La Negra Carlota de Cuba: The machete wielding anti-slavery freedom fighter, cold war revolutionary inspiration, to modern cultural icon.
By dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor
With March being women’s history month, I thought it would be interesting to look at strong female leaders of resistance to slavery. While Harriet Tubman is well known for leading many to freedom along the Under Ground Railroad, woman who tried to wrest freedom for their people through direct force, and not just absconding in the night, are given less historical acclaim. But one such figure stood out to me as I did my research. From her rise as 19th century slave rebellion leader, to a 20th century cold war symbol, to a 21st Century UNESCO world heritage figure. She is Carlota Lucumi, La Negra Carlota de Cuba, an Afro-Cuban freedom fighter.
Early on the morning of November 6th, 1843, the gruesome discovery of a young woman’s body on the Triunvirato estate, a sugar mill in Cuba’s Matanzas province, was tragic but not unexpected. Triunvirato was a giant sugar plantation, and it was were many enslaved Afro-Cubans were housed and maltreated. The morning of November 6th 1843 just followed a previous night of rebellion. Slaves from plantations and sugar mills across Cuba’s province of Matanzas had risen up against their masters in a well organized effort to win their freedom. Carlota, an enslaved black woman of the self described Lucumi nation, was among the resistance fighters and one of the movement’s leaders, helping coordinate the rebellion across the region. She was also the fierce warrior whose body had been discovered that November morning.
Historically, stories of slave rebellions like almost all stories were written by men. The male voices of these writers are reflected in how these narratives are told. Slave rebellions as portrayed in movies like Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus or Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments are typical works of this genre. But these famous Hollywood productions only serve to celebrate white men overcoming ancient slavery through the exploits of other white men. Women, and specifically women of color, don’t merit inclusion in Hollywood accounts because a military leader of liberation fighters doesn’t match Hollywood’s notions of what the public wants in their leading ladies. This is especially evident when it comes to woman of color. But Carlota Lucumi also known in Cuba as La Negra Carlota was as cunning and resourceful as any of history’s great male revolutionaries, and her contributions to the Cuban slave rebellion of 1843 has historical importance in several eras.
Carlota her fellow Afro-Cuban female slave, Firmina, were two female leaders whom along with a number of male slaves, organized and participated in a slave revolt at the Triunvirato plantation. Traditionally, white Western scholars have usually focused on black slave rebellion as both heavily masculine and heavily violent affairs. Enslaved black women such as Carlota and Firmina counter this idea of slave rebellions only being able to be organized and carried out by men. Contemporaneous white writers represented rebellious black slave women as either traitors to the big house or just using sexuality to gain favors. But by serving as a military leader, and then later in the 20th century being represented as a martyr of the Triunvirato rebellion, Carlota symbolized a strong Afro-Cuban woman who would eventually come to represent ideas of Cubanness and revolution.
Information about Carlota’s origins are scant and only can only gleamed from clues. Part of this is due to the Western world’s method of dehumanizing enslaved Africans by erasing their links to past. But we do know Carlota was an ethnic Yoruba based on her use of the Lucumí language and religious practices. She was likely kidnapped as a child from the region that today comprises parts of the West African nations of Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. The Lucumí people (alternatively spelled as Lukumi ) are an Afro-Cuban ethnic group of Yoruba ancestry that practice La Regla Lucumí, otherwise known as Regla de Ocha or the Santería religion. As a side note the the Lucumi people are also found in Colombia, see Black Kos - Afro-Caribbean Religions (Santeria, Lukumi, Palo Mayombe, Vodou, Rastafari, and Poko — June 2018). A young Carlota was then forced to endure the brutal middle passage across the Atlantic, bought and sold in the business of the Caribbean slave trade, until she finally landed in Cuba.
Carlota was forced to work as a sugar cane harvesting slave on the giant Triumvirato plantation. In a reaction to the appalling work conditions and brutal treatment by its Spanish landlords, Carlota began to plan an uprising along with another slave woman named Fermina. But Fermina's role in the plan was discovered by her Spanish slave masters, and they had her severely beaten, tortured, and imprisoned. But Fermina didn’t give up her compatriots.
In spite of Fermina’s imprisonment, Carlota continued to secretly organize the rebellion. Known for both her intelligence and musical skill, Carlota sent coded messages using Dundun or talking drums to coordinate a series of attacks. Talking drums are hourglass shaped instruments of West African origin, indigenous to the Yorubaland of Carlota’s youth. The Spanish colonialist naively assumed that the drum’s sole purpose were to make music. Instead the talking drums were used to spread critical information. As the drums were a traditional instrument among the West African slaves, the Spanish were unaware that the music was also being used as a form of communication about the planned uprising. The talking drum’s pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech.
The Dundun possesses two drumheads connected by a leather tension cord. This allows a player to modulate the pitch of the drum by squeezing the cords between their arms and body. A skilled player is able to play whole phrases. Most talking drums sound something akin to a human humming depending on the way they are played. Many African languages are tonal (similar to Chinese) and pitch is important in ascertaining the meaning of words. The Yoruba language in particular is defined by the three do, re, mi tones. Different inflections of these tones are used to convey different messages. These same principles applies to how the drum talks in all Yoruba music and culture. An English emigrant to Africa, John F. Carrington, in his 1949 book The Talking Drums of Africa explained “Using low tones referred to as male and higher female tones, the drummer communicates through the phrases and pauses, which can travel upwards of 4–5 miles. This process may take eight times longer than communicating a normal sentence but was effective for telling neighboring villages of possible attacks or ceremonies.”
On November 3rd of 1843, Carlota led a raid which freed her still imprison loyal fellow rebel Fermina and a dozen other slaves from captivity. Then later on November 5th, with to the sound of drum beats the uprising began in force by attacks on the Triumvirato and Acane sugar plantations, forcibly overthrowing their Spanish owners. The attacks on these plantations were personally led by Carlota, who went into battle wielding a machete. The same machete her former slave masters had forced her to wield to harvest sugar cane.
Continuing more uprisings into the next year, 1844, the Carlota lead rebels liberated slaves from at least five large sugar plantations in the province of Matanzas, as well as from a number of coffee plantations and cattle estates located nearby. I have to note that very annoyingly the contemporary report of these slave rebellions just tend to dwell on the brute physical power and savagery of the slaves. But I personally see this as a reflection of Western ideas that people of African descent are just physically brutes rather than intelligent warriors. But a close examination of the historical records of conflicts the aftermath, shows the rebels possessed great military sophistication, outsmarting and ambushing seasoned imperial Spanish soldiers. The rebels, many of whom were former African soldiers that were captured and sold into slavery used what would today be recognized as advanced guerrilla tactics. This along with their coded communication using their Yoruba talking drums thwarted the Spanish troops for months. But eventually Cuba called for more reinforcements and the overwhelming numbers and superior firepower of the Spanish Governor was able to put down the rebellion in late 1844.
Carlota and Fermina were both captured that year and executed as the rebellion was extinguished. The year 1844 became infamous in Cuba as the 'Year of the Lashes” due to the absolute violence inflicted on the slave population to break the back of the rebellion. Lashes is a reference to whipping disobedient slaves over the back. But even in death, Carlota's actions created a legacy which inspired numerous subsequent rebellions against white slave owners throughout the Caribbean basin. Today there is a monument to mark her place in history at the Triumvirato sugar mill in Cuba.
But the Nov. 5 uprising Carlota helped lead did spawn in a vacuum. According to historian Aisha Finch, author of Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba. Prior to the 1840’s, enslaved Afro-Cubans had been resisting forced servitude through both violent and nonviolent means throughout colonial Cuban history. But Finch argues the rebellions spark was the increasing numbers of Africa slaves many of whom had prior military training (over 600,000 were brought to the Cuba in the 19th century). This combined with increasingly harsher conditions of tropical confinement, was the catalyst that gave the 1843 revolt a much greater resonance than Cuba’s prior rebellions.
The Triunvirato rebellion was also just the largest in a series of slave uprisings throughout the island of Cuba in the1840’s which posthumously became known as La Escalera, translating as the ladder in Spanish. This name is derived from the most notable form of torture that was inflicted on slaves and free people of color during the wave of repression that followed the violent put down of the rebellions. The La Escalera rebellions were often characterized by massive violence against white overseers and plantation owners, as well as immense property damage through the torching of property. The Triunvirato rebellion in particularly, as well as La Escalera generally, marked the peak of white fear in Cuba of slave uprising and the end of a streak of slave revolts throughout the first half of the 19th century that wouldn't then pick up again until the start of Cuba’s independence movement against Spain in 1868. Cuba was the second to the last of country in the New World to end slavery, only abolishing it in 1886 (Brazil was last ending it in 1888).
Carlota’s Triunvirato revolt is ingrained in modern Cuba’s national consciousness. Its central place in the country’s history is cemented, according to Finch, because many see it as a precursor to Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution of 1959. “Leaders of the revolution [in 1959] looked to this moment as a symbol of an ongoing spirit of Cuban resistance,” she says. It is also taught extensively in Cuba’s schools.
Yet Carlota, and the other women who joined the resistance, are seldom mentioned in the colonial archives. But what hasn’t escaped the archives, are the testimonials of Carlota’s ferocity and leadership. Witness accounts describe her attacking María de Regla, an overseer’s daughter, with a machete; one fieldworker, Matea Gangá, noted that Carlota bragged about how hard she had struck her victims. De Regla the overseer’s daughter survived Carlota’s attack and later told investigators that as she lay wounded, the “Black woman” had shouted to other slaves that “they should strike her harder because she was still living.”
It’s impossible to say how accurate the overseer’s daughter’s account of the insurrection was. She have an incentive to exaggerate to enact revenge. But it is clear that Carlota did not shy away from getting her hands dirty fighting. And her skills as a combatant were just as easily matched by her mastery in organizing and planning the Triunvirato rebellion.
From my readings there is some disagreement among historians who studied this period on what specifically gave fuel to the rebellion across Cuba in the 1840’s. Some historians site the era’s increasing numbers of enslaved Africans being trafficked to Cuba, others seem to emphasize the impact of the news of rebellion on the neighboring Caribbean island of Haiti’s independence movement. But in a strange twist the Haitian rebellion bizarrely served to intensify plantation-style sugar production in Cuba, as the island of Hispanola the world’s largest sugar supplier was cut off from world markets.
But from my standpoint the older takes in how La Escalera was written about are problematic. There are bodies of work by Afro-Cuban writers that La Escalera was a massive conspiracy by the Cuban government to justify the repression inflicted upon people of color, and no actual slave rebellion took place. Unfortunately this mass belief by black Cubans only helped to erase knowledge of rebel slave’s battle for freedom. Unfortunately there just aren’t as many older takes from Afro-Cubans on how they saw the rebellion.
However the Triunvirato rebellion again later shaped the course of Cuban history long after Carlota’s 1843 execution. Carlota’s memory rose from the grave and was used by the post-revolutionary communist in Cuba. Carlota’s memory was merged into Castro’s revolutionary ideology of the oppressed rising up to defeat their oppressors. Carlota was further memorialized in Cuba, when Castro called Cuba’s 1974 intervention in Angola’s war of independence “Operacíon Carlota”.
Historian Myra Ann Houser writing in her book "Avenging Carlota in Africa: Angola and the memory of Cuban slavery" helps illuminated how Fidel Castro and his revolutionary government capitalized on Cuba’s slave rebellion past to further his political aims. As I wrote earlier a key tenet of this was Castro’s ideology of the oppressed rising up to defeat the oppressor, just as he argued enslaved people had done in Cuba throughout the 19th century. This attitude is exemplified in Cuba’s pro-government historian José Luciano Franco’s analysis of the Triunvirato rebellion, where he writes that slave rebellions in the 19th century were “precursors” to the 1959 revolution. Franco cites Fidel Castro's own speeches linking Cuba's slave past to his revolutionary aims.
Naming a military intervention in Africa after an African born Cuban female slave wasn’t a coincidence. Castro built up her historical connection to try and portray Cuba's intervention in Angola as a sort of homecoming of vengeance from the African descendants of Cuba. On the 15th anniversary of the Cuban victory at Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro declared that Cubans “are a Latin-African people.” The Cuba’s Abbuno Gonzalez underscored this connection, “My grandfather came from Angola. So it is my duty to go and help Angola. I owe it to my ancestors.” The Cuban revolutionary government mobilized on “claims to roots” in justifying their intervention in the African nation.
Operation Carlota began on Nov. 5, 1975 and lasted more than 15 years. During that time, more than 330,000 Cubans served in Angola. With more than 2,000 Cubans giving their life. Castro's ability to push this narrative rested in part on Cuba’s particular conceptualization of race relations at the time, which emphasized Cubanidad, or Cubanness, over racial identity. In 70’s communist Cuba the idea of nation building took precedence over racial divisions, allowing Castro to conceptualize Cuba's African past as affecting all of its citizens equally, justifying a “return” to Angola in the 20th century. By connecting the 19th century slave struggle for freedom, to both Cuba's 20th century fight versus Western neocolonialism, and Africa nation’s then fight for independence, Carlota's memory proved a useful tool to advance Cuban revolutionary ideals.
Decades after Carlota name was used to justify Cuba’s cold war intervention in Africa, it came roaring onto the public scene through UNESCO’s Slave Route Project. Another memorial was erected in 1991 at the Triunvirato plantation where the rebellion took place, commemorating rebel slave’s leadership. That is reason, tourist can now tour the remains of the sugar mill at Triunvirato and see a towering statue of Carlota, machete in hand ready to fight for freedom. The memorial site at Triunvirato, according to the Cuban newspaper Granma, was erected to honor Carlota and the legacy Cuban slaves have had on Cuban society and culture today.
The UNESCO Slave Route Project is intended “to break the silence surrounding the slave trade and slavery that have concerned all continents and caused the great upheavals that have shaped our modern societies”. The project's goals are to better illuminate the history of slavery, understand what global transformations came from its legacies, and contribute to an international culture of peace.
Although Carlota’s name may be unfamiliar to many outside the Caribbean, she has gone from being a 19th century rebel slave leader, to a 20th century cold war symbol, to a now 21st Century UNESCO world heritage figure. Carlota Lucumi name stands as an embodiment of revolutionary ideals, as a resounding strike against colonialism, and as a modern reminder of the unconquerable spirit of African diaspora. Carlotta and her machete is a reminder during this Woman’s History Month that woman have always stood at the forefront of struggle.
News round up by dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor
Blacks and Hispanics are exposed to higher levels of air pollution than whites, yet whites consume more of the goods and services that cause it, according to new research. NPR: Study Finds Racial Gap Between Who Causes Air Pollution And Who Breathes It
Pollution, much like wealth, is not distributed equally in the United States.
Scientists and policymakers have long known that black and Hispanic Americans tend to live in neighborhoods with more pollution of all kinds, than white Americans. And because pollution exposure can cause a range of health problems, this inequity could be a driver of unequal health outcomes across the U.S.
A study published Monday in the journal PNAS adds a new twist to the pollution problem by looking at consumption. While we tend to think of factories or power plants as the source of pollution, those polluters wouldn't exist without consumer demand for their products.
The researchers found that air pollution is disproportionately caused by white Americans' consumption of goods and services, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic Americans.
"This paper is exciting and really quite novel," says Anjum Hajat, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study. "Inequity in exposure to air pollution is well documented, but this study brings in the consumption angle."
Hajat says the study reveals an inherent unfairness: "If you're contributing less to the problem, why do you have to suffer more from it?"
The study, led by engineering professor Jason Hill at the University of Minnesota, took over six years to complete. According to the paper's first author Christopher Tessum, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, the idea stemmed from a question at a conference.
Written by Emily Holden, “A Lot at Stake: Indigenous and Minorities Sidelined on Climate Change Fight” examines the glaring diversity problem in an area that disproportionately affects people of color. Reports Holden:
As some Democrats propose a radical Green New Deal centered around justice and equity, backstage they’re facing a reckoning over the environmental movement’s homogeneity.
According to the 2014 Green 2.0 report, people of color were 36% of the US population, but they made up no more than about 12% of environment organizations studied. A 2019 update to the report found that diversity actually got worse over the past few years.
Some groups are taking steps to improve, but progress has not been even.
One philanthropy fund – the Solutions Project – announced last week that it will direct almost all of its grants to organizations run by leaders of color and women, such as Scope, or Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education, in South Los Angeles. The group aims to put low-income communities of color, where highways and oil wells converge, at the forefront of green jobs growth.
“These women are working on the front lines of this issue because they are the ones who are going to be most greatly affected by it,” actor and Solutions Project board member Don Cheadle said. “They are actually making solutions for themselves when they are empowered to do so.”
Research repeatedly shows communities of color are more likely to be subjected to pollution. The parts of the country with dangerous, cancer-related air pollution have lower percentages of white residents, according to an analysis by the Intercept.
A push to legalize marijuana in New York may stall out this year, as black lawmakers demand the state do right by African American communities, who have been disproportionately impacted by draconian drug laws.
While legalization could ensure black and Latinx people are no longer targeted for marijuana offenses, legalization should also provide a pathway to economic equity, lawmakers argue.
Specifically, they want any bill legalizing cannabis to help ensure community reinvestment and minority participation in the potentially lucrative industry. As the New York Times reports, this would include job training programs and prioritizing licenses to the people and communities hit hardest by the criminalization of marijuana.
Without such provisions, black lawmakers fear they’ll follow in the footsteps of other jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana, where the massive financial windfall of the cannabis industry has evaded black communities.
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes told the Times she hasn’t seen any place that has legalized marijuana (ten states so far, plus Washington D.C.) “do it correctly.”
“They thought we were going to trust that at the end of the day, these communities would be invested in. But that’s not something I want to trust,” Peoples-Stokes said of the current proposed legislation. “If it’s not required in the statute, then it won’t happen.”
Municipal authorities in Nairobi spent much of last year knocking things down. Shopping malls, petrol stations and apartment blocks were levelled; bulldozers cut through slums, leaving tens of thousands homeless. All this destruction may seem rather wanton in a poor city. Yet the government-backed body overseeing it, the Nairobi regeneration task-force, insists that the only way to save the Kenyan capital is to wreck bits of it.
Nairobi is unrecognisable from the sleepy town it was at the turn of the century. In the past 12 years land prices have soared more than sixfold in 24 of the city’s 32 suburbs and satellite towns, according to HassConsult, a local real-estate agent. What caused it all is disputed, though some developers whisper that the return of dirty money from the West after the 2008 financial crash fuelled the frenzy. Far more money could be made in Kenyan bricks and mortar than in rich-world stockmarkets. Why bother investing in the Nasdaq (returns of 210% since 2007) when an acre in Juja, one of Nairobi’s satellite towns, would have fetched you 1,428%?
Whatever the reason, many Nairobians cheered the sprouting of the skyscrapers. The boom created jobs for the poor, drove middle-class growth and made the rich richer still. In a city that, like others in Africa, aspires to be a new Dubai or Singapore, what’s not to like?
Plenty, say urban-planning campaigners. Much of the construction has been unregulated, threatening all manner of problems. With the connivance of corrupt officials, the rich and politically connected built where they pleased. Parks and school playing fields were grabbed. River reserves, and sometimes the rivers themselves, have been partially concreted over, turning Nairobi’s waterways into mosquito-infested open sewers. With nowhere for the water to go, deadly floods wash over the city in rainy seasons. Land set aside for roads has suffered a similar fate, complicating efforts to tackle the city’s spirit-sapping traffic jams. Sky-hugging tower blocks have mushroomed in low-rise residential suburbs: neighbours and zoning regulations be damned. “I was told I could go as high as I liked as long as my pockets were deep enough,” says one project manager.
Two arrests in Brazil may shed light on the killing of a popular young politician, whose death sparked national protests one year ago.
Franco was killed in a drive-by shooting in Rio's Estacio neighborhood on March 14, 2018. Her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, was also killed, and a press secretary who worked for Franco was injured.
According to the state's press release, Queiroz drove the vehicle that pulled up alongside Franco's car. Lessa is accused of pulling the trigger. The accusations of their involvement bolster long-held suspicions that Franco, 38, was assassinated for her activism against police violence and killings in poor Rio neighborhoods.
Lessa is a retired military police officer. Queiroz, also a former officer, was expelled from the force in 2011, a spokesperson told CNN.
As CNN has previously reported, before her death, Franco criticized Brazil's federal government for empowering the army to oversee public security operations in the state last year, fearing it could lead to violence against residents. She had been appointed rapporteur for a special commission to monitor the federal intervention.
Three years ago, an unmarked police car tailed Richard Jackson into an alley behind his home on Chicago's West Side and pulled him over. Jackson, a black Navy veteran, had become used to being stopped by police for what he believed was no reason since returning to Illinois from the military in 2012.
But this time was different. After an officer ran his driver's license, then said he was free to go, Jackson pointedly asked what he had done wrong. The officer, who is white, said Jackson had cut him off, which Jackson denied. The officer then issued Jackson citations for failing to yield at a left turn and stop sign, which Jackson also denied.
Although the officer did not allude to Jackson's race, the veteran believed that was why he was stopped. He successfully fought the two citations and filed a complaint with the Chicago police.
Jackson's encounter with the Chicago police reflects the experiences of people of color across the country, who describe being stopped and searched by officers without a good reason. Like Jackson, many believe their race played a role.
Now, Stanford University researchers have compiled the most comprehensive evidence to date suggesting there is a pattern of racial disparities in traffic stops. The researchers provided NBC News with the traffic-stop data — the largest such dataset ever collected — which points to pervasive inequality in how police decide to stop and search white and minority drivers.
Using information obtained through public record requests, the Stanford Open Policing Project examined almost 100 million traffic stops conducted from 2011 to 2017 across 21 state patrol agencies, including California, Illinois, New York and Texas, and 29 municipal police departments, including New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco and St. Paul, Minnesota.
The results show that police stopped and searched black and Latino drivers on the basis of less evidence than used in stopping white drivers, who are searched less often but are more likely to be found with illegal items. The study does not set out to conclude whether officers knowingly engaged in racial discrimination, but uses a more nuanced analysis of traffic stop data to infer that race is a factor when people are pulled over — and that it's occuring across the country.
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