BLOG: Constructing a Variegated Research Approach to 20th Century Transnational Caribbean and Women’s History, Part III: Researching in a Pandemic by Elizabeth S. Manley

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Today we conclude our three-part series on the challenges of beginning a second book project, transnational research, and maintaining a research agenda during a pandemic. If you missed either of the first two posts, please click here or here. I am currently solicitng posts that would be publsihed beginning in late May (although I would also happily accept others to run throughout the summer or into the fall as well). Topics could include: a description of resources and policies at in-person archives, libraries, or museums; a description of resources and research advice for any online repositories; or how-to posts on things like transnational research, research with a co-author, balancing a research agenda with other work and family obligations, and so on. I just ask that the post(s) be centered around research on Latin America. If you would like to contribute, please express your interest here.

Elizabeth Manley is a Kellogg Endowed Associate Professor of History at Xavier University of Louisiana. Her work focuses on the modern Caribbean, women, gender, politics, race, and culture. Her first book, The Paradox of Paternalism: Women and Authoritarian Politics in the Dominican Republic, was published in 2017. She is also co-editor of a two-volume collection of primary documents on Dominican feminism, Cien Años de Feminismos Dominicanos, with Ginetta Candelario and April Mayes, that was published by the Dominican National Archives in 2016. Manley has published articles in The Americas, The Journal of Women’s History, Caribbean Studies, and Small Axe, and is a contributing editor (Modern History, Dominican Republic) for the Library of Congress’ Handbook of Latin American Studies. She recently completed her fourth and final year as the co-chair of the Haiti-Dominican Republic section of the Latin American Studies Association. Her current project focuses on the role of women in the development of Caribbean tourism across the twentieth century.

Constructing a Variegated Research Approach to 20th Century Transnational Caribbean and Women’s History, Part III: Researching in a Pandemic

About two years after traveling to many physical archives for the early research on my second book I found myself in the midst of a global pandemic and committed to completing a paper on the flight attendants of Air Jamaica and their role in the development of Caribbean tourism. As it stood, I had a mere sprinkling of information gleaned through the airline’s magazine and the annual reports of the Jamaica Ministry of Tourism, all gathered from the Jamaica Tourism Board (JTB) and the National Library of Jamaica. The ministry reports were extremely helpful in laying out an “official” version of tourism development but offered little relative to the airline and its flight attendants and were typical of the top-down narrative that emanated from such tourism departments across the region. In terms of both time and logistics, I had no way to return to in-person archival digging but I still needed to uncover the role played by these women ambassadors to Jamaican tourism. I began a process that ultimately helped me develop the presentation into an article-length piece, and also has guided my larger work in the midst of some severe limitations on access to physical archival holdings.

First, I sketched out a general narrative of tourism development in Jamaica based on the materials I had gathered in the JTB and National Library of Jamaica, as well as through secondary materials. On a whim, I did Google searches for all the terms used to refer to the flight attendants of the airline and repeated those searches in Google Scholar and Google Books. Several results highlighted articles that had appeared in Jet, Ebony, and Encore relative to 1970s-era strikes by Air Jamaica staff or featuring general tourism to the island; a whole sub-world of flight fans revealed early and digitized schedules and advertisements for the airline. I also purchased access to the Kingston Gleaner and scoured the digital repository for any and all articles relative to the national airline or the flight industry generally. Google Books turned up a number of U.S. magazines from the era featuring ads for either Jamaican tourism or Air Jamaica. The University of the West Indies and Digital Library of the Caribbean (DLOC) also proved to have a number of periodicals online that helped me follow a thread I had begun to trace out—that many of the flight attendants had also been beauty pageant queens. I used Hathi Trust Digital Library and Internet Archive to track down more primary sources, like Bernard Glemser’s The Fly Girls (1969). I also tried to find archival traces for specific women who had been flight attendants or similar symbols of Jamaica’s tourism project. For example. I was able to trace Sintra Berrington Bronte, who became the face of Jamaican tourism through a brilliant media campaign (see Figure 1), and Marguerite Kirkpatrick, a key figure in the world of Air Jamaica flight attendants. I found interviews, self-authored publications about hospitality, and general life details about each woman through newspapers and magazines and was able to hear, in small ways, the voices of the women that served the airline as both flight attendants and, perhaps unwittingly, objects of consumer desire.

Figure 1: Advertisement for Jamaica featuring Trinidadian Sintra Berrington Bronte, produced circa 1972, which appeared in Encore (September 1973), 40-41; New York Magazine (May 1, 1972), 38-39 and multiple other publications; the image was originally located at initially through the RISM Vertical Files at NYU and subsequently through Google Books.

One of the elements that I have found critical to making this sometimes (ok, often) scattered process function is a careful attention to detail and a robust organizing system. In addition to creating digital folders on my own computer that provide a roadmap (archive, collection, box, folder) of where the document images came from, I am now faced with the problem of less systematized collections. Newspaper Archive and Google Books, for example, wreak havoc on the obsessive’s carefully constructed organizational structure. As a result, I have found that the Tropy program works wonderfully for capturing my downloaded newspapers pages, screen grabs, miscellaneous PDFs, and more “traditional” archival materials all in one place. It’s also brilliant for making linkages across time and space through its tagging system. If I take the time to label each document as I enter it into the program I can return to filter for all materials that mention the Dominican Republic, or airlines, or even palm trees. I can also view every single document in a chronological line, or according to type (report, postcard, newspaper article, etc). Finally, I can view all materials from a single archive or repository, all without ever losing my original filing system or structure.

Returning to the Caribbean Vacationlands publication that provided an important catalyst in the development of this project (see second post), I will say that I have managed to gather four annual issues across the fifteen-year run of the magazine. The first, as I’ve noted, came from a random folder in the Luis Muñoz Marín collection at the Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín. The second two were within the vertical files in the Research Institute for the Study of Man at NYU. The last one I found (and bought) on Ebay. I’m continuing to search for the rest of them – WorldCat tells me there are more copies at the University of Curaçao, but I know there must be a few others floating around given my one-time Ebay find. I also have been tracking the archival tracings of its editor and St. Thomas resident Helen Lowe Auble, who initially donated her papers to the Island Resource Foundation (IRF) (thank you Bruce Potter’s Flickr album!); however, when the IRF donated its papers to the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY her life somehow slipped through the cracks. I’m still searching and I am optimistic that I will find her, along with more details of her work (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: A collection of materials gathered through various internet commerce outlets, including Caribbean Vacationlands edited by Helen Lowe Auble.

Increasingly, there are more and more digital repositories making primary source materials available from anywhere at any time. This is both thrilling and exhausting. That is to say, it is democratizing access in incredibly useful ways. But it is also a bit overwhelming trying to keep up with what is available online (and what is not). Thematically, we have repositories like the DLOC that gather materials from a specific regional focus. Similarly, more and more physical archives are moving, when possible, some of their holdings online. The Archivo Digital Nacional of Puerto Rico is just one example. More general sources – Google Books, Hathi, Internet Archive – provide a more scattered, if highly useful, access to primary sources from the last century or so that can be particularly useful in understanding the perceptions or visions of Caribbean nations across U.S. publications (like Life, etc). Yet in each one you often end up diving down rabbit holes that – if you’re like me – could hold you hostage for hours. The trick is to try to stay on track of your particular mission – say, finding more writings from Luis Muñoz Marín’s first wife Muna Lee – and once you’ve found what you are looking for (hopefully), you bookmark the new and fun repositories or sources you’ve found for another day.

This process, multi-faceted and sometimes scattered and halting, has been how I’ve approached research for the past year or so. I was finally able to secure a faculty fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (third try!) for the AY 2020-2021 and I had planned some serious archival work, particularly for the fall of 2020. Needless to say, that was not in the cards. For a person used to the rather systematic approach of my first project – go into the field for a year, gather everything, then write – this is certainly not how I imagined doing things. But I remember when I was first planning my 2018 sabbatical I thought how it might be interesting to try doing a little research, then a little writing, then more research, and more writing. Rinse, repeat. I wondered how that would change my thinking, and if it would be better or worse for the process. I’m not sure I have an answer to that question. But I know that doing research in bite-sized chunks – starting with the kernel I have from an original research foray (if I have one), then jumping down rabbit holes for a little bit (but not too long!) until I find viable materials, has been challenging and even fun.

 

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