E. D. Edwards: Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight. Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic

Edwards, Erika Denise
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184 S.
€ 33,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Nicolas Rautenberg, Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin

In 2021, a BBC reporter interviewed Argentinians about citizens of African descent in their country. Respondents either answered that, “[t]here are no people from Africa,” or “[a]lmost everyone has Italian or Spanish descent.”1 About 20 years earlier, Erika Denise Edwards, at that time an international student from the US in Argentina, experienced a similar “Argentine exceptionalism” on questions of race and ethnicity. This concept assumes that Argentina’s population is of European descent, unlike other countries in Latin America, and that African-descendant people have “disappeared”. In the monograph under review here, Edwards investigates the causes of this discursive black invisibility in Argentina, which she considers as the “erasure of African-descendants’ contributions to the national narrative” (p. 2). She focusses on the late colonial period of the 18th century and the early republican period in the first half of the 19th century, identifying an important change from social ascent through “individual choice to institutionalized whitening” (p. 5).

In her award-winning monograph2, Edwards argues that the roots of black invisibility can be traced to intimate relationships between African-descendants, on one side, and enslavers, their families, the authorities – governing as well as ecclesiastical – on the other. These intimate relationships had personal and emotional aspects but were also regulated by law. Authorities and elites enforced a caste-like social order which was determined by calidad – a concept ranking a person’s status based on ethnicity, honour, and profession. Black women aiming for social ascent and emancipation from hardship sought to access a whiter and more privileged status. As a result, African-descendants unintentionally contributed to the disappearance of black heritage in the Argentine national narrative and thus “gave birth to a whitened nation” (p. 6).

As in other topics of Argentine historiography, the subject of African-descendants was focused on Buenos Aires and, for a long time, Argentine national historiography usually offered narratives portraying them as rather passive in their disappearance.3 This study and its sources engage with African-descendant women in Córdoba as “protagonists” (pp. 2f.), contributing to the improvement of their own and their children’s lives. In looking at intimate relationships, Edwards manages to examine social mobility and agency of Afro-Argentines beyond male dominated institutions and relations such as the military service. Her thorough analyses of normative and official sources, such as laws, education guidelines, baptisms, and marriage certificates, as well as court records from ecclesiastical and civil court, offer valuable insights into the emotional world of intimate relationships of black women of lower social ranks. Thus, the spatial, temporal, and gender perspective of Edwards' book distinguishes it from previous research.4

The book is divided into three parts, each comprising of two chapters. The first part (pp. 11–47) explores social hierarchy in colonial Córdoba. Using demographic data and court records, Edwards presents the creation of a heterogeneous population and new levels of calidad through “miscegenation, marriage, and manumission” (p. 19). Underprivileged groups blurred the colour lines between calidades through intermarriage and in order to access a better status. African-descendants sought to attain whiteness in response to severer rules on manumission passed by Córdoban authorities.

The second part (pp. 48–84) examines judicial and extrajudicial relationships between women of African-descendant and Spanish-caste men. Women could access privilege through these relationships by whitening their own status and that of their children. Performative actions involving clothing or modes of behaviour helped these women imitate a Spanish señora. Much like with manumission more restrictive legislation outlawing marriage between Spanish and African-descendant inhabitants was introduced in Córdoba in the 1770s and 1780s. This was again in the name of reinforcing social hierarchy and order. This disruption of social ascent led African-descendant women to challenge their status as black and try to be categorised as Indian to avoid marriage bans. Both chapters in this section are based on court records giving detailed insight into marriage dissent cases.

The final part (pp. 85–114) explores the role of motherhood in the early Republican period, women’s agency in assisting their relatives in manumission, and increasing efforts to achieve institutionalised whitening through education. According to Edwards, women of African descent had two main strategies to achieving freedom: claiming Indian identity in court, or confrontation with the enslaver, which posed a threat to Córdoba’s social order. During the early Republican period Córdoba’s authorities used education as a tool of “social grooming” (pp. 97f.) for the black population. The goal was to educate girls and hence future mothers in the values of the republic.

Córdoba’s relative stable population was judged to be convenient for Edwards' study as post-colonial demographic change was slower than in Buenos Aires. Worth mentioning is the processing of the census data of the city of Córdoba stretching over several decades, which is summarised in clear tables and accessible for further research. However, it remains unclear to what extent developments in Córdoba are representative of the rest of Argentina. Further contextualisation in comparison to other regions would have been helpful. The real value of the work is that it adopts a new spatial, temporal, and gendered perspective. Her innovative case study deserves to be recognised as a valuable contribution to black women's history and the history of slavery and manumission in Argentina and Latin America.

1 Hannah Green / Hannah Gelbart, What it’s like to be Black and Argentine [Video]. in: BBC News at Ten, URL: <https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-latin-america-46641620> (14.03.2022).
2 In 2020 Edwards received the Letitia Woods-Brown Award for the best book in African American Women’s History by the Association of Black Women Historians. A year later the book was rewarded with the Barbara “Penny” Kanner Award of the Western Association of Women Historians.
3 The presence of Afro-Argentines has mostly been edited out of Argentina’s national history. Sources testifying to their presence are not infrequently marked by racist stereotypes. See: Astrid Windus, Afroargentinier und Nation. Konstruktionsweisen afroargentinischer Identität im Buenos Aires des 19. Jahrhunderts, Leipzig 2005, pp. 22–28.
4 See, for instance: George Reid Andrews, The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires 1800–1900, Madison (WI) 1980. A German-language overview on Afro-Argentine identity in late 19th century Buenos Aires is given by Astrid Windus, Afroargentinier und Nation. Identität im Buenos Aires des 19. Jahrhunderts (2005). Her monograph covers the identity discourses of both male and female Afro-descendants. A recent publication on the agency of African-descendants in the Río de la Plata region can be found in From Shipmates to Soldiers. Emerging Black Identities in the Río de la Plata by Alex Borucki (2015). Borucki’s book has a focus on the military service, which reduces insights in Afro-descendant women. In her essay, The presence of blacks in the North Patagonia. 1779–1837 (2014), Dora Noemí Martínez de Gorla looks at a study area outside Buenos Aires. A recently published Spanish-language work by Magdalena Canioti, Una historia de la emancipacion Negra. Esclavitud y abolicion en la Argentina (2021), discusses the self-liberation and emancipation of formerly enslaved persons and, like Edwards, draws on court records among other sources. Further Spanish-language works include Ester Liliana Tamagno and Marta Mercedes Maffia’s Indígenas, Africanos y Afrodescendientes en la Argentina. Convergencias, divergencias y desafíos (2014) and Florencia Guzman’s Africanos en la Argentina. Una reflexión desprevenida (2006).

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