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"Brazil", from Black in Latin America by Henry Louis Gates

"Brazil", from Black in Latin America by Henry Louis Gates

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Published by NYU Press
In this chapter from the companion book to the PBS Series, Gates travels to Brazil to try to discover why one of the world's largest black nations does not have a true racial democracy.

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In this chapter from the companion book to the PBS Series, Gates travels to Brazil to try to discover why one of the world's largest black nations does not have a true racial democracy.

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Published by: NYU Press on Jul 21, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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“I’ll say, ‘No, let’s have a chat!’ ” Álves went on, emphatically. “I sit
down, I put the child on my knee, and I say, ‘Your hair is beautiful. You
are beautiful. I’m organizing a fashion show, and you can be in it.’ And
the child starts to relax, and the next thing you know, the child is strut-
ting around. She’s all happy, all joyful, walking around like Gisele,” re-
ferring to Brazilian Gisele Bündchen, whom Forbes magazine recently
said was the highest-paid model in the world.
Álves wants to reach kids early, so she regularly visits schools and
community centers to promote black pride. It’s a big commitment, es-
pecially for a woman who runs her own business. But it drives her to
distraction to see Afro-Brazilians trying to leave their blackness behind
the way Chica da Silva did.
“Why do so many black women have low self-esteem here in Brazil
if they have Afro hair?” I asked. Why would black people be so alarmed
at having black hair in the world’s second-largest black nation?
“It’s a question of history,” Álves explained, shaking her head. “It’s
also a question of the media, too. You see it in the advertisements, in
magazines, on TV — you see that most of the women are white. If you
go and count, there might be one black girl, just one. And the rest are
white, with their hair straightened out. So black women can’t see them-
selves at all.”

Tey can’t see themselves at all, I thought, stepping out of the shop.
I turned back to wave at Álves and thank her again. But my mind was
spinning with questions. Black people were everywhere, but had they
absorbed Brazil’s urge to whiten itself? And their history included char-
acters like Chica da Silva, who had walked away from her blackness
— and been idolized for it. In the United States, everyone just sees me
as black, and that’s how I think of myself. But in Brazil, racial mixing
had made things far more complicated, more graduated, more nuanced,

So what is blackness in Brazil? And just how beautiful is white? As
someone with a mixed-race heritage myself, I decided to ask passersby
on the street what they thought of me. And I learned, quickly, that my
color was in the eye of the beholder.
“If I lived in Brazil,” I asked one man, “what color would I be?”
“Caboclo,” he answered.
I asked another man, “What race am I, what color?”
“Pardo,” he said.

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Brazil 39

Te answers kept coming, all diferent. “Light moreno.” “Mulato.”
“Cafuso.” Each was specifc, as if describing a diferent color of the rain-
bow. It seemed objective — to a point.
“We’re all black, even though we’re diferent colors,” one man


“I’m black,” another piped in. “He’s light moreno.”
“Black. He’d be black,” a woman said. “I’m not a racist, no.”
Her answer rung in my head. I couldn’t help noticing that those
who called themselves black and identifed me as black did so with a
certain defance, or apologetically. Many people wanted to be one of
Brazil’s seemingly endless shades of brown, not black, and to assure
me that I was brown, too. Were these categories, these many names for
degrees of blackness, a shield against blackness? Te mixing in Bahia,
Minas Gerais, and other areas in slavery times and replicating itself
since had produced Brazilians of a brown blend. But these many shades
of black and brown clearly weren’t equal.
I called my friend Professor Reis and described my experience to
him. He reminded me that there are in fact well over a hundred dif-
ferent words to describe degrees of blackness in Brazil: 134, in fact —
a word for every shade. Very dark blacks are preto or negro azul (blue
black). Medium-dark blacks are escuro. Preto desbotado refers to light-
skinned blacks. If you’re light enough to pass for white and you seem to
be trying, then you’re mulato disfarçado. Sarará means white-skinned
with kinky hair. Te country’s focus on color, it struck me, bordered on
obsession. Te list went on, and on, and on, dizzyingly.
I decided to return to Salvador, Brazil’s black capital, to fnd out
what in this country’s past made atitudes toward blackness so prob-
lematic — to learn more about Brazil afer slavery, when degrees of
blackness were already spread across the country. I met with Wlamyra
Albuquerque, another historian who teaches at the Federal University
of Bahia. We setled in the library at the Geographical and Historical
Institute, carefully drinking cool glasses of water so as not to damage
the fragile works in the archives. I asked her what the white ruling class
had thought about African culture in Brazil afer the abolition of slav-
ery in 1888. “Te elite reacted very badly to the end of slavery,” she re-
plied. “What bothered them was how to deal with the large population
of color. Various ministers who were a part of the government believed
that in order for Brazil to become a civilized country, it had to undergo

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Gates_pp001-248.indd 39

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