The ruling Spanish authorities could not have known when they publicly hanged José Antonio Aponte on April 9, 1812, and then cut off his head, that thirteen more heads would sprout in its place. They likely thought they were doing precisely what needed to be done to properly subjugate populations in Cuba, the people (like me) who had dark skin. They accused him, a free black man, an artist and carpenter, a soldier, of devising a rebellion against slavery. According to the wall text penned by the curators of Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom, Spanish authorities cut off his head and stuck it on a post, placing it in a cage near his house (a rather overdetermined gesture). This public execution was a warning: the colonial powers sought to kill an idea.
They beheaded Aponte because dangerously egalitarian ideas were indeed embedded in him. They discovered in his possession what authorities described as a “book of paintings” — a bound collection of 63 images that combined painting, drawing, and collaged cutouts. The book imagined dark skinned women and men like him as emperors (the top of the social order), warriors (those who generate the social order or enforce it), and librarians (those who guarantee the institutional memory necessary to reconstruct this order when it has broken down). He imagined a world that defied the social order created by an elite whiteness.