Little more than a month removed from the election of Jair Bolsonaro—who, in addition to being homophobic and misogynist, has adopted openly racist positions—Words Without Borders brings you this issue of Afro-Brazilian writing.
To assert that Bolsonaro is these things is not reducible merely to a political argument: he has repeatedly made derogatory references about minority groups, including insults about residents of quilombos, the maroon communities established over centuries by fugitive enslaved Brazilians, and a promise to put an end to the “whining” of the underprivileged in Brazil’s Northeast. (Black people constitute a majority of the population in the region, which has long been ridiculed by some people in the southeastern and southern parts of the country, which tend to be whiter and wealthier.) Bolsonaro’s vice president-elect, Antônio Hamilton Mourão, also has declared that Brazilians inherited a lazy nature from the Africans brought to Brazil via the slave trade. Earlier this year, Rio alderwoman Marielle Franco, a queer advocate for the rights of her city’s black and LGBTQ communities, was the victim of a political assassination. The perpetrators, more than two hundred days later, have yet to be arrested.
It might be hard to believe then that during the late nineteenth century, a black man was among the country’s most celebrated writers. His name was Machado de Assis. Many have suggested that white Brazilian elites extolled Machado in part because he did not address race—a viewpoint that has grown less popular recently. However, it is true that the symbolist poet João da Cruz e Souza, a black contemporary of Machado’s who grappled more directly with race than did Machado, did not enjoy anywhere near the same degree of success. In many ways, these same questions of race and recognition remain unsettled to the present day.
In a 1990 essay in the New Yorker, Susan Sontag declared Machado to be the greatest writer that Latin America has ever produced. Machado enjoyed critical acclaim during his lifetime and was the first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters upon its founding in 1897. But his relationship to and place within a tradition of Afro-Brazilian or a black Brazilian literature is not clear-cut, in part because the definition of Afro-Brazilianness and black literature remains unsettled. For this reason, as Brazilian literary critic Eduardo de Assis Duarte has noted, not a few people were caught off-guard by Harold Bloom’s declaration in his 2002 work Genius that Machado must be considered “the greatest black writer in universal literature.” (That there was a conscious campaign for years to “whiten” Machado de Assis, who has been described as a pre-Proustian Proust and who has been situated within a largely European pantheon that includes Shakespeare, Sterne, Flaubert, and Gogol, is not in dispute.)
The problem with how to characterize or define an Afro-Brazilian literature begins with the term itself. Many Afro-Brazilian writers, among them the much-celebrated Conceição Evaristo—the only black writer to win Brazil’s vaunted Jabuti Prize, in 2013—prefer the term black literature (literatura negra) or black Brazilian literature. Some activists have suggested that the term “Afro-Brazilian” is yet another erasure of the black experience, a more palatable denomination aimed at emphasizing the Brazilian element over the black. But the question runs much deeper than the arrival at an agreed nomenclature. What is an Afro-Brazilian or a black Brazilian literature? Who writes it?
Here is where terminology and questions of representation and appropriation start to grow muddled. For some, literatura afro-brasileira is a term that encompasses books written about, but not necessarily by, Brazilians of African descent. This idea has more adherents than a U.S. audience might expect, its proponents being agreeable to the fact that literary identities are more fluid and often overlap. We can see just what degree of havoc this wreaks when we come to the work of Mário de Andrade, one of the leaders of Brazilian modernism, whose racially mixed ancestry included African heritage, whose ethnomusicological research included an exploration of the Afro-Brazilian currents in Brazilian folk and vernacular culture, and whose fictional masterpiece, Macunaíma, mythologizes the country’s black and multiracial roots.
With all this in mind, it’s no surprise that questions of representation and appropriation abound. Does the work of Jorge Amado qualify as Afro-Brazilian writing given some of his themes and given the fact that he was a white man? Critic Domício Proença Filho and others have pointed to the objectification of the black body in Amado’s fiction, such as his novel Gabriela. In 2005, a renowned white writer, Marcelino Freire, won the Jabuti for Contos negreiros, a collection of short stories that takes as its subject matter the lives of black Brazilians. The book was praised by some for its profound empathy, and people pointed to Freire’s own marginality—as a gay man from Brazil’s Northeast—when defending the book’s merit. Others weren’t so sure. Did it qualify as Afro-Brazilian literature?
What’s quite clear is that the term literatura negra—black literature—is a marker of literature written by black people. As critic and academic Franciane Conceição Silva notes, Evaristo and other important writers, such as Cuti and Miriam Alves, argue that literatura negra has a strong political component that the term Afro-Brazilian literature does not. To identify as an escritor(a) negro(a) is not only to stake out a claim within Brazilian literature but to call attention to the fact that through its history, Brazilian literature (and the culture at large) have not accommodated black writers or their work in the literary mainstream. When Abdias do Nascimento established his racially conscious and activist experimental theater in Rio de Janeiro in 1944, he specifically named it the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN); some four decades later, when the Quilombhoje group of São Paulo–based writers, among them Cuti, Paulo Colina, Abelardo Rodrigues and Oswaldo de Camargo, began publishing their annual anthology of writing by and about black Brazilians, they titled the publication Cadernos negros (Black Notebooks).
In her essay in this issue, a sort of panorama of Afro-Brazilian literature, Franciane Conceição Silva looks at the history of the Quilombhoje Collective and its Cadernos negros series, which had its start in the late 1970s, while Brazil was still living under a military dictatorship. Poets Ricardo Aleixo and Cristiane Sobral are exponents of the more openly political poetry that portrays the experience of black Brazilians and asserts its place in the country’s literature. (Intentional or not, the dialogue between Aleixo’s “My Black Man” and the writings of James Baldwin will not be lost on readers.) It is safe to say that those writers included in this issue, whether they consider (or considered, in the case of Lima Barreto) themselves Afro-Brazilian writers or not, would most certainly be recognized as escritores negros by those who advocate for a literatura negra.
In recent years, the venues for this literature have grown. Rio-based publisher Editora Malê publishes such writers as Sobral and Evaristo, but also voices from other parts of the African diaspora, such as Alain Mabanckou. In 2017, the Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty (Flip) chose to honor Lima Barreto, a pre-Modernist contemporary of Machado de Assis whose short story “Black Teeth and Blue Hair” appears in this issue, accompanied by an essay from Barreto specialist and literary critic Felipe Botelho Correa. Unlike Machado, observes the literary critic Alfredo Bosi, Barreto was overt in his use of literature to criticize Brazil’s racial and social iniquities. As Botelho Correa tells us, Barreto made shrewd use of the growing popularity of national news magazines to further his project. In three short pieces from his collection Aflitos, set in the Salvador, Bahia, neighborhood of the same name, Jean Wyllys writes of sexuality and many shades of violence.
What is certain is that the result of a Brazilian literature without a fundamental role for black writers leaves a huge gap not only in the literature of the country itself but in literature globally. If the literature of a country with the second largest black population worldwide (only Nigeria has a larger black population) does not include that population in its literature, one must ask which Brazil we’re speaking of when we speak of Brazilian literature.
“Another Country: Afro-Brazilian Writing, Past and Present” © Eric M. B. Becker and John Keene. By arrangement with the authors. All rights reserved.