BAR Book Forum: Anne Garland Mahler’s "From the Tricontinental to the Global South"
“Tricontinentalism was deeply rooted in a long tradition of black internationalist thought.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Anne Garland Mahler.Mahler is Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Virginia. Her book is From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Anne Garland Mahler: On the American continent in recent years, there have been widespread protests against both economic inequality and state brutality towards racially oppressed peoples. Currently, there is a troubling paradox within these social movements. On the one hand, alter-globalization movements directed against corporations and multinational financial institutions tend toward colorblind discourses of solidarity that overlook questions of race. On the other hand, movements organized around racial justice tend to frame violence towards racialized populations within a context that is limited to a critique of the state and fail to fully address the intersections between racial violence and global capitalism.
From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity examines this contemporary disconnect between alter-globalization and racial justice movements by looking back at an influential but largely forgotten Cold War movement called the Tricontinental. The Tricontinental formed in January 1966 when delegates from the liberation movements of eighty-two nations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas came together in Havana, Cuba to form an alliance against military and economic imperialism. The Tricontinental organization—or the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America––became known for the artistically innovative and politically radical films, posters, and magazines that it published in English, Spanish, French, and sometimes Arabic, and distributed around the world. Importantly, this movement, which had the close involvement of African American and Afro-Latinx activists, expressed its critique of global capitalism precisely through a focus on racial violence and inequality. Ultimately, BAR readers will learn from this book how contemporary social movements in the United States and Latin America are reviving key ideological and aesthetic elements of the Tricontinental while leaving aside its primary contribution to the formation of a global struggle for racial justice.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope that today’s activists will gain a deep understanding of how the Tricontinental’s ideology and aesthetics have circulated among a broad array of radical organizations, from the Black Panther and Young Lords parties to the Palestinian Liberation Organization to the Irish Anti-War Movement, and that they will come to know how much the Tricontinental is part of our collective subconscious.
Most importantly, I hope that activists will be inspired by the model of activism that the Tricontinental provides and will be motivated to think about how contemporary solidarity politics can better revitalize its most significant contributions. The Tricontinental organized across national, racial, and linguistic lines, including with white people who were ideologically-aligned, but it did not frame its political collectivity through a class-based framework. Instead, it described its community with the term “colored and exploited peoples”– an umbrella for a resistant politics that did not necessarily describe the race of the peoples included under that umbrella. It used this specific framework in order to form a political movement that, while broadly defined, always foregrounded racial inequality and centered the struggles specifically of black peoples.
“The Tricontinental organized across national, racial, and linguistic lines.”
In this way, the Tricontinental’s aims were quite similar to the contemporary concept of “transformational solidarity,” coined by Opal Tometi, one of the founders of #BlackLivesMatter and the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Transformational solidarity—which is representative of a general shift towards internationalism in the larger Movement for Black Lives—refers to a commitment to liberation for oneself and one’s own community that is based on the knowledge that all communities are interrelated and that any injustice threatens liberation for all. Tometi explains that a focus on black lives is key for transformational solidarity in general since, “we know that our destinies are intertwined and addressing anti-blackness helps us to work towards dismantling white supremacy and systemic racism in all forms.” This concept of “transformational solidarity” with “all oppressed people” that is forged precisely through an attention to black struggles is markedly similar to what the Tricontinental aimed to facilitate.
By recovering this history of the Tricontinental, I don’t aim to a propose a return to the Tricontinental per se, but I do indeed hope that the book calls contemporary solidarity politics into a deeper engagement with black internationalist thought that foregrounds the fight against racial inequities as a prerequisite to the future of transnational political resistance.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
An important goal of this study is to dismantle the idea that the Tricontinental was simply a propaganda arm of the Cuban state. Instead, I aim to place the Tricontinental in its proper place as part of the history of black internationalism. A simplistic understanding of this movement’s association with the Cuban Revolution is one reason, I believe, that there has not been more attention paid to it. I want readers to understand that Tricontinental materials contain a constant tension where on the one hand, they are produced by the Cuban state and reflect its ideological positions, and on the other, they represent a site of convergence for radical organizations with diverse views.
The Castro government consistently presented itself to the world as a government committed to racial equality, but it was much more interested in black liberation abroad than it was in equality for black Cubans at home. In its earliest years, it did make strides in turning the tide of racial inequity in Cuba, especially in the area of segregation. However, in April 1961, the day before the Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro publicly declared the socialist nature of the Revolution, and as early as 1962, official discourse held that racial discrimination had been eliminated by the economic and social reforms in communist Cuba. Anyone who critiqued that notion or who tried to organize around racial identity was subsequently characterized as divisive and counterrevolutionary. Tricontinental materials became a primary tool for the exercise of these duplicitous racial politics, and in the 1960s and 70s, harsh condemnations of Cuba’s racial politics came from African American militants who spent time in Cuba and wrote about their experiences upon leaving. These critiques were justified and likely led some to dismiss the Tricontinental’s rhetoric for participating in this hypocrisy.
“The Castro government was much more interested in black liberation abroad than it was in equality for black Cubans at home.”
While I discuss this tension at length, I also trace how Tricontinentalism emerged out of specific debates in black internationalist circles and especially responded to the contributions of black Cuban intellectuals. I argue that the Tricontinental’s racial discourse—which was the result of a transnational exchange of activists and intellectuals—was not exactly identical to the racial discourse of the Cuban state. Rather than simplistically reducing Tricontinentalism to a mere propaganda tool, I argue that we must understand it as a transnational movement that was deeply rooted in a long tradition of black internationalist thought. Specifically, it revised a black internationalist resistant subjectivity into a global vision of resistance that is resurfacing in social movements today.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
This work has been inspired by many activists, artists, and intellectuals. I am especially inspired by those true Tricontinentalist intellectuals––people like Robert F. Williams, Walterio Carbonell, Denise Oliver-Velez, and others–– who modeled what it means to frame the social inequities that one witnesses and experiences at home into larger contexts of global systems of oppression. I am also inspired by earlier transnational racial justice activists like Mack Coad, an Alabama sharecropper and union organizer who ended up in the Soviet Union and later in Spain, or Sandalio Junco, an Afro-Cuban union organizer who spent significant time in Mexico.
The book is also in close conversation with a number of scholarly works like Cynthia A. Young’s Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (2006), John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco’s Cuba, the United States, and Cultures of the Transnational Left, 1930-75(2015), Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2007), David Luis-Brown’s Waves of Decolonization: Discourses of Race and Hemispheric Citizenship in Cuba, Mexico, and the United States (2008), Besenia Rodriguez’s “Beyond Nation: The Formation of a Tricontinental Discourse” (2006), as well as many others. My intellectual heroes are many but include scholars like Robin Kelley, Michael Hardt, Brent Hayes Edwards, Alejandro de la Fuente, Lillian Guerra, Michelle Stephens, Robert J.C. Young, and many others.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I think one of the most important contributions of the Tricontinental was how it brought together social movements in what was then called the Third World with movements in wealthier countries. It tried to understand how power operated globally and its vision largely anticipated recent theories of contemporary global capitalism. By joining together activists from the Hispanic Caribbean with the U.S. South with activists in South Africa and elsewhere, it also sought to theorize how racial regimes of power overlapped with one another. In this sense, I think we have much to learn from its example.
For instance, while the rise of white nationalism worldwide is deeply alarming, we also need to develop a better understanding of how a center-leftist neoliberal multiculturalism intersects with the biological determinism of earlier racial regimes. Neoliberal multiculturalism—a term used by scholars like Charles Hale and Jodi Melamed––frames market ideologies of free trade, financial liberalization, and deregulation as multicultural “rights.” It is a language of inclusion and an official anti-racism, in which historically racialized peoples can be on both sides of the privilege/stigma barrier, that is often used to veil systemic inequalities. This discourse has a tendency to creep into alter-globalization movements and is one for which the Occupy Wall Street movement and the World Social Forum have been deeply criticized. Reflecting on a history of Tricontinentalism helps us imagine how to build on this history by developing a global and transracial movement that doesn’t collapse into multicultural platitudes. The book considers how the history of the Tricontinental sheds light on core issues in our contemporary political moment, but I believe it will be up to the readers to use this history to imagine alternative futures.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of U.S. Empire.