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CDY24110.1177/0921374012452808Cultural DynamicsVargas



Gendered antiblackness
and the impossible Brazilian
project: Emerging critical
black Brazilian studies

Cultural Dynamics
24(1) 3–11
© The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0921374012452808

João H. Costa Vargas
University of Texas at Austin, USA

A new generation of black Brazilian scholar-activists is asking critical questions about the polity’s
nature and process. No longer restricted to Brazilian white-dominated, Eurocentric academic
canons and rituals, these black voices, rooted in collective efforts aimed against ubiquitous and
persistent gendered antiblack discriminatory practices, challenge the social world’s cognitive and
political machinery. Sônia Santos, Jaime Alves, Luciane Rocha, and Maria Andrea Soares zero in
on black experiences that consistently reveal a structure of antiblack antagonisms. Their analyses
suggest the imminently corrupt character of the dominant Brazilian social and ideological project.
Whether the project can be reformed, or whether it should be destroyed and replaced depends
on how we read and how far we are willing to take each analysis.

black diaspora, Brazil, gendered antiblackness, violence

Sônia Santos, Jaime Alves, Luciane Rocha, and Maria Andrea Soares, the authors of the
essays in this volume, provide suggestive insights about the gendered experiences of
blacks and blackness in Brazil. The writings are compelling because of the dense ethnographic materials they present and analyze. As well, these essays’ importance lies in the
litany of heuristic propositions, hypotheses, and political and aesthetic projects they generate. They speak of black life and social death as intermingled strands of diasporic
geographies. And they embrace and draw from the seemingly difficult, if not impossible,
positions of gendered blackness, thus revealing both dystopian and cautiously hopeful
scenarios. These essays are as much about black subjection as they are about black objection
to subjection (Moten, 2003).
Corresponding author:
João H. Costa Vargas, African and African Diaspora Studies Department, University of Texas, Austin,
TX 78712, USA.


Cultural Dynamics 24(1)

Between the no longer and the not yet, caught in this uncertain yet potentially transformative moment, this new generation of black Brazilian scholar-activists is asking
critical questions about the polity’s nature and process. No longer restricted to Brazilian
white-dominated, Eurocentric academic canons and rituals, these black voices, rooted
in collective efforts aimed against ubiquitous and persistent gendered antiblack discriminatory practices, challenge the social world’s cognitive and political machinery. In
dialogue with, and/or opposing Brazilian state institutions and the premises and practices of civil society, Santos, Alves, Rocha, and Soares zero in on black experiences that
consistently reveal a structure of antiblack antagonisms. The black social world is a
world under war.
This new generation builds from the insights of Abdias do Nascimento and Lélia
Gonzalez, among many other black Brazilian critics. Although these emerging authors
express themselves in English and are deeply immersed in various black feminist currents, they develop a set of analytical strategies that de-center the Anglophone-dominant
perspectives on the black diaspora and on black feminisms. Drawing on ethnographic
material gathered in and about black Brazilian social dynamics, they focus specifically
on black women’s reproductive health, black youth practices that reclaim urban spatiality, black mothers’ experiences of violence, and representation of blacks and blackness
in popular culture. Yet, producing an articulated set of pressing insights, the writers point
to related components of the polity’s antiblack foundation. Although none of the authors
says it explicitly, their analyses suggest the immanently corrupt character of the dominant Brazilian social and ideological project: from the perspective of the Afrodescended,
Brazil is a fraud. Whether the project can be reformed, or whether it should be destroyed
and replaced depends on how we read and how far we are willing to take each analysis.
One of the experiences the black Brazilian authors in this volume have in common is
immersion in and active engagement with black diaspora perspectives within and outside
the Brazilian nation state. In various degrees identified with the (rather ostentatiously)
self-described Austin School of Black Diaspora studies (Gordon, 2006), Santos, Alves,
Rocha, and Soares inhabit and willingly theorize from an outsider-within standpoint,
whether they find themselves in Brazil, the United States, or elsewhere. Black individuals produce heightened social dissonance in white canonical spaces of academia and
administration, including government- and non-government-sponsored events and initiatives, universities, conferences, and well-regarded public forums. Variations of gender,
color, and social class impact the dissonance level. At the level of analysis, the dissonant
quality of the authors’ standpoints means that their works are not yet accepted as legitimate representations of Brazilian and black diaspora processes. In Brazil and the United
States, even though these authors are always under the suspicion that is cast on any black
intellectual, the suspicion they experience is compounded by their transnationality. All of
which is to say that, while the ‘no longer’ is certainly palpable, the ‘not yet’ suggests a
scenario of integration and respect that is, at best, a long shot. The authors’ professional
experiences are themselves evidence of a diasporic structure of antiblack dispositions. To
make matters even more complex and embattled, it is quite apparent that non-blacks do
not exclusively enact such antiblack dispositions.
Santos, Alves, Rocha, and Soares refuse to ask the utterly misinformed, laced with
bad faith, and downright irresponsible question about whether gendered antiblackness is



relevant. Rather, the authors in this special issue, directly or by implication, query: how is
gendered antiblackness manifested in civil society and state practices? This important
question leads to the central, critical inquiry: can the Brazilian polis integrate blacks?
Speculating along these lines, one can propose: if the polis is not able to integrate blacks as
de facto, full citizens, then the polis, from a black standpoint, is an impossible project and
event. The chronos of integration––elapsed time, imagined time, experienced time––is an
impossible chronos. It ensues that the gendered black subject is an impossible subject,
one whose impossible gender, impossible blackness, impossible being, inhabits the very
impossible co-ordinates of time and space that make the nation possible. The nation is
possible because the gendered black subject, qua subject, qua citizen, is an oxymoron.
Always already, thus timeless, thus outside of the linearity of time, the impossible black
subject occupies the zones of death. It is not accidental that, in Santos, Alves, Rocha, and
Soares’s writings, death is such a prominent event––always present as a possibility, as
experience, as representation, as repetition, almost banal. That we, at times, still become
enraged by the seemingly needless death of a black person––although it would be a stretch
to say we are surprised––suggests that, in some powerful, though not always transparent
ways, blacks long for acceptance and inclusion. Whether acceptance and inclusion are
attainable and realistic goals depends on one’s position on antiblackness: is it destructible, or at least controllable? And if so, how? And who can and should be involved in the
To engage with these questions is to cut through thick and deep layers of a dominant
cognitive machine that suggests a fundamentally divergent scenario, structured around
a set of related and hegemonic narratives: the Brazilian nation is all-embracing; antiblack racism, when and if exists, can be, will be, and is already waning; and the present
economic boom, managed by competent, unusually popular left-wing administrators
(Presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff paradigmatically symbolizing the moment) will
lift all boats, including that of the Afrodescended. Such cognitive apparatus expresses
and reaffirms a mythical ontology that welcomes blackness, accepts, seeks, and already
embodies miscegenation and social harmony. The superhuman, all-loving, cosmic, confident social figure that embodies this ideological machine is a cyborg. This cyborg
requires and enacts the magical elimination of blacks––magical because elimination is
presented as its precise opposite: as benevolent amalgamation. This cyborg, as seductive as it appears, needs to be destroyed because its desire for mixture, as Abdias do
Nascimento would say, is a technology of massacre. The optimistic national project and
its attendant ontology, I hear the authors in this volume suggesting, are deceptive inasmuch as they consistently produce black social death.
In the essays that follow, the intersections between gendered blackness and contested
geographies are a key analytical challenge. The recognition that such intersections are at
the crux of a black diasporic condition and process––that of the embattled black presence
in nation states of the Americas––figure prominently in each of the authors’ explorations
of political constraints and possibilities concerning Brazilian world cities. As Soares’s
analysis of visual representations of blackness indicates, to speak of the embattled black
presence is to engage with the dominant white gaze. A gaze that demands control, distance, separation. A gaze that is threatened by the prospect of being seen, which means
the prospect of having its vantage point challenged, its privileges questioned, its purity


Cultural Dynamics 24(1)

negated. Based on Frantz Fanon’s analysis of black ontology (1967: 110), we can surmise that the gendered black body must be gendered and black in relation to white gaze
(itself always already gendered and racialized). The reverse, though, is not true. In the
case of the black body gendered as male, Fanon concludes that ‘[t]he black man has no
ontological resistance in the eye of the white man’. In other words, the white gaze, and
the gendered white being, is not dependent on the black gaze. Indeed, the white gaze,
and therefore the white being, depends on the assumption that, while it sees, captures, and
objectifies––‘Look, a Negro[/Negress]’––it is shielded from blackness.
The essays by Santos, Alves, Rocha, and Soares engage a lingering problem affecting
Brazilian society: what is the place of blacks and blackness in the national imaginary,
political arenas, and urban landscapes? While there may be a place for blackness in the
realms of representation and performance (for example, as ritual, as consumption, as
fear, as desire, as ontological opposite), at times celebrated, at times negated, often both,
the question about the place of blacks––as bodies, communities, and land––is complex,
and because it invites us to contend with the actual results of social representations and
practices, perhaps more urgent.
The distinction between blackness and blacks is of course an analytical strategy that
has little analogy to experience: it would be a challenge to identify the manifestation of
one without the impact of the other. Emphasis on the split, however, allows for an examination of a founding contradiction of Brazilian social relations and representations,
namely, the simultaneous negation of the relevance of race in general, and blackness in
particular, and the hyperconsciousness of race, and blackness specifically, as normative
parameters from which behavior, representations, and institutional arrangements draw.

Relational analyses of gendered antiblackness
In a black diasporic perspective, the grammar of antiblackness structures the social and
cognitive worlds in ways that allow for parallels, connections, and analogies across
boundaries of time and geography (Barlow, 2003; Harrison 2002; Robinson, 2000;
Winant, 2001). In the specific case of critical studies on Brazilian social relations, Angela
Gilliam (2001), Michael Hanchard (2003), Sonia Santos (2008), Keisha-Khan Perry
(2009), Jaime Alves (2009), and Luciane Rocha (2010), among others, have emphasized
their similarities vis-à-vis other nation and empire states (Jung, 2011), rather than the
commonly assumed Brazilian social architecture’s sui generis character. This is not to
negate Brazilian social relations’ specificities; rather, it is to analyze those unique traits
in the context of an overriding diasporic antiblackness that structures social worlds in
particular yet related manners. A glance at social and official economic indicators, in the
United States and in Brazil, suffices to conclude that, local inflections notwithstanding,
in both places life chances in the spheres of work, housing, criminal justice, and health
are correlated to one’s racial positionality (Paixão, 2010; Telles, 2006; Winant, 2001),
and that the closer one is to blackness, with variations according to the ways gender
articulates with race, the greater the level of disadvantages. Greater disparities exist
between blacks and non-blacks, rather than within racial groups, a pattern indicative of a
diasporic antiblack structure of gendered racial antagonism (Harrison 2002; Hartman,



1997, 2007; Wilderson 2010). Exploring the implications of a diasporic perspective that
centers antiblackness, Jared Sexton (2010: 47) writes:
If the oppression of nonblack people of color in, and perhaps beyond, the United States seems
conditional to the historic instances and functions at a more restricted empirical scope,
antiblackness seems invariant and limitless (which does not mean that the former is somehow
negligible and short-lived or that the latter is exhausting and unchanging). If pursued with some
consistency, the sort of comparative analysis outlined above would likely impact the formulation
of political strategy and modify the demeanor of our political culture. In fact, it might denature
the comparative instinct altogether in favor of a relational analysis more adequate to the task.

Variations of a relational analysis structure Santos, Alves, Rocha, and Soares’s essays.
Relational analyses build from the facts of transnational gendered blackness and examine
its local manifestations. Stressing antiblackness, this perspective specifies white supremacy by rendering it a historical discourse of power that depends on the association between
blackness, on the one hand, and non-humanity, exclusion, abhorrence, on the other. When
reflecting on the constitution and effects of gendered white supremacist racial hierarchies,
blackness, and black bodies gain central––not total––relevance as demarcating zones of
death from which dominant and subordinated groups are constituted (Sexton, 2010: 48).
The white supremacist continuum of relative belonging becomes one that stresses black
exclusion as the paradigmatic exclusion. A field of continuities, rather than ruptures,
defines the black diaspora and its nation states.
As the essays by Santos and Rocha more pointedly remark, the gendered aspects of
antiblackness constitute a significant thread of diasporic networks. Hortense Spillers, for
example (2003: 214–15), advances that the gendered dynamics specific to the survivors of
the so-called ‘middle passage’ are necessarily related, but yet not reducible to the dominant
gender norms that overdetermine non-blacks. The argument goes as follows. A suspension
of gender distinctions preceded, and an overriding violence imposed on black bodies
defined, the black presence in the diaspora. Gender norms thus constitute an embattled
field that, on the one hand, is heavily impacted by standards of hegemonic respectability,
and on the other provides various possibilities that, as they question normalized expectations of gendered social performance, impact structures of race and gender.
A critical reading of slavery’s afterlife means bringing social structures of the past, not
as an unchanging same, but as symbolic reservoir whose energy dissipates into contemporary formations of race and gender. Taking into account the past in the present, and thus
the present as reanimation and modification of the past, the following heuristic propositions emerge out of the essays. (Notice how they engage and thus necessarily modify, dislocate, a diasporic dialogue that has tended to be Anglophone and centered in experiences
of black writers and communities in English-speaking states.) First, as Santos, Alves,
Rocha, and Soares suggest, placed outside of the normatized female and male gender symbology, the black female and male inhabit no predetermined social field (Spillers, 2003:
228). This is not to negate the obvious: black bodies are overdetermined by continuing
violence (Hartman, 1997: 86). This violence expresses and reproduces a plethora of
‘controlling images’ (Collins, 1991). To emphasize social forces that subjugate bodies
according to ever-shifting, yet constraining, gender norms is to recognize the ways in


Cultural Dynamics 24(1)

which controlling images function as stereotypes that are both imposed and resisted. The
‘Mammy’, the ‘welfare mother’, and the ‘criminal blackman’ (Russell, 1998), for example,
generate expectations about a person’s nature and behavior based on his or her assumed
race, gender, and sexuality. At the same time, to oppose such expectations is to, forcefully,
craft alternative sets of assumptions and conduct. And this constitutes the second heuristic
proposition emerging out of the essays: as much as black bodies are subjected to dehumanization, they also perform counter-narratives that, although not always effective in negating
the imposed norms, nevertheless suggest possibilities beyond the material and symbolic
confines of gendered antiblackness. Such confines are not just about one’s body and behavior; they produce spatial and therefore political boundaries. Which is to say, the performative possibilities announced in this volume’s essays are as much about psychic survival as
they are about symbolic reconfiguration and political experimentation.

Brazil in the diaspora, the diaspora in Brazil
Currently, many urban conglomerates in Brazil can be examined as terrains of possibilities within, in spite of, and as a symptom of overwhelming antiblack processes. Dense and
complex black social networks are juxtaposed to land that has been, perhaps even more so
in the last few years, a battleground between competing social projects (e.g. Carril, 2006).
Historical black geographies––evidence of an actual apartheid (Oliveira, 2007; Rolnik
1989) defined by violence, exclusion, and the disproportionate presence of black people––have
become the main focus of unprecedented police and military occupation. To annihilate the
drug trafficking gangs ensconced in those areas is the official objective.
Brazil, more broadly, constitutes an interesting case given the current economic context marked by inflation control, minimum wage increase, and public policies, such as
the Bolsa Família (Family Stipend) that were effective in transferring income to impoverished families. Given that blacks––who in Brazil include blacks and browns (negros e
pardos, in Portuguese) according to the census––are disproportionately represented
among the poor, is it small wonder that they were the main beneficiaries of such redistributive policies. Yet, a critical focus on gendered antiblackness makes possible to raise
questions about the viability of the black presence in Brazil even in a context of apparent
black social uplift. For instance: in 2007, in 26 of 27 Brazilian states, the rate of mortality
by homicide for black men was greater than the rate for white men, and the asymmetry
had exponential magnitude: in the state of Paraíba, for example, it was 1,181.4 percent
higher; 806.9 percent higher in Pernambuco. In the state of Rio, that rate was 130.0 percent higher for blacks than it was for whites (Paixão, 2010: 255, 256). More telling,
perhaps, is what is called ‘homicide by legal intervention’, that is, homicides committed
by individuals working for the state, especially the police. Notwithstanding the documented underreporting patterns regarding such homicides, between 2001 and 2007,
blacks accounted for 61.7 per cent of their total, 64.5 per cent for 2007 (Paixão, 2010:
259). Blacks are overrepresented in rates of violent death, preventable death by disease,
blocked access to health care, and other indicators suggesting long-standing patterns of
exclusion (Paixão, 2010: chs 2, 4). One hypothesis that emerges out of the works by
Santos, Alves, Rocha, and Soares is that, whereas currently blacks experience unprecedented economic gains, they are also disproportionately victimized by state neglect



(in the spheres of education and health, for example) and, more pointedly, violence.
While economic uplift suggests a degree of assimilation into an expanding consumer
market, state neglect and violence indicate a structural, long-duration antiblack disposition that calls into question the possibility of full black integration and citizenship. In
debate is whether, and to what degree, black life is viable in the Brazilian polity.

Setting up the world stage
To contextualize the problems the essays in this volume address, let us briefly focus on
Rio de Janeiro’s recent events. Alves is the only author in this collection whose research
is not primarily based in Rio. Yet his insights on São Paulo’s struggles over territory suggest a macabre cornucopia of parallels and continuities.
Following the infamous massacre of 2007 in the Complexo do Alemão, a working
class, mostly black area in the city’s northwest, when 19 people were killed in a single
police operation, the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan region witnessed an unprecedented
wave of violent, apparently coordinated acts of defiance against the state and civil society.
Burning of buses, trucks, and passenger cars; shootings of police officers, including the
downing of a police helicopter in Morro dos Macacos in October 2009 (22 people were
killed in that operation); and even bombings in tourist areas (Salles, 2007)––all have
marked the city as the national stage on which Brazil’s emerging modernizing project is
On 2 October 2009, Rio was announced as the 2016 Olympic Games host. Responding
to the security concerns voiced during the host-city selection process, Rio state’s governor, Sérgio Cabral, signaled his resolve to assure social control by hiring Rudolph
Giuliani, New York City’s former mayor, as the Games’ security advisor. While Giuliani
drew much of his municipal and national approval from his zero-tolerance stance on
crime, it is also well known that, among the city’s black population, few administrators
have surpassed his level of disapproval (Powell, 2007). The brutality the New York
Police Department employed on members of disadvantaged communities, and especially
the black, were notoriously exemplified in Amadou Diallo’s murder: in 1999, in the
Bronx, he was shot at 41 times by four plain-clothes officers. Earlier, in 1997, Abner
Louima was brutalized and sodomized with a broken handle of a bathroom plunger by
police officers in Brooklyn. That Diallo was a Guinean immigrant, and Louima is originally from Haiti, suggest deep and broad diasporic resonances. These resonances reaffirm the necessary place the Brazilian nation state occupies in these webs of gendered
inflections of race, impacting and impacted by struggles over rights to the city and, ultimately, land ownership.
Many of the Brazilian marines employed in the police operations in Rio and other
Brazilian cities are Haiti veterans. Brazil leads the military component of the United
Nations Stabilizing Mission in Haiti, in operation since 2004. Military missions not
unlike those employed in Rio have killed dozens of Haitian persons on several occasions.
For example, on 6 July 2005 at least 26 people were killed in a successful assassination
attempt on Emmanuel ‘Dred’ Wilmer, also known as Dread Wilme, and four of his closest followers. Wilme was openly hostile to the UN military occupation of his country and
opposed the ouster of the constitutional president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (US Labor and


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Human Rights Delegation, 2005). The significance of these diasporic events cannot be
overstated; they suggest lines of continuity between territories separated by geographical
distance, but brought closer due to the frequent utilization of police-military occupation
and pacifying tactics against civilians, the familiar sites of black exclusion from the
nation state, and the almost expected overrepresentation of black bodies as the victims of
lethal violence. Rather than diasporic comparisons, then, what the violent struggles in
Rio suggest is a deep, ongoing, and revealing set of relations between the ways in which
gendered antiblackness becomes manifested in and through so-called pacification missions. Rio becomes interesting not because it is unique, but because it offers a variation
of a repressive apparatus that is diasporic in its reach and effects.
In Rio de Janeiro, this five-year sequence of frequent deadly confrontations offers a
window into a historical pattern of longer duration, dating back to at least the establishment of similar informal settlement at the turn of the 20th century (Moreira, 2006;
Perlman, 2009). The essays in this volume remind us that blackness plays a central role in
defining the scope, lethality, and prolonged intensity of such conflicts––conflicts that are
as much about taking control of embattled territories as they are about carrying out on
Rio’s city spaces a national modernizing project that seems to have little, if any, tolerance
for autonomous black land control and, ultimately, autonomous, black political agency.
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Biographical Note
João H. Costa Vargas teaches Black Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.