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Nicolas Guillen was born on this date in 1902. He was an Afro Cuban poet, writer, journalist, and social activist.
From Camaguey, Cuba, he was the sixth child of Argelia Batista y Arrieta and Nicolas’ Guillen y Urra, both of whom were of mixed African, Spanish descent. Guillen’s father, a journalist, introduced him to Afro Cuban music when he was very young. His father was assassinated by the Cuban government, and as Nicolas and his brothers and sister finished school in pre-revolutionary Cuba, they encountered the same racism Black Americans lived with before the 1950s.
Guillen began writing about the social problems experienced by Blacks in the 1920s. His first poems appeared in Camaguey Grafico in 1922, followed by his first collection of poems, "Cerebro y Corazon" (Brain and Heart). In 1926, he became a regular contributor to the Sunday literary supplement of Havana’s Diario de la Marina, and in 1929, he published "El Camino en Harlem," an article that condemned Cuba’s racial structures. During the same year, Guillen interviewed Langston Hughes in Havana, whom he deeply admired, and they became lifelong friends.
In 1930, he 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. It was as if Guillen had touched on something that the people of Cuba could recognize as having been on the tips of their tongues waiting for Guillen to articulate. Like Hughes, he believed that the Black artist must be free to “express our individual dark-skinned selves without shame.”
Guillen was as much a political activist as a poet. In 1937, he traveled to Spain as a delegate to the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture. In an address before congress, he condemned fascism and reaffirmed his Black roots. In 1940, he ran for mayor of Camaguey, and in 1948, Guillen was a senatorial candidate for the Cuban Communist Party; both campaigns were unsuccessful. His identification with the plight of Blacks beyond his native Cuba is reflected in his "Elegias" (1958). Upon his return to Cuba in 1959, Fidel Castro awarded him the task of designing a new cultural policy and setting up the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, of which Guillen became president in 1961.
During the next two decades, he wrote and published a number of collections of poetry, including "Tengo" (1964), "El gran Zoo" (1967), "La Rueda dentada," and "El Diario que a Diario" (1972), and "Sol de Domingo" (1982). Nicolas’ Guillen died in Havana in 1987.