Note from BW of Brazil: You would think that the title of today’s article would be totally obvious to anyone who reads it, but it doesn’t quite work like that. There are probably millions of people around the world who truly believe that the official abolition of five centuries of human bondage, if black people still occupy the bottom rungs of society, it’s their own fault. This type of thinking never ceases to amaze me. And because of the way that history is told, people continue to be basically ignorant or in denial about the situation of Africa’s people around the world and how they got into that position. In the thinking of a large percentage of these people, there is no concerted effort to make sure that black people remain in “their place” on a global level. Without getting too much into this, in the case of Brazil, for example, are we really to believe that, since 1888 (abolition), Brazil made every effort possible to make sure that its black and white citizens had equal access to every opportunity the nation had to offer? If you’ve read enough material on this blog you KNOW that is simply not the case. And below, Suzane Jardim challenges us to do some digging to understand some of the reasons for the condition of Brazil’s black population more than 130 years after the abolition of slavery.
(Only) slavery (doesn’t) explain the current situation of black Brazilians
By Suzane Jardim
Today, the one who is going to speak is not the festive Suzane. She is the historian Suzane, researcher of human sciences and of racial dynamics. Then you’ll have less joke and more sayings in a way that everyone can understand – or at least that’s the intention. We get knowledge it’s to spread it, so let’s go:
First, I come with something that may be new to some: not all Brazilian racism can be explained by the slave era.
I will explain:
in 358 years of slavery in Brazil, many places were formed, many things entered into the collective memory – but there came another 128 years later, obviously marked by conceptions of the slave era, but not only.
The very idea of racism as we know it today is a construct of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. No, Europeans did not enslave blacks because they were racist and because they believed in the inferiority of the race, not least because the concept of race did not exist in 1530 when black slavery was initiated in Brazil.
They were enslaved by: ethnocentrism (obviously the concept did not exist at the time, but that was what was going on, only the name came later), because they believed that people were inferior because they didn’t have the same level of development, because of not having the same God, because of not having the same dominion of science, of the writing technique and the like, for being “the others”.
Basically, the same reasons that motivated the great majority of systems of slavery that went on before 1400 and so many. African blacks were then savage, demonic, soulless, descendants of Cain – Noah’s cursed son, and a whole narrative involving Christianity, civilizing mission, and mercantilist spirit.
* about this, there is a little piece of my blog for Blogueiras Negras (Black Women Bloggers) that talks a little about this and also about the politics of whitening and theories of miscegenation that will be quoted later: WE DON’T BRING REDEMPTION IN OUR BELLIES: Maternity and Whitening
Race theories, the idea of racism and treatises on the intellectual inferiority of the Negro – as race – are after this period and a direct development of it.
It is, then, commonplace among historians, social scientists, Brazilianists and the like that only the slave period of the Modern Age doesn’t explain racism, but also the post-abolition developments in the Republican Brazil Era are fundamental to understanding our racial dynamics.
ATTENTION: Suzane is not saying “slavery doesn’t matter”, please don’t misrepresent. Suzane is saying that Slavery ALONE doesn’t explain it.
Brazilian racial dynamics and the marginalization of the black in our society are the fruit of an unfinished abolition, an abolition of a little lie that only served to put the Negro in a position apart from society.
When slavery was abolished, the vast majority of the country’s black population was either liberated or born free. They were all seeking a way to be inserted in the new society without slavery, that new and modern society in the European molds that the end of the Portuguese domination and the republican spirit announced.
BUT IN THE PRACTICE what happened was:
- the application of law to stimulate immigration with quotas (yes, look for them!) For European immigrants to fill job posts
- políticas de embranquecimento (whitening policies)
- dissemination of racist scientific theories in the popular and academic milieu (here we can quietly speak of racism without any shame), those in which the black was inferior to white, his intelligence was less, people with traços negros (black traits) had more propensity to crime or that sangue negro (black blood) “spoiled” the raça branca (white race) and it would be the decadence of Brazilian society in this new era of republicanism
- the criminalization of cultural practices and socialization among blacks different from those practiced previously.
* On this last point, I give as examples the “Projeto de Repressão da Ociosidade” (Project of Repression of Idleness), the precursor of the “Lei da Vadiagem” (Law of Vagrancy) that was promulgated in 1888, the same year of abolition (look at the “coincidence”) and aimed mainly to repress idleness of the freed blacks (yes, those who were unemployed because the jobs were occupied by immigrants, you know?) because they believed that vagabondage was the biggest cause of crime (work ennobles man and mimimi – ((whining)), so they imprisoned blacks walking the streets because … because yes, they could, just because of that … Or I can point out the fact that from 1889 to 1937, capoeira was a crime provided for in the Penal Code. Any small round of capoeira was six months in jail. And examples like this there are so many ….
All of these listed factors are obviously direct grandchildren of slavery, but they are indeed children of the concerns of the capital and the theories of progress in modern society. From the juncture of the two eras came many others, such as, for example, the sexualization of the black woman or her placement as subaltern in the labor market through domestic work done for the white.
And over the years, new oppressions and trends of this marvelous republican era are adding to this list of atrocities: the placement of blacks in the peripheries and favelas that came with urbanization, lack of sanitation, neglect of health, police training to recognize a suspect in a black, laws of repression of alcoholism and drug use, and several others.
Each of these points can generate a text as large as this one, with data, dates, legislation, public policy instructions, records etc – all of which is documented, archived and recorded. These were public policies, master’s theses, seminar themes, and all of this type of shit. That open and brazen racism that only began to be hidden from the 1930s with the populist government of Getúlio Vargas, that to contain the masses and appease them all, they gave a line to what we know as “racial democracy” and to that a wonderful myth that we always hear today that “não existe brancos no Brasil” (there are no whites in Brazil), “aqui tudo é mistura” (everything is mixed here), “não existe racismo aqui porque tudo é feliz e misturado” (there is no racism here because everything is happy and mixed).
Why the hell am I writing all this anyway?
Because it is extremely tempting to think that everything is explained by slavery in an absurd simplism. A lot.
Here is an example:
These days, you all were over at a site and saw a text that said that the black slave woman was forbidden to have vanity – could not make herself up, could not have accessories, could not see herself as a beautiful woman, etc.
It is true. The vanity of the black slave was in fact repressed because she was considered an affront to the white woman and a factor of “temptation” to the masters.
If we are to think of more recent dynamics what will we see?
Embranquecimento (whitening). Imposition of estética branca (white aesthetics).
For the black woman to be socially accepted in the white environment, she cannot be a “negra feia” (ugly black woman), she cannot be “mal arrumada” (badly groomed). She has to show that “apesar de negra” (despite being black) she can master the symbols and use them in her favor.
Cabelos alisados à ferro (hair straightened with an iron). Rudimentary makeup techniques to thin out features. Abandonment of the garments most connected to the black environment for the use of socially acceptable clothing within a padrão moderno, branco e europeu (modern, white and European standard).
These factors, the fruits of Republican policies of black exclusion and embranquecimento, tell much more about black women today than the old memory of the black woman’s lack of vanity in her enslaved condition.
Our grandmothers, if inserted in the big city, probably had their methods of straightening their hair. Our mothers too. And we ditto.
The vanity of the black woman within a standard socially accepted by the socidade branca (white society) – that standard where we have to appear menos negra (less black), the least poor, the least peripheral possible to have the least respect, you know? – it’s the law.
Let’s face it, let’s be honest: how many times have you heard those famous speeches of “if they are racist with you who are a beautiful black woman, imagine (how they are) with the ugly?”. How many times have you found that if you make yourself up, get dressed, dress well, embranquecendo (whitening yourself) etc, you would be less made fun of, less pointed to and suffer less everyday racism?
In this sense, the break with the logic of the imposition of a racial place would come from assuming an aesthetic that escapes this rule of whitening and not from a dichotomy between vain blacks and who dress well vs. blacks with no vanity that walk around ragged. This does not make any sense at all.
Obviously, this question passes through class factors, regionalisms and the like because I am not the owner of the hegemonic discourse and the social dynamics don’t not have a single totalizing answer. And of course, this is an extremely synthetic and simplistic text that does not intend to tell all the truths of the universe from the reading of one or two books.
That would be pretty ridiculous of me by the way.
This huge text is to call for reflection. Think historically. To know the history of the black Brazilian to be able to interpret our reality in a more honest way. To instigate the research. Make you go after the information and not accept anyone speaking from a position of authority saying I READ IT SO I KNOW. You too can read. You too are the shit and capable as anyone here.
(over time I will add footnotes with suggestions for readings to deepen the topics covered)