The Clayman Institute is pleased to welcome Margarita Lila Rosa as a researcher. This summer, her work will be documenting and analyzing contemporary abolitionist movements, mutual-aid projects, and bail projects in Brazil and the United States, in a project titled, “Black Femme Abolitionist Strategies, Transformative Justice, and the Anti-Carceral Movement in the United States and Brazil.” Rosa received her PhD from Princeton University in comparative literature with a graduate certificate in African American studies in 2021. Here, Rosa reveals more about her ongoing work.
Your project focuses on two cities, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro. What inspired this geographic focus for your work?
The United States and Brazil have the first and third highest rates of incarceration in the world. In both of these countries, Black people are disproportionately targeted by police and Black women, femmes, trans, transmasculine, and transfeminine people experience high levels of state-sponsored violence. I have been doing research on Brazil since my time as a graduate researcher and I wanted to work on a project that could be an asset to contemporary abolition movements. While digging through nineteenth century archives in both Brazil and the United States to find reports on enslaved women, I stumbled upon many newspaper entries and reports related to incarcerated Black women at the turn of the century. At first, I put these aside to work on other projects. But now that my dissertation writing is complete, I am able to put more time towards projects that center Black women’s resistance against the early carceral state. Writing about Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles, for me, is an attempt to ensure that as historians, we have access to information on how these expansive carceral states were created, and what Black women, particularly nocturnal laborers, were up against after the abolition of slavery.
You are also working on a book titled In Search for Freedom: Black Women’s Resistance to Carcerality in Early Twentieth Century Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles. What characterizes the roles of Black women in particular as part of this resistance movement?
This is such a great question. For my research, I wanted to avoid writing about the carceral state without an emphasis on gender and sexuality. We already have a number of monographs, in critical theory and in history, on the creation of the expansive carceral state and conceptions of criminality. But what we don’t have are many monographs on how Black women were explicitly targeted by the early carceral state. The first reason for this is that white men comprised the largest population of incarcerated people at the turn of the century in both Brazil and the United States. So, the question becomes: why focus on Black women, who were a minority within incarcerated communities? With this book project, I show how unaccompanied Black women, particularly street laborers and nocturnal laborers, were characterized as moral dangers and incarceration was seen as a solution to their presence. I show how newspapers focused on Black women deemed “criminals,” even as Black women were being incarcerated at lower rates than white men. So, what characterizes the role of Black women in these resistance movements? Essentially, I argue that their very unaccompanied presence was a resistance to the logics of white femininity and feminine fragility, that through their travels and truancies, Black women created alternative geographies where they sought ephemeral or permanent freedoms.
What connections do you see among anti-carceral activists around the world? Is this indeed a global movement?
Not yet. Black transnational feminists have aimed to create global solidarities since the late-nineteenth century, as the current edited collection by Keisha N. Blain and Tiffany M. Gill, To Turn the Whole World Over: Black Women and Internationalism, has shown. Additionally, I have been part of The international school of Transnational Decolonial Black Feminism in the Americas, a summer school in Bahia that has hosted guests such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Angela Davis. This program brings over fifty Black feminists from across the Americas each summer to learn how we can form transnational solidarities. However, we have a long way to go before U.S-based Black feminists comprehend the dire situation women in Brazilian favelas, cities, and quilombos are in given Brazil’s hyper-militarized police. Works by Keisha-Khan Y. Perry, Erica L. Williams, and Sueli Carneiro have advanced these global connections, but there is much more work to do. Currently, PIC-abolition (Prison Industrial Complex Abolition) demands an end to militarization and imperialism. However, in each locality, much more work is being done on a local level, which is a good thing. But I believe that transnational campaigns are necessary to change the situation in Brazil, where the present leadership unfortunately follows a U.S-centric model of punishment and banishment. I believe these transnational campaigns are on the horizon and I see my work as contributing to these movements, which is a great feeling but also a great responsibility.
What role does the archive play in your research around abolition and social movements?
So much can be done with the archive. We can think of the archives the same way we think of family albums. Every time we look inside of them, we see something different. A new story, a new memory. Traditionally, “archives” have referred to dusty, physical papers we find in drafty buildings hundreds or thousands of miles away. But with the rise of digitalized archives, traditional archival research has become more democratic. Lately, though, I have been many scholars expand what they mean by the archive to include social media platforms, performances, films, and oral histories. This is an incredible turn in historical scholarship, but it is not all that new. Zora Neale Hurston was one of the first Black women anthropologists and she relied heavily on oral histories. Ida B. Wells relied on contemporary newspapers, the early version of the timeline. As scholars, we have to find the information where it is. And sometimes, that exists on social media. As a researcher around abolition and social movements, the internet is my archival database. I am constantly archiving rally posters, toolkits, and online statements written by abolitionist organizers. But as a historian, I also rely heavily on traditional archives such as police reports, newspapers, and pamphlets. A meme went viral in 2020 of car salesman Durell Smylie saying, “where the money resides, where the money resides.” My motto, if I were to reflect on that, would be, “where the information resides, where the information resides.” It’s a corny motto, but it works every time.