Facts of Blackness: Brazil is not Quite the United States… and Racial Politics in Brazil?

Facts of Blackness: Brazil is not Quite the United States… and Racial Politics in Brazil?

Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture
Volume 4, Issue 2, 1998
pages 201-234
DOI: 10.1080/13504639851807

Denise Ferreira Da Silva, Professor in Ethics
Queen Mary University of London

Studies of racial subordination in Brazil usually stress the puzzling co-existence of racial inequality with Brazil’s self-image as a ‘racial democracy’. Frequently, they identify the absence of racial conflict and a clear white-black distinction as explanations for the low level of black political mobilisation. In doing this, these studies (unreflectedly) take the United Sates as a universal model of racial subordination of which Brazilian difference is a mere variation. What seems to escape these analysts is that the Brazilian construction of race was set against the view that ‘racial differences’ identify distinct groups, a view which still prevails in the United States and in sociological constructions of race. Actually, an analysisof writings on Brazilian subjectivity suggests that the texts which write blackness do so by deploying various modern categories of ‘being’ (race, nation, gender, and class) both in the narratives—which have produced blacks as subordinate subjects in modernity and in the texts which aim to foster black emancipation.

October, 1995, After three years living in the United States, during which time I had followed the unfolding of three episodes which placed race at the centre of the political debate (the L.A. riots, O.J. Simpson’s trial and the Million Man March), I was very excited by the timing of my second trip back home. I would have the opportunity to participate in an event which seemed (finally) to place race at the centre of the political debate in Brazil: the 300th anniversary of the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, the last leader of the most lasting (one hundred year) community of runaway slaves in Brazil, Quilombo dos Palmares. Over the past 20 years, the black movement has chosen Zumbi as the symbol of a separate identity and has declared 20 November (the supposed date of his death) as the national day of black consciousness.

In 1995, however, Zumbi was at risk of being captured by the dominant racial discourse, as a national hero—as Palmares reconstructed by academics and politicians as an initial experience of racial democracy in Brazil. Throughout the year, city, state and federal administration promoted several events (conferences, parties, and political activities) to celebrate the third centennial of Zumbi’s death. Black movement organisations, on the other hand, seized the opportunity (once again) to denounce the ‘myth of racial democracy’ and the continuing subordination of blacks in Brazilian society. Excited about the…

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