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Roots and Flowers: The Life and Work of Afro-Cuban Librarian Marta Terry González

What It Is and How We Wrote It

By Abdul Alkalimat and Kate Williams

This book about the life and work of Marta Terry González is both research and advocacy. It is a carefully constructed narrative that embraces and supports the Cuban Revolution, especially the role played by Afro-Cuban communities and leaders. Marta Terry herself, now in her eighties, is an exemplar of a librarian in the Cuban Revolution. Reflecting this, she directed four libraries including the library at JUCEPLAN (Junta Central de Planificacion), Cuba’s centralized planning agency, working alongside Che Guevara; Casa de las Américas with the early guerrillera and heroine Haydée Santamaria; the José Martí National Library; and the Arca de Papel library at the Institute of the Book, an organization that guides the nation’s publishers. In addition she has taught library science at the University of Havana for more than 40 years. As we say in a poem in the book, “She is a lady of books.”

Roots

The title, Roots and Flowers, conveys the structure of the book. Part one, Roots, tells the centuries-old story of Afro-Cubans in Cuban revolutionary history and then traces the experiences of Marta’s own family, education, and her joining the revolution. Marta was named after her great grandmother who escaped slavery in the 19th century, and Marta grew up knowing her. That demonstrates how close Cuba’s 1959 generation is to earlier Cuban struggles. Marta herself became a revolutionary party member with a family background rooted in African traditions and belief systems. This is the magical mix of culture and politics in the revolutionary history of Cuba.

In her roots is also the dialectic of family and schooling. Marta lived in a matriarchal household of 23 people, governed by her grandmother and four aunts. The aunts all graduated from the University of Havana in the 1930s and 40s, a rare achievement for Afro-Cuban women. Marta was homeschooled until age 10 and went on to matriculate through college to a PhD at the University of Havana. Since one of her authoritative aunts was the first Dr. Terry, Marta always avoided that moniker, saying, “One Doctora Terry in the family is enough!” During Marta’s time on campus, generational networks formed that became the basis for the leadership of the revolution, from the battles in the mountains to the institutional leadership of the new Cuba. This included Marta’s younger brother, who not only learned from her but took up an important role in the revolutionary process as a member of the Revolutionary Directorate, later becoming Assistant Minister of Health in charge of Cuba’s AIDS policy.

Marta faced racism and class discrimination. She was Black and denied full status as a Catholic as well because she graduated from public schools. But she was part of the rising left tendency and the intellectual elite chosen by faculty for special training that anticipated leadership roles. She had positive ego development with her aunts always reminding her that she had to be “the best of the best.” Her grandmother would bless Marta with a ficus leaf every time she left the house, saying that her African spiritual ancestors would always protect her against racist attacks.

The moment of 1959 transformed Marta’s life. As she put it, “Before 1959, everything for my people. After 1959? Everything for the revolution.” Fidel had advised Cuba, “Don’t just believe, read!” This connected with the 1961 literacy campaign that enabled Cuba to become the most literate and literary society in Latin America. That is the ideological context for Marta’s career as a librarian, someone who made sure that reading would be a fundamental asset to the Cuban people because there would be organized access to books. The major obstacle against this has been the US-sponsored blockade of Cuba that even today, while Washington-Havana talks continue, attempts to isolate Cuba from the literary production of the world.

Flowers

The second part of the book, Flowers, is about information production, distribution and use. The central institution for this is the library, and we narrate Marta’s role in building and maintaining the library systems of revolutionary Cuba. She first faced the elitist traditions that had to be overturned, but thanks to some left-wing professors and her own social networks she was well prepared and supported in this process. In the beginning lots of plans were drawn up for the revolution, but the less-told story is how the revolutionary patriots initiated wide spread volunteerism to attack problems. Marta and her close friend Olinta Arioso (also Afro-Cuban) embraced this approach, beginning with inventing networks of public school libraries where before only a handful had existed. They began this work by redistributing books left by foreigners and Cuban elites who fled after 1959.

In the four major libraries that she headed (JUCEPLAN, Casa de las Américas, José Martí National Library, and the Book Institute) she championed the Cuban public. This meant making sure that every reader had a book, every book had an audience, and every possible candidate could become a librarian. Since the (few) pre-1959 libraries in Cuba were part of colonial times, the few professionals at that time either did not choose or were mostly unable to serve the broad population until the revolution liberated the books and opened doors to all. As a professional librarian, Marta combined a popular orientation with her professional skills. Borrowed books had to be returned. Records must be kept. Budgets had to be planned and adhered to. What’s more, policy debates had to be sustained so that libraries won their fair share of resources and librarians won professional respect.

Marta also served as a global diplomat for Cuba in international library circles. She helped lead the way to re-establish the Cuban Librarian Association ASCUBI post-1959, and then to join the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) in 1981. Within IFLA, Marta was so effective in working to build libraries and advance librarianship in the Global South that she was able to bring IFLA’s annual meeting to Havana in 1994, creating a national and international sensation. She further distinguished herself in IFLA and among North American librarians by defeating a prolonged campaign against Cuban libraries in which a handful of isolated US librarians had begun to repeatedly assert that Cuban libraries did not operate like libraries elsewhere. They promoted (and defended as if under attack) some so-called “independent” libraries that were eventually exposed as a US-government-funded “regime change” project, and the campaign against Cuban libraries collapsed. Ultimately, IFLA named Marta an honorary fellow, one of just 31 leading professionals over 90 years of history and only one of three women ever so honored.

Our Method

One of the interesting and miraculous aspects of this book for us is our method: how we did it.  First of all we are not even close to fluent in Spanish. But Abdul had been involved with Cuba since the 1970s, making multiple trips, leading groups, teaching US students and activists about Cuba. Kate first visited (with other librarians) in 2001, when she met Marta and we got a glimpse of the importance of understanding and telling her story as an Afro-Cuban woman, a librarian, and a militant in the struggle.  We hoped we could pull it off. It helped a great deal that Marta speaks very good English, having taught the language in the difficult 1950s before she was able to work as librarian. We interviewed her at length more than a dozen times over fourteen years, in Cuba, Canada, and the US. We transcribed the interviews and shared the results with her. So this was an interactive process: despite the passage of time, each subsequent interview went deeper than the last.

We also relied on the University of Illinois library, a treasure house of rare and relevant documents from and about Cuba before 1959: journals, conference reports, and special publications. This reflected the reality that before 1959 Cuba was ruled from the US, not from Havana. Some crucial aspects of the tale emerged in Illinois and enlightened even Marta herself. For instance, documents detailing the identities of her great-great-grandfather and her great-grandfather, both white, were well documented in the University of Illinois library and in US-based online genealogy databases.

We also had to backtrack and educate ourselves about Afro-Cuba. We remain grateful for the body of work that has emerged in recent decades: thank you to Lisa Brock, Philip Foner, Alejandro de la Fuente, Frank Guridy, Aline Helg, Robin Moore, Stephan Palmié, Melina Pappademos, Ruth Reitan, Rebecca Scott, among others. Before we could finish the biography, we synthesized what we learned from these scholars in an essay tracing Cuban history: “Sankofa Cuba: Racism and Revolution in the Afro-Cuban Experience.”

Using this scholarship as an historical framework, Marta’s own anecdotes, stories, and documents began to make more sense.  The book became a Cuban biography rooted in current English-language research on Cuba.  Without a doubt Spanish language work would deepen our understanding and we hope for others to build on our beginning efforts. Comparisons also need to be drawn between how library systems emerged in the US and in Cuba – in short, a comparative study looking at two centuries in the US and six compressed decades on the island.

Our book has been well received in the US, England, Norway and Cuba itself.  The photo above is of Marta’s present and former students and colleagues with us as we gathered outside the National Library for lunch after giving a talk about the book. The session became a moment to celebrate not only Marta but also the library profession in Cuba and its remarkable achievements.


Kate Williams is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. Abdul Alkalimat is a Professor Emeritus in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois.

You can purchase Roots and Flowers online, and for libraries only via YPB Library Services.