Celebrity power couple Beyoncé Knowles and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter ruffled some right-wing feathers when photos of their recent trip to Cuba surfaced this weekend.
Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) have since written to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, calling for an official inquiry into the trip and whether it violated U.S. restrictions on tourism to the Caribbean island.
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Americans have been outlawed from spending money in Cuba since Fidel Castro’s regime took over in 1959. Jay-Z and Beyoncé allegedly went to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, but these Florida politicians, press outlets, and Cuban state media have touted the trip as tourism. Perhaps equally interesting, however, are the ways this journey fits into a larger narrative of African American celebrities visiting communist countries, and the political implications that historically come with it.
A prominent early example took place in 1934, when actor and singer Paul Robeson traveled to the U.S.S.R. for the first time. Robeson was an especially outspoken critic of the racist American social climate and legal policies of the era, and went on an official state invite from the Soviets. Because his trip took place before the Cold War, it was widely viewed as apolitical. This would inevitably change after World War II.
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But it was the first of many journeys, during which Robeson befriended Soviet cultural figures (like filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein) and drew numerous cultural parallels between Russians and American blacks. He was taken with how easily Russian children approached him for handshakes, and cited such hospitable warmth in conjunction with the Soviet Constitution’s Article 123 (outlawing racial discrimination) as reasons he felt more welcome in the U.S.S.R. than at “home.”
Robeson is quoted as having said: “From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!" He even performed a powerful rendition of their National Anthem:
Robeson’s continued support of the U.S.S.R. during Josef Stalin’s notoriously brutal regime drew the ire of many Americans, leading to his inevitable appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. There he denied being a Communist, a claim consistent with those made throughout his time in the public eye despite his outspoken support of Communist regimes around the world.
Later in life, Robeson allegedly expressed (unconfirmed) disillusionment with the Soviet Union.
But his early sentiments lived on in the radical black politics that emerged in the late 1960s. Huey P. Newton’s Black Panther Party constructed their political philosophies through a distinctly Marxist framework. Newton, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and numerous other radical black civil rights activists visited Russia and Cuba, and expressed their support for Castro on multiple occasions.
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Criticism leveled against these people, and their support of Communist or socialist policies and regimes, was largely framed as traitorous behavior. Black activists made frequent appearances on the FBI’s Most Wanted list during that time, and were publicly painted as enemies of the American government. This official and popular backlash was hypocritical then, and seems even more so in retrospect: expressing (sometimes violent) enmity toward a U.S. regime that defined black Americans as a sub-human group and proceeded to systematically oppress them seems rather logical, especially now.
But it appears times have changed. Dennis Rodman’s recent trip to Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea has met with widespread criticism, but was largely devoid of supportive political rhetoric on his part one way or the other. And now, Jay-Z and Beyonce’s trip seems more a nostalgic throwback to the pre-revolutionary days when Cuba was viewed as a tourist “playground” for wealthy Americans.
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If the power couple is making a political statement, it is either unclear or vaguely implicit. But if nothing else, it speaks to how profoundly these journeys seem to have changed over the years.