Dr. Hemant Vankawala was at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport on September 5, 2005, and he was desperate. Hurricane Katrina had made landfall in the city a week before and directly thereafter, the levees were breeched. The lower Ninth Ward where mostly poor Black lived was submerged and of those who didn’t drown immediately, some were at the city’s Superdome, and others were at the airport, now a triage center, where the bodies were piling up.
Dr. Vankawala dispatched an email to his family like a war correspondent, writing, “There was no time to talk, no time to cry, no time to think, because they kept on coming.” They, as in the near-dead, the young and old, the mostly poor, the mostly Black.
Two days earlier, on September 3, President George W. Bush finally conceded, after initially issuing congratulations, the failure of his administration to care for the people of New Orleans. But on the very same day of the concession, he would reject an offer for assistance, which was so desperately needed. More than 1,000 of the world’s best doctors stood by to assist the people on the Gulf Coast. They were doing what they had been trained to do and had done all over the world when tragedy took hold. Sort of the original doctors without borders. “1,100…medical doctors, with…26.4 tons of medications and diagnosis kits, [are ready to care] for the neediest persons in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina…. We stand ready waiting for the US authorities’ response.”
The authorization never came because the offer had come from Cuban President Fidel Castro.
When my 16-year-old daughter asks, I try to parse the complicated legacy of Fidel Castro, the man who on July 26, 1959 led a guerrilla army of fewer than 1,000 to overthrew the Batista dictatorship. Former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista had been not only considered brutal, but a puppet of the U.S. government and greedy. He was a known embezzler of the funds that should have been used to support his country folk.
But listening to the news, my daughter has only heard harsh descriptors of Castro, like “dictator” and “brutal,” on a loop. I tell her that’s not the story, at least not the whole of it. I tell her I cannot speak to the witness of those who left Cuba following the revolution. I wasn’t even born then, I say. It’s possible for there to be more than a single truth, I say, and explain that I will speak to what I know.
I talk about the leader who had the courage to do what America would not: provide safe harbor for Assata Shakur after she was wrongly convicted of killing a police officer in what can only be called a racist show trial. All the forensic evidence indicates she couldn’t have pulled a trigger or even handled a gun, but she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in spite of the evidence,
I tell her Fidel gave Shakur a home and a life when she escaped from New Jersey’s Clinton prison in 1979. When they talk about how many he imprisoned, I tell her to talk about Assata or Nehanda Abiodun, another Black political activist who was given shelter by the Cubans. I tell her mass incarceration is the social crisis of really only one government, the United States.
We talk about Tanzania, Angola and apartheid South Africa, all supported in their struggles for freedom from White supremacy by Fidel and the Cuban soldiers. I tell her in South Africa on November 26th when Fidel’s death was announced, the flags flew half-mast. I remind her of Haiti, a moment in her own that she can recall. It was Cuban doctors who were there in 2010 and at the ready dispensing life-saving aid.
Did he kill people, she asks, and I tell her, he did, which is hard for her to hear. Nisa, my daughter, is a young woman who hates guns and fighting and in general, conflict. I don’t know a revolution, with perhaps the singular exception of Maurice Bishop in Grenada, in which the leader of the revolution didn’t execute or have executed those who stood in opposition. Although it’s also true that he was executed by U.S. backed rebels two years into his Cuba-inspired New Jewel Movement.
Our job, then, I explain is to first ask the right questions.
How many people, for example, did the United States kill in defense of its own experiment in democracy? At least 95 percent of First Nation people wiped completely out and yet no one refers to those who first arrived in the Americas as brutal but explorers, even brave.
And how many Africans were enslaved in order to support the build out of the nation? I ask her how many of our bones do we walk on each day, how much of our blood is in America’s soil?
How many died in the Civil War?
How many Mexicans to expand the nation? How many Chinese?
How many young men of every single race do battle in how many countries? How many in Iraq for weapons never manifested? How many more? Who holds the heights when it comes to killings, I respond, in the name of its nation?
But the most important question for her to consider is, what does a human-centered society look like on her watch? I remind her she is part of a Black woman birthed, Queer-led, non-patriarchal and decentralized movement called Black Lives Matter, which is to say that the most important inquiry of all is what revolution can she envision? What tools will she pull together? I ask her how much love, how much hope, how much different would the revolution look if it were imagined by her, my beloved daughter?
Asha Bandele is an award-winning author and journalist. Follow her on Twitter.