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The Confluence of African Politics: Brazil, Cuba and the U.S.


Author and scholar Dr. Ollie Johnson discusses his recent work on Africans in Brazil and Malcolm X’s Relationship to the Cuban Revolution

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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: What’s up world, and welcome back to this edition of I Mix What I Like here at the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball in Baltimore.

We’re going to talk in this segment about a number of things related to the African diaspora. We’re going to talk with our guest a little bit about Afro-Brazilians. We’re also going to talk a little bit about Malcolm X and his relationship to the Cuban revolution. And to do that we’re going to have a conversation in this segment with Dr. Ollie Johnson. Dr. Johnson is a scholar of the African experience here in the Americas and broader diaspora. He has published widely on issues related to the Black Panther party, African-American politics, and Afro-Latino, particularly Brazilian, histories and politics. He is also a professor at Wayne State University, and we welcome him to the program.

Dr. Johnson, welcome.

DR. OLLIE JOHNSON: Thank you for having me, Jared.

BALL: Just so folks know, we didn’t plan this, the outfits. The light skin, white shirt, brothers having a conversation. But I think it works well. And it’s a pleasure to have you. Thank you for joining us.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

BALL: So you’ve published a couple of things recently. Let’s start if we can with your work in Brazil. I know you’ve been doing a lot of work over many years about Brazil in general, and black politics and black movements there. What, in summary, would you want people to know about Afro-Brazilians, or Brazil in general, or the history of black struggle there, in the few minutes we have? What would you want people to know?

JOHNSON: Well, let me begin by giving you the title of my book, Race, Politics, and Education in Brazil: Affirmative Action in Higher Education. The book explores one of the most important recent topics in Brazilian politics, and that is the widespread implementation of affirmative action. Social and racial. Ten, fifteen years ago if you went to Brazilian universities, they were almost white islands in a country that’s very mixed and multiracial. African descendants make approximately half of the Brazilian population. But in universities they were often 5 percent, 10 percent. And in many cases, even less.

BALL: And just quickly, when you talk about African descent in Brazil, to what extent does that, is that similar or dissimilar to how African descent is measured or determined here in the United States?

JOHNSON: I always say that there are similarities and there are differences between the United States and Brazil in terms of racial identity, in terms of color identity. But the most important similarity is that in terms of society, politics, and culture both the United States and Brazil really are systems of white supremacy. If you look to the institutions that matter, to the positions of power, they are overwhelmingly white in Brazil. And in the United States. President Obama here is an exception, but they’re systems that privilege or favor whiteness and marginalize and denigrate blackness.

The main difference in Brazil, compared to the United States is that in the Brazilian census, they have a racial census, but they have five categories. White, black, brown, yellow, and indigenous. And that brown category is a recognition of the mixed population. Some people call that category a mulatto category. But most political activists and many scholars, and even the government in many of their studies, they combine the black and brown categories and refer to that as the black population.

BALL: Do members of those communities do the same thing?

JOHNSON: Yes. But we need a lot more research on that topic. But if you ask that brown population, do you prefer being considered–if you have to choose between white and black, many of them will choose white even though they’re visibly of mixed ancestry and the African presence is visible in them.

And again, I attribute much of that to the celebration of whiteness and the valuing of whiteness in Brazil.

BALL: We need a mass [trips] to the United States in the West for these folks to see where they stand vis-a-vis the broader world, for their identity situation. In other words, if you think you’re white in Brazil, try that outside of Brazil and see how that works. And I think a lot of people might be surprised by how they’re categorized outside of their home country. If you see my point.

JOHNSON: I agree with your point. But I say–we need to make trips there but we need them to come here to–.

BALL: That’s what I’m saying.

JOHNSON: To school us and educate us on what’s going on in Brazil now. Because that’s where this affirmative action piece is so important.

2012, the federal government passed legislation that required that all federal universities, which tend to be the most prestigious and well funded class of universities in Brazil, required that half of their entering class be public high school graduates. That is going to bring many poor people, many working-class people, into the universities who never had opportunities before. Including many people of color. Blacks and browns.

But within that 50 percent public high school affirmative action quota there are subquotas for blacks and browns that vary by state. So half of that quota has to correspond to the racial breakdown or the color breakdown in the state. And so basically this represents an unprecedented opportunity for African descendants to get access to higher education.

And it’s having an effect. It’s diversifying campuses throughout Brazil. And it was fundamentally the result of black struggle and black political alliances with various forces. Teachers’ unions, Catholic church, student activists. And so it’s a story that we’re telling in this book that we’re very excited about. But we always have to acknowledge that the problem of K-12 education, public education in Brazil, is serious. It’s underfunded and almost everyone acknowledges that students are being cheated. Brazilian students, kids, are being cheated out of a high-quality education.

BALL: Since you mention this issue of continuing struggle over unity and broad coalitions and unified political movements, let’s do a quick segue to talk about a chapter you have in this book, a new book. Malcolm X’s Michigan Worldview. You have a chapter in here about Malcolm X’s relationship with the Cuban revolution.


BALL: I’m admittedly not thrilled with how this book dealt with our book, or didn’t deal with our book, so I just wanted to quickly mention that. But I did like, I’m very moved by what you did in your chapter, talking with Malcolm X and his relationship with the Cuban revolution. If you could summarize for us what you want readers or audiences to know about that relationship.

JOHNSON: Well, bottom line is that Malcolm X was a great supporter of the Cuban revolution and revolution in general. He felt that we lived in an unjust world here in the United States and globally, and that it was our responsibility as individuals in groups to make a better world.

And so he saw the Cuban revolution as a positive step in terms of self-determination, freedom, equality, and justice. And so he was a strong supporter of the Cuban revolution and he drew parallels between the Cuban struggle for all those positive values and the African-American struggle here in the United States. So he called us to be revolutionaries. And so that’s the fundamental message that I try to highlight in my chapter.

But I also point out that at the end of his life, Malcolm X was in transition. Leaving the Nation of Islam and creating his own organization. And in that process he traveled internationally, and he met an Afro-Cuban named Carlos Moore, who–.

BALL: Very controversial figure. And I know you and I have not always been on the same side of the issue where he is concerned. But if you would, just yeah, quickly tell us who he is.

JOHNSON: Yes. Carlos Moore is a very controversial figure. But a very important black nationalist, pan-Africanist. Former Marxist, former supporter of the Cuban revolution. And I note in my chapter that Malcolm X and Carlos Moore met in Paris in November 1964. Because Carlos Moore, who was a young man at the time, was providing security for Malcolm as he traveled throughout France.

Malcolm gave Carlos a mandate to help build the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Europe. In Paris. And to create a group to help the forces loyal to Patrice Lumumba in the Congo. Carlos Moore accepted that challenge despite his disagreements with Malcolm on the Cuban revolution. Because Carlos Moore became this enchanted and eventually was–lived in exile for many years, and became the most prominent Afro-Cuban critic of the Cuban revolution.

BALL: And his critique, just so, for people who don’t know, was based on their insufficiency in dealing with white supremacy, racism, and–.

JOHNSON: Within Cuba.

BALL: Within Cuba. The Cuban revolution’s struggle in dealing with its own white supremacist, anti-African sentiment, yeah.

JOHNSON: And so the question I ask is how could Malcolm, one of the most prominent black international supporters of the Cuban revolution, decide to work intimately and well with one of the most prominent Afro-Cuban critics of the Cuban revolution? And I conclude that they agreed to disagree on that point, but decided the struggle for black liberation within the United States and globally was more important than their differences on the Cuban revolution.

BALL: Well Dr. Johnson, unfortunately we’re going to have to leave it there. We’ll let readers check your work and get the details on that. And I want to thank you very much for joining us in this segment of I Mix What I Like at the Real News Network.

JOHNSON: Thanks again for having me, Jared.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at I Mix What I Like for the Real News Network. And for all involved I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and catch you in the whirlwind.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.