Gender, Slavery, and the Archive in Cuba: An Interview with Aisha Finch

aisha-finch-headshotThis month, I interviewed Aisha Finch about her new book, Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the Insurgencies of 1841-1844 (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), which received the 2016 Harriet Tubman Prize from the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery and is a finalist for the 2016 Frederick Douglass Book Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. The book is part of the interdisciplinary series, Envisioning Cuba, edited by Louis A. Pérez, Jr. This post is part of a series of interviews with authors of new books in the field of Afro-Latin American and Caribbean history.

Dr. Aisha Finch is Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Afro-American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She earned a B.A. from Brown University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in History from New York University. She has received numerous fellowships, including awards from the Ford Foundation, the UC Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, and the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. Her research has appeared in the Journal of Women’s History and the Journal of Historical Sociology, and she is co-editor of the anthology Breaking the Chains, Making the Nation: The Black Cuban Fight for Freedom and Equality, 1812-1912 (Louisiana State University Press, forthcoming).


Reena Goldthree: Rethinking Slave Rebellion in Cuba situates the conspiracy of La Escalera in the context of mounting black resistance in 19th-century Cuba. In the book, you invite us to consider the “wide span of non-complaint behaviors” that enabled slave insurgencies, including the “hidden labor of rebellion” that was performed by enslaved women and non-elite enslaved men. What led you to investigate the role of enslaved people who did not occupy visible leadership roles in the rebellions?

Aisha Finch: The role of marginalized, or seemingly invisible, slaves in this rebellion became important for me to think about early in the research process. In fact, I started to wonder about the hidden labor of rebellion partly because of what I was not seeing in the archives. It felt disconcerting to be reading through this massive trial record, with literally thousands of pages of testimony, and to be still encountering so many recurring silences. I had several experiences where my questions and problems with the archive ultimately became central to the argument of my book. For example, it was striking to me that so much of what people said in their testimonies dealt with the most mundane and unspectacular aspects of their lives. Even as I was aware of the imminent violence that shaped so many of their responses, I kept wondering when other things that “looked” more like a rebellion would surface. These kinds of testimonies pushed against the idea of a rebel slave movement that I had gone into the archives thinking I was going to find.

There was also a fascinating contrast between the pointed, direct, and ultimately violent questions that the colonial authorities posed and the responses that enslaved people gave. Most of them responded by saying things like, “I happened to run into so-and-so when I was running an errand or when I was in town,” or “I noticed this one or that one coming to the plantation at night.” It quickly became clear to me that the quotidian fabric of everyday life would have to be central to the way in which the story manifested itself. Initially I struggled with that because quite frankly, that was not the story of La Escalera that I was looking for. What I discovered in the trial record prompted me to think about the idea of rebellion in a very different way. It forced me to shift my own understanding of what it meant for slaves to collectively revolt.

Another part of the trial record that forced me to rethink the category of slave insurgency was the fact that women were rarely interrogated. When I did find statements taken from women, I often felt frustrated because their testimonies usually said little or nothing about the actual rebel movements. The constant theme from female witnesses was that they were not involved in the plans for rebellion, that they hadn’t spoken to anyone about it, and that they didn’t know anything about what occurred. However, one of the most important parts of my intellectual formation is black feminist theory and praxis, and it was very important to me to think about how to incorporate these women into the story of slave rebellion in Cuba. This was especially so because their devaluation and erasure was so much a part of how the archives themselves were structured. I started to grapple with the things that were not being said and started to think about how women’s testimonies were intended to be part of a narrative of innocence and un-involvement. This highly gendered narrative of slave insurgency forced me to reckon with the archive’s epistemological violence in a way I was not expecting. One of the most important questions for me became, “Who are these rebels?” What happens if we think about that category in a way that decenters certain kinds of actions and narratives? What happens when we decenter masculinity and public displays of aggressiveness and combativeness? How can we think about La Escalera as a whole series of different people, episodes, longings, desires, and needs that all have to be negotiated and accounted for?

Goldthree: You suggest that Cuban sugar plantations were organized around a “logic of containment,” which sought to regulate the physical movement and social worlds of the enslaved (51). How did enslaved people create rebel networks in the face of pervasive restrictions on black mobility?

Finch: In Cuba and other plantation societies in the Atlantic World, there was a geography of containment—as Stephanie Camp described in her work on the U.S. South—that enacted a particular kind of spatial violence in its day-to-day workings. In Cuba, like in other places, the boundaries of the plantation sought to limit enslaved people’s mobility, sociality, and their fundamental sense of self. The plantation existed as a physical site of containment, but also as a psychic container for people’s imaginations, political vision(s), and understanding(s) of the world. In many ways, it brings to mind Aimé Césaire’s insight about the colonization of the imagination as central to the colonial enterprise.

But across Cuba, enslaved people also created insurgent geographies that subverted the logic of containment. There were well-established maroon communities in eastern Cuba, some of which had hundreds of members. But slaves on the western plantations also created other forms of fugitivity within and beyond their estates. For example, coachmen, muleteers, wagon drivers, and domestics who were required to travel for their estates often used those opportunities to barter, socialize, and plan. Dances, religious ceremonies, family gatherings, and Sunday markets brought together enslaved people from multiple different plantations for ritual work, feasting, merry-making, and other forms of enjoyment. Everyday forms of mobility, whether sanctioned or covert, thus provided an opportunity for enslaved women and men to create community, forge insurgent networks, and organize rebel plans.

Goldthree: You write that “the plans of 1844 represented multiple, and even contradictory ideas about freedom.” Tell us more about that.

Finch: It was really important for me to think about La Escalera as a movement that represented the political ethos of laboring black people and their political sensibilities, rather than simply bracketing it as a slave rebellion. Part of what I wanted to highlight in the book was how intimately enslaved people understood the power structures that circumscribed their lives and the broader political currents that impacted their freedom and well-being. The theoretical work produced by black feminist historians—including Stephanie Camp, Jennifer Morgan, Barbara Krauthamer, Barbara Ransby, and others—has helped me conceptualize enslaved people’s political philosophies, their lives, and their patterns of sociability in broader and more generative ways. In addition, some of the most useful analytical frameworks for the book came from work on the Black Freedom Struggle in the United States. The work of Angela Davis and many others influenced my thinking about enslaved people as political subjects.

As I was writing, it became clear to me that I would need a whole other chapter—if not a whole second book—to fully explore ideas of freedom in 1840s Cuba. Most significantly, I think it is absolutely crucial to understand that the struggle for freedom was very different for different people. We tend to create a very cohesive and straightforward narrative about what enslaved people were fighting for, because we know they wanted to be free from slavery. But what did that mean exactly? How can we think about this struggle as part of a deeper political consciousness and collective historical memory? How do we actually grapple with their ideas about freedom from a metaphysical and a political perspective? Historians have very elaborate and nuanced discussions about the ways the French Revolution, for example, was articulated and imagined around the ideas of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” or the American Revolution through the ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Scholars grapple with the multiple meanings of freedom and liberation in those contexts in a way they absolutely do not for slave resistance movements.

Boiling house on the Ingenio la Ponina, property of Fernando Diago, circa 1857. Source: Aisha Finch.
Boiling house on the Ingenio la Ponina, property of Fernando Diago, circa 1857. Source: Aisha Finch.

In terms of visions of freedom in Cuba, we know the most about the ideas of free people of color in urban communities, which included the famous poet Plácido. Many of his contemporaries, often highly educated and economically privileged, were pursuing racial equity and articulating their desires through the language of citizenship and republicanism. They were thinking about freedom in terms of the 1812 constitution in Spain and the nationalist discourse that was emerging in Central and South America. On the one hand, I rarely find it productive to set up strict binaries between free people and slaves, or rural and urban blacks, etc., particularly because the lines between these groups were highly porous. Nevertheless, you tend to encounter a very different conceptualization of freedom amongst enslaved people who were born in Africa or were the children of Africans. There was a continual influx of Africans from the continent in Cuba during the 1840s, which shaped the cultural and political imperatives on the plantations. Specifically, among the enslaved there was a revolutionary ethos that was organized around a connection to the sacred, the ancestors, and the divine world. There was also a very clear connection to the systems of political kingship and West African understandings of political authority. In rural slave communities, people wanted literal, physical liberation. They wanted sovereignty. They wanted access to and control over the land. They wanted to fundamentally overturn the entire enterprise of Cuba, which was built on slavery, empire, and capitalism. The point is to think about freedom as a fluid grammar that was grounded in people’s everyday lives, a conceptual category that—to paraphrase Robin Kelley and Tiffany Patterson—had to be articulated and was not inevitable.

Finally, I want to stress that there is an important element to conceptualizing freedom that is very gendered. What would it mean to think about freedom as fundamentally premised on a certain kind of gender equity—on women who are interested in protecting themselves from sexual assault, from unwanted pregnancies, and from other forms of violence? How does that shift the discourse we have about freedom and about slave resistance to think about those issues? We have to understand that during moments of insurgent rupture, enslaved people, men and women, shared in a common struggle, but that same struggle was continually being defined and redefined along lines of gender, ethnicity, geography, and class.

Reena Goldthree is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College. Her current book project is titled Democracy Shall be no Empty Romance: War and the Politics of Empire in the Greater Caribbean. Her research has appeared in Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Radical Teacher, and the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History.

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