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A Reflection on MLK Day: Cuba, The Revolutionary Doctor and Passing the Vanguard

By Dr. Karen Aletha Maybank Havana, Cuba It's been about a month and a half since I returned from Cuba. My lens of perspective and opinion are forever challenged.
Investors bail on Bed-Stuy

By Dr. Karen Aletha Maybank

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba

It's been about a month and a half since I returned from Cuba. My lens of perspective and opinion are forever challenged.

As part of a medical research delegation, I walked through doors that many "tourists" do not. Doors that opened to conversations, circumstances, and voices that left me immensely enlightened, frustratingly perplexed, and a little obsessed with finding out more.

I was left with an abundance of unanswerable questions in contrast to the way that I had grown accustomed to answer. What is safe? Who is free? And where? What is social justice? And most importantly who is responsible in achieving it? And how do we achieve it? Not only within the borders of Cuba but anywhere in this world, especially in my own country, the United States of America.

This sense of hovering confusion and enlightenment was further weighted by two moments while in Cuba. The first was on November 24 as I sat on my hotel bed in Havana watching CNN as the Ferguson decision was announced.


The second was on November 27, Thanksgiving Day. My research delegation was invited to a local church to share a Thanksgiving meal with about 100 medical students from the US that were on scholarship in Cuba. While sitting in the small crowded chapel, we heard a student leader remind his fellow students about their role as a 'Revolutionary Doctor'. What is that? Who is that? I thought. With great passion and conviction, the student leader expressed a Revolutionary Doctor is a "healer, a listener, a communicator, an advocate, and a leader. We must never forget that. This is what we were taught!" I was moved.

Becoming a 'Revolutionary Doctor' and working within a framework of social justice are how these students are taught and learn from day #1 of medical school. It is reflected in their course curriculum and in the language of their professors and mentors.

In other words, it is understood that gaining this context of social justice and how to operationalize it cannot be fully assumed but rather it requires intentional and purposeful instruction.

As the young medical students in Cuba are taught how, in both position and process, to be doctors that fight for justice in health for all people, we in the US (approaching middle-ages, middle-aged and older) who have this experience and skill set in social justice, leadership, and organizing have an opportunity to teach the younger generation in our country as well as step aside and afford a younger the opportunity to lead and be heard.

Movements need leadership on many levels - to provide clarity on the end goal, which is crucial for a successful movement; to influence strategy in both thought and action; and that connects with those most likely to be active historically in movements and protests, our young people. Ava DuVernay's recently released movie, Selma, speaks to this well.


Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at 39 provided this necessary clarity and strategy in his last speech, I Have Been to the Mountaintop, the evening before he was shot. In the 43 minutes in which he addressed Sanitation Workers in Memphis Tennessee, Dr. King laid out what was needed to keep the movement going forward:

  • Keeping unity and collectiveness,
  • Practicing non-violence for the sake of keeping everyone's focus on the goal,
  • Having a clear goal and seeing it through to the end,
  • Maintaining some level of optimism and hope…We Shall Overcome as opposed to We Can't Overcome,
  • Valuing the politics of compassion and love,
  • Knowing the power of economic withdrawal,
  • Possessing selflessness…them not me,
  • Harboring gratitude and appreciation, and
  • Always displaying courage…no fear.

His leadership worked for that time and for that generation, and many of his themes are still very relevant today. But in 2015, the 'Vanguard' is changing and needs to be better embraced and supported. As W. Montague Cobb, MD, the first African-American President of the NAACP, a medical historian, and 'A Revolutionary Doctor' wrote in his piece entitled Passing of the Vanguard-Training Fast Backs in 1981 for the Journal National Medical Association:


"The generation to which the present writer belongs may be likened to the offensive linemen on a football team. They have to be rugged, tough, and determined. They get banged and battered. Their job is to make holes for fastbacks to run through."

While it is clear many present day leaders have served as great offensive linemen and have created "holes" or opportunities for younger generations, the linemen also share the responsibility to teach the fastbacks how to become great offensive linemen as well and be willing to pass the ball.

Our young people are ready to lead so that #WeShallBreathe.

Dr. Aletha Maybank is a physician whose mission is to blend health and personal empowerment in cutting-edge ways. She's appeared on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry show, Disney Jr.'s DocMcStuffins, BET's 106&Park, HuffPost Live, and many other outlets. Dr. Maybank is Board Certified in pediatrics and preventive medicine/public health with degrees from Johns Hopkins, Temple, and Columbia Universities. Follow her on Facebook here or on Twitter at @DrAlethaMaybank