Talking About Brazil with Lilia Schwarcz

Talking About Brazil with Lilia Schwarcz

The New York Review of Books
2010-08-17

Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor of History
Harvard University

On a recent trip to Brazil, I struck up a conversation with Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, one of Brazil’s finest historians and anthropologists. The talk turned to the two subjects she has studied most—racism and national identity.
 
I first visited Brazil in 1989, when hyperinflation had nearly paralyzed the economy, favelas erupted in shoot-outs, and Lula, a hero of the union movement but still unsure of himself as a politician, was undertaking his first campaign for the presidency. I found it all fascinating and frightening. On my second trip, a few years later, I met Lilia and her husband, Luiz Schwarcz, who was beginning to build the company he had founded, Companhia das Letras, into one of the finest publishing houses in Latin America. They treated me to a day so packed with Braziliana that I remember it as one of the happiest experiences of my life: in the morning a stroll with their children through SĂŁo Paulo’s main park, where families of all shades of color were picnicking and playing in dazzling sunlight; lunch, a tour of Brazilian specialties undreamt of in my culinary philosophy (but no pig’s ears or tails, it not being feijoada day); an international soccer match (Brazil beat Venezuela, and the stands exploded with joy); then countless caipirinhas and a cabaret-concert by Caetano Veloso at his most lyrical and politically provocative…

Since then I have never stopped marveling at the energy and originality of Brazilian culture. But I don’t pretend to understand it, all the more so as it is constantly changing, and I can’t speak Portuguese. I can only ask questions in English and strain to grasp the answers. Has the myth of Brazil as a “sleeping giant” turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy? “He has awoken,” people say today. The economy is booming, health services expanding, literacy improving. There are also prophecies of doom, because Brazil’s economic history looks like cycles of boom and bust imposed on centuries of slavery and pauperization. Still, Lula is completing a second and final term as president. Whatever Brazilians may think of his newly assertive foreign policy, which includes cultivating friendly relations with Iran (most of them don’t seem to be interested in it), they generally agree that he has managed the economy well and has done a great deal to improve the lot of the poor. Lula’s term will end in October, and he has thrown his support behind Dilma Rousseff, his former chief of staff, whose chances of winning are much bolstered by Lula’s own popularity. The first debate of the new presidential campaign, which took place on August 5, was a dignified affair—an indication, I was told, that democracy is healthy and the days of military coups are over. Now foreigners are asking new questions about the character of this new great power. I directed some of the FAQs at Lilia…

RD: Yes, like many New Yorkers, I have moments of fear when I get off the subway at the wrong station or wander too far from 125th Street. But when I visit Brazil, I like to think I am in a country that is coping successfully with its history of racism. Could Brazil evolve into a multi-nuanced mestizo society like the one imagined by the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre?
 
LMS: Let me first ask you Bob, do you think of Obama as a “black President”? I am asking this question, because in Brazil the definition of color depends on the context, the moment and the temperament of the person who asks the question and responds to it.
 
RD: Ask any American, ask Obama himself, the answer will certainly be that he is black. In the US, despite the many varieties of skin color, we do not have a multi-nuanced notion of race. You are black or you are white or you are something not closely linked to color such as Chinese, Hispanic.
 
LMS: In Brazil, you are what you describe yourself to be. Officially we have five different colors—black, white, yellow, indigenous, and pardo (meaning “brown,” “brownish,” or “gray-brown”), but in reality, as research has demonstrated, we have more than 130 colors. Brazilians like to describe their spectrum of colors as a rainbow and we also think that color is a flexible way of categorizing people. For several years, I have been studying a soccer game called “Pretos X Brancos” (Blacks against whites), which takes place in a favela of SĂŁo Paulo, called HeliĂłpolis. In theory, it pits eleven white players against eleven black players. But, every year they change colors like they change socks or shirts—one year a player will choose to play for one team, the next year for the other, with the explanation that, “I feel more black,” or “I feel more white.” Also, in Brazil, if a person gets rich, he gets whiter. I recently talked with a dentist in Minas Gerais. As he is becoming old, his hair has turned white, and he is very well recognized in his little town. He started smoking cigars, joined the local Rotary Club, and said to me: “When I was black my life was really difficult.” So one can see how being white even nowadays is a powerful symbol. Here we have two sides of the same picture: on the one hand, identity is flexible; on the other hand, whiteness is ultimately what some people aspire to. But one aspect is common, the idea that you can manipulate your color and race…

Read the entire interview here.

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