“I have taken sides all my life. I believe our lives are determined by the choices we make and by those we do not make,” said Carlos Moore in beginning his Thursday night lecture in Paresky Auditorium. Moore, a Cuban exile, researches the impact of race on political climates and policies. He spoke to members of the College community about his experience living in Cuba in a lecture that is the first of a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.
Moore began by describing his background and how it affected the way he saw his country of origin. He grew up in a small sugar mill town where it was a crime to be black. “I did not even know what it meant to be black,” Moore said. “I would ask my father what it meant to be black; he would simply tell me that people should not take sides, that there were no whites or blacks, just human beings.”
As Moore grew up, his race affected his conception of himself. “I began to detest myself as a person. I only knew that black was bad,” he said. Moore told of trying to modify his own features by bleaching his hair and skin. “I always heard, ‘Don’t go backwards,’” Moore said. “My mother told me that I must never go backwards and marry someone darker than me â€“ I must advance the race.”
As a teenager, Moore came to New York City in the 1950s. At the age of 17, he ran into Maya Angelou who told him things that Moore felt would impact the rest of his life. “She asked me a number of things: ‘Why are you doing that to you hair? What is it that you are doing? Do you know what black is? How about Africa?’ She talked some sense into me,” Moore told the audience.
After that encounter with Angelou, Moore stopped trying to change his looks. “Angelou made that choice to speak to me,” he said. From then on, Angelou introduced him to black luminaries, including Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. DuBois and numerous musicians. He started reading and seeing things from another perspective after having heard for so many years in Cuba that Africa was a continent of inferior people.
In 1959, Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries overthrew in the U.S.-backed Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Two years later, Moore met Castro at the General Assembly in New York. Castro denounced racism as a capitalist concept and told Moore, “We need young people like you. Come back to Cuba.” Moore returned soon after.
“I did not know what I would find in Cuba,” Moore said. “When I returned, I saw nationalization, literacy. The racial discrimination and segregation I knew as a child was gone. The Revolution became my mother and father; I would die for it.” According to Moore, Castro would speak to the Cubans for six to eight hours at a given time and they felt tremendous identity with the Revolution.
“There were revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, the good people and the bad people. I was among the good people,” Moore said.
Moore began to question race again, however, when he noticed all of the leaders were white. “Castro said racism has disappeared, but the signs were very troubling,” he said. “Black organizations were being banned. It would be like a white president of the U.S. coming in and banning the NAACP, historically black colleges and everything else that came out of the specific history of struggle.”
After speaking in Cuba about the racial discrimination, Moore was reported to authorities, which resulted in his arrest â€“ at age 19 â€“ for his denouncement of racial discrimination. He was sentenced to execution; however, 28 days later, he was released. Nevertheless, another run-in, this time with Fidel Castro himself, brought him to the National Ministry. Moore was told to write, “There is no racism in Cuba. I invented it.” He was then sent to a labor camp, from which he later fled into exile for the next 35 years.
Moore ended his story with a lesson. “Young people, tonight I want to say that voting right or voting wrong is about taking principled stands,” he said. “We always know what is right or wrong, but sometimes we choose to ignore what is right. We have a choice. The middle ground is never a principled ground.”