Thursday, January 18, 2007

Wells on Blackness in Brazil

I caught Zach Barocas's gig at Powell tonight, and I'll post photos from it and from the celebration (with open mic!) for newlyweds Toni Asante Lightfoot and Setondji Arnaud Gbegan tomorrow (I hope).

Tonight I'll post a link to an article on one of my inexhaustible interests, Brazil. More specifically, yesterday's article, by Mark Wells, is entitled "Blackness's Fear and Stigma Make Brazil a 6% Black Country." As I read the title I recalled the now infamous and possibly apocryphal encounter, early in W's presidency when, during a meetinng with Brazil's then-president, scholar Fernando Henrique Cardoso, he blurted out "Do you have Blacks too?" Supposedly National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice had to explain to him that Brazil has the largest Black population outside of Africa. But what exactly does that phrase, "the largest Black population," mean in the Brazilian context exactly? Wells interrogates this supposition by asking, as others (such as Eduardo Telles, Livio Sansone, my former colleague Michael Hanchard, and many others before--David Haberly, Anani Dzidzienyo, etc.--have done) whom exactly are people who speak of Brazil's "Black" population referring to and marking by this term? Who's considered Black, who considers herself or himself Black, how is Blackness socially produced, and where do the empirical versus non-empirical (contextually contingent, performative, etc.) boundaries really lie in a country that has lived, for nearly its entire history (including back to the 1500s and "New Lisbon") with its own racial fantasies and assumptions, very few of which have been beneficial to people of phenotypically obvious people of African descent? I also think of the comment by Marcelo Cerqueira, head of the Grupo Gay da Bahia, who noted in my interview with him that the culturally grounded gay pride celebrations in Salvador weren't surprising because Bahians were "all black here," by which I think he meant, the city and state were predominantly Black and pardo (mixed-race), but perhaps also that the spirit of Bahia was strongly "Black." This is something that Brazil itself now touts, to some extent, to draw in tourists.

And yet, as Sansone and others have shown, and as C and I witnessed with our own eyes, a color hierarchy exists in Bahia as well, with whites dominating the political and economic structure as surely as in other states in that country. I asked our cabdriver why there weren't more Black (by which I think I rather crudely meant Black-looking) political candidates--because we were there during an election--and his comment simply was that Blacks didn't vote for Blacks. Bahia's last governor, Paulo Souto, and its current one, Jacques Wagner, would both, I imagine, consider themselves White Brazilians (Souto is also of Arab descent). Other states have elected "Black" politicians; Rio most famously had its only Black and first female governor, a favelada Benedita da Silva, who served from 2002 to 2003, who in 1994 was also the first Black female Senator elected , in the history of that country (Carol Moseley Braun's similar pioneering election occurred just two years before in 1992).

At any rate, Wells tries to untangle the rhetoric on race, in the process showing how historically, socially produced hierarchies, combined with racial ancestry, discursively and productively tend to mark Brazilians, regardless of their self-definitions. He also cites Sansone's research and book, which shows that some younger Brazilians are choosing to define themselves as negro (black) rather than pardo, and that this increases with education, a counterintuitive notion, given that higher education used to be a path towards whitening. A final point he makes that I find fascinating is the use of the off-on switch, so to speak, between self-definition as negro vs. mulato. As I read this, I thought of a really stupid exchange the other night on Chicago Tonight, a local PBS show, in which the segment host challenged a journalist from Ebony on whether Barack Obama (yes, here we go) wasn't "biracial" and not "African American." Instead of simply stating that one could easily satisfy both categories, she flubbed and basically agreed with them man.... Sigh. Okay, despite the fact that there are no "pure" races and so no one could really be "biracial," and despite the fact that Obama calls himself "African American" and "Black," I thought the subtext of this exchange, particularly from the host's standpoint was twofold. If Obama isn't viewed as really, authentically (sigh) African American, he's more palatable (to White people?), and if enough pundits and media people can keep questioning his authenticity, maybe it'll delegitimate him in Black people's eyes (not working), or at least make them feel better and less likely to resort to calling him a crypto-Muslim?...anyways, this off-on notion is provocative, and he mentions Internet guru Omar Wasow, who is (and calls himself) Black, though some would consider him "biracial"...and my colleague Dwight McBride has written about the flight from Blackness on the Internets and the resort of other kinds of racial markers but "Black, which connects with Alondra Nelson's and others' discussions of race and the cyberworld...but now I've wandered far from Mr. Wells, so I'll let you read what he has to say. Some paragraphs:

In the context of racial mixture, being black possesses various meanings that result from the choice of racial identity that has African ancestry as origin (African-descendent). Or in other words, to be black, is, essentially a political position, where one assumes a black racial identity (13).

University of São Paulo social anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz also makes reference to the idea of black identity as a political position highlighting the difference between the terms preto and negro:

"Even during the slave years the etymological usage of these apparently synonymous terms already revealed differences in sense: Negro referred to the disobedient, rebellious slave, while Black (preto) denoted the loyal captive. A news story that appeared in the Correio Paulistano (The São Paulo Post) in 1886 demonstrates this clearly in employing the terms as if they referred to two wholly distinct realities:

"One particular day, the black João Congo was quietly working on his master's farm when he noted that two fugitive negroes were approaching, who soon said - 'Leave this life behind, old black (preto), it's not for you' to which the loyal (preto) black replied - 'I'm not going to go wandering about here and there like some runaway negro.' Irritated, the negroes retorted - 'Die, then, you black coward'" (14)

In the context of Brazilian terminology and folklore, 'old black' refers to the folkloric figure of the preto velho, the old, docile, submissive, black slave that is somewhat reminiscent of the American Uncle Tom figure. Considering these last two statements, it becomes obvious that a black identity goes beyond just one's phenotype or physical appearance.



  1. When ever I get ready to talk to about this subject in some sort of pan-national way (rather than just among us--i.e., African Americans--where I feel on firm ground) I always experience a sensation of epistemological groundlessness. First of all, we all soberly agree that "there is no such thing as race," nod wisely to each other, and then go right ahead and talk about this thing called "race." Already, then, we're on shaky ground, though, speaking intraculturally, we seem to get each other. All that breaks down dramatically when we (African Americans) try to speak diasporically. Blackness (which we already SAID doesn't exist!) means something different everywhere it arises, with a different sting and cachet in every country. After a summer in Cuba, among morenos, negros, triguenos, jibaos, mulatos and what have you--and feeling, for a few weeks, like they all need to go through a Black Power "Black is Beautiful" revolution like we did, in order for us to speak intelligibly to each other (and indeed there are signs that such a movement is entering the diaspora)--I decided to henceforth let everyone I come across self-define and, even if he's black as coal and insists he's nevertheless "puro catellano," take that at face value. It's easier; but I also seem to learn more that way, accepting and trying to understand self-definitions, than I do trying to convert others to--or even understand them in terms of--my own ideas of identity.

    Kai in NYC

  2. Hey Kai, thanks for responding. I'm not sure if you checked out Wells's piece, but he does make a distinction between race as a biological reality (a problematic assertion) and as an ontological fact (this is widely accepted). He also discusses the notion that "Blackness" is solely a US construction imposed from without, and gestures towards a Brazilian narrative that in fact Black Brazilians have been negotiating this since before the first Black folks landed in Virginia in 1619. We don't all agree that "there is no such thing as race"; we agree that it's not biologically fixed, that we--or at least a wide array of people who study race--also argue persuasively, at least to me, that it exists as a social, political and economic fact (or matrix of experiences, etc.), has a powerful real-time, real world function, that's it's fluid, that it's socially (and economically and politically produced), that it takes multiple forms under different contexts and is contingent, and that it is constantly and variously and multiply performed, among other things. Saying that "race" doesn't exist nevertheless doesn't mean that "Blackness" doesn't exist; this is conflating two different things; Blackness as a socially and politically articulated field of identifications, for example, is different from race as a supposedly fixed biological marker and entity. Race also doesn't equal skin color, and yet as Wells says, in part it does--at least *socially* and *politically*, if NOT biologically. No? I'd add as well that, again to echo Wells, well before the Black Power movement in the US (or even earlier articulations of racial solidarity, pride, liberation and resistance, going back to the 1600s in the British colonies), there were articulations of Blackness, racial solidarity, pride, liberation and resistance in other colonial parts of the Americas as well. The Brazilian mocambo/quilombo movements, the slave revolts (fueled in part by trans-national identifications with Africanity/Blackness, etc.) in the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British colonies, and the existence of a discourse of resistance tracking closely the dissemination of Enlightenment thought are just a few examples. I don't see it as trying to convert people to my own ideas of identity so much as trying to understand the many ways Blackness is lived, experienced and performed across the Diaspora. I've learned more than a bit from my few travels; I'll post something on the Dominican Republic very soon.

  3. John,
    I don't disagree with any of that, and very clumsily I was trying make the same distinction of blackness as an ontological but not biological fact.

    On further reflection, what I was trying to get at was the notion that, on the inside, if you understand me, black folks from different places experience and feel that blackness very differently. What I'm talking about is almost ... ineffable so I'm finding myself groping for the words. But let me try.

    I'm sure you've heard some of the statistics about mental illness and high blood pressure among African Americans? How it's the highest among the diaspora? (I recently read something about how the rate of mental illness increases for Black Caribbean immigrants). Blackness, however we define it, appears to sit on Americans (estadounidenses) with a particular, perhaps unique, weight.

    We can argue about why that is--on some points we'd probably agree with one another--but I've become convinced over time that at least part of heaviness of the experience of being African American lies in our extreme self- consciousness and sensitivity (to racist--actual and perceived--slights). I'm not touching on whether that self consciousness is a good or bad thing, for better or worse (in serving us in the long run) or justified; just noting that it sits heavily on the shoulders.

    I've found--just for myself; it needn't prove true for any other--that in trying to understand or enter the "inner space" of being black elsewhere in the America's--really feel it, as it were, not merely intellectually or historically reconstruct it--that a rigorous application of U.S. style postcolonial language, theory and rhetoric tend to take me further from the kind of understanding I'm hoping for.

    Kai in NYC