After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with Bachelor's degrees in History and Spanish, I went on to pursue a PhD in Latin American History at the University of Michigan. I had studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina as an undergraduate, and was fascinated with the way people there talked about race. Despite being impressively informed about the racism that defined so much of the US's history and culture (and expressed a genuine sense of outrage about those things), they were generally unwilling to acknowledge the racism that defined so much of their own country's history and culture, or that of Latin America more generally. So I went to grad school with the idea for a dissertation focused on race in modern Latin America, but somewhere along the way I became enthralled with the history of slavery.
My dissertation mapped the study of slavery onto the study of material culture, in order to examine the relationship between clothing and status in Lima, Peru, an ethnically diverse, urban slaveholding society that was the seat of Spanish imperial authority in South America.I built on this early work for my book, Exquisite Slaves: Race, Clothing, and Status in Colonial Peru (which is currently in production with Cambridge University Press), I examine how slaves in a wealthy urban center used elegant clothing as a language for expressing myriad attitudes about gender and status. Exquisite Slaves draws on traditional historical research methods, visual studies, feminist theory, and material culture scholarship, in order to argue that clothing was an emblem of the not only the reach but also the limits of slaveholders’ power and racial domination in Lima.
My other scholarly writing reflects a broader concern with gender, race, and slavery in Peru. In an article entitled, “‘He outfitted his family in notable decency’: Slavery, Honour, and Dress in Eighteenth-Century Lima, Peru” (Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-slave Studies 30, no. 3, September 2009), which is based on my dissertation, I examine male slaves’ practices of stealing clothing to distribute to lovers, family members, and other social intimates. I suggest that this kind of gift-giving allowed male slaves to act as heads of households even when they could not reside with their families; and, second, that as recipients of stolen clothing, female slaves were able to dress and comport themselves according to contemporary feminine ideals. More recently, I published “‘Blanconas Sucias and Putas Putonas’: Women, Social Conflict, and the Power of Words in Late-Colonial Lima, Peru” (Gender & History 27, no. 1, April 2015), and “The Queen of los Congos: Slavery, Gender, and Confraternity in Colonial Lima, Peru” (Journal of Family History 40, no. 3, July 2015), both of which draw upon court records to show how African-descent women carved out spaces for challenging race- and gender-based hierarchies. In “‘Blanconas Sucias and Putas Putonas,’ I argue that African-descent women deployed sex- and sexuality-based insults to undermine Spanish women’s sense of superiority. And in “The Queen of los Congos,” I show how enslaved women used their roles in confraternities to secure privileges and prestige that were ordinarily out of their reach.
I'm currently at work on two new book projects that place Peru within broader frameworks. The first is Slavery and the South Sea, which focuses on the part of the Pacific Ocean that connected East Asia to Central and South America. This work seeks to show that, beyond counting among the valuable commodities that circulated on merchant ships, enslaved men, women, and children played instrumental roles in both protecting and pillaging the wealth that abounded in the region. In detailing their diverse experiences, the project lays claim to the sea as not just the beginning of Africans’ history in Spanish America, but as constitutive of it as well.
The second project focuses on race, gender, and artistic representation the Andes. It examines portraits and paintings from the colonial era, nineteenth-century photography, and contemporary iconography, in order to highlight the extent to which the region’s visual culture has long hinged on conspicuous displays of black, servile bodies. An article based on early-stage research is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Society, and Culture. The article focuses, in part, on a photograph that accompanied a 2011 article in Hola! Magazine. In it, several members of a wealthy and connected Colombian family pose on the terrace of their expansive estate overlooking the Valley of Cauca, along with two unnamed Afro-Colombian maids dressed in all-white uniforms and holding serving trays. I argue that the image adheres to and calls forth a visual tradition that dates back to the region’s slaveholding past, when masters and slaves – in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia – appeared in various genres of portraiture that were intended to showcase the formers’ wealth, status, and prestige. In analyzing several such images and the conditions that gave rise to them, the chapter sets an agenda for centering people of African descent within the study of Andean visual culture.
My work has received generous support from several institutions, including the Ford Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the American Association of University Women. During the 2016-2017 academic year, I will be a Visiting Scholar at the Americas Center at the University of Virginia, and in July 2017 I will join the Department of History at the University of Toronto.