Note from BW of Brazil: So, it wasn’t just me. I’ve talked about this issue in numerous past posts, but the reason I continue to cover it is seeing increasing numbers of black Brazilians across the country who are also “getting it”. When I first began visiting Brazil two decades ago, I had read how common it was to see interracial unions throughout the country. “Big deal”, I thought. After all, mixed unions had been increasing by leaps and bounds in the United States, and I personally noted it and remained in tune as other African-Americans began to take note.
I remember some time toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century, I had this friend named Carl that grew up and still lived in Washington DC. He had been there since the city had been known as the “Chocolate City”, but for a number of years, Carl had been seeing a transition going down in DC. Not only did it seem that the city had been targeted for gentrification, but he was concerned with the rising number of “salt and pepper couples” as he called them. I would speak to Carl by phone every now and then, and it was something he always mentioned. I had visited DC as well as Baltimore, Maryland, a few times between 2008 and 2012 and, honestly, I didn’t see what he saw. But then again, I didn’t live there.
I acknowledge that I had seen a signficant rise of interracial couples in my home state of Michigan and had also read that out West, in states such as California, Colorado, Arizona and others, it was slowly turning into a northern version of Latin America.
Lest anyone accuse me of disparaging interracial couples, do understand that disrespecting anyone or any couple is never my intention, but rather making an analysis of the phenomena in society. To be truthful, in my own life I have also experimented with what many people label as “swirling”. Granted, this was early in my dating life, but in that period between my teen years and my early to mid-20s, I learned a lot about race in America.
By the time I became fascinated with Brazil, my political and personal development would transform me into a completely different person than I was in my teens and early twenties. But, isn’t true of just about everybody? By the 21st century, I was far more interested in the factors that lead people of different ethnicities to come together rather than the simple acceptance of the cliché that people “just fell in love”, as is often said. Naw, I’ve been convinced that something much deeper is going on for years now, and the Brazilian situation offers plenty to investigate for anyone interested in the topic.
When I first became aware that upwardly mobile black men marrying white women was an issue in Brazil, it must have been around 2006 when I read an online forum of mostly black Brazilian women letting their feelings be known about seeing popular musician Jair “Jairzinho” Oliveira marry a white woman. It exposed yet another myth about Brazil, one that actually laid the grounds for the second one.
First of all, as Brazil had always defined itself as a ‘racial democracy‘, it was the perfect explanation for why it seemed to be almost automatic that successful black men and women would marry non-black partners. But like the ‘racial democracy’ idea had been debunked for decades, it shouldn’t have been surprising that there were black women who expressed dismay at seeing the romantic choices of so many black males.
Even knowing that Brazil was never a racial democracy, I admit I wasn’t expecting to discover that so many black women took issue with seeing another successful black man “get away”. After all, the Brazilian narrative would have us believe that this sort of reaction could only happen in a country like the United States. As it would turn out, less than a decade later, black Brazilian women would make such an issue out of what they felt was abandonment on the part of black Brazilian men that they coined a term to give a name to the phenomenon: palmitagem.
But even with the rise of debate some time between 2012 and 2014, judging from online comments of everyday people, the general collective opinion continued to be that the existence of so many interracial unions “proved” that “love had no color“. But with each passing year, more and more black Brazilians, both men and women, began to seriously question the validity of this conclusion. In fact, as Léia Abadia recently put it, “black people, of public life, who only have relationships with white people, today are questioned”.
Singer/songwriter/musician Gilberto Gil is a legend and his contributions to Brazilian culture and music are impossible to ignore. When non-Brazilians first get into Brazilian music, Gil is usually one of a handful of internationally known Brazilians whose music they become familiar with. But with the rise in the questioning of so many rich and famous black Brazilians marrying white partners and thus initiating a progressive whitening of their families over the course of a few generations, Gil has become the topic of numerous memes in which black Brazilians make of him a type of “poster boy” of the whitening process of so many black Brazilian families.
To be clear, it’s not just Gil. If one were to create a sort of famous black Brazilian challenge to name those with black spouses, one would have trouble naming more than a handful. And it’s not just a question of the physical whitening process, but also the transfer of the wealth from black hands to white and the maintenance of the legacy which, after a few generations, shows a family in which one wouldn’t even know there were black people in the family tree.
It’s actually quite amazing how thorough the whitening process has been in Brazil. When I began to learn about African-American history decades ago, usually when I would learn about a particular important African-American, I would ocassionally see photos of that person’s children, grandchildren or those who represent his or her legacy today. These representatives are usually black. In the case of important Afro-Brazilian historical figures, this is often not the case. One of these, I’m going to do a piece on some of my findings.
For now, below Davi Nunes analyzes the racial legacy of Gilberto Gil. To be sure, the musical great’s family still isn’t quite white….But it’s most definitely getting there.
Palmitagem and the plunder of the black legacy
By Davi Nunes*
Palmitagem forbids, with all its affective nuances, the construction of generational wealth among black people in Brazil. Eugenics is also cultural, financial, capitalist. Branquitude (whiteness) knows this well, so it appropriates, through a loving relationship with wealthy black women and black men, the black monetary and cultural legacy.
The photo above of the family of famed musician Gilberto Gil illustrates this well: in two generations, the financial, cultural, emotional fortune constructed by the genius of Gilberto Gil and his artistic and intellectual capacity to capture and express blackness has become a legacy of his white grandchildren. Gilberto Gil was caught up in Brazilian eugenics, by the A Redenção de Cam (painting), and, in a melancholy manner, became the black grandfather of a mostly white family.
It is obvious that eugenics – the state policy of the Brazilian republic to embranquecer (whiten) the country – as we can see represented in the painting by Modesto Brocos (1852-1936) structured society throughout the 20th century and the Gil family, like many others, has not escaped from this. Let it be evident that we don’t blame any black people, they were/are victims of a state policy that served and serves to maintain poder branco (white power).
Palmitagem is a term that appeared in the first decade of the 21st century. It is a popular arrangement that defines Brazilian eugenics and the affective subservience of black people to white people.
The palmitagem scheme is not only in the field of affection, it is the symbolic and also the financial. Any black person (male or female) in Brazil who ascends economically seems to have to pay a dowry to whiteness – to take some white person away from affective and economic failure.
Black people, within this relationship scheme proposed by eugenics, when they reach a prominent position in society, they cannot help in the economic growth of their racial group, because structural palmitagem makes them turn around three generational corners and their material and cultural goods end systematically in the hands of whiteness.
The whiteness in Brazil in relation to the so-called victorious blacks has a plundering behavior and its performance ranges from the futebol (soccer/football) player who has little racial literacy and awareness of the formation of his own country to black artists and intellectuals.
It is worth highlighting the second case, since in the 20th century there were several situations of black people important to blackness and the country’s history that succumbed to palmitagem, constructing white families, or even, via marriage, leaving their cultural and economic assets in the hand of the white partner. Wealth, through the affective relationship, is systematically hijacked from the black social group to constitute the power and privilege of whiteness.
I suspect that this does not happen only in relation to heteronormative experiences, but also among the black LGBTQI + population, seen as a fetish of a whiteness that dominates the social discourse of gender dissent, and that takes over the narratives of black sexual diversity to colonize the forms of affective relationship between black bodies. In this movement, many notable black people end up having their biography and cultural legacy managed by that white friend/partner.
When we talk and write about the importance of affection among black people and between black people who rise economically and culturally (which in the affection market are the most desired jewels and harassed by whiteness) it is because it is necessary for us to construct through dengo, affection, our generational wealth within our racial group, so affected by death and racism policies in Brazil.
It seems to me necessary that the affective union between black people can offer the next generations a less apocalyptic reality. Richer. In this sense, dengo among black people is an antidote against self-hatred, erasures in racism, is one of the few ways to contain the cultural, affective, sexual and economic pillaging systematically exercised by Brazilian whiteness.
* Davi Nunes is a master in Language Studies – PPGEL/UNEB, poet, short story writer and children’s book writer. He published Bucala: a pequena princesa do Quilombo do Cabula (2015), republishing a new edition of the book by Editora Malê (2019). He also published the short story book Zanga (2018) by Editora Segundo Selo.