The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent
Note from BW of Brazil: Anyone who has paid any attention to the changes in Brazilian society over the past few decades would agree that the level of black consciousness and the anti-racism struggle has grown substantially in this period. This considering the hard years of the military dictatorship (1964-1985) when it was actually illegal to say that racism existed in Brazil. But even so, the anti-racism struggle and the raising of black consciousness has remained limited to a very small parcel of the non-white population. The funny thing about this is that when people become activists of the cause, many other Brazilians will negatively point the finger toward the “Americanization” of the racial issue.
I remember some time ago that a frequent reader of this blog consistently pointed the finger of influence at NGOs, academia and the United States when considering Afro-Brazilian activists who seek to unite all persons of visible African descent under the umbrella of blackness. This person didn’t seem to consider the fact that the influence of academic studies cannot compete on equal footing with the mass media. Various studies over the years have shown how much influence the Globo TV network, (Brazil’s most powerful media outlet) for example, has on its viewers and to believe that small NGOs, academic studies and black American history and culture can compete with this is absolutely absurd.
Arguably, as more Afro-Brazilians have access to higher education, the more conscious they become of the real racial situation in the country beyond all of the mythology of “racial democracy” and the “we’re all equal” rhetoric. But to expand the struggle, an overall expansion of consciousness will be necessary to reach those who may never reach the college level (the vast majority) but being non-white are still affected by the dominance of white supremacy. The question is, as the mass media remains governed by conservative ideals that deny or diminish the severity of white supremacy, how does the message spread?
The role of the media in the dissemination of racism and academic silence
By Danilo Santos
Definition of “suspicious attitude” by the Police of Sao Paulo, “especially individuals of brown and black color.”
Discussing racism in Brazil is very complicated; complicated because it lacks much seriousness in the debate within the lay public, a public as much passive as active to the discursive practices of racism. In the academic realm discussion is rich in the sense of bringing out new approaches and reinterpretations about our slavery colonial past. But the debate loses quality when the topic of “racism” closes, isolating itself in academic communities. When this happens, the scope of the racist discourse in the conservative layers is much greater on society. There is a necessity for academic researchers to democratize the fruits of their research in the more accessible media and in languages accessible to the laity. If not, prejudiced discourses of the Danilos Gentilis (1) will be more receptive, feeding the racist practices that we see today.
One of the main arguments of the racists, is that there is no racism in Brazil. For them, there is a “exacerbated victimhood” that sees racism in everything. To construct such an argument, they use the famous catchphrase: “But what harm is there in calling him a macaco (monkey)? (2) They call me palmito (heart of palm) and I don’t care.” This is what the Gentilis say. What they ignore is the fact that the inherent ideology to the animalization of black people was a determining factor in legitimizing the enslavement of black Africans from the time when that continent came under the yoke of the Islamic empire. Even in the ancient Greek writings, especially in the writings of Hippocrates and Galen, both doctors, the black African is represented analogously to the animal condition. But I will simplify and speak more of the construction of national identity in the official perspective to show how mistaken the argument is that there is no harm in calling a black person “macaco” and what it implies in practice.
When Abolition (of slavery) took place on May 13, 1888, Joaquim Nabuco said that the consequences of over 300 years of captivity would last for 100 years. 100 years passed and the consequences still linger. Nabuco had miscalculated, unfortunately. But what Nabuco did really mean? What are the consequences to which he referred? I believe that the greatest visionary and that answered this question was Machado de Assis (3). Machado said that blacks, after Abolition, would not attain full freedom because they were still excluded from the project of construction of national identity. He said that the oppressive structures to the slave would (re)signify in the oppression and exclusion of “black citizens.” The Republic promised in its discourse the elevation of all men to the category of “citizen.” This in discourse. In practice blacks continued relegated to the status of sub-humans. If before there was the figure of the capitão do mato (captain of the woods) (4), in the Republic we would have the figure of the police officer hunting for “vagabonds”.
No right to land and expelled from large plantations, the mass of former slaves would occupy urban centers. No job, exercising informal work, at the mercy of police repression. On the old plantations, in the place of blacks came the white Europeans. While Europeans came, the entry of Africans in the country was prohibited. The official strategy was the embranquecimento (whitening) of the country. The Brazilian government was even financing the journey of blacks who wanted to return to Africa. The Eugenics Education prevailed in school curricula, teaching white citizens the superiority of the ‘race’. The writers tried to give a national identity to Brazil, drinking at the fountain of European writers who diffused a deterministic evolutionist conception of the races. In this sense, for Karl von Martius and Varnhagen, historians of the Empire, the obstacle to the development of Brazil was the black race.
To get an idea of the strength of this ideology, I borrow the analysis made by Professor Eduardo França Paiva about the painting below.
The name of the painting tells us many things (5). Therefore, we will begin by analyzing the same. Cain was the son of Noah who was reprimanded by his father for having seen the patriarch naked. In the Jewish legendary tradition for this misconduct, the descendants of Ham were cursed to slavery, the Canaanites. But the Bible says nothing about the skin color of these descendants, and more, the Canaanites were not from the African continent, but neighbors of the Hebrews in the Middle East. But from where did Marco Feliciano get the idea that black Africans were the ones cursed? It is here that another character in History enters: Islam. In the legendary version of Islam, Africans were the cursed descendants of Ham, another son of Noah. It was Muslims who gave this version to legitimize slavery in Africa since the Abbasid caliphate. As Islam dominated the Iberian Peninsula, which is part of Portugal, the Portuguese seized on this Muslim version to legitimize African slavery in their colonies.
Analyzing the painting itself, the darkest woman is the allegory of the descendants of Ham and the colonial past. We don’t forget that the painting is from 1895, already in the Republic. So it tells us much about the ideal of the nation of the officialdom of power. At its center is a mulata girl, daughter of the old negra. The mulata has undergone the process of mestiçagem (racial mixture). The man, whiter, is the analogy of the typical Italian peasant. The child, already with completely white skin, is the analogy of the future. A future in which there would be no more blacks because of the process of mestiçagem; the future of the Republic and of development. The old negra raises her hands to the redeeming heavens, thanking the heavens for not bequeathing a black future on the nation. The child is a sign of “the blessing”, which refers to early Christianity, as if to say “Amen”.
As we can see, in only one analyzed painting, we can synthesize various discourses of interpreters not only of the Empire, but also the after Abolition. In fact, this ideology of exclusion of blacks in the formation of the nation through miscegenation, since they believed that the more miscegenation the whiter the homeland would be, reflected in the exclusion of blacks in the conquest of citizenship.
Just to cite an example of how this exclusion has worked, just a simple approach to the Vaccine Revolt, which occurred in the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1904. The Republic came with the promise of modernizing and urban reforms. It’s when the country wants to show itself as developed to the world. As we have seen that development was synonymous with embranquecimento, having Europe as a mirror, especially Paris of the Belle Époque, a Rio de Janeiro whose urban center overflowed with blacks everywhere would not be well-liked. In the diaries of travelers of the time there are reports of abomination in the city due to the large quantity of blacks.
Blacks were described as “social feces” in police reports; those responsible for the backwardness, for the disorder. It’s there that the hygienist policy Oswaldo Cruz fit like a glove to expel blacks from the downtown of the city. During the killing of blacks by the police in official reports blacks were relegated to contagious diseases to which the hygienist reform proposed to neutralize. Those who managed to survive occupied the morros (hills), which today are the favelas (slums). Others were placed in holds of ships and asphyxiated with lime and sent to forced labor in the Amazon. Many didn’t even survive the trip.
Excluded from the nation project, blacks were denied access to basic social rights that offered to them social mobility. They could not get formal jobs, they were mostly illiterate and being illiterate, didn’t even have the right to vote. So we have to scour the past and see which consequences of that past are in our present. By denying the humanity of a human being, calling him a macaco, we’re bringing forth a discourse used for hundreds of years to legitimize segregation and exclusion. This prejudicial discourse reflects in statistics on police repression, lag in education and social inequality. It reflects in the difficulty of fighting for political and social rights. It’s no use saying that there is no racism in Brazil when poverty, illiteracy, and cemeteries have black as the dominant color.
It’s more than time for academics and researchers involved with themes related to racism to take the spaces of conservative propagators. It is unacceptable that guys like Danilo Gentili remain at will to spread unanswered racism to his audience. To academics, I ask to leave this university bubble of conferences and seminars, and to come to the street. Occupy the most popular newspapers, radio stations, TV channels. Go face-to-face with society and dialogue in an accessible language. It is useless that we write only for scientific journals if such media does not reach the hands of that high school student who watches by TV the diffusion of veiled and hypocritical racism. If such initiative doesn’t come from down here, it will not come from neither Globo, nor SBT, nor any media of a large audience, since such as initiative directly affects the interests of those that maintain themselves in the of debasing others by skin color.
1. Danilo Gentilli is a popular comedian and host of a late night talk show. Over the years, Gentilli has become famous for making his below-the-belt, racist humor. In one incident that made headlines, Gentilli offered Thiago Ribeiro, a black man, bananas in a Twitter response after Ribeiro challenged the comedian over the racial overtones of some of his jokes. Ribeiro later took Gentili to court over the jokes. In the end, Judge Marcelo Matias Pereira found Gentili innocent of offending Ribeiro because he did not see in the Tweet from the comedian the purpose and intention of offending the victim. Such is the manner that racism continues to be dealt with in Brazil.
2. In Brazil, as in the rest of the world, the term macaco, meaning monkey, remains a very popular manner of insulting and dehumanizing persons of visible African descent.
3. Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, often known by his surnames as Machado de Assis, Machado, or Bruxo do Cosme Velho (June 21, 1839 – September 29, 1908), was a Brazilian novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, and advocate of monarchism. Widely regarded as the greatest writer of Brazilian literature, nevertheless he did not gain widespread popularity outside Brazil in his own lifetime. He was multilingual, having taught himself French, English, German and Greek in later life (Source). Although Assis was of African ancestry, there has long been a long discourse of whitening the author’s racial classification over the years culminating in an infamous TV commercial in which the writer was portrayed by a white actor. Protests by black leaders forced the creators of the commercial to replace the actor with an Afro-Brazilian.
4. In Brazil’s slavery era, the main task of the black capitão do mato was to hunt down, capture and return fugitive slaves to captivity.
5. “A Redenção de Cam” or “The redemption of Ham” by Modesto Brocos (1895) and the concept of embranquecimento (or whitening) in accordance with Brazilian elites’ ideals for the whitening the Brazilian population has been dealt with on other posts here. The painting represents the eventual disappearance of the black race through successive mixing with whites. The black grandmother, at left, looks to the heavens and thanks God for removing the “black stain” from the family after her mulata daughter gives birth to a white baby. The palm leaves in the background represent a symbol of hope.