Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’ and the Ambiguity of Identity

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2019-01-04 20:14Z by Steven

Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’ and the Ambiguity of Identity

NYR Daily
The New York Review of Books
2018-12-28

George Hutchinson, Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York


A drawing of a sugar cane field in South Carolina, by Edouard Riou, late nineteenth century
Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy/De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images

Jean Toomer’s Cane was greeted in 1923 by influential critics as the brilliant beginning of a literary career. Many stressed the “authenticity” of Toomer’s African Americans and the lyrical voice with which he conjured them into being. His treatment of black characters contrasted starkly with both the stereotypes of earlier work by (mostly) white authors and the then current limitations of African-American problem fiction. As Montgomery Gregory pointed out for the new black magazine Opportunity, Toomer had avoided “the pitfalls of propaganda and moralizing on the one hand and the snares of a false and hollow race pride on the other hand.” Waldo Frank wrote, in the foreword to the book, “It is a harbinger of the South’s literary maturity: of its emergence from the obsession put upon its mind by the unending racial crisis—an obsession from which writers have made their indirect escape through sentimentalism, exoticism, polemic, ‘problem’ fiction, and moral melodrama. It marks the dawn of direct and unafraid creation.”

The unusual features and effectiveness of Cane can be attributed to the fact that its author was in rapid transition, vocationally, geographically, socially, and intellectually, between different identities. His unsettled position derived from both a complicated personal history and the unusual cultural moment in which he emerged as an artist. Born just two years after his famous grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback—a former governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction—had moved from a palatial home in New Orleans to a smaller, though fashionable, house in Washington, Toomer never really knew the father for whom he was originally named. His mother, Nina, gave birth to him just nine months after a wedding of which her father disapproved and then found herself abandoned when Nathan Pinchback Toomer (as Jean was first named) was only a year old. Nina moved back to her autocratic father’s home, on the condition that she change the boy’s surname to Pinchback and his first name to anything other than Nathan (her husband’s name). Eventually, the first name became Eugene, after a godfather; but friends called the boy “Pinchy.” His mother called him Eugene Toomer and his grandparents, Eugene Pinchback. Ambiguity of identity and a strong intuition of the arbitrary nature of social labels came early to Toomer…

Read the entire article here.

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On Optimism and Despair

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Europe, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations on 2016-12-22 02:28Z by Steven

On Optimism and Despair

The New York Review of Books
2016-12-22

Zadie Smith

A talk given in Berlin on November 10 on receiving the 2016 Welt Literature Prize.

First I would like to acknowledge the absurdity of my position. Accepting a literary prize is perhaps always a little absurd, but in times like these not only the recipient but also the giver feels some sheepishness about the enterprise. But here we are. President Trump rises in the west, a united Europe drops below the horizon on the other side of the ocean—but here we still are, giving a literary prize, receiving one. So many more important things were rendered absurd by the events of November 8 that I hesitate to include my own writing in the list, and only mention it now because the most frequent question I’m asked about my work these days seems to me to have some bearing on the situation at hand.

The question is: “In your earlier novels you sounded so optimistic, but now your books are tinged with despair. Is this fair to say?” It is a question usually posed in a tone of sly eagerness—you will recognize this tone if you’ve ever heard a child ask permission to do something she has in fact already done…

…I realize as I write this that I have strayed some way from the happiness that should rightly attend accepting a literary prize. I am very happy to accept this great honor—please don’t mistake me. I am more than happy—I am amazed. When I started to write I never imagined that anyone outside of my neighborhood would read these books, never mind outside of England, never mind “on the continent,” as my father liked to call it. I remember how stunned I was to embark on my very first European book tour, to Germany, with my father, who had last been here in 1945, as a young soldier in the reconstruction. It was a trip filled, for him, with nostalgia: he had loved a German girl, back in 1945, and one of his great regrets, he admitted to me on that trip, was not marrying her and instead coming home, to England, and marrying first one woman and then another, my mother.

We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color, and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.

He was, I realize now, one of the least ideological people I ever met: everything that happened to him he took as a particular case, unable or unwilling to generalize from it. He lost his livelihood but did not lose faith in his country. The education system failed him but he still revered it and placed all his hopes for his children in it. His relations with women were mostly disastrous but he did not hate women. In his mind he did not marry a black girl, he married “Yvonne,” and he did not have an experimental set of mixed-race children, he had me and my brother Ben and my brother Luke.

How rare such people are! I am not so naive even now as to believe we have enough of them at any one time in history to form a decent and tolerant society. But neither will I ever deny their existence or the possibility of lives like his. He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful…

Read the entire talk here.

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Blacks & Jews Entangled

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Judaism, Media Archive, Religion, United States on 2016-06-24 00:35Z by Steven

Blacks & Jews Entangled

The New York Review of Books
2016-07-14

Darryl Pinckney

Oreo by Fran Ross, with a foreword by Danzy Senna and an afterword by Harryette Mullen, New Directions, 230 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Google wasn’t around when Oreo was first published in 1974. You are hit with Greek mythology and Yiddish right away and just the look of the pages of Fran Ross’s novel about an Afro-Jewish girl’s quest to find her white father can discourage or intimidate. Oreo, by an African-American writer who died in 1985, promises a degree of difficulty; the chapter titles, paragraph titles (“Helen and Oreo shmooz”), different font sizes, a graph showing shades of blackness, letters, an elaborate five-page menu of a daughter’s homecoming meal, footnotes, and mathematical equations say this is no naturalistic tale of two ghettoes. The protagonist is called “Oreo” not because of the cookie—i.e., because she is mixed-race or reluctantly black, as in black on the outside but white on the inside. Her black grandmother had been trying to give Oreo the nickname “Oriole,” but couldn’t make herself understood to the family.

In addition to Greek myth and Yiddish, Ross makes use of black slang, popular culture of the time, puns, raunch, her own made-up words—but this is not vernacular, not jive. Ross’s voice is literary, and thrilled with itself, joking about Villon or Bellow, totally into what it takes to get up to outrageous parody. Nothing about the narrative is restful; you have to stay on the alert. Oreo is quick, obscure, sly, and every line is working hard, doing its bit. Ross makes Oreo relentless in her shtick. “Oreo was soon engrossed in ‘Burp: The Course of Smiling Among Groups of Israeli Infants in the First Eighteen Months of Life,’ the cover story in Pitfalls of Gynecology.”

In fractured, short chapters, Oreo decides arbitrarily that she has fulfilled a given task and therefore deserves another cryptic clue from her father. Ross gives us not a send-up of Theseus’s journey of labors, but her appropriation of his battles as her structure, her frame for her provocative urban picaresque…

Read the review here.

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Forward Passes

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-12-20 02:55Z by Steven

Forward Passes

The New York Review of Books
2015-12-17

Darryl Pinckney

Loving Day by Mat Johnson; Spiegel and Grau, 287 pp., $26.00

The importing of human beings into the US from Africa to be sold as slaves was outlawed in 1808, after which the slave markets of the southern states traded in black people born in America. The rules of New World slavery decreed that a person’s status was derived from that of the mother, not the father. A slave owner’s children by an enslaved woman were, firstly, assets. Neither Frederick Douglass nor Booker T. Washington considered himself mixed-race, because of the one-drop rule that determined how much black blood made a person black. They loathed the thought of their slave-owning white fathers. Douglass never saw his mother’s face in the daylight, because she was always going to or coming back from the fields in the dark.

What outraged white southerners about Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not only that Harriet Beecher Stowe asserted that black people were better Christians than white people; she was also frank about the immorality of the white man’s relations with the black women in his power. But Stowe had as much trouble as Lincoln in imagining the social destiny of mixed-race people who were pink enough in fact to pass for white (a problem central to Mat Johnson’s brilliantly satirical new novel Loving Day)…

Read the entire review here.

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President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Interviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2015-11-27 01:16Z by Steven

President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa

The New York Review of Books
2015-11-05

President Barack Obama

Marilynne Robinson


President Obama and Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa State Library, Des Moines, September 2015 (Pete Souza/White House)

The following conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson was conducted in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14. An audio recording of it can be heard at itunes.com/nybooks. —The Editors

The President: Marilynne, it’s wonderful to see you. And as I said as we were driving over here, this is an experiment, because typically when I come to a place like Des Moines, I immediately am rushed over to some political event and I make a speech, or I have a town hall, or I go see some factory and have wonderful conversations with people. But it’s very planned out and scripted. And typically, we’re trying to drive a very particular message that day about education or about manufacturing.

But one of the things that I don’t get a chance to do as often as I’d like is just to have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I’m interested in; to hear from them and have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in.

And so we had this idea that why don’t I just have a conversation with somebody I really like and see how it turns out. And you were first in the queue, because—

Marilynne Robinson: Thank you very much.

The President: Well, as you know—I’ve told you this—I love your books. Some listeners may not have read your work before, which is good, because hopefully they’ll go out and buy your books after this conversation.

I first picked up Gilead, one of your most wonderful books, here in Iowa. Because I was campaigning at the time, and there’s a lot of downtime when you’re driving between towns and when you get home late from campaigning. And you and I, therefore, have an Iowa connection, because Gilead is actually set here in Iowa…

Robinson: And also, one of the things that doesn’t take into account is that local governments can be great systems of oppression. And it’s a wonderful thing to have a national government that can intervene in the name of national values.

The President: Well, that was the lesson of the entire movement to abolish slavery and the civil rights movement. And that’s one thing—I mean, I do think that one of the things we haven’t talked about that does become the fault line around which the “us” and “them” formula rears its head is the fault line of race. And even on something like schools that you just discussed, part of the challenge is that the school systems we have are wonderful, except for a handful of schools that are predominantly minority that are terrible.

Our systems for maintaining the peace and our criminal justice systems generally work, except for this huge swath of the population that is incarcerated at rates that are unprecedented in world history.

And when you are thinking about American democracy or, for that matter, Christianity in your writings, how much does that issue of “the other” come up and how do you think about that? I know at least in Gilead that factors into one major character, trying to figure out how he can love somebody in the Fifties that doesn’t look like him.

Robinson: Iowa never had laws against interracial marriage. Only Iowa and Maine never had [them]—

The President: Those were the only two.

Robinson: Yes. And [Ulysses S.] Grant really did call [Iowa] the shining star of radicalism, and so on. We never had segregated schools; they were illegal from before, while it was still a territory, and so on. And these laws never changed and they became the basis for the marriage equality ruling that the Supreme Court here [in Iowa] did.

So that whole stream of the culture never changed. And at the same time, the felt experience of the culture was not aligned with the liberal tradition [of the] culture. And so in that book, Jack has every right to think he can come to Iowa, and yet what he finds makes him frightened even to raise the question…

Read the entire conversation here. Read part 2 of the conversation here.

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Speaking in Tongues

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United Kingdom, United States on 2013-03-31 02:10Z by Steven

Speaking in Tongues

The New York Review of Books
Volume 56, Number 3 (2009-02-26)

Zadie Smith

The following is based on a lecture given at the New York Public Library in December 2008.

1.

Hello. This voice I speak with these days, this English voice with its rounded vowels and consonants in more or less the right place—this is not the voice of my childhood. I picked it up in college, along with the unabridged Clarissa and a taste for port. Maybe this fact is only what it seems to be—a case of bald social climbing—but at the time I genuinely thought this was the voice of lettered people, and that if I didn’t have the voice of lettered people I would never truly be lettered. A braver person, perhaps, would have stood firm, teaching her peers a useful lesson by example: not all lettered people need be of the same class, nor speak identically. I went the other way. Partly out of cowardice and a constitutional eagerness to please, but also because I didn’t quite see it as a straight swap, of this voice for that.

My own childhood had been the story of this and that combined, of the synthesis of disparate things. It never occurred to me that I was leaving the London district of Willesden for Cambridge. I thought I was adding Cambridge to Willesden, this new way of talking to that old way. Adding a new kind of knowledge to a different kind I already had. And for a while, that’s how it was: at home, during the holidays, I spoke with my old voice, and in the old voice seemed to feel and speak things that I couldn’t express in college, and vice versa. I felt a sort of wonder at the flexibility of the thing. Like being alive twice.

But flexibility is something that requires work if it is to be maintained. Recently my double voice has deserted me for a single one, reflecting the smaller world into which my work has led me. Willesden was a big, colorful, working-class sea; Cambridge was a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle. This voice I picked up along the way is no longer an exotic garment I put on like a college gown whenever I choose—now it is my only voice, whether I want it or not. I regret it; I should have kept both voices alive in my mouth. They were both a part of me. But how the culture warns against it! As George Bernard Shaw delicately put it in his preface to the play Pygmalion, “many thousands of [British] men and women…have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue.”…

…2…

…Until Obama, black politicians had always adhered to these unwritten rules. In this way, they defended themselves against those two bogeymen of black political life: the Uncle Tom and the House Nigger. The black politician who played up to, or even simply echoed, white fears, desires, and hopes for the black community was in danger of earning these epithets—even Martin Luther King was not free from such suspicions. Then came Obama, and the new world he had supposedly ushered in, the postracial world, in which what mattered most was not blind racial allegiance but factual truth. It was felt that Jesse Jackson was sadly out of step with this new postracial world: even his own son felt moved to publicly repudiate his “ugly rhetoric.” But Jackson’s anger was not incomprehensible nor his distrust unreasonable. Jackson lived through a bitter struggle, and bitter struggles deform their participants in subtle, complicated ways. The idea that one should speak one’s cultural allegiance first and the truth second (and that this is a sign of authenticity) is precisely such a deformation.

Right up to the wire, Obama made many black men and women of Jackson’s generation suspicious. How can the man who passes between culturally black and white voices with such flexibility, with such ease, be an honest man? How will the man from Dream City keep it real? Why won’t he speak with a clear and unified voice? These were genuine questions for people born in real cities at a time when those cities were implacably divided, when the black movement had to yell with a clear and unified voice, or risk not being heard at all. And then he won. Watching Jesse Jackson in tears in Grant Park, pressed up against the varicolored American public, it seemed like he, at least, had received the answer he needed: only a many-voiced man could have spoken to that many people.

A clear and unified voice. In that context, this business of being biracial, of being half black and half white, is awkward. In his memoir, Obama takes care to ridicule a certain black girl called Joyce—a composite figure from his college days who happens also to be part Italian and part French and part Native American and is inordinately fond of mentioning these facts, and who likes to say:

I’m not black…I’m multiracial…. Why should I have to choose between them?… It’s not white people who are making me choose…. No—it’s black people who always have to make everything racial. They’re the ones making me choose. They’re the ones who are telling me I can’t be who I am….

He has her voice down pat and so condemns her out of her own mouth. For she’s the third bogeyman of black life, the tragic mulatto, who secretly wishes she “passed,” always keen to let you know about her white heritage. It’s the fear of being mistaken for Joyce that has always ensured that I ignore the box marked “biracial” and tick the box marked “black” on any questionnaire I fill out, and call myself unequivocally a black writer and roll my eyes at anyone who insists that Obama is not the first black president but the first biracial one. But I also know in my heart that it’s an equivocation; I know that Obama has a double consciousness, is black and, at the same time, white, as I am, unless we are suggesting that one side of a person’s genetics and cultural heritage cancels out or trumps the other…

Read the entire article here.

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Young Barry Wins

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2012-09-15 00:45Z by Steven

Young Barry Wins

The New York Review of Books
2012-08-16

Darryl Pinckney

Barack Obama: The Story. By David Maraniss. Simon and Schuster, 641 pp.

A white friend told me recently that he heard someone complain that he’d voted for the black guy last time around, did he have to do it again—as if Obama’s election had been a noble experiment we weren’t ready for. Only the big boys can deal with the global economy, so hand the keypad to the White House back to its rightful class of occupants, those big boys who helped to make the mess in the first place. President Obama got little credit from Wall Street for bailing out the financial system. Imagine the criticism had he not or had he tried to institute even more reform at that moment. It was an early display of his administration’s hope to lead by consensus.

Obama’s hold on the middle ground frustrates old liberals and engaged youth. But it remains one of his great assets that the Republicans can’t shove or provoke him from the middle ground. His entrenchment is perhaps why his opponents cannot make him lose his cool, his own understated black swagger. Think of the fierce need among Republican congressmen to try to insult him as chief executive. More so than his record, the accomplishments of his first term, his cool is his campaign’s best remedy for the negative messages that will get under the floorboards of the nation’s consciousness, placed there by Citizens United, the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott.

No matter what, the Republicans are promising to bring Obama’s first term to a close with another budget crisis. The first term is becoming the story, the referendum. Meanwhile, Obama’s fight for a second term has had the curious effect of making books about his rise somewhat passé. We are familiar with the exoticism of his story: the absent African father; the young white anthropologist mother in Indonesia; the basketball team in Hawaii. We know about Chicago, the discovery of the black community and the future First Lady. YouTube has him when at Harvard. And then that Speech. Moreover, we know much of this from Obama himself. Dreams from My Father is justly famous.

Yet David Maraniss in his proudly sprawling Barack Obama: The Story presents a biography of the president that he is determined goes deeper than anything else out there. He is clearly pleased to have reached previously untapped sources. Barack Obama: The Story is well over five hundred pages and at its end the future president is just twenty-seven years old, on his way to Harvard Law School. Many share his subject, but Maraniss is the large beast come to the watering hole…

…Occasionally, Maraniss compares the young Obama to the young Bill Clinton, whose biography he has also written. He has evidence of ambition in Clinton’s vow to his mother that he was going to be president someday, and in his thirst for student offices. Robert Caro says he could identify early on LBJ’s hunger for power and follow it throughout his career. But Maraniss can’t find in Obama’s story the scene when he revealed to someone that he possessed a sense of having an extraordinary destiny. He can’t find it, though it is in his hands: Dreams from My Father is that moment. He does see Obama’s memoir, with its admission that he experimented with drugs while in college, as a subtle maneuvering into position for a run for office. However, because Dreams from My Father is the text in his way, so to speak, Maraniss takes it on, attempts to take it down, and in doing so diminishes the importance of the story Obama tells in his book: how he became a black American…

Read the entire review here.

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Escape into Whiteness

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-12-01 22:01Z by Steven

Escape into Whiteness

The New York Review of Books
2011-11-24

Brent Staples

Daniel J. Sharfstein. The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 415 pp. Hardcover ISBN: 9781594202827.

Tickets to the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial were a hot item in the spring of 1922. Tens of thousands of people converged on the Mall for a day of celebration that included parades, music, and speeches by President Warren Harding and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, under whose presidency the memorial had been initiated.

One of the better-known black Washingtonians on hand that sunny Memorial Day was Whitefield McKinlay, former collector of customs at Georgetown and real estate manager to many of the city’s light-skinned mulatto elite. Nearing his seventieth birthday, McKinlay had lived through the best and the worst of what the post–Civil War world had to offer people of color. He had enrolled in the University of South Carolina during the heady days of Reconstruction and then been expelled when the Democrats rose to power there and created a particularly virulent form of the Jim Crow state. He had seen black politicians swept into office by newly enfranchised black voters and swept out again when the franchise was revoked.

Through this same process, Washington, D.C., had been transformed from what one of McKinlay’s more prominent real estate clients had termed “The Colored Man’s Paradise”—a place of considerable freedom and opportunity—into what the historian David Levering Lewis aptly describes as a “purgatory,” where Negroes were barred from hotels and restaurants, driven from federal jobs, and generally persecuted by Southerners in Congress who seemed intent on erasing the colored presence from the city. Though he does not deal at length with McKinlay, Daniel Sharfstein, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt, brings this part of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Negro society vividly to life in his authoritative and elegantly written The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White

Read or purchase the book review here.

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Talking About Brazil with Lilia Schwarcz

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Barack Obama, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Interviews, Media Archive, Social Science, Women on 2011-07-27 23:23Z by Steven

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 São 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 São Paulo, called Heliópolis. 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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