Historiographical pioneer

Emilia Viotti leaves an important legacy for understanding the abolition of slavery in Latin America

ADRIANA ZEHBRAUSKAS / FOLHAPRESS The historian in São Paulo (1998): teaching was an essential activityADRIANA ZEHBRAUSKAS / FOLHAPRESS

Historian Emília Viotti da Costa, an icon in Brazilian and Latin American historiography and the study of the African diaspora and slavery, always considered teaching an essential activity. Barbara Weinstein, a historian and specialist in Brazilian history at New York University (NYU), began her doctoral work at Yale University in 1973 studying Argentina. She ended up choosing to research Brazil because of the classes taught by Viotti at the American institution. “She showed me that Brazil offered rich terrain for investigating questions on the history of labor, and that it was impossible to understand the working class without studying the history of business people,” she recalls. Viotti died on November 2, at age 89, as a result of multiple organ failure.

Born in São Paulo, Viotti was an emeritus professor at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), and taught for 26 years as a professor of Latin American history at Yale University. Her friend Sylvia Bassetto, a professor in USP’s Department of History, recalls that from Viotti’s earliest experiences teaching elementary school until becoming professor emeritus at Yale in 1999, she always attributed to her role as a teacher the incentive to lead an intellectual life.

The researcher defended her qualifying thesis for promotion to associate professor at USP in 1964, titled “Slavery in the coffee fields: economic, social, political, and ideological aspects of the transition from servile work to free labor,” which reinvigorated research on Brazilian abolition. In 1966, the study was published by Difusão Europeia do Livro (Difel) with the title Da senzala à colônia (From slave house to colony).

Weinstein explains that Da senzala à colônia was part of a series of studies that sought to reduce the emphasis on moral, political, and ideological issues, underscoring the social and economic factors of the Abolition process. “Emília was one of the first to recognize the role of slaves in the process of emancipation, especially through the mass escapes from coffee plantations starting in 1885,” she says.

Exile in the United States
In recognition of the value of this work, Viotti was invited to teach the inaugural class at what was then the School of Philosophy, Science, and Languages and Literature (now FFLCH-USP) in 1968, the year Institutional Act No. 5, (AI-5, a now defunct decree of the military dictatorship) was implemented. At the event she criticized the military regime’s university project. USP Department of History professor Maria Helena Rolim Capelato recalls that shortly after the AI-5 went into effect, Viotti was dismissed from USP because of criticisms she voiced during that inaugural lecture, regarding the agreement signed by the Brazilian government with a US organization that was to carry out reforms to Brazil’s educational system. According to Capelato, Viotti’s lecture was turned into a text published by the FFLCH university guild’s journal, and circulated by universities throughout the country during the weeks that followed.

In 1969 Viotti went into self-exile in the United States, and in 1973 she began to teach Latin American history at Yale, a position she held until 1999. “Her academic career abroad allowed her to mentor American researchers who have become important specialists in Brazilian history, among them John French and Barbara Weinstein, a researcher known today as the ambassador of Brazilian historians to the United States,” says Capelato. Viotti was also director of the Women’s Studies Program and the Council on Latin American Studies at Yale.

Weinstein also recalls that in the United States Viotti had to adapt to a new academic environment where she did not have the same prestige she had in Brazil. “It took me a while to understand the challenges she was facing. In my view, she was so brilliant and charismatic that it was impossible to think of her as a vulnerable person. When Emília began teaching at Yale, the Department of History was a men’s club and there were no women among the tenured professors.”

Sylvia Bassetto believes that Viotti’s academic career in the United States was built in defiance of an unfortunate situation. This included the threat of unemployment, problems with visas, the anguish of being separated from her family, and above all, the infinite solitude and sense of rootlessness suffered by exiles.

Philosopher Jézio Gutierre, president of the Publishing Foundation of São Paulo State University (UNESP), considers that one of Viotti’s central concerns was to understand contemporary issues of Brazil by looking at aspects of the past. “Emília was troubled by historians who ponder over past history without thinking about its consequences for contemporary life,” he says.

Capelato explains that another of Viotti’s big historiographic contributions is the book Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823, first published in English in 1994, and published in Brazil by Companhia das Letras in 1998. “With this work, Emília became a reference not only in Brazilian history, but also in the history of other Latin American countries,” she adds.

In Brazil, in her most recent work, Viotti published O Supremo Tribunal Federal e a construção da cidadania (The Federal Supreme Court and the construction of citizenship) in 2001, seeking to bring the federal judiciary to the foreground in the analysis of Brazilian political history. “Averse to the framework of rigid theoretical systems, Emília inspired scholars of slavery to look in countless directions, pointing out historical gaps and little-explored subjects,” says Sylvia Basseto.