“Race, Resistance, and Regionalism: Perspectives from Brazil and Spanish America”

Judy Beiber, Latin American Research Review 32:3 (1997): 152-168.

There is a great deal else of interest in this issue of this journal, including although not limited to the ads for books that were new in 1997, but the reason I have kept it for so long is that Beiber’s essay is bookmarked. Therefore I will read that at last, fifteen years later, and leave this copy of this journal on the rack in the über-hip café where I sit, where an interested party may discover it as a curious antique. When I first kept this journal, there was no JSTOR.

The books under review are David Hellwig’s African-American reflections on Brazil’s racial paradise, Thomas Skidmore’s Black into white, Peter Wade’s Blackness and race mixture, Ruth Landes’ The city of women, Nancy Stepan’s The hour of eugenics, Robert Levine’s The life and death of Carolina Maria de Jesús, and Eduardo Silva’s Price of the people: the life and times of a Brazilian free man of color. I have only read some of them.

Freyre was one of the first Brazilian intellectuals to separate the categories of race and culture (saying Afro-Brazilians were not “biologically” inferior but held back by slavery and discrimination. Bieber explains Freyre more; I add that another way he separated race and culture was by showing how white Brazilians in fact had African culture.

Freyre was trying to contest the ideology of whitening — the idea that the “race” could be improved by the addition of white blood. His theory of “racial democracy” was desmentido by the UNESCO studies in the 1950s, which correlated blackness and poverty; this lead people including Florestan Fernandes to conflate race and class. Then, during the dictatorship, documentation of racial discrimination was prohibited (as “racist,” I add).

Winant, in his 1992 piece “Rethinking Race in Brazil,” says that the literature on race in Brazil, up to that point neglected the discursive and cultural dimensions of race, believed too much in the omnipotence of the elites to manage race, and a tendency to downplay conflicts and tensions around race in Brazil. Bieber will use his “formation theory” as a standard for critiquing the works under consideration here.

Skidmore and Stepan both examine how race is defined and deployed in Brazilon the level of elite ideology and national identity formation, but neither incorporates blacks as active agents in constructing race relations. The remaining five books pay more attention to the role played by persons of color.

Hellwig looks at how US blacks have perceived racial opportunity in Brazil. Levine and Silva analyze native intellectuals who rose briefly from humble origins to national prominence. Landes’ ethnographic account of candomblé provides evidence of a counterhegemonic response to the ideology of whitening, and the formation and sustenance of a collective black identity. All of these books have engaging treatments of race, gender and poverty.

Wade looks at the way power relations, place and demography all shape the formulation of racial ideologies. He chooses region as an analytical category, which the works on Brazil do not do. Freyre, for instance, studies Pernambuco and generalizes this to all of Brazil, and other Brazilian scholars do this with other regions.

Skidmore was the first to seriously challenge the myth of racial democracy. In the 1970s Skidmore challenged Freyre’s rosy assessment of sex between white planters and black slave women by analyzing the development of whitening ideologies. The Brazilian elite, facing abolition, sought to attract European immigrants to fill its labor needs. They began to assimilate European paradigms of scientific racism (which understood miscegenation as deterioration, on the theory that black is inferior), and wanted to whiten the blood so it would be stronger.

Skidmore points out that racial and racist thinking developed on different lines. Nina Rodrigues, for instance, was himself mulatto and was one of the first to study Afro-Brazilian folklore and art seriously. And then Freyre turned miscegenation from vice into virtue.

Stepan looks at discriinatory immigration legislation, among other topics. She focuses on race, gender and nation in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, 1900-1940. She points out that diverse interests promoted eugenics to achieve varied political agendas even within a single country. Several eugenic paradigms existed simultaneously, and were deployed in different ways. Eugenics evolved in LA so as not to alienate the church while accommodating the racial diversity that centuries of miscegenation had produced in the New World. They liked the Lamarckian theory, that acquired characteristics could be inherited. She makes the point I do, that the Mexican “cosmic race” ignores African and Asian elements. 

According to Bieber, neither Stepan nor Skidmore nor Hellwig pay sufficient attention to the roles of women of color (y eso que Stepan is talking about the politics of reproduction). Hellwig’s book is a selection of primary documents by African-American intellectuals. Note Richard Jackson: racial amalgamation is the physical, spiritual, and cultural rape of Black people and amounts to a white lynching (Hellwig 217). Brazil was seen as a hopeful situation early on, but not later; as Gilliam points out, the internalization of whitening meant it was hard for Blacks and mulattos to make common cause, and being mulatto did not actually get people the advantages whites had (many studies show that Black and mulatto salaries are similar, I add).

The book on Carolina Maria looks interesting, and Ruth Landes’ book looks downright fascinating. Beiber likes Wade’s book because it has a very complex understanding of what makes race, and thinks Brazilianists should take note of this (and I wonder how they would take that).

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