This poem was written in 1975 by Nancy Morejon in Cuba, and explores what it is like to be a Black Cuban woman throughout the nation’s history through the voice of an unnamed female narrator. The poem explores the theme of the Black woman's strength and resilience in the face of adversity, as well as the ways in which her experiences are shaped by race and ethnicity.
The poem explores the identity of the Black woman through an anonymous female narrator, and the struggles that made her who she is today. The story starts with a Black woman from Africa who is exported to Cuba as a slave, where she is bought. She later gives birth to a son from her master. She escapes after a point, and joins a liberation movement which leads to the start of communism in Cuba.
This poem is very female-centric in nature, and centers around the development of the protagonist as she takes back her identity that the institution of slavery took away from her. The work also has undertones of revolutionary ideas, as the narrator moves on to join a Cuban liberation movement after she gains her freedom, so that the very social structure she was oppressed under may be destroyed.
In 1511, Diego Velázquez colonized Cuba. Once diseases like smallpox started wiping out the indigenous population in large numbers, the import of African slaves started to retain the size of the labor force. The largest numbers of slaves arrived between 1800 and 1860, and the majority of them worked on sugar plantations while living in pitiful conditions. Cuba officially banned the importation of slaves in 1867, but the protests of plantation owners meant slavery as a whole was only banned by 1886.
Post the Spanish-American War, even when Cuba came under America’s control for a brief while, the Cuban government was still plagued by widespread corruption. This continued until the 1950s or 1960s, when people grew tired of the growing economic inequality between the rich and the poor. Support for US-backed military leaders such as Fulgencio Batista declined as the country became more and more politically unstable, which led to the rise of anti-capitalist elements such as the liberation movement led by Fidel Castro.
Castro’s socialist ideologies promised a world where resources would be collectively shared and the means of production would be owned by the workers, and the exploitation of the poor would vanish from society. As a result, Castro’s movement was popular among the poor and middle class people of Cuba, as well as freed slaves who wanted to see the downfall of the abusive plantation owners they escaped from. The Cuban Revolution came to represent a war between the classes: the upper class that wanted to protect their wealth and lavish lifestyles at the cost of the poor who they exploited for their own benefit, and those of the lower and middle classes who sought a better life for their families.
Image Courtesy of The Guardian
Nancy Morejón is a Cuban poet, essayist, and literary critic, born in 1944. Her works address issues of politics, history and Afro-Cuban identity. Her poems are a celebration of the experience of being Black, and how the experiences of her ancestors throughout history have shaped the person that she is today.
"Mujer negra" narrates historical events through the eyes of a previously enslaved Black woman, in order to tell the story of many through the eyes of one. Through her storytelling of the history of Cuba, an anonymous Black woman gives voice to the collective and becomes a symbol of the poor people of Cuba who seek freedom from their oppressors.
There is no clear structure to the poem, as it is written in free verse with stanzas of varying lengths. The way the poem is written evokes the feeling of slam poetry, with its storytelling in a first person point of view and an emphasis on the different stages of the narrator’s life. This helps place a greater emphasis on how the woman has reached the point she is at today.
The narrator is an unnamed Black woman, who was imported to Cuba as a slave before escaping and joining a communist liberation movement during the Cuban Revolution. The character development she goes through is visible through the experiences she faces at the hands of her slavemaster, and she discovers what freedom truly feels like after she escapes.
The narrator is a revolutionary and is sympathetic towards the Communist cause--this is likely because she has been a victim of oppression at the hands of the upper-class plantation owners in Cuba, and therefore now supports the political movement that calls for an end to these types of class structures.
Some literary devices you should be familiar with for this piece are:
Simbolismo: When she escapes, the narrator talks about how she sings to the natural rhythm of the birds. The birds are a symbol of her newfound freedom (libertad), almost as if she is living through them.
Versos libres: There is no set structure to the poem's stanzas or rhymes between its verses, which helps reinforce the poem’s emphasis on the narrator’s newfound freedom.
Repeticion: “Nuestra la tierra / Nuestros el mar y el cielo / Nuestras la magia y la quimera” — The repetition in these 3 subsequent verses places emphasis on “we” over “I”, to show how the world belongs to everyone, and no one can take that away from them.
“Bajé de la Sierra / Para acabar con capitales y usureros, con generales y burgueses / Ahora soy: sólo hoy tenemos y creamos” - “I came down from the Sierra / To put an end to capital and usurers, with generals and bourgeois / Now I am: only what we have and create today”
The “Sierra” referenced here refers to the Sierra Maestra, a mountain range with lots of forested areas. Fidel Castro and his followers would hide here when being persecuted by Batista’s men, and wage guerilla warfare against the oppressive Cuban government. The speaker is a fellow revolutionary and supports communism as a method of reducing the rampant social inequality present in Cuba. She refers to herself as only what she has and has helped create, asserting her identity as separate from her life as a former slave.
"Por casa tuve un barracón / Yo misma traje piedras para edificarlo, pero canté al natural compás de los pájaros nacionales" - "At home I had a barracks / I myself brought stones to build it, but I sang to the natural rhythm of the national birds."
The speaker talks about how she herself had to put in the effort to get herself a place to live, but she was ultimately free to do as she pleased. This contrasts her life as a slave before, where she was subjugated to her master’s demands, and wasn’t entitled to the fruits of her labor. Now, she can shape her life as she pleases, and her destiny is in her hands.
The poem details the woman’s experiences at the hands of her slave master, who she calls Su Merced (“Su Merced me compro en una plaza”). She references how even the son she had with the slavemaster has no identity because she is just a slave, and anyone who isn’t 100% white is automatically of a lower social standing (“Mi hijo no tuvo nombre”). However, the emphasis of this poem is on the process of liberation, rather than the oppression the slaves faced.
The poem as a whole talks about a woman’s journey to reclaim her identity after it is taken away from her when she is sold into slavery. The short verses help emphasize how she rose from nothing, in terms that represent the struggle of all slaves, and especially Black women—"Me rebelé / Anduve / Me sublevé / Trabajé mucho más / Me fui al monte / Bajé de la Sierra''.
At one point, our narrator starts to rediscover her original identity that she forgot as well. She realizes how big the world is beyond Cuba (“Era a Guinea? A Benin? Era a Madagascar? O a Cabo Verde?”). These references to different parts of Africa that she previously did not know of show how now she has become aware of her roots. In addition, she now has both freedom and the power of knowledge once she has escaped the plantation.
The central theme of the poem is the Black woman's identity and strength, as the speaker celebrates her experiences and the ways in which she has overcome adversity. The poem explores the idea that the Black woman is a source of pride and resilience, and that her experiences are shaped by her race and ethnicity.
The poem also touches on the theme of heritage and culture, as the speaker celebrates the Black woman's connection to her African roots and the rich cultural traditions that are part of her heritage.