This Day in History

July 10, 1902: Nicolás Guillén Born

Time Periods: 1900
Themes: African American, Art & Music, Latinx, Racism & Racial Identity

Mixed media portrait of Nicolás Guillén. © Erin Currier.

Nicolás Guillén, Cuban poet of social protest and a leader of the Afro-Cuban movement in the late 1920s and ’30s, was born on July 10, 1902.

In 1929, Guillén interviewed Langston Hughes in Havana and they became lifelong friends. In 1930, Guillén created an international stir with the publication of Motivios de Son, eight short poems inspired by the son, a popular Afro-Cuban musical form, and the daily living conditions of Cuban blacks. Composed in Afro-Cuban vernacular, the collection separated itself from the Spanish literary canon and established Black culture as a legitimate focus of Cuban literature.

Carmen Gomez Garcia wrote about Guillén’s poetry on race. She explained,

Guillén did not write in generalities when he wrote of racism but focused on specific indignities with which each human spirit could identify. The “Elegía a Jesús Menéndez,” in addition to stanzas that allude to the horrors of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and lynching, also refers to the Martinsville Seven in a fragment of beautiful and poetic prose. The Martinsville (Virginia) Seven were seven young black men who were accused in 1949 of raping a white woman. After a very public trial, they were convicted and sentenced to death. Unlike the Scottsboro case, these young men were indeed executed in the first week of February 1951.

Siete voces negras en Martinsville llaman siete veces a Jesús por su nombre y le piden en siete gritos de rabia, como siete lanzas, le piden en Martinsville, en siete golpes de azufre, come siete piedras volcánicas, le piden siete veces venganza.

Seven black voices in Martinsville call seven times to Jesus by name and they ask him in seven cries of rage, like seven lances, they ask in Martinsville, in seven strikes of sulphur, like seven volcanic rocks, they ask seven times for revenge.

Our thanks to artist Erin Currier for permission to post the mixed media portrait of Nicolas Guillen.