Thoughts on Part Three of ‘Black in Latin America’: Brazil

The third episode of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ four-part documentary, Black in Latin America, takes place in my current country of residence: Brazil. He uncovers part of the mystique of this exotic, exoticized country by visiting favelas in Salvador and Rio, beauty salons in Belo Horizonte, and historical sites in Recife and Diamantina, discussing race relations with professors, rappers, actresses, activists, beauticians, community leaders, and religious leaders in a place that has historically billed itself as a “racial democracy.”

Gates expertly outlined a lot of the history of Brazil – as a plantation-based colony of the already mixed-blood Portuguese that saw an incredible amount of carnal relations between the European colonizer and the indigenous people and Africans who were colonized – that I personally knew after having traveled to the country numerous times before settling here, combined with extensive reading (here’s a start). But elucidating this history to an audience that was unaware of it (including the fact that an estimated ten times the number of enslaved Africans brought over to the Americas went to Brazil than to the United States and that the government sponsored a whitening program from the 1880s well into the 20th century) was a very good thing. His butchering of Portuguese names, not so much. Call me pedantic (as someone did in the comments to a previous post), but you are a Harvard professor making a multi-million dollar production; ask a native speaker how to pronounce the shit and at least try! You don’t have to sound like José Carioca, but ‘maya day san-toe’ and ‘Bwah Gentay’? Gimme a break.

Loved the interviews with stunning actress Zezé Motta (you KNOW there’s a racial problem in a country where this woman was described as “ugly”), grounded and affable hip hop star MV Bill (“look at the economic disparity in this country and you see ‘racial democracy’ exposed as a lie”), and elderly firebrand Abdias do Nascimento (bruh is not playing…his bitterness is aged in wood). Loved the images of Salvador, Diamantina, and Rio – the beauty of the people and the natural wonders is virtually unmatched. Loved finding out that one of the identifying rhythms of capoeira developed to warn the slaves, who practiced the martial art clandestinely, of approaching cavalry. Loved the shot of the newsstand with absolutely zero women of color on the magazines (Beyoncé pops up every now and then, but she doesn’t count anyway because she’s Creole, right?). Did not love Gates’ spiel about the necessity of affirmative action in Brazil: while I agree that it has been and continues to be necessary in some form in the United States, we had a university system and a parallel class of qualified, professional blacks who were prepared to move into companies and institutions when affirmative action was first established in the States. And we had the one-drop rule, which – legally – established who was who. Brazil’s public primary education system is a damn disgrace and the same American binary system of race just doesn’t work in the same way; yes, parity programs do need to be put in place in Brazil, but it needs to be a bottom-up approach that is better-tailored to Brazilian realities. That’s just my two-centavos.

My grade: A-

Watch the full episode. See more Black in Latin America.

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5 Responses to Thoughts on Part Three of ‘Black in Latin America’: Brazil

  1. Carla says:

    Beyonce’s creole? I had no idea.

  2. Joe says:

    Excellent review. I am curious about your ideas on this bottom up approach. The bottom up approach was tried in the US in the late 19th century by Booker T. Washington. While he was working in the constraints of the Jim Crow south, history, particularly Black History, hasn’t been very kind to him. This is where he and W.E.B. Dubois diverged in their ideas of how to break black people of their mental slavery.

    Your final sentences sounds much like accommodationist notions that systems change from within. The reality is systems never change on their own. Black Brazilians won’t get economic parity by working within the realities of the system just like Black South Africans weren’t going to end apartheid by working the system. Affirmative action is one way of breaking the walls, by injecting an excluded society into an inclusive one. The other is revolution where you dismantle the system by force, or legislation.

  3. kwerekwere says:

    joe, i’m going to have to stop you right there. the problem with brazil — and everywhere else in latin america, which is a major reason of why this series exists in the first place — is that the racism was not legislated. it might have been societal and institutionalised, but you won’t find much in the way of legalised racism.

    it’s a major, major reason that several people i know here in south africa where raised here as coloureds instead of as pardos in brasil. when you know were you stand in the law, and society follows the law, it’s easier to circumvent. when an job advert says “de boa aparencia” — you know it’s code for “no dark folks allowed” but it doesn’t actually *say* it. neither the USA or the RSA played around with such mollycoddling. “whites only” meant simply that, and many american states, and the south african government, had a lot of legislation to back it up. THAT is the major difference between the places. when you have a society with no legal definitions, it’s a lot harder to make things happen — the [largely white] people near the top can stick — and keep — their heads in the sand, the social climbing but slightly darker people beneath them [aspirant beige, my mother used to call them] would pretend that there’s no problem, and the darker peoples would just be completely shut out without any real access to anything.

    it’s like following the sun strength guides on rio’s beaches — money, social access, business opportunity, and educational opportunity run pretty much along those lines, and it’s true even today. brazil needs qualified engineers, but really only wants white [or white-ish] ones; there’s no reason that the sons of my seatmate on my flight to sampa in december should be living in maputo. i’m also doing translation work of publications for people who are published in brazil but just want out because of the racism, and see south africa — where i live now — as a place with more opportunity. hint: these people are not white.

    but i’ll let you have your opinion, joe, and i’ll continue to live in my reality.

  4. Joe says:

    kwerekwere, I understand what you are trying to stay but legislation or no legislation the disaffected have to let the government know they are not invisible and there is a problem. How they intend to do this is what I can’t answer. France, the country I live in, for example has plenty of racial problems the government was reluctant to acknowledge. That is until the summer of 2005 when there were riots throughout the suburbs of Paris. This caused a good deal of soul searching in the population because for most French race was not a problem until they couldn’t ignore it. TV shows, movies, and the news rarely had any black or arab cast, except as the criminal, terrorist, etc.

    The government has been very ineffective at doing anything about it. There solution is to form a committee on a committee to create a committee to do a study on the problem. Then they’ll form another one, in a decade, to find a solution. Most of the change has come through private companies and the small local governments. The CV, the one thing that gets your foot into the door of multinationals and local government has been changed to remove names, photos, and addresses. Supposedly, this is to reduce the chance a candidate may be unfairly dismissed because of their skin color, ethnicity, or the neighborhood they grew up in. Whether this actually works is debatable, at some point you need to have a face to face meeting and even then they can dismiss you, they’ll need a better reason though.

    As an American I was a little taken back that a job might be more interested in what I look like than what I know. The reasons given for this practice are just as ridiculous, “we need to see what the candidate looks like to be sure he will fit into our company”. Which I take as we are looking for a certain, (cough) white, look to hire. Exactly what knowledge, skill, or personality can a photo tell you?

    These little acts of breaking old habits will go a long ways to towards destroying institutionalised preconceptions.

  5. kwerekwere says:

    joe, again, i’m going to have to stop you right there.

    having lived in france [and perhaps, soon, in my own blog i will bring up why i gave up my french passport], i can tell you that it’s not the same as the brazilian situation. AT ALL.

    i get the feeling that i might have to go into a 3.000 word treatise as to *how* and *why* it’s different, but the short version is.. that it is; in france there were never, at any point in french history in the past millennium, more people with obvious african ancestry than not. this was the brazilian reality until the government-sponsored whitening program mentioned in ernest’s synopsis. in short, unless something was done to increase the white stock, the powers running brazil at the time would have to start to treat those of obvious african ancestry as equals, something which they were not prepared to do [still aren’t, to be honest].

    by the way, a similar situation was alive an well in the american south; there were several states that would have had a black majority if “something wasn’t done about it”– new world governments were so anti-black [many would stay, still are] that european immigration to their countries was a major, major political goal. since you’re american, you might want to check out that part of *american* history.

    i’m aware of the numerous lawsuits in france which ultimately led to the policy of photos being stripped away from curricula vitae. i’m also aware that there are more university-educated black graduates *born with french nationality* [and that’s an important distinction] living in london alone than in all of france.

    i think you need to more thoroughly research french, american, and brazilian history and then re-think your views. the roots of its racism came by and developed in a very different manner, and thus it’s a very different way of solving the problem.

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