socialism in Cuba"

In July of 1960, the armed self-defense advocate Robert F. Williams, the Beat poet LeRoi Jones (later Imamu Amiri Baraka), and the culture critic Harold Cruse went to Cuba to see Fidel Castro's revolution up close. With Castro barely in power a year, the three men witnessed firsthand the young rebel army transforming itself into the new Cuban government. Unlikely traveling companions, Cruse and Jones were part of a delegation organized by the journalist Richard Gibson for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC). The trip constituted an effort toenlist black left support for Castro and was originally to include several prominent African American artists and intellectuals such as Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Alice Childress. Though they all declined, Jones, Cruse, and Williams eventually traveled with the writers Julian Mayfield, Sarah Wright, and John Henrik Clarke. The trip proved a pivotal one, shaping all three men's ideas about African American culture, community, and the likely prospects for black revolution.

In Cuba, the three men witnessed a new revolutionary experiment, one that sparked their own musings on the nature of African American oppression and the impact that Third World revolutions might have in crafting liberation strategies. The Cuban Revolution also propelled the three men to consider their role and that of other artists, intellectuals, and activists in confronting the forces of U.S. hegemony. In fact, their ideas shaped much of the U.S. Third World Left's political and cultural agenda. On their return from Havana, each wrote extensively about Cuba. In his autobiography, subsequent interviews, and in the 1960 essay "Cuba Libre," Jones reflected on Cuba's radicalizing influence on both his politics and art, charting his movement from disengaged Beat to black radical. For much of the 1960s, Williams filled many pages of his newsletter The Crusader and several speeches with praise for Cuba's racial equality. The experience transformed the somewhat older Cruse, helping to crystallize his fundamental disagreements with Jones and the rest of what he termed the "black New Left," a perspective articulated in his seminal work, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.

Though at times the three found themselves at ideological odds, they also shared significant intellectual and political ground, working together in various organizations such as the FPCC. During the 1960s, Cruse and Jones not only became allies but their intellectual and political work drastically shifted the cultural terrain on which black leftists maneuvered during the decade, fueling their search for a black national culture and the belief in cultural revolution as the key to political liberation. Indeed, their activities were often intertwined. For instance, when Williams was forced into exile, Jones rallied with other writers and activists to secure his right to return to the United States. Cruse and Jones worked together in Harlem, crafting revolutionary theory and practice for the U.S. context. Guided by the Cuban example, all three men likened the relationship of African Americans to colonized peoples, debated the viability of armed struggle, and asserted culture's centrality in forging oppositional identities.

This chapter looks at each man's investment in Cuba as a way of thinking through Cuba's meaning for U.S. Third World Leftists more generally. I reflect on the various ways that Williams, Jones, and Cruse understood the relationship between culture and politics, the First and the Third Worlds, armed struggle and revolution. In short, I consider how the Cuban Revolution served as one critical foundation for the formation of a U.S. Third World Left.

The Traffic to Cuba

Williams, Cruse, and Jones were by no means the only or even the first visitors to Castro's Cuba. In December 1959, former heavyweight champ Joe Louis and baseball stars Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella traveled there, eating New Year's dinner with Castro himself, one year to the day after Fulgencio Batista's flight from Cuba. That spring, Williams also went to Cuba, a trip he later described as "a pilgrimage to the shrine of hope," offering "three weeks of the only true freedom I have ever known." On his recommendation, other members of the Armed Deacons for Self-Defense began visiting Cuba in 1961. Later in the decade, other black radicals, especially those influenced by Williams, visited Cuba, including members of RAM, the Revolutionary Action Movement, an underground Black Nationalist organization, and the Detroit militants who subsequently formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and later the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. In 1967, the Black Panther Stokely Carmichael briefly visited, and in 1972, the recently released political prisoner Angela Y. Davis drew huge crowds when she came to the island to thank Cubans for spearheading the international effort on her behalf. If U.S. Third World Leftists found Cuba an important site for political education, it was also a critical outpost for those seeking political asylum. Castro's government found itself flooded by immigration requests as U.S. government repression against black radicals intensified. In 1961, Williams went into exile there briefly, as did Black Panthers Eldridge Cleaver in 1968, Huey Newton in 1974, and Assata Shakur in 1979.

What accounts for the black radical interest in and traffic to Cuba during the sixties and seventies? First, the Cuban Revolution actively courted black Americans from the very moment of its victory, emphasizing the new government's vanquishing of racial segregation. Waging a media war of position, Cuba's tourism board via a U.S. public relations firm associated with Joe Louis promoted Cuba as a land "free of racism" in advertisements flooding black magazines and newspapers in the early 1960s. This reputation was built on the fact that Castro outlawed segregation and discrimination just two months after the guerrillas assumed power, an extremely important act for black Americans in light of an accelerating civil rights movement. The Cuban government also established an open-door policy for black visitors through the FPCC and other organizations. In the early 1960s, these visits were intended to publicize the Cuban Revolution's successes, but later on, they also helped train and educate black revolutionaries. When visitors returned from Havana, many praised the regime's treatment of Afro-Cubans, explicitly contrasting it with the U.S. government's support of racial segregation. Such publicity fueled a propaganda war between Havana and Washington on the race question, a war that had significant Cold War consequences and reached fever pitch during the fall of 1960, when Castro came to New York to address the United Nations.

Havana Comes to Harlem

Fidel Castro's visit instantly created a crisis that exposed the omnipresence of racism in the United States. Accusing the hotel staff of discrimination, the Cuban delegation left the elite Shelbourne Hotel, where un delegates habitually stayed, for Harlem's Hotel Theresa, a move that deliberately flouted the era's segregationist conventions. That single act cemented Castro's status as folk hero, the champion of oppressed black and U.S. Latino/a peoples. Exhilarated by his presence, thousands of African Americans, Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and other Spanish-speaking Caribbean peoples surrounded the hotel throughout Castro's stay. During one such rally, a Harlemite held a sign that read, "U.S. Jim Crows Fidel just like U.S. Jim Crows Us Negroes." On one level, this slogan mistakenly equates the Cuban delegation's onetime experience to the daily discrimination faced by African Americans. However, read within the larger context of Castro's opposition to Western imperialism generally and U.S. imperialism specifically, the slogan and the mass demonstrations suggest that protestors saw the new Cuban government as an ally of subjugated peoples in the United States and worldwide. No matter that Castro and the white Cuban middle class had defeated the mulatto Fulgencio Batista, racial "origin" was not the overriding means of identification with the Cuban Revolution. Rather, identification with Cuba marked and facilitated a growing internationalism among peoples of color in the United States, which Brenda Gayle Plummer argues challenged African Americans' binary understandings of race: "Cultural differences in racial perception, coupled with Cuba's oppositional stance, challenged taken-for-granted categories of domination." As decolonization accelerated in the Third World, Harlem's black and U.S. Latino/a population increasingly understood that U.S. racial domination was intimately interconnected to global relations of economic, cultural, and, above all, territorial domination. For many during this period, mobilization against racism entailed mobilization against Western imperialism, a task that required the forging of alliances between and among U.S. national minorities and emerging postcolonial nation-states.

The political impact of Castro's Harlem sojourn made this point abundantly clear. In declaring Harlem his base of operation, Castro insisted on world recognition of black Americans and their plight. Not only did the renegade leader meet with Nikita Khrushchev there but he also received Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Harlem, thus, temporarily became a center of Third World negotiation and anticolonial solidarity. The Amsterdam News best captured the significance of these meetings, writing, "Castro's move to the Theresa and Khrushchev's decision to visit him gave the Negroes of Harlem one of the biggest 'lifts' they have had in their cold racial war with the white man." A ghetto routinely neglected by local and national officials alike had suddenly become a politically significant site. Symbolically, Castro had moved the UN uptown, centering the Third World-both Cuba and Harlem-at the very heart of the First World.

This point was further reinforced at the UN General Assembly when Castro linked the cause of African Americans to Third World struggles for national liberation. Calling for "African American nationhood," Plummer writes, Castro stressed "the need for economic self-sufficiency, and independence from white cultural and political domination" (135). These comments were not the express reason for Castro's UN address, but they proved far from tangential. They should be understood as part and parcel of his assertion that Cuba constituted a leading force in the global anticolonial movement. Castro's reference to black Americans elevated them to the level of a revolutionary force akin to Cuban guerrillas and African freedom fighters.

This assertion was strengthened by the main text of Castro's speech, which unveiled Cuba's policy toward Africa. Reminding UN delegates of the history of slavery and colonization shared by Cuba and Africa, Castro declared common cause with "the remaining colonial peoples in Africa and on the side of the Negroes against whom discrimination is exercised in the Union of South Africa" (qtd. on 142). The Cuban leader then pledged his nation's assistance to decolonizing Africa, a policy already well underway by 1960. In fact, Cuba had already lent political and military support to many of the twenty-one new nation-states formed in Africa between 1955 and 1961. Thorough in its denunciations-Castro spoke for over four hours-the speech was characteristic of the Cuban's rhetoric during the 1960s. Such speeches secured Cuba's status as an active foe of Western imperialism in both its European and North American guises, resonating with an emerging group of U.S. Third World Leftists who saw Castro as an ally in the fight against racism at home and imperialism abroad.

A New Revolutionary Experiment

Castro's uniting of antiracist rhetoric and anticolonial politics in his appeals to black Americans enabled them and other U.S. Third World Leftists to connect domestic struggles for racial equality to Third World liberation movements. If the Cuban Revolution was immensely popular among African Americans and other U.S. national minorities in the early 1960s, it stood as an especially powerful emblem for writers and intellectuals who gravitated toward it because of the centrality of cultural production to Castro's victory and subsequent rule of the nation. During the seven-year war, Castro's July Twenty-sixth Movement astutely used various cultural technologies to enlist support for its cause. Professionals in advertising agencies created campaigns for products such as Tornillo Soap that covertly challenged the legitimacy of the Batista regime by alluding to its corruption. Cubans also heard news of the guerrillas' progress over Radio Rebelde, a station the rebel army had set up in the Sierra Maestra to contravene Batista's censorship codes. Even after Batista's defeat, Castro continued to use the mass media ingeniously. Television became an important means for publicizing the new government's programs and policies as the charismatic Castro often delivered speeches via the medium, a technique that visually underscored his enormous popularity by presenting the spectacle of huge and enthusiastic crowds.

The rebel army's savvy use of popular culture and media technologies is perhaps best exemplified through its development of Cuba's filmmaking tradition. Just two weeks after the rebel army's victory, Che Guevara created a military cultural school devoted to documentary filmmaking. Members of the underground filmmaking scene including Santiago Álvarez, Julio García Espinosa, and Tomás Guttiérez Alea soon joined the fledgling organization, and two months later, the Instituto Cubano de Arte y Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) was born. As Michael Chanan has noted, the decree establishing the ICAIC "declared cinema an art, an instrument for the creation of individual and collective consciousness". The institute was initially sustained by government grants, but its acquisition of a record factory and an advertising studio soon established it as an independent cultural force to be reckoned with. In a relatively short period of time, the ICAIC was able to transform film from what Chanan has described as an "industrialized art and agent of cultural imperialism" into a truly populist art form and a "powerful new mode of perception". In its first two years of production, the ICAIC completed several films, including Tomás Guttiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa's Esta tierra nuestra (1959), Néstor Almendros's Ritmo de Cuba (1960), and Espinosa's La vivienda (1959). Most of these early works were didactic treatises on the government's reforms, patriotic records of Castro's decisive battles, or films celebrating Cuba's indigenous cultural traditions and excoriating Western imperialism. The ICAIC's mobile cinema units traveled to isolated rural communities, showing these films in schools and village squares where they reached a largely illiterate populace and sparked vigorous public debate.


Excerpted from soul power by CYNTHIA A. YOUNG Copyright © 2006 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Cynthia A. Young is Associate Professor of English and the Director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Program at Boston College.

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