Tonight I'll post a link to an article on one of my inexhaustible interests, Brazil. More specifically, yesterday's Brazzil.com 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.