The Civil Rights Movement, like the Haitian Revolution, never ended. This idea crossed my mind as I read the essay, “On the Marvelous Real in America” by Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier. In his discussion on magical realism in Latin American writing, Carpentier refers to synchronism and how events recur in Latin American creative writing; they continue to happen. In other words, magical realism defies the notion that historical and life events begin and end at a specific time as the Western mind would have us believe.
Carpentier distinguishes magical realism from European Surrealism. Comparing the two artistic movements, he views European writers and artists subtly trying to force magic, whereas in Latin America everyday people and creatives have faith that surreal events actually happen.
While reading his essay, I incorrectly assumed that Carpentier was trying to flaunt his knowledge of Western Civilization, since there are myriad references to Kafka, Voltaire, and other European writers. I was unaware of how much of his life was spent in Europe. Carpentier was born in Switzerland in 1904 to Cuban parents. During his adulthood as a novelist, essayist, and musicologist, he traveled back and forth between Europe and Cuba. At seventeen, he began his higher education in Cuba, but left in 1928 because of his opposition to the dictatorship. He returned to the island after 1959 as a supporter of the Cuban revolution, and eventually he became Cuban Ambassador to France. After his death in France in 1980, he was buried in Cuba.
In his essay, he describes how his travels took him to the People’s Republic of China, Iran, and the USSR. In each location he contemplated art, architecture, the environment, and the people. But it was in Haiti where he first encountered magical realism. His example is that of Dutty Boukman, an early leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born in Senegambia in 1767, Boukman was enslaved, sent to Jamaica, and then to Haiti where he became a leader amongst an escaped community of Maroons. In 1791 he was presiding over a religious ceremony which then became the catalyst for a slave revolt that ignited the revolution. Threatened by the revolt, the French colonizers killed him and then felt pressured to display his head to the Haitian enslaved to banish the atmosphere of invincibility he had cultivated. In other words, despite the French killing Boukman, the Haitian people continued to perceive of him as amongst the living.
I contemplated how Western colonizers, in an effort to impose Western time on those they seek to control, will kill those who rebel against their oppressive social order. The goal is to designate both a specific beginning and ending that can be measured logically. But as Carpentier tells us in reference to magical realism, the reality for the oppressed and marginalized isn’t so neatly packaged. Synchronism allows for events, despite their appearing to die down, to continue to happen by bursting forth again. In this sense the Haitian Revolution never ended because the cause for the revolt continues to spark unrest and has not been resolved. Likewise, the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement for liberation which it birthed have not ended. If they had, the Black Lives Matter Movement, for all its successes and shortcomings, would not have sprung forth. Western power conspired to assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, to kill them in the logical expanse of time, but the movements that they became symbols of live on.
Carpentier says that the oppressed rely on faith that the surreal happens, and he states that this faith allows for various realities to occur simultaneously. I like to think that magical realism exists at the point of not knowing. There is so much that we don’t know about Native genocide, the Middle Passage, and Black enslavement. For me, that is where the speculation comes in and where the writer calls on magical realism to fill in the gaps. And, yes, those gaps demonstrate how historical and personal events continue to occur.
Carpentier leaves us with the belief that “improbable juxtapositions and marvelous mixtures exist by virtue of Latin America’s varied history, geography, demography, and politics.”