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Nicolás Guillén: 1902-1989: Writer, Journalist, Social Activist

Cuban Racism Influenced Early Work

Nicolás Guillén was born on July 10, 1902, in the eastern Cuban town of Camaguey, in the same year that the Republic of Cuba was created. Guillén was the sixth child born to mother, Argelia Batista y Arrieta, and father, Nicolás Guillén y Urra. Guillén, a mulatto, was raised in a middle-class home by parents who were of mixed African and Spanish heritage. However, Guillén's childhood was marred by the death of his father, a journalist and Liberal senator, who was assassinated by government forces during the Civil War of 1917. As he and his siblings attended schools, Guillén faced racism in Cuba that was strikingly similar to that faced by black children in the American south during the first half of the twentieth century. Guillén found expression for his feelings and observations about racism in writing. While he was attending high school in Camaguey, Guillén was already writing poetry about the social problems that he saw in his community. By the time he was seventeen, his poetry was being published in the Camaguey Grafico. After graduating from high school in 1920, Guillén enrolled at the University of Havana. He planned to study law but left school after a year.

Like his father Guillén sought a career as a journalist, but his talents also encompassed other forms of writing, such as poetry and essays. After he left the university, Guillén began writing for various Cuban newspapers and magazines. He also founded a literary magazine, Lis, during this same period. Guillén's writings embraced several different topics, with social protest, folklore, Cuban-African dance rhythm, revolution, and military epics all emerging from his pen. His first collection of poems, Cerebro y Corazón, which he had written between 1922 and 1929 would not be published until 1977. But some of Guillén's early work was being published in the Sunday supplement of Havana's paper, Diario de la Marina. The Ideales de una Raza was the one page of the paper that was devoted to social issues, and it was in this section that in April of 1929, Guillén published El Camino de Harlem, an article that was deeply critical of the treatment that black Cubans were receiving and that condemned racial divisions in Cuban society. His second article on the theme of racial injustice, La Conquista del Banco, was published the following month. Another similar article, El Blanco: he ahi el problema, followed in June of 1929, and then, in January of 1930, the fourth of Guillén's articles calling attention to racism in Cuba was published.

At a Glance . . .

Born on July 10, 1902, in Camaguey, Cuba; died on July 16, 1989. Education: Attended University of Havana.

Career: Author and journalist, 1929-1989.

Awards: Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union, 1954; Cuban Order of Jose Marti, 1981.

Like the first three articles, Rosendo Ruíz blames blacks for their apathy in the face of injustice. His interview with Ruíz pointed to the neglect that this Cuban musician had faced from critics and the neglect that Cuba's authentic cultural traditions were facing from an apathetic public. However, something even more meaningful emerged from the interview with Ruíz. As an important influence on Guillén's work, Ruíz employed a distinct musical rhythm, the son, in his compositions that, according to Keith Ellis, in his essay, "Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes," would become "the featured genre of the interview." The first traces of the son, in Guillén's work would appear the following year when Guillén's first book of poetry was published. That same year, in February of 1930, Guillén would meet Langston Hughes when Hughes visited Cuba. In his book on Guillén's poetry, Nicolás Guillén: Popular Poet of the Caribbean, Ian Smart suggests that Guillén's meeting with Hughes, "the mulatto who declared himself the black man's poet," would inspire Guillén's "artistic advance." The two men became lifelong friends, with Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance also becoming significant influences in Guillén's poetry. Ruíz's rhythm and Hughes example combined to give Guillén's poetry a new direction that would lead to greater critical success.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Bob Graham (1942-) Biography - Awards to Francis Hendy Biography - Born to SewNicolás Guillén: 1902-1989: Writer, Journalist, Social Activist Biography - Cuban Racism Influenced Early Work, Work Changed By Political Climate, Became The National Poet Of Cuba