Brazil and Africa
A History of Modern Brazil
New Perspectives of Brazil
The publication of Gilberto Freyre’s masterpiece, Casa Grande e Senzala, in 1934, marked an epoch, not merely in the study of Brazilian history and sociology, but in a process which is sometimes pompously called Brazil’s quest for identity. In young ex-colonial nations scholars search the past to find the image of a national community distinct from that of the motherland. Before Freyre, most investigators had been depressed by the racial mixture of Brazil in a world dominated by theories of white superiority; slavery and miscegenation constituted the core of Brazilian social history. It was Freyre who turned racial mixture and a supporting racial tolerance into a national asset in his long study of the slave society of the great sugar plantations of the North East. His thesis was that the racial tolerance of the Portuguese colonizers combined with the shortage of white women in a slave society where Negresses were abundant, highly sexed, and incapable of serious resistance, to produce a racially tolerant mestizo nation. Half breeds were not the shame of Brazil but a peculiar and glorious contribution to civilization. He had found a national raison d’être.
No one will deny that the racial tolerance of Brazil stands in contrast to the simple white-black dichotomy of the Anglo-Saxon world; as Charles Wagley has pointed out, race in Brazil is a continuum, a sophisticated scale running from pure white to pure black. Less charitable critics emphasize that the chromatic scale corresponds with the economic; the blacks are poor and the whites marry into their own economic class, thus avoiding marriage outside their own race. Many will dispute Freyre’s picture of racial prejudice ironed out in bed or sexual images fixed, as Professor Rodrigues asserts, at the breast of a black wet-nurse. Unfortunately objects of desire are not always objects of understanding. Professor Rodrigues himself quotes, in defense of popular racial tolerance, a ditty which might lead others to different conclusions:
Don’t deny your hair mulatta
For in color you are mulatta
But color is not contagious mulatta
So I want your love mulatta.
Professor Rodrigues’s theme is at the same time an extension and a criticism of Freyre and a plea for a new independent and anti-colonialist foreign policy for Brazil. The plea for a truly national foreign policy, based on Brazil’s position as one of the greatest of the peripheral developing nations (whose interests must clash with the old, developed Europe of the center) is well grounded, although Rodrigues is surprisingly reticent about Brazil’s relationship with the United States. Less well grounded is the reasoning that, because it is a mestizo country, Brazil possesses peculiar talents and opportunities as the mediator between Africa and the world.
THE CASE FOR BRAZIL’S FUTURE as the sympathetic great intermediary between Africa and the world is based on a scholarly investigation of Brazil’s African past. Professor Rodrigues’s treatment of Brazilian opposition to British pressure for the abolition of the Slave Trade (seen as a conscious attempt to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.