And What Do We Do with Che?

Margaret Randall, Che on My Mind (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); 160 pages; ISBN 978-0822355922 (paperback)

• November 2015

One doesn’t necessarily expect a meditation on Ernesto Guevara to offer a precocious or deeply courageous feminist analysis of power.

Leave it to Margaret Randall to do just that.

Compelled by Che Guevara’s “unerring capacity to unify words and action,” his ability “to be who he said he was,” Randall calls on Che’s “greatest legacy” to make sense of the revolutionary’s spilling ghosts, of the ways, both real and imagined, he haunts our freedom dreams (131). Having moved to Cuba long after his disappearance, Randall never knew Che personally. Her fascination stems from the ways he personifies her era and profoundly exemplifies the identity, dreams, and truths of those laboring for justice. Che on My Mind is a ghost hunt, “wandering” (2) by its own account through the byways and foot trails of memory, feeling, and need. “This,” she declares, “is the story of how Che haunts me” (1). Here, amid the sketches and tresses of memory, Margaret Randall urges us forward.

She plows. She gets muddy. She rests. She senses the urgency of the political moment, of “futures past,”1 and offers a way of remembering that leaves space and purpose for complexity.   Che on My Mind is a poetic and public fight. It is a blueprint, in form and content, for the kinds of strategic remembering freedom fighters must engage to best sketch new horizons in the face of enduring systems of domination. With poetic tongue and intellectual rigor, Randall grapples with the vicious contradictions of resistance to pave a way forward for future activists.

There is something refreshing about her honesty. Randall implicates her own sociopolitical shortcomings, with her personal narrative serving as the spine of the meditation. Without an evolving, self-critical analysis of power, she suggests, we’re condemned to cycles of renamed, unchanged oppressions. These failures, as told by the front lines, are valuable if only for the fact that minds and memories are perishable. We must choose how we wish to remember. And do so with a sense of urgency.

But Che, “unsurpassed by anyone with the exception of Buddha, Mohammad, Marx, Mary or Jesus of Nazareth” (1), makes for a messy fixation. Randall writes, “I am a feminist and as such I am more likely to seek inspiration in the lives of many extraordinary women still obscured by patriarchy’s refusal to give them their due. . . . Che might seem like an odd attraction yet he continues to spark my interest” (20).

Randall is clear. Making sense of Che’s life—politically, artistically, intimately—is a high-stakes endeavor. She runs the risk of amplifying the already amplified masculinist story of ruthless guerilla warfare, of myth-making, of political alienation and erasure.

And yet, she forges on for all that is at stake, to “help us rethink revolutionary change and see how a reexamination of history may point to more productive ways of achieving that change” (1). To be sure, a feminist analysis of power reveals and unearths. It is sensitive to time and place, to historical determination. In prioritizing these commitments, Randall takes decidedly feminist risks. She asks the scorned questions, naturally hostile to patriarchal modes of struggle. She asks the questions that stand to jeopardize a woman’s already precarious authority in liberatory resistance. She asks the questions left for dead, dark and free where we live and breathe.

How, then, does Randall suggest we remember responsibly? How do we respect the theoretical and material mistakes of resistance past? How do we protect and serve revolutionary histories? How do feminists remember patriarchal practice in the name of freedom?

And what do we do with Che?

For Randall, it all starts by “taking that proverbial leap from the comfort of a lifelong cliff” (99). It means challenging what we once thought were fundamen­­tal tenets of resistance and loyalty. It means complicating oneself and the comfort of comradery to see what has and has not worked, to see the limits of our heroes and our means.

Randall’s thoughts on war and violence are particularly keen in this way. She reflects on how aging inspired unexpected shifts in her political philosophy. While she once easily distinguished “people’s wars” from “expansionist wars,” for example, Randall has since adopted a stricter stance on violence and revolution: “I have come to understand that the means tend to vitiate the end—that is, that a struggle waged through the force of arms too often produces a new social structure plagued by the violence of unequal power relations” (100).

This is what it means to be sensitive to personal evolutions in mind, body, and politic: calling into questions one’s own terms, conditions, and assumptions to best “determine what Che’s legacy really means for today’s activists and the millions of others who sport his image” (125).

Structurally, Che on My Mind has been described as a series of impressionistic essays built from poetic “reminiscence” and “intuition” (1, 2). It is even more daring than this—perhaps to be thought of as experimental (auto)biography. Rejecting the idea that linear time most meaningfully captures life’s process, Randall outwits chronology. Opting for a more feminist practice, she constructs Che’s life in terms of his greatest intimacies and most marginalized social identities—as son, lover, comrade, friend, and artist. In drawing from letters, diaries, photographs, speeches, essays, conversations, scholarly texts, and an ocean of memories, Randall rescues Che from representation by getting to the muscle and the meat, all too often left underneath.

She celebrates Che’s nooks and crannies—vulnerabilities, secrets, and longings—through an exceptional cast of people: his spirited mother, Celia de la Serna; his great love, Aleida March: the sterling revolutionary Haydee Santamaria; his loyal disciple Daniel Alarcon Ramirez Benigno; and his beloved comrade-in-arms Fidel Castro. She gives each their rightful due, presenting a Che rarely seen or felt. “This won’t be a political or economic treatise,” Randall assures, “except where that sort of analysis strengthens my observations” (2). She weds sophistication, creativity, poetry, and quality research without ever compromising accessibility or integrity.

At the beginning of each chapter, Randall also includes both classic and relatively unknown photographs related to Che. This kind of visual meditation enhances the sense of intimacy, longing, and mystery that catalyzed her journey in the first place. It is a small though resounding artistic move.

I did find Randall’s racial analysis wanting—a bit forced or underdeveloped in places. She emphasizes that Che’s unsuccessful campaign in the Congo suffered from a weak cross-racial analysis. For this reason alone, it is important to get a sense of what his racial politics actually were and how they evolved.

Despite this, Randall makes some stunning, higher-order conceptual moves. In “War and Peace,” “Revolution and Religion,” and “Poetry Closes the Circle . . . ,” particularly, she meditates on more theoretical and artistic terms, nimbly placing seemingly unrelated ways of being and thinking in conversation. One of the most intriguing explorations is certainly the role of the art(ist) in revolution. Randall unpacks Che’s personal relationship to art and literature and confirms his nearly undisputed status of “artist” among his followers. In her farewell letter to the deceased hero, Haydee Santamaria confirms, “At your wake, when our great people wondered what rank Fidel would confer upon you, he said artist. I felt that any other rank would have been too low, inadequate, and Fidel, as always, found the right one” (85).

Che is man and myth. Che is faith in the fight and commitment to discipline. Che is artist. Randall encourages us to remember all of this, about all freedom fighters and, most important, about ourselves. We are fallible. We fail. We study. We analyze. We rise.

 

Felicia Denaud is an emerging essayist, poet, political educator, and cultural warrior. Boston, New York, and Port-au-Prince made, she can most reliably be found beyond mountains or at @Feli_B. She humbly serves as one-third of the thought collective Baby’s Gun.

 
 

David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 42.