Sunday, 16 May 2010

Brazil's Myth of 'Mesticismo' and its Cultural Contestants

Brazil’s Myth of ‘mesticismo’ and its Cultural Contestants: The Nature of Race Relations in Brazil and Future Challenges*
(David Brookshaw, University of Bristol, England)

To a significant section of the Brazilian public, the idea that their nation could be discussed at a conference on racism and xenophobia would be unthinkable, unless it were presented as an example of a country where such problems did not exist. The myth of Brazil as the worlds’ only true racial democracy is predicated upon a long history of miscegenation, which has produced one of the largest populations of African origin in the American continent, and according to some, the largest Black population of any country outside Nigeria. Sentimentalists (mainly Brazilians of Portuguese descent) explain this as deriving from the cultural predilection of the Portuguese male, himself of African descent because of the centuries of Moorish domination of the Iberian Peninsula, for dark-skinned women. Sceptics (often, but not exclusively, Brazilian intellectuals of African descent) attribute it to the widespread sexual abuse of African female slaves at the hands of Portuguese or Luso-Brazilian planters. More generally, social historians have commonly explained the emergence of mixed populations wherever the Portuguese planted their far-flung empire as originating in the preponderance of lone Portuguese males and the lack or total absence of Portuguese females. In the specific case of Brazil, where plantation slavery formed the backbone of the colonial economy, this sociological factor, coupled with the planters’ total reliance on the Atlantic Slave Trade, has also served to explain the emergence of a mixed population. Perhaps it would be true to say that nowadays, the myth of a racial democracy in Brazil is not so important for the fact that we can demonstrate its shortcomings and inconsistencies, as it is for the fact that so many Brazilians believe it. Brazil as a racial democracy is part and parcel of Brazilian nationalism, which means that the very mention of the possibility of its opposite in Brazil is deemed unpatriotic. Most nations buy into myths of collective values and cohesion. In the United States, it is the American Dream; in Britain, which has probably undergone more profound changes in the last half century than either Brazil or the United States, the (all too slowly) receding myth of Britain’s glorious imperial past is gradually giving way to a new myth of a modern multi-cultural society (the struggle perhaps best incarnated, on the one hand, by Thatcher’s attempt in the 1980s to emulate Churchill and Blair’s invention, in the late 1990s, of a Cool Britannia on the other) . It is important to remember, then, that whether we are talking of Brazil’s national colour blindness or the American Dream, or the ‘imagined community’ presided over by the British Crown, this vision of cohesion is designed by a political elite to maintain and strengthen the prevailing social order and the culture that underpins it, and is believed by many who will never actually derive any benefit from it. Those who queued in the rain for hours to catch a glimpse of the British queen in 2002, her jubilee year, are, in many ways, the same social unfortunates as the millions of Brazilians who will have social reforms delayed for having willed their national soccer team to victory in the World Cup in that same year. And just as African Americans have been largely marginalized from the American Dream, African Brazilians have not benefited from any racial democracy in their country. On the other hand, this uniquely Brazilian myth has also been successfully exported as an emblem of Brazil’s national identity, to the extent that, apart from numerous European and North American visitors to the country who extol the apparent informality of race relations, at least one African American show business personality who has settled in Brazil, has declared that she sees no sign of racism in her ‘adopted’ land, unlike the New Jersey where she was born and raised.

If the specific characteristics of race relations (or racial abuse) in Brazil hark back to its early colonial past, the myth of Brazil as a racial democracy – that is, as an essentially mestiço nation – is largely a creation of the twentieth century, following as it did on two interrelated modernizing changes: the abolition of slavery in 1888, and the overthrow of the Brazilian monarchy in 1889. From then on, members of the Brazilian elite – men such as Joaquim Nabuco, who made the transition from imperial senator to defender of the republic - perceived their country as following its national destiny as the southern hemisphere’s version of the United States. The function of the millions of Portuguese, Italian and Spanish immigrants who flooded into the country between 1890 and 1914 was, among other things, to ‘whiten’ the Brazilian population, thanks to, paradoxically, its long history of miscegenation and therefore benign racial relations. A profoundly racist solution to Brazil’s social problems – one that would nowadays not fall far short of ‘ethnic cleansing’ – was attributed to the absence of racial confrontation (unlike the United States). Buttressed by the Social Darwinist theories then in fashion, which foresaw African Brazilians disappearing through the effects of poverty and deprivation, and race mixture occurring between immigrant males and mulatto women, extravagant predictions as to when Brazil would become a white country were made. These varied between fifty years and a century. The pseudo-scientific premises upon which this development would take place even recur in the thought of Gilberto Freyre, a Brazilian sociologist profoundly influenced by the cultural theories of Franz Boas in the 1920s, and who did much to re-evaluate the cultural influences of the African slave in Brazil. By the early 1950s, Freyre’s ideas were popular for different reasons with both the Brazilian and the Portuguese political establishments, especially his development of what he envisaged as the science of ‘Lusotropicalism’, which had two main effects: firstly, it further appeared to rationalize the myth of Brazil’s racial democracy, and secondly, it brought together two strands of Brazilian nationalism that had emerged in the second quarter of the twentieth century: the Modernist/Regionalist idea of Brazil’s cultural uniqueness as being founded upon the bedrock of Portuguese tradition with due (selective) recognition of the African and Amerindian cultural contributions; secondly, it provided a paternalistic structure within which Brazilian ‘mesticismo’ might find expression. In this sense, Freyre’s further elaboration of the mestiço myth could be exploited as much by populists in the mould of Getúlio Vargas (significantly the politician who had ‘modernised’ carnival into an organised popular festival in the 1930s) as it could by the authoritarian generals of the 1960s and 70s.

Myths, of course, may serve to control and alienate (control by alienating) groups of people, but ultimately history is made by those same people. The proponents of whitening, or ‘branqueamento’, failed in their calculations because it was individuals who contributed to race mixture not the opinion makers. Nor did the theorists of Brazil’s social and ethnic evolution bargain for the widescale internal migration of people of mainly African descent from Bahia to Rio in the aftermath of Abolition, and from the North and Northeast to São Paulo and the cities of the South during much of the second half of the twentieth century. Apart from this, as Marilene Felinto has pointed out, miscegenation has only taken place among the poor in Brazil, the white middle class remaining defensively ethnocentric . Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, it could be argued that the population of Brazil has probably got darker. Nor did Black Brazilians disappear en masse as the followers of Herbert Spencer had predicted: less than twenty years after Abolition, the first Black newspapers appeared in the State of São Paulo, followed less than two decades later by the emergence of the first mass movement of Black Brazilians, the ‘Frente Negra Brasileira’. The message of the main literary voice connected to this movement, the poet Lino Guedes, was that African Brazilians should integrate by imitation of values perceived as white and bourgeois. Modern-day African Brazilian activists might regard Guedes’s message as a sellout, but seen in the context of the time, when the struggle for ‘respectability’ meant survival, it was positively subversive. Nor was Guedes alone. Further North, Manuel Querino had long extolled the qualities and contributions of the African to Bahian culture, in a series of short studies that complemented, if they did not contest, the supposedly more ‘scientific’ studies of the establishment anthropologist, Raimundo Nina Rodrigues . The important fact is that there was a Black Brazilian voice, which sought to inculcate in the descendants of slaves values of self-esteem and recipes for social advancement. This voice, independent of white literary tradition, has continued, intermittently, sometimes affected, like other group expressions of solidarity, by the political realities of the day (dictatorship, censorship), sometimes flourishing (during periods of liberalization and relative democratic debate), often responding to currents of cultural and literary inspiration elsewhere in the African or African diasporic world. It is present in the verse of the forgotten poet of Brazilian Modernism, Solano Trindade. It is there in the theatrical activity of the Teatro Experimental do Negro in the 1950s, the brainchild of Abdias do Nascimento, in the neglected Afro-Brazilian novel of the 1950s, A maldição de Canaan, by Romeu Crusoé, in the negritude poetry and fiction of Oswaldo de Camargo and Eduardo de Oliveira in the 1960s and 70s, in the literary output of the writers associated with Quilombhoje and the Cadernos Negros, published with regularity since the late 1970s. It has flowed into the women’s voices of the diarist, Carolina Maria de Jesus, poets like Miriam Alves, and more recently the novelist and journalist, Marilene Felinto. Last but not least, the renewed contact between Brazil and Angola over the last twenty-five years, since the end of Portuguese colonialism, has produced a literary traffic between the two countries, whose two most recent embodiments are the writers, Alberto Mussa, a Brazilian, and the Angolan, José Eduardo Agualusa .

If the last seventy years have witnessed the slow flowering of an African Brazilian literature, the same period has also witnessed the slow and apparently inexorable infiltration of Afro-Brazilian musical culture by the white Brazilian middle classes, a process that has, in turn, caused Black Brazilians to preserve and develop their cultural heritage on their own terms, as exemplified in some of the carnival schools of Bahia, which are closed to white membership, the development of new musical forms seeking their inspiration from other African diasporas within what Gilroy defines as the Black Atlantic: reggae and rap, reworked into samba-reggae and Brazilian rap, and given national and international expression by groups such as Oludum or Afro-Reggae. Whether or not one regards this as the Black wing of Anglo-American globalisation (the White counterpart for which might be Britney Spears), it is the aggression of contemporary Black urban music emanating from the U.S. that appeals to the alienated African Brazilian youth of the slums and prisons of Brazil’s large coastal cities.

Clearly these processes do not correspond to the ‘mesticismo’ envisaged by thinkers of the Gilberto Freyre school. Indeed, in spite of the pioneering thoughts of the Brazilian Modernist, Mário de Andrade, or the Peruvian novelist and anthropologist, José María Arguedas, for whom there were different degrees of ‘mesticismo’, more generally traditional views of the racial and cultural mixture in Latin American have to some extent been surpassed or forced into re-interpretation by more recent concepts of ‘hybridity’ as defined by Homi Bhabha and other post-colonial cultural analysts. According to these new theorists, often the products of the migratory flows of the last half-century from former colonies to former metropolises and beyond, cultural ‘hybridity’ is not a tidy, ordered process, but rather a battleground in which mutually contradictory elements adapt, survive and overlap. The emphasis, then, is on process rather than finality, plurality and a proneness to escape definition rather than monolithic control from above, and is inherently more democratic and creative than the assimilationist ‘mesticismo’ of Freyre and his acolytes, which, as I have already suggested, is the handmaiden of a traditionally paternalistic social and political order. The fact is that, contrary to what many believe, traditional Brazilian ‘mesticismo’ does not envisage a proudly and tolerantly multi-cultural society. It is perhaps significant that the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso began to recognise the existence of an African Brazilian voice within Brazilian culture and society, through the creation, in 1995, of the ‘Grupo Interministral para a Valorização da População Negra’, the purpose of which was to analyse and advise the government on matters relating to discrimination, education, employment and culture. More recently still, in November 2001, the Order of Cultural Merit, the annual honour for cultural recognition by the State, had as its theme African Brazilian culture. In his address, Francisco Correa Weffort, the Minister of Culture, justified the choice of this theme as follows: “In literature as well as in samba, our objective in this year’s Order of Cultural Merit is to cast some light on Black culture as one of the cornerstones of our mestizo culture (…) Brazilian culture has such strength that it is able to achieve the greatest sophistication without losing its roots. But we know, too, that it is a mestizo culture that is more prone to recognise our whiteness than our negritude. The illusion of our whiteness, and, worse still, that of others, have been almost as long lasting as the scars left by four centuries of slavery. To highlight the Black matrix of our culture is a way of fighting prejudice and racism, and gaining a clearer sense of our identity as a nation” . It is, of course, hard to criticise the well-intentioned efforts of a government, after all led by a president who, along with fellow Marxist sociologists Florestan Fernandes and Octávio Ianni in the 1960s, was responsible for producing a corpus of studies on race relations that effectively debunked the racial democracy myth. Nevertheless, Weffort’s words are littered with the familiar language that extols the roots of Brazil’s mestizo culture, a language that had begun with historians of literature and culture such as Sílvio Romero at the end of the nineteenth century, and included the later Modernists of the 1920s along with their Northeastern regionalist offshoots of the 1930s. Moreover, the suggestion of the ‘heightening’ of a root culture to ‘sophisticated’ levels suggests that that root culture is inherently ‘primitive’. Weffort’s choice of words indicates how difficult it is for the Brazilian elite to avoid the language of ‘branqueamento’ – in this case cultural bleaching - , which is apparently contradicted by his next statement that Brazilians have failed to acknowledge their ‘negritude’. Perhaps most significant of all, it is using the language of cultural integration to respond to the growing demands for social justice voiced by members of the African Brazilian community, expressed most poignantly, and in almost apocalyptic terms by Sueli Carneiro, the leader of a Black women’s group in São Paulo: “Increasing racial tension is inevitable as a racial consciousness develops in the country, for the relationship between Blacks and Whites is a violent one, historically rooted in expropriation and dehumanisation, and that is profoundly brutal. If Blacks have not yet been able to organise themselves sufficiently to provide a political solution to this, they need to continue along this road. No people have been oppressed indefinitely. My understanding of the matter is the following: there are organised Black groups in the country seeking to resolve the racial problem by peaceful means, but if society does not respond, there will be no way of preventing other forms of struggle. It is a question of legitimate defence. We don’t know how the next generation will respond to their exclusion”. This forms the epigraph to Agualusa’s novel, O ano em que Zumbi tomou o Rio (2002), a modern-day re-enactment of the Palmares uprising of the seventeenth century, which centres on a revolt in the Rio favelas against the authorities, and which takes over the whole of the ‘Zona Sul’ of the city before eventually being put down.

Carneiro’s words suggest, by omission, that culture – that is the acceptance of African Brazilian culture into the Brazilian pantheon – is not the problem, for the African contribution to Brazilian culture is a self-evident fact, and has manifested itself in an evolving continuum over the centuries. For Carneiro, it is discrimination, prejudice, and urban deprivation that are the reality of everyday life of most African Brazilians, rather than the acceptance of their culture . Brazil is not a racial democracy because it is not a social democracy. Its most urgent problems lie in the following structural defects in society: notwithstanding the growth of an urban middle class during the course of the twentieth century, the disparity between the wealthy elite (of mainly European descent) and the poor (who are largely of African descent) is one of the most extreme in the Western world. In a United Nations survey of Human Development Indices, Brazil currently occupies 79th place, but if this is broken down racially, whites rise to 49th, while Blacks sink to 108th, which, according to Carneiro, is worse than the situation of Blacks in immediately post-apartheid South Africa . The lack of access to education (Black Brazilians constitute a tiny proportion of those in tertiary education ), health care, reasonable housing and employment, all result from Brazil’s obscenely uneven distribution of wealth that affects African-Brazilians more than any other ethnic group. Moreover, even within the world of employment, there are discrepancies in pay along both racial and gender lines. Finally, discriminatory practices mean that African Brazilians are under-represented in more high profile jobs requiring high-level contact with the public (for example, in banking, executive appointments etc), in the officer ranks of the armed services, and in the diplomatic corps.

These grievances, of course, have been regularly brought to public attention by Black movements in Brazil since the 1970s at least. More recently, however, debate has turned for the first time to the question of quotas and affirmative action, all the more heated in Brazil because this appears to go against the country’s national foundational and formative myth. Opponents of affirmative action cite the impossibility of deciding who is and who is not Black in Brazil. On the other hand, if affirmative action helps to break down the alienating psychology of ‘branqueamento’ within Brazilian society (and which Weffort sees as negatively affecting even white Brazilians), then this would perhaps be the best outcome of such action. It might then be that the best intentions of ‘mesticismo’ could flourish in a more mutually tolerant environment. It is generally accepted, after all, that all countries need some sets of common values to hold them together. The alternative to this is balkanisation: in Brazil, Monteiro Lobato’s prediction at the beginning of the twentieth century that the Southern states of Brazil might ultimately join Uruguay and Argentina in some sort of white federation, leaving the poorer North to the predominantly Black and ‘mestiço’ population, might still come home to haunt Brazilians in the context of Mercosul. If affirmative action is to work in Brazil and to transform the national ‘mestiço’ myth into one of real egalitarian integration, if it transforms Brazil into a real social democracy, it must be seen as a process rather than as a finality, a righting of the wrongs of the past and the present until such a time when all cultures and skin colours are valued as equal and affirmative action is, perhaps, no longer necessary. At the beginning of the twenty-first century then, the biggest challenge facing Brazilian policy makers is how to enable African Brazilians to buy into the national myth in a meaningful way, and to create structures of opportunity for their citizens of colour, even if these contradict the myth of ‘mesticismo’ that has been nurtured by the Brazilian elite for more than a century.

* Text of a paper given at a conference on Racism and Xenophobia in Europe and the Americas, held at Howard University, Washington DC, November 2002.

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