This essay explores the archival presence of West Indian women in the archives of the Isthmian Canal Commission, the biggest repository of original documents regarding the construction of the Panama Canal. Using a 1909 photograph of a nude black West Indian woman found in a file labeled “Freak Letters,” it considers the difficulties of recovering historical subjects structured by imperial frameworks of productivity and perversity, tracing instead the counternarratives of mobility, affect, and self-determination that might have shaped this black woman’s life. Using this approach, the essay uncovers the archival logic behind “Freak Letters” and recreates the woman’s milieu, highlighting her mobility and diasporic connections. It argues that this woman’s embodied intervention simultaneously confirms and challenges the narratives of US empire that sexualized and limited her. Ultimately, the essay seeks to build an empathetic, archipelagic counterdiscourse as the basis for our explorations of subjects historically silenced or denigrated.
“Freak Letters”: Tracing Gender, Race, and Diaspora in the Panama Canal Archive
Joan Flores-Villalobos earned her PhD from New York University and is now an assistant professor of history at The Ohio State University. Her book manuscript, “The Silver Women: Intimacy and Migration in the Panama Canal,” explores the labor migration of West Indian women during the Panama Canal construction and the diasporic linkages they created during this period. Her work has been supported by the Ford Foundation and the American Historical Association, among others.
Joan Flores-Villalobos; “Freak Letters”: Tracing Gender, Race, and Diaspora in the Panama Canal Archive. Small Axe 1 July 2019; 23 (2 (2)): 34–56. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/07990537-7703266
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