José Martí, the United States, and Race
Anne Fountain. University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2014. 161 pp.
Ryan A. Spangler, Creighton University
Although the question of race relations lies at the heart of José Martí's writings, the depth and complexity of his history and views on the issue have not been extensively analyzed prior to Anne Fountain's most recent publication, José Martí, the United States, and Race. Fountain skillfully interweaves the concepts of race, revolution and exile into her intuitive study by observing the evolution of Martí's perception and criticism of the concept of race during his exile in the United States.
José Martí, the United States, and Race focuses on the development of Martí's discussion of race relations in the United States and Cuba, and his homeland's anticipated attempt at nation building with a vastly marginalized and racially diverse society (57). Martí observed the suffering and struggles of African Americans in the United States post reconstruction when southern whites resorted to violence and lynching to suppress equality. While contemporary critics such as Oscar Montero, Jorge Camacho and Ivan Schulman have initiated the discussion of race, Fountain uses their works as a catalyst to place herself at the forefront of race studies of Martí. Her investigation goes into great detail to flesh out the Cuban's perspective on race in the United States and his homeland. More importantly, she recognizes the transformation and maturation of Martí's work and worldview during his time of exile and marginalization in the United States. Much of the book references Martí's historical surroundings and the influence of former and contemporary writers and abolitionists. Fountain expertly correlates the relationship between the development of Martí's theories of race with his encounters with the writings of key abolitionist figureheads such as Henry Ward Beecher, Helen Hunt Jackson, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, an impact that "signal[ed] his acceptance of violence as a remedy, of words as effective weapons, and of sacrifice as a badge of righteousness" (76).
As insightful and monumental as Fountain's work is to Martí studies, it is not without its minor limitations. While the book draws extensively upon the vast body of Martí's oeuvre, her review of his poetry is reduced primarily to a brief analysis of his oft-quoted Poem XXX, "El rayo surca, sangriento..." from Versos sencillos. The analysis, while on target, falls short by not alluding to other key poems such as "Pollice verso" from Versos libres, which would have provided a more complete poetic reference to Martí’s position on race and slavery in both North America and the Antilles. The second drawback of Fountain's study would be her limited references to Martí's seminal work on North American-Cuban relations, "Nuestra América." In two paragraphs from chapter 2, "Martí and Race, an Overview," she briefly accounts for Martí's mention of the "role of blacks and Indians in the development of Spanish American countries" and his desire to unify all races into one great human race (19). She returns to the article again in chapter 6, "Native Americans and 'Nuestra América'", but only briefly, echoing her earlier observation of the pivotal role that indigenous communities must play in the formation of a united Spanish American front.
What the book lacks in poetic analysis and a more comprehensive study of "Nuestra América", it makes up for in the chapters on Black Cubans in the United States, Native Americans and Immigrant Communities. Chapter 3 recognizes the inseparable connection Martí makes between slavery and Spanish imperialism (35), and his hope to minimize possible tensions between blacks and whites following his planned independence movement for Cuba. Chapter 6, the true gem of Fountain's work, clearly details Martí’s thoughts on race in the United States and Spanish America. She begins by acknowledging his stereotypical and blatantly racist references to natives in Guatemala during his first residence there in 1878 (77); however, she astutely perceives a transformation in his writing through his reflection of indigenous American during his period of exile in the United States as he "became acquainted with the horse culture of the Great Plains and the buffalo hunt, and learned about reservations, broken treaties, and scheming Indian agents" (79). Fountain highlights Martí's increased references to the suffering and consequences of reservation life, a concept the Cuban described as a government-imposed slavery of the indigenous peoples. She recognizes the relationship between Martí's observation of U.S.-American Indian relations and his transition from critic of the Indian to expositor of the impact of colonialisms on the indigenous races (95). Most importantly, Fountain identifies Helen Hunt Jackson's novel Ramona as the "bridge connecting the Indians of the United States to the Indians of Martí's 'Nuestra América'" (92). Her insightful connection between Ramona and the Cuban’s inclusion of Indians in his drive for independence fills a major void in the study of Martí and race.
Fountain's discerning study José Martí, the United States, and Race expands our understanding of the importance of Martí's exile in North America beyond the standard milieu of Cuban independence; rather, it finds within the context of Martí’s observations and experiences in the United States the core influence for much of his position on slavery and race. Martí's perspective of immigration, slavery, Indian communities and race wars came as a direct result of his increased exposure to Afro-Cubans in Florida and New York, his study of periodicals and journalism in the United States, his observation of the violence in the post-Reconstruction Southern States, and his personal encounter with racism as a marginalized member of North American society. Fountain’s central argument gives new and valuable insight into our understanding of Martí's authentic push for the unification and liberation of Cuba. In turn, her book opens a door to comprehending an oft underappreciated, but crucial facet of the life and writings of José Martí.