Note from BW of Brazil: Anyone who takes the time to dig into Brazilian history will come to the conclusion that the country’s famed “racial democracy” is not only a myth, but a blatant lie! Of course there are many dimensions to how racial discrimination functions, but the objectives are always the same: the exclusion of certain social/racial/gender groups. Although there were and still are plenty of Afro-Brazilians who are still victims of a belief in this mythology, there were and are many who not only perceived the lie, but took their own actions to address the issue. As featured in previous reports about blacks in Santa Maria (state of Rio Grande do Sul), São Paulo and Salvador (State of Bahia), Afro-Brazilians from Rio de Janeiro also created their own social organization when they were outright excluded or faced racial discrimination from white organizations. Below we feature the story of one Brazil’s most famous clubs for the promotion of black pride, black beauty and black cultural manifestations that played a major role in the later creation of the bailes black and charme dances from the 1970s to current days.
The flower of blackness
Created for the leisure of an ethnic elite, the Renascença Clube (Renaissance Club) sought new forms of social participation for the black population of Rio de Janeiro
By Sonia Maria Giacomini with info from Pedro Schprejer
Judging from the testimony of some veterans, in the Rio de Janeiro of the 1950s blacks didn’t have their turn when it came to experience their social relations. “In almost all the good places in the good restaurants, in the clubs, when some of us managed to get in, they looked at us ugly, mistreated us, we didn’t have a place to enjoy ourselves,” complains Victor, a professional conductor. According to his memory, he, friends and relatives could not move freely in urban spaces for leisure and entertainment. The reason: racial discrimination.
Social clubs of the middle class were among the places whose access was particularly difficult for blacks, although this was never explicit in its statutes and regulations. It was this deplorable situation that led a group of professionally successful pioneers that were considered well educated – as Victor – to the decision to found in 1951, their own social space in which they could be “at home”, free of constraints and racial pressures. Thus was born in the north zone of the old Federal District (Rio de Janeiro), Renascença (Renaissance), a “social, recreational and sports club”, as the statutes read, where blacks, not whites, called the shots. The Renascença name, meaning Renaissance, honored the Harlem Renaissance movement, which marked the blossoming of a new black American culture in the early part of the last century.
Throughout its history, marked by moments of brightness and darkness, harmony and discord, the Renascença Clube was guided by different projects and styles. Successive generations of members thought, naturally, in a different way, and saw the social space of Renascença as a stage for different functions. In these various steps, were also varied, among directors and associates, the ways of perceiving the black condition in Brazilian society – particularly the Carioca (Rio de Janeiro residents). After all, there were difficult basic questions to answer, and the destiny of the association depended on the answers. What kind of relations should blacks establish among themselves? What kinds of relations should blacks establish with whites? How should the black middle class affirm itself in a society that generally reserved for blacks the lower rungs of the social ladder and, as a result, associated them to the very values, behaviors and stereotypes of a subordinate status? These were the major issues faced in different ways throughout the history of the club.
Born in an old, small house with a large wooded backyard, located in the suburb of Lins de Vasconcelos, the Renascença Clube was founded by 29 members, all black. A social mobility project seemed implicit from the beginning: it was no accident that they chose as symbol of the club the fleur-de-lis, that according to Aurélio Dictionary, is a “heraldic ornament shaped like a stylized lily, distinctive of royalty in France”. At this time, it was the family that dominated the club. They sought to establish, through the Renascença Clube, a field of relations in which the children of successful black families could find people considered on the same social and cultural level, for friendship purposes or marriage. When the club opened, the black population with college-educated blacks represented less than 1%.
In the cultural activities of these early days, there was care for the improvement of members and the disclosure of certain patterns of classical culture. According to the memory of one of the founders, Lucília, it was common then, hearings and lectures on music and literature: “The partners met in the afternoon and, almost in the manner of the ancient literary clubs, listened to classical music, Brahms, Bach, Mozart. We had in the club many musicians, conductors, and also teas and soirees with poetry recitation.”
With the passage of time and the increase in the number of members and visitors great balls also began to be promoted. Held in the headquarters of well-known clubs in the city (Monte Líbano, Sírio and Libanês, Flamengo) or in prestigious halls of Hotel Glória, a preferable location of the white elite, these events are remembered in the interviews of the first members, such as distinctive and elegant moments of good taste. The men wore mandatory formal attire, flowers on their lapels, sometimes in dinner jackets or even tails. Women dressed in many silks, satins and lace, not forgetting the gloves and hats. It was done conforming to the canons, conventions and styles adopted by the “people of a level that attended the good clubs like the Tijuca, Grajaú and Fluminense,” says owner Lucília.
The Renascença of its fleur-de-lis times can be understood, therefore, as the project of a black elite in search of social affirmation. To get rid of the negative stereotype, they sought at all costs a positive stereotype: black, but cultured and refined; black, but with an organized family; black, but sober and relatively prosperous. Coinciding with the move of the headquarters from Vasconcelos Lins to Andaraí were a series of changes in the composition and activities of the club. Gradually a new project would emerge: instead of trying to approach the model of middle-class clubs, Renascença would welcome, under the condition of host, rich and famous, the intelligentsia, the well-born, people from the South Zone that squeezed themselves into contention for access to events that came to be promoted, such as concerts and rodas de samba (samba circles). Often these newcomers become members, which displeased the traditionalists who saw these new facts as “excessive opening” contrary to the original proposal of the members. Sparking criticism, the period was also marked by a large projection of the club in the media and by its inclusion in the circuit of fashion sites.
Regarded by members as the maximum moment of glory, the 1960s and ‘70s saw the club integrate itself into the geography of the city. This contributed substantially to the success of Renascença representatives in beauty pageants – Miss Guanabara, Miss Brazil, Miss Universe – which were highly valued at the time. Thanks to the success of their Misses in these contests, Renascença would become known – and recognized by their own members – as the “clube das mulatas” (club of the mulatto women). This was (and continues to be) an object of contradictory evaluations. The climactic election Vera Lúcia Couto in 1964 as Miss Guanabara, was seen by many if not most of the partners, as a victory of blackness, almost a memorable result from the collective effort of the group.
At that same moment, however, a part of the old leaders, unhappy with the direction the club was taking, withdrew in protest. When Renascença embodies the same ideas that whites have traditionally associated to the mulata, they thought, the club ends up, in a certain way, adhering to the common view of the place and the role of blacks in society and in national culture.
A new proposal began to emerge in the early 1970s, embraced by a group of young people at the disposition of redeeming the original proposal and, according to the member Francisco, “change the image of the Renascença as the club of the mulatas.” He praises the role of elders, but criticizes them for having transformed the Renascença into a “club that white men like very much, just like the Portuguese at the time of the senzalas (slave quarters).” “We were very dissatisfied,” says Francis, “when noticed that our girls were being harassed by those whites who actually had nothing to do with the club.” This group offered to black youth new forms of ethnic identification, finding in American soul the cultural – and musical ingredient – which would lead to crowded youth festivals held on Sundays.
Not exactly considered a rhythm or musical genre, but a unique way of interpreting songs, the term soul is also used to describe aspects of an ethos inspired by some black American personalities – Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Ray Charles, James Brown – that would express the feeling of a “black soul”. This same feeling was identified in the title character of the film Shaft, a black detective character in an American series that aired at the time on Brazilian TV. The “Noite do Shaft” (Shaft Night) dance held every Sunday, without interruption, for three years, is unanimously considered the most significant activity of this phase of the club. More than just a dance, all were united in a way of being black.
A pioneer in the black Rio scene, the cultural producer Don Filó began frequenting Renascença in the 1960s. Filó was one of the group leaders who spread in the black wigs club, social engagement and soul parties. “We brought this issue of racial consciousness at the height of the dictatorship. We were university students, politicized and did not agree with this view of the mulata woman as an object,” says Filó who said that after the dances, he was taken a few times to “interrogation” by agents of the military dictatorship.
Among the initial program of Renascença, in which they listened to Bach and Mozart, and the “Noite do Shaft”, passing through the era of the mulatas, come up a long way. In the first phase – the times of the aristocratic flor-de-lis – members cherished values such as sobriety, status condition, opting for “classic” taste, as did, they thought, the white elite. The second project was an open break with those initial values: it sought an ethnic integration ideal that included an attempt of acceptance by whites. There it was assumed the place that Brazilian society seemed to prescribe for blacks, as well as the “exoticism” of a show in which the mulher negra/mulata (black/mulato woman) occupied a prominent place.
The third phase seems to have opened a new universe of identity. In a way, inspired by the rhythms and attitudes of black Americans, it shares the original Renascença project, rejecting the place traditionally intended to attribute to blacks in Brazil and their symbolic complements: samba, the morro (hill), the favela (slum), Carnival. If in the 1950s the reference of Renascença was an idealized middle class, by hypothesis a lover of literary-musical soirees, in the 1970s also it sought an identity outside of established models.
The three projects represent three different ways of experiencing the condition of the black middle class in the city of Rio de Janeiro. What does this reveal? Ambiguity, certainly, but also the intentions of an ethnic group that rejected the idea of conforming to stereotypes. The fact is that the questions that members formulated in the time of the founding of Renascença have not yet been answered. They are open questions to be faced not only by blacks and black groups, but throughout Brazilian society.
Sonia Maria Giacomini is a professor of the Department of Sociology and Politics at PUC-Rio and author of book A alma da festa: família, etnicidade e projetos num clube social da Zona Norte do Rio de Janeiro – o Renascença Clube (The Soul of the Party: family, ethnicity and projects in a social club in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro – the Renascença Club (Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, Rio January: Iuperj, 2006).
Source: O Globo, Revista de História. Photos courtesy of CULTNE and the book A alma da festa: família, etnicidade e projetos num clube social da Zona Norte do Rio de Janeiro o Renascença Clube by Sonia Maria Giacomini (Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG; Rio de Janeiro: IUPERJ, 2006)