Marini on Edwards, 'Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic'

Erika Denise Edwards. Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2020. xvi + 168 pp. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8173-2036-2.

Reviewed by Candela Marini (Milwaukee School of Engineering)
Published on H-Nationalism (July, 2022)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version:

Argentina is a country that has consistently disacknowledged the contributions of Black Argentines to the nation’s past and present. A commonly held belief states that Afro-descendants simply “disappeared,” and many Argentines would find unproblematic the fact that at the end of the nineteenth century racial categories stopped being registered in the national census—under the assumption that the country would soon be homogenously white. In Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic, Erika Denise Edwards studies the roots of this issue, analyzing the methods and processes that help explain how Black Argentines became invisible as the colony became a republic. Moving away from the ever-changing city of Buenos Aires, Edwards studies instead the city of Córdoba in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, illuminating practices and beliefs that prepared the way for the period of forthright institutionalized whitening (1850-1914).

To understand the origins of this invisibility, Edwards examines race relations in the domestic sphere, focusing on the everyday decisions that Afro-descendants made to “acquire whiteness.” Indeed, one of her main arguments is that, in trying to escape “the stigma of blackness” (p. 8), Black women were actors in their own erasure, as they challenged racial hierarchies and pursued ways to ascend the social ladder. Edwards is aware that some may find this “problematic and unfortunate” (p. 115), but she argues that, given the societal and governmental limitations and burdens on blackness, “African-descended women’s decisions to transform into Spanish or Indian women or become educated highlight adaptation as a form of resistance” (p. 117).

In the first two chapters, Edwards offers an overview of the political changes that affected the region from the Bourbon reforms to revolution, independence, and the start of the Argentine republic. In this first part we come to understand the hierarchies but also the fluidities of the colonial caste system, and the laws and customs that at times protected families and allowed a certain mobility through the local social structure. Exploiting these fluidities, Black women fashioned identities that positioned them as Indigenous or Spanish rather than Black. This whitening process was mainly pursued through marriage and cohabitation with men of better social standing. The potential of these unstable divisions is exemplified in chapter 3, where Edwards introduces the story of Bernabela, an enslaved woman who became the concubine of the vicar don José Lino (a rather curious individual who reappears in other cases studied in the book). Bernabela was unable to marry the vicar, but the latter “manumitted her, and she managed the household as if she were the señora (lady of the house)” (p. 48), dressing like an elite woman and giving orders to other slaves. In chapters 4 and 5, Edwards studies Black women’s attempts to erase blackness by directly claiming Indigenous ancestry and, thus, free status for themselves and their children (though her census data also reveal that marriage between Black and Indigenous groups was not uncommon). Indigeneity was also claimed when parents contested marriages that they deemed “unequal,” and thus those accused of having “mala sangre” would argue and prove in court that they were in fact Indigenous or Spanish. The last chapter focuses on the Free Womb Act of the early republic (1813) and the impositions of the new government targeting children of African descent. Studying programs of public education, Edwards argues that ecclesiastical and governmental authorities reinforced among Black girls the notion that whitening was to be desired, educating them according to white notions of morality, virtue, and civility. Adapting and adopting these “white lessons” was thus another strategy to lessen the restrictions imposed on their blackness.

The book’s level of archival work is outstanding. Edwards seamlessly moves through ecclesiastical and criminal cases, marriage and baptism records, city censuses, and notarial records. Through these documents, Edwards brings back the voices of Black women who overcame, or attempted to overcome, racial barriers. Edwards’s fresh prose accompanies these stories with excitement, a tone introduced by the intimate voice with which she opens the book, sharing her own personal experiences as she first visited Argentina. At times, however, her writing moves quite rapidly through historical processes and concepts that are central to her observations. As a result, the reader may lose sight of the bigger picture, particularly if they are not already familiar with the local history.

Hiding in Plain Sight is a thought-provoking addition to the increasing number of publications dedicated to the study of slavery and the place of Afro-descendants in Argentina. This area of studies has grown noticeably stronger in the last two decades, correcting the old myth of a white Argentina that swiftly eradicated slavery and so too its legacy. Edwards’s book dovetails nicely with recent publications such as Cartografías afrolatinoamericanas. Perspectivas situadas desde Argentina, edited by Florencia Guzmán, Lea Geler, and Alejandro Frigerio (2016); María de Lourdes Ghidoli’s Estereotipos en negro: representaciones y autorrepresentaciones visuales de afroporteños en el siglo XIX (2016); and Magdalena Candioti’s Una historia de la emancipación negra. Esclavitud y abolición en la Argentina (2021). Writing from the University of North Caroline-Charlotte, Edwards continues an academic transhemispheric dialogue on Blackness that George Reid Andrews started with his 1980’s The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires, 1800-1900. As Edwards says at the very beginning of her book, “I realized that my blackness did not mean the same thing in Argentina as it did in the United States. My blackness, which defines my identity in the United States, became invisible in Argentina” (p. 1). Hiding in Plain Sight thus invites an English-speaking audience to consider different conceptions and histories of race. For Argentine readers, Edwards helps us rethink the formation of Argentina’s political body, its limits, and ongoing exclusions.

Citation: Candela Marini. Review of Edwards, Erika Denise, Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.