‘Ten Days in Harlem’: An Interview with Historian Simon HallHistorians in the News
tags: United Nations, Fidel Castro, Malcolm X
In today’s piece, blogger Say Burgin interviews historian Simon Hall, a former Fox International Fellow at Yale, is currently Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds. His research interests focus on the civil rights and Black Power movements, the social movements of the ‘long 1960s’, and global protest during the Cold War. He has published widely on these topics, including several books: Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); American Patriotism, American Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement (Routledge, 2012); and 1956: The World in Revolt (Faber and Faber, 2016). Follow him on Twitter at @simonhallwriter.
Say Burgin: Why was Fidel Castro’s 10-day visit to Harlem and the UN General Assembly–to borrow from your words–“a foundational moment in the creation of what we think of as ‘the Sixties’”?
Simon Hall: It’s partly because it draws in so many threads – the Cold War intrigue over Cuba; the intensifying Black freedom struggle; the emerging counterculture; and the activism and ideas of the white New Left – that define the coming decade.
During his stay in New York, Fidel promoted the politics of anti-imperialism, racial equality and leftist revolution with a fervour and an audacity that helped to make him a Sixties icon. Meanwhile, his valorizing of Black freedom fighters, celebration of “Third World” revolutionaries and association with “radical chic” offer us an early glimpse of the kind of cultural politics – the fêting of Black Power activists, open support for the Viet Cong and an instinctive condemnation of American “empire” – that would soon become de rigueur for a generation of young leftists across the United States and Western Europe.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that these ten days have a slightly anarchic, rip-it-up quality that makes for a striking contrast with the supposed conformity and drabness of Eisenhower’s America. So, stylistically, the trip helps to usher in a new era of political, social and cultural tumult in a suitably irreverent and rebellious manner.
Say Burgin: And in Ten Days in Harlem, you show that Castro’s visit coincided with global decolonization efforts and movements. How did those on the African continent, especially in the Congo, shape Castro’s visit and his speech to the UN?
Simon Hall: 1960 was the so-called “Year of Africa”: sixteen of the seventeen countries admitted to the United Nations that year were newly independent African states. At this particular moment in world history, there was a real sense that the emerging countries of the “Global South” could have a real impact on the world stage. A few months after Fidel returned home the Fifteenth General Assembly passed Resolution 1514, which declared that “the process of liberation is irresistible and irreversible” and called for “a speedy and unconditional end [to] colonialism in all its forms and manifestations.” (The United States was one of a handful of countries that abstained in the vote).
At the same time, though, the crisis in the newly-independent Congo – where, just days before the opening of the UN General Assembly, Patrice Lumumba was overthrown in a coup that had the tacit support of the United States – showed that these hopes might not be fully realized. I think that one of the most prescient things that Fidel said during his landmark, 4 ½ hour speech at the UN, was that “it is very easy to raise a flag, choose a coat of arms, sing an anthem and put another color on the map,” but “there can be no political independence unless there is economic independence.”
Fidel devoted a large chunk of his UN speech to attacking colonialism, and one of his main motivations for going to New York in the first place was to rally the opponents of empire and stake his own claims as a leader of the global anti-imperialist movement. While in New York, Fidel went out of his way to meet with (and be photographed smiling alongside) some of the legends of the struggle – Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Kwame Nkrumah.