Mujer Negra by Nancy Morejon: Author, Summary & Theme

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Nancy Morejon's ''Mujer Negra'' is one of the most celebrated Cuban poems of all time. In this lesson, we'll see why that is and explore the ideas within this revolutionary piece.

Mujer Negra by Nancy Morejón

Cuban food has strong African influences. Cuban music is completely inseparable from African traditions. And yet, African Cuban culture is not something that was widely and consistently celebrated for a long time. Does that seem right? Nancy Morejón didn't think so.

Nancy Morejón is an African Cuban poet and intellectual, and one of the greatest literary voices of post-revolutionary Cuba. Her works deal with issues of Cuban national identity, black experiences in Cuba, and the construction of gender. All of these themes are readily apparent in what may be her most famous poem, ''Mujer Negra'' (''Black Woman''), published in 1975. It's a look at blackness, womanhood, and Cuban identity all rolled into one.

Mujer Negra explores what it means to be a black Cuban woman

Nancy Morejón: Life and Style

Nancy Morejón was born in 1944 in Havana, 15 years before Castro led the Cuban Revolution. She graduated from Havana University as one of only a few African Cuban students, and became the first black female poet to gain national and international acclaim in Cuba's post-revolutionary period. She was also one of Cuba's first female intellectuals to openly celebrate blackness. Among her main influences was the great Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, whose style and teachings had a major impact on Morejón.

Morejón's poems tend to deal heavily in themes of identity, particularly in the combination of nation, race, and gender. What emerges is a complex understanding of self that rejects easy categorization. Morejón is a black Cuban woman, but as she describes it ''I am not more of a black person than a woman; I am not more of a woman than a Cuban, I am not more of a back person than a Cuban. I am a brief combustion of those factors.''

That ''brief combustion'' is a central theme in much of her work, as she rejects the concept of a single and distinct African-Cuban identity. Instead, to Morejón it is the national Cuban identity which is clearest, but this is something that cannot be properly understood without accounting for black experiences and lives. In short, to Morejón, African-Cuban identity is a key part of Cuban national identity.

La Negra

With this in mind, how do we interpret ''Mujer Negra''? Let's divide this into two topics, the concept of black identity and the concept of female identity. ''Mujer Negra'' describes the experiences of black Cubans (and particularly black women) throughout the nation's history, as told through an unnamed black female narrator. The poem begins by alluding to the voyage across the sea as slaves were transported from Africa.

Black identity is closely tied to the concept of slavery, but Morejon challenges the way this is presented

However, this isn't your typical tale of a slave who longs to return home. In fact, Morejón actively rejects that narrative. Y porque trabajé como una bestia, aquí volví a nacer. ''And, because I worked like an animal, here I came to be born.''. Other lines echo this sentiment:

''I no longer dreamt of the road to Guinea. Was it to Guinea? Benin? To Madagascar? Or Cape Verde? I worked on and on. I strengthened the foundations of my millenary song and of my hope.''

Why would Morejón do this? There has been a longstanding trope in Caribbean literature (and really in all literature of the Western Hemisphere) that black identity was largely created by Europeans and forced upon slaves, who desired to return to Africa. By rejecting that narrative, Morejón embraced a different vision of black history, one in which the slaves had agency over their own lives and chose to construct new lives and new identities.

At the same time, Morejón embraces a strong sense of revolutionary African-Cuban identity. We see some of this in the balance between the words Me rebelé and Me sublevé, two phrases which are set apart from the rest of their stanzas at different points in the poem. While both could be translated to mean ''I rebelled'', the second one has a much stronger revolutionary intonation (I rebelled vs. I revolted). The first phrase echoes the rebellions of the slaves, while the second references the role of African Cubans in the Cuban Revolution, which is echoed in the themes of the stanza that follows. There may be a secondary meaning in these words as well; Nancy Morejón was actively rebelling against the established tropes of the black Cuban narrative.

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