It is with great sadness that I inform you that brother Eugene Godfried passed away on Sunday. He had been in the hospital since last Monday due to a stroke. It was reported to me that he was listening to a dvd of The Afro-Cuban Legends when he passed away. As an authority on Cuban Son, it was appropriate that his final transition was in what brought him joy. For those of you who knew Eugene, Rhythm & Blues was another of his passions — Eugene loved R&B, especially the music of Motown, which he was also listening to in his last days.
I will never forget when we were in Santiago De Cuba talking to an 80 year old Afro Cuban lawyer who was one of the founders of the University of the Oriente that we had bumped into by chance. Eugene was so excited to have met this elder because he was involved in one of the black societies who consciously fought against the racism that existed in Cuba. In fact, the founding of the university was so that Black Cubans would be able to get a college education in the 50´s because of the segregation nature that existed during that time. Anyway, as Eugene spoke about his research of Black people in Cuban and begun to talk about and sing some of the verses of the music of Cuban Son, the elder began to cry. He asked Eugene how did someone as young as you know this. The elder said that Eugene made him happy and hopefully for Black Cubans that someone is passing the tradition on.
That moment reminded me of the exchanges I had witness growing up in Harlem, on the corner of 117th street on 8th Avenue, where the older men would sit up against the wall and discuss politics and the events of the day.
Eugene´s passing is a great loss. He was very talented, committed and dedicated to creating a new society in which all people are equal, free and able to develop according to their abilities. Eugene dedicated and sacrificed the majority of his life for the Cuban revolution. He was a humanitarian and an internationalist of the highest degree. He was born in Curacao, and was fortunate to spend the past year or so with his family. Several years ago, Eugene had to have his leg amputated as a result of some complications with diabetes. I went to visit Eugene in Cuba to take him some material support when many of you made contributions. Even after his recovery, Eugene began to carry out his research on African Cuban history and was able to get a commission developed in Cuba around honoring the Party of the Independents of Color, which existed in early 1900´s — several thousand of its members were massacred in 1912. Eugene continued to write and post on AfroCubaweb.com as well as do internet radio broadcasting. Eugene spoke 7 languages fluently. I remember one evening when we were in Boston and went to a Chinese restaurant to eat. Eugene ordered the food in Chinese. The waiter was absolutely stunned. He called the cooks and kitchen help who came to the door smiling to look at this Black man who was speaking their language.
Eugene was the one who opened the doors to Cuba for me. It was because of him that I was able to convince the chair of the Africana Studies Department to develop an exchange program. As a result, several colleagues, Professors Marc Prou and Robert Johnson along with Eugene visited Havana, Matanzas, Santiago and Guantanamo, setting up a program for students at the University of Massachusetts Boston to visit. Eugene was also the connection that got Assata Shakur to write the introduction to my book, State of the Race, edited by Jemadari Kamara and myself.
What I love the most about Eugene was that he was a grassroots person and made it clear, as my wife said, he acknowledged that ordinary people were extraordinary. He was a true revolutionary.
He loved observing how the very least of us lived their lives and how they survived, how they were innovative and creative. We would visit and hang out with working people in some of the poorest areas in Havana, Santiago and Guantanamo, talking and listening to their likes and dislikes, about music and food. He would eat, sign and joke with them. It is important to understand that Eugene was a member of the communist party in Cuba and was a member of its ideological bureau. Yet, Eugene was not lecturing, debating or imposing on the people, he was humble among them, learning from them and reinforcing their value, and the people didn´t know that Eugene was a party person, a linguist, a musicologist, a historian, or a journalist. Like all of us he was not perfect. He loved to smoke, have a drink, say the occasional curse and loved his women. Despite how hard life was, Eugene had, if any, very few regrets. He enjoyed and lived his life as full as he could. There are projects that I´m sure he would have loved to continue but time was short. When he worked, he worked hard, often doing so with very little resources, but nevertheless, producing good products. Even when he was sick and living in Michigan, getting dialysis every Tuesday, he had established a makeshift radio and broadcasting studio in his living room. He would post them in English, Spanish, French and Dutch Creole on YouTube. I was amazed at his persistence and the volume of work he was able to produce.
I also witnessed Eugene sternly and principally challenge the views of some very powerful people in Cuba, and I watched them acknowledge and even agree with his points. I also want to make it clear that Eugene loved Cuba – he sacrificed his life for Cuba. He was a Che Gueverra. He was more Cuban than some of the Cubans I have met.
There have been a few people I have met in my life who walk the walk and practice much of what they preached. There have also been few people that I have met that were humble, authentic and self critical of their own actions and had the passion, courage and perseverance to stand up against the giants of the world and speak truth to power – Eugene was one of them.
I am also going to miss the Eugene who made me laugh so hard that I had to bend over because it was hurting in my gut and made tears come to my eyes as I have now thinking about him. We know that our lives are not permanent, but when the time comes to visit the ancestors it is still a difficult process for us who are still here to deal with the loss. Eugene is one of the people I always mentioned in my prayers to the Orisas asking to protect and help him. Now I ask the ancestors to welcome him and I will now ask him as an ancestor to continue waging a spiritual battle to help us on earth continue to fight for humanity and our right be self determining and free. As Eugene always said as we departed, “we don´t say good bye comrade Tony, we will see each other again,” – well, I salute you comrade brother Eugene, I look forward to seeing you again when it’s my time to visit the ancestors.
EUGENE GODFRIED – PRESENTE !