White Negritude: Race, Writing, and Brazilian Cultural Identity [Review]

White Negritude: Race, Writing, and Brazilian Cultural Identity [Review]

H-Net Reviews
February 2010

Lorenzo Veracini

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond. White Negritude: Race, Writing, and Brazilian Cultural Identity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Cloth ISBN 978-1-4039-7595-9.

Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond has published a persuasive outline and contextualization of Brazilian “Race Democracy” advocate Gilberto Freyre. In a forthcoming book, I argue that settler projects use a variety of “transfers” in order to manage indigenous and exogenous alterity in their respective population economies, and that “transfer” does not apply only to people pushed across borders. This review of White Negritude contends that Freyre was indeed a master (discursive) transferist.

Casa Grande e Senzala (1933) proposed a reading of Brazilian race relations that in many ways remains paradigmatic. The specific conditions afforded by a tropical environment and the encounter between Portuguese colonizers and African slaves had produced a uniquely Brazilian synthesis. The master/slave dialectic had been upturned; the inherent antagonism and violence that should have accompanied that relation had been defused. This synthesis, Freyre argued, demonstrated among other things Brazil’s superiority to the United States. While this stance contributed to Casa Grande e Senzala’s reception and career, Isfahani-Hammond suggests that it may also have prevented scrutiny—Brazilian race relations are still routinely construed—both in Brazil and in the US—as primarily an “antithesis” of something else. Freyre, the generally accepted reading goes, made the Afro-Brazilian a central character of the national narrative, recognized that the slaves were the true colonizers, framed senzala and Casa Grande in the same interpretative frame, and proposed a consistently non-eugenicist reading of Brazilian society and culture. Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond successfully problematises this interpretation.

The main point in Freyre’s argument is that Brazilian slave masters identify with their slaves and, having assimilated their cultural traits, can therefore genuinely and authentically represent them. This identification is acquired, for example, via sexual (non reproductive and noncoercive) intercourse with black women. Afro-Brazilian “atmospheric” influences are thus transferred to the white masters in the unique context of the northeastern Brazilian plantation complex (a self-contained social microcosm that is presented as the epicentre of the Brazilian cultural experience). Isfahani-Hammond insists on Freyre’s strategic disavowal of genetic hybridisation. Branquemento (“whitening”) was one available possibility, an approach that advocated the progressive elimination of black genes through miscegenation and immigration policies that favoured Europeans. Freyre, on the other hand, developed more effective discursive strategies. This is where Isfahani-Hammond’s argument is most convincing, and Freyre’s “celebration” of Afro-Brazilian cultural traits is shown as ultimately seeking to “replace sociohistorical blackness with a discourse about blackness” (p. 7). In this way, a potentially destabilising oppositional agency is expropriated and circumvented. Despite its ostensibly non-racial determinants, Freyre’s reasoning is shown to actually culminate in the “exclusionary resolution of Brazilian heterogeneity” (p. 14)…

Read the entire review here

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