Tracing Women: Haitian and Black Cuban Women Archivists

“On the roadside, in homes, or at the marketplaces, Haitian women studied women’s history, culture, and politics—all without formal education.”

Where are the books and articles about Cécile Fatiman, Catherine Flon, and Massena Péralte? Where are the stories of Mariana Grajales and so many others?

If you’re asking yourself “Who are these women?,” the beginning of an answer is that we do know at least something about their male peers. Colonial Haitian maroons François Makandal and Boukman Dutty were freedom fighters. Charlemagne Péralte and Indigéniste thinkers of the early negritude movement like Dr. Jean Price-Mars were anti-US imperialist strategists. In nearby Cuba, people are familiar with Esteban Montejo’s enslavement narrative and Antonio Maceo’s independence fight, as well as Pedro Ivonet y Evaristo Estenoz’s intellectual and political activism. We as scholars, artists, and activists locate, document, and celebrate these men for their contributions to various liberation causes.

However, researchers wonder, write about, and ask publicly: what about the women who also led, fought, organized, theorized, and wrote about abolition, freedom, equality, and nation building?

Grace Sanders Johnson and Takkara K. Brunson have offered a blueprint in two new books, White Gloves, Black Nation: Women, Citizenship, and Political Wayfaring in Haiti and Black Women, Citizenship, and the Making of Modern Cuba. Both authors pointedly list the names of women understudied, lesser-studied, and unstudied from global Black history. These scholars engage multilingual archives in Haitian Kreyòl/Creole, French, and Spanish, tracing Haitian and Black Cuban women’s feminist philosophies and acts. Together their works explore the origins, complexities, and practices of Haitian and Cuban feminism across many decades. Their research spans the periods of abolition, independence, post-independence, US imperialism, the republican era, Communist and Marxist activities, and authoritarian regimes.

While there are many overlaps and shared excellences in these books, I especially value their robust feminist frameworks. Sanders Johnson and Brunson position Haitian women and African-descended Cuban women as the storytellers, theorists, and archivists of their past. Sanders Johnson “approach[es] these women and their words as trusted historical interlocutors,” while Brunson argues, “I use their stories to think more broadly about the varied social experiences of Cuban women of African descent.”

Both books matter in meaningful ways. Methodologically, they teach you how to locate women; analytically, they use the women’s words and actions to understand female gender in patriarchal societies, as well as the long-standing historical contributions of these women to Haiti and Cuba.

Scholars and artists who use repositories, archives, and libraries across the global Black diaspora are familiar with the paucity of sources for, about, and by women. In these repositories, a complex silence hovers over the lives of African-descended women.1

They are simultaneously present and not present. For examples, diary entries; notes; photographs; bills of sales; legislation; and racist, sexist unscientific data, mark Black women’s presence. The same sources that record their visibilities render them invisible. In such archival spaces, Black women appear as objects of slave, colonial, and imperial empire. They are also appendages to men as mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. Some are recorded with no names, first names only, their husband’s surnames, or descriptions of their trades as market women, domestics, washerwomen, or tobacco workers.

In White Gloves, Black Nation, Dr. Sanders Johnson expands the notion of archive, mining through sources that include “parenthetical notes, mentions of melancholy, undeveloped photos, and addendums,” and Haitian women’s memories. She conducted over 40 interviews and places them alongside Haitian women’s self-published feminist essays, photographs, legislation, and the intimate letters exchanged between some.


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We learn of elite women, by name, who had access to education, intellectual networks, and travel. Sanders Johnson also centers the names and stories of women who are unnamed or appear in the archives as Adelsia or Amise, the actual domestic caretakers, market women, and femmes du peuple (women of the people). She argues compellingly that these seemingly disparate groups of women actually occupied and shared spaces as laborers. Whether they wore white gloves to host café and tea parties and manage Haiti’s public health programs, or whether they worked the land and markets, all of them as Haitian women (fanm ayisyèn) labored as mothers, wives, caretakers, attorneys, agriculturalists, domestics, students, anthropologists, social workers, and writers.

Even though class boundaries separate these women in archival sources, and even though scholars may later study them as separate categories of elite and market women, still, Sanders Johnson joins them together. That is, the author literally places these women in the same sentences with one another. Her stylistic choice buttresses her feminist framing: that these women who occupied the same physical space, whether as female domestic staff or career woman, equally contributed to Haitian society. This is why she actually lists them side by side, equally, in the same sentence. Although it could be missed by a general reader, her choice is a refreshing one.

Sanders Johnson writes of the efforts of Haiti’s first female social worker, Jeanne Sylvain: “She was no longer being paid, but she was working,” and of Amise’s care for Jeanne’s sister, Suzanne Sylvain, as they grieved parental loss. Suzanne would become Haiti’s first female anthropologist. Amise (listed in the archives with no surname) was one of the domestic workers in the Sylvains’ family home. These examples illustrate the labor of fanm ayisyèn, whether unpaid, underpaid, or paid. It also highlights the author’s method of placing Haiti’s multiclassed women and named and unnamed women side by side, stylistically on the same page.

“Women did not need feminism to understand inequality,” Sanders Johnson asserts. Sanders Johnson’s analyses remind us that even whether or not fanm ayisyèn identified as feminists, a caring ethos for other women was invariably present. They took care of one another, their shared nation, and their fellow citizens. As soldiers in Haiti’s’ 1791–1804 revolution and the many, many varied sociopolitical movements since, Haitian feminists preserved fanm ayisyèn contributions through plays, lectures, a revolutionary lunch menu, marches, and their ongoing archival assembly. Sanders Johnson’s look at the women’s creation and leadership of the Ligue Féminine d’Action Sociale (Women’s League for Social Action, LFAS) and their publications in La Voix des Femmes (The women’s voice) are enlightening. We learn how the LFAS leaders positioned their acts publicly. They “untethered the movement from a strict focus on political rights within state governance, and prioritized changes in the social structures of the nation.” This flexibility served them as Haiti moved from the periods of US invasion, postoccupation, a military junta, and dictatorships. Suzanne Sylvain pioneered the ethnographic study of the West African elements in Haitian Creole/Kreyòl, predating the well-known Institut d’Ethnologie.

Sanders Johnson and Brunson position Haitian women and African-descended Cuban women as the storytellers, theorists, and archivists of their past.

Whether on the roadside, in homes and political halls, or at the marketplace, Haitian women studied women’s history, culture, and politics, all without formal education. In the process, Haitian women without traditional schooling shared with their more traditionally educated counterparts their thoughts on matrimony, female friendships, and their desires for professional skills. The elite fanm ayisyèn who created the school Foyer Ouvrier (open foyer) wanted to care for their fellow working-class women by providing a space for their rest and relaxation. They quickly learned, however, that their fellow fanm ayisyèn desired French language skills and membership to the Girls Scouts to benefit themselves and their families, and, by extension, Haiti. Sanders Johnson touchingly presents many examples where you “hear” how women voiced their intentions, exhaustion, victories, comraderies, and challenges.

Readers are also exposed to how fanm ayisyèn navigated political, physical, and verbal violence. While some of them had male family and friend allies or protectors, Haitian women by large endured threats to their character, morality, and personhood. Disparaging language, whether in the nation’s many constitutions, journal writings, or public debates, marked them as noncitizens, indecent, mad, and sexually loose.

Their story is a beautiful offering to academia and the public. Sanders Johnson’s rigorous research and her lyrical prose invites readers into the lives and stories of fanm ayisyèn and Haiti. The work is a touching tribute to fanm ayisyèn’s past and present.

Takkara K. Brunson’s Black Women, Citizenship, and the Making of Modern Cuba is also a tour de force. Brunson’s work historicizes “Black Cuban women’s social thought over a period of seventy-three years.” While technically covering less than a century, in tackling the years between 1886 and 1959, Brunson is taking on a tangle of political uprisings, formations, and reformations: Cuba’s original independence struggle (1868–98); abolition and enslaved apprenticeship; the republican era; US imperialism’s various iterations; a dictatorship; and Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

African-descended Cuban women and men were deeply involved in the 1868–98 revolution as soldiers, veterans, and affiliates. It was a time when Jose Martí and his allies promoted an optimistic yet limited ideology of a raceless Cuba. Martí’s nationalism identified those formerly enslaved white Cubans, and the interracial and interethnic mixes in between, as one Cuba. That ideology understandably complicated the lives of Afro-Cubans. Brunson’s work highlights the manner in which African-descended Cubans, particularly women, delicately balanced this “racial etiquette.” She writes, “Abolition presented Blacks with opportunities to assert control over their daily lives, yet many whites continued to exercise control over the mobility of laboring African descendants.” For examples, in 1910 Cuban society criminalized political organizing along racial lines (read: Black lines), killed African-descended Cubans in 1912, and discriminated against non-white Cubans by limiting their educational, professional, and political rights. At the same time, however, African-descended Cubans founded and led mutual aid societies and political organizations and earned degrees as lawyers, educators, and journalists. From 1878 into the 1890s, African-descended Cuban women were landholders.

Overall, Cuba’s norms for racial and/or gendered political and social behaviors were layered and complex, particularly for its African-descended citizens. Brunson meticulously unfolds how Black women in Cuba navigated these complexities. She demonstrates how Black women held diverse political agendas, not just one. What is clear is that these women’s actions were consistent and public facing.

We learn the names and stories of Black women from across the island, such as Cristina Ayala, Lucrecia González Consuegra, Consuelo Serra y Heredia, Vicenta Garcia de Estenoz, Esperanza Sanchez Mastrapa, and many others. Collectively, these women helped build their nation and contributed to their race’s and gender’s progress. African-descended Cuban women promoted “racial regeneration” ideas2 and practiced racial uplift. They educated and opened schools. They used print media and portrait sitting, and penned letters. They also organized, led, and participated in the National Women’s Congresses, political groups, and parties. For instance, Ana Joaquina Sosa y González founded a school to educate girls of African descent, and others created a biweekly magazine devoted to woman of color from 1888 to 1890 with the title Minerva: Revista Universal Dedicada a la Mujer de Color.


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Their efforts “challenged elite white notions of civilized feminine behavior.” For example, in the process of penning letters to Black male politicians about the racial, educational, and gendered discriminations they faced, these women assembled an archive of their presence and of their public engagement. Like some of their male counterparts, African-descended Cuban women used lawsuits and protests to launch these grievances. Cuban women and their male allies also fought back against the violent languages and “studies” used against them. Public discourse had long debased African-descended and mixed Cuban women as deceitful, indecent mulatas, or enjoined them to be “self-sacrificing and long suffering … angels … pure virgins.” But African-descended Cuban men could ally themselves with women in responding to these diatribes and urge them to ignore these sordid, racist opinions.

The book invites readers to learn about African-descended Cuban women, including and going beyond Mariana Grajales Cuello. The latter, Brunson argues, assumed many tropes in Cuban society as mother, moral leader, and patriot. Brunson points out that while Grajales remains celebrated and two African-descended Cuban women have now been vice presidents, many Black women are still left at “the margins of political institutions” and continue to suffer discrimination. Ultimately, Brunson leaves us with a rhetorical question: Will Cuba’s two vice presidents (at the time) adhere to the race-less or race-based national discourses? In sum, Black Women, Citizenship, and the Making of Modern Cuba is an engaging, well-researched academic work. The book should be required reading alongside other key scholarship about Cuba’s past. icon

  1. I use this term to acknowledge how Black women in the early Americas arrived from different parts of Africa, including modern-day Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. The term also denotes how people become citizens during a nation’s move from colony to independence. For example, the national shift from colonial Saint-Domingue to Ayiti/Haiti. Finally, the term notes the complexities about the term Black in both Haiti and multiracial Cuba.
  2. She writes that racial generation advocates emphasized socioeconomic advancement through racial unity and personal responsibility. Women who embraced racial regeneration principles stressed their feminine virtue as educated and patriotic citizens in chapter 2.
This article was commissioned by Marlene L. Daut. Featured image: Photograph of Simone Leigh's sculpture Cupboard, 2022, taken by Christopher Michel / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)