In November 1898, white men in Wilmington, North Carolina, overturned the election of Black officials to local government, sparking a riot that led to the burning of the city’s Black business district and the murder of at least 60 Black people. At the very same time, congressmen in the United States were debating how to treat the Indigenous, Black, and mestizo citizens of their new Caribbean possessions following the Spanish American War: Cuba and Puerto Rico. In order to prove their ability to govern themselves—that is, in order to placate the US government—the light-skinned leaders of Cuba’s independence movement pushed aside some of the island’s Black citizens’ ideas about racial democracy and equality.
Thus, 1898 was like so many other moments in US and Cuban history: then, as now, it was impossible to fully understand the history of one nation without the other.
“We share the same blood,” Barack Obama told Cubans, when he visited Cuba in March 2016—the first US president in almost 100 years to do so. “We both live in a new world, colonized by Europeans. Cuba, like the United States, was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa. Like the United States, the Cuban people can trace their heritage to both slaves and slave-owners.”
The story of Obama’s speech is told by Ada Ferrer in the final pages of her new book, Cuba: An American History. For Ferrer, Obama’s visit to Cuba and his remarks there were a perfect example of a dynamic she describes throughout the book: Cuba and the United States hold up a mirror to one another. The history of the two countries has been intertwined. Cubans and Americans see themselves through each other’s eyes.
Looking into this mirror, Ferrer explained in a recent webinar about her book, allows us to see history “askew.” In other words, it has the effect of challenging the familiar stories Cubans and US Americans believe about their countries, enabling them to see the familiar from new angles. Obama’s speech, and the mirror that Ferrer writes of, underscore the profound connection between nations that, for the past few decades, have seen themselves, and have been seen by others, as antagonists.
To see history askew is likewise the goal of Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. Understanding the pivotal—indeed, central—role that African enslavement has played in the making of the United States necessarily transforms how we regard the treasured myths of our country’s founding in 1776.
Unlike Ferrer, Hannah-Jones doesn’t explicitly use the metaphor of the mirror; still, I suspect she would like it. In her preface to The 1619 Project, she suggests that the experiences of Black people have always been a kind of mirror the United States could hold up to itself, so as to reveal a much less perfect union. Non-Black citizens of this country might not like what they saw if they were able to look at the United States through the eyes of Black Americans.
Black people, Hannah-Jones writes, “are the stark reminders of some of [the United States’s] most damning truths.” One of these truths is that “eight in ten Black people would not be in the United States were it not for the institution of slavery in a society founded on ideals of freedom.” US Americans try to hide histories of slavery because it “shames us.” When Black people have used the rhetoric of freedom and rights that appears in the founding documents of the United States, it has been, at least in part, “to reveal this nation’s grave hypocrisies.”
If nations and their peoples hold up mirrors to one another, so, too, do Cuba and The 1619 Project. More to the point, Cuba offers yet another reflection of just how important The 1619 Project is; specifically, by demonstrating the centrality of slavery in the evolution of the Americas. In Cuba, too, the enslavement of Africans made possible the wealth of European empires; it fired the desires of US Americans to annex Cuba and maintain plantation slavery on the island, when they worried this institution would be abolished in their own country; and it animated independence movements against Spain in the 19th century. The afterlife of slavery is an urgent debate in Cuba today, just as it is in the United States.
And yet, Cuba also reflects how much more The 1619 Project could have been, and should have been. This is especially true if we’re to take seriously the book’s central historical claim: that we should view 1619 as a new origin story for the United States—an origin story that acknowledges the role slavery has played in the making of everything since that date. While Obama connected Cuba and the United States through their shared history of colonization and slavery, Hannah-Jones—judging by what she writes in this book—isn’t concerned with such ties.