Paulina Alberto: Black activism in the twentieth century

A book explores why black intellectuals first relucted to endorse the ideals of racial harmony, then abandoned them altogether

Personal Archive Paulina Alberto’s research explores ideologies of race and nation in Latin AmericaPersonal Archive

Born in Argentina, historian Paulina Alberto, 42, has been a faculty member at the departments of History and Languages ​​at the University of Michigan since 2005. Among her research interests are the ideologies of race and nation in Latin America. In this interview—an email exchange as she attended a symposium at Harvard where Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro councilwoman and human rights activist who was murdered in March, was set to speak—Paulina discusses her book Terms of Inclusion: Black Intellectuals in Twentieth-Century Brazil, recently launched in Portuguese by UNICAMP’s publishing house. Originally published in English, and a winner of the Roberto Reis Book Award given by the Brazilian Studies Association in 2012, and a Warren Dean Memorial Prize in 2013, her book developed from research begun during her doctoral studies about how Brazil-Africa relations were rethought after the Abolition.

In your book, you to tell the story of Brazilian racial thought from the standpoint of black intellectuals. Who were these intellectuals? And why the twentieth century?
I wanted to focus on the twentieth century to tell the story of the symbolic, concrete, and political relations with Africa and what they meant to post-Abolition definitions of citizenship and Brazilian identities. The history of racial ideologies in Brazil had already been told from top down, and I wanted to tell it, as far as possible, from the perspective of Brazilians who called themselves “blacks” or who proudly embraced their African heritage and sought to organize themselves around these identities in the public space. To explore as wide a variety as possible of voices and modes of debate and activism, I drew on a broad array of black intellectuals. But my primary focus was ultimately on black social and recreational organizations, especially in São Paulo, the black press of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, conferences and academic publications by mid-century black thinkers, terreiros [Candomblé places of worship] in Salvador, and groups and publications associated with the Unified Black Movement [MNU].

What did these intellectuals think, for example, about discourses of racial harmony?
Early and mid-century intellectuals, while laboring under intense pressure to endorse the ideologies of racial harmony, were clear-thinking and persistent critics of discrimination and never ceased to demand inclusion. When I initiated my research, the history of black thought and activism was told mostly from the time the MNU was created in the 1970s. This has to do with the fact that most black intellectuals and activists, and other scholars of Brazilian black politics, believed the ideology of “racial democracy” had not only masked the existence of deep racial inequalities, but also undermined action to redress them. The emergence of the MNU was a very powerful moment because it was then that intellectuals and activists connected with it finally rejected the ideologies of “racial democracy”, identifying them as pernicious “myths”. But this should not obscure the equally compelling and dynamic history of earlier racial thought.

Although they condemned discrimination and demanded inclusion as Brazilian citizens, these earlier intellectuals often also endorsed Brazilian ideologies of racial harmony. How can this seeming contradiction be explained?
In hindsight of activists’ and academics’ more recent criticism of “racial democracy” as a myth, this may indeed seem to be a contradiction. But for black intellectuals, especially at the beginning of the century, condemning discrimination and demanding inclusion was not necessarily irreconcilable with endorsing the ideologies of racial brotherhood. In the 1910s and 1920s, when they began to use the language of “racial brotherhood”, they were searching for viable alternatives to the scientific racism that spelled the absolute exclusion of people of color. By on the one hand embracing the symbol and concept of brotherhood, which resonated with the elites, and on the other seeking to redefine it as a shared ideal of inclusion, they demonstrated enormous political shrewdness. Black intellectuals used the dominant ideals of their day to stake their demands. It is important to note, however, that their “racial brotherhood” was not the same as that espoused by many white elites. The former was a racially inclusive, rights-oriented variant of harmony, expressed as an aspiration yet to be attained. The latter was often a conservative variant which proclaimed that racial harmony already existed and further activism was unnecessary. This was what made the notion of “racial brotherhood” so useful, and yet so volatile for policy on racial equality.

How did the notion of “a nation proud of its racially and culturally mixed identity” change over the course of the century? And when were hopes abandoned?
The forms and content of ideas of racial inclusion were not static. Throughout the trajectory between black thinkers’ earlier, hopeful engagement with ideologies of racial inclusiveness at the beginning of the century and their subsequent denunciation of them as a pernicious myth, different strategies were adopted to demand full belonging in the nation at different historical moments. I see this change not as a contradiction or an awakening to a higher level of racial consciousness, but as part of the same, long struggle that occurred in different places and contexts. The shift in thinking happened largely in the 1970s and 1980s, with the emergence of organizations that would later form the MNU.

What explains the change? 
Many historians argue that this radicalization has to do with external factors, especially the civil rights movement in the United States. In Brazil, mention is often made of the influence of UNESCO reports in the 1950s that began to question Brazil’s status as a “laboratory” of racial harmony, or the works of Florestan Fernandes and the São Paulo school of sociology. In addition to these factors, I would mention the role played by prominent black intellectuals and activists and their interpretations of developments in Brazil and internationally, including both external influences such as the African liberation struggles and the internal logic of the intellectuals themselves and their struggles. It was not until after the military coup, which made the idea of ​​racial democracy an absolutely cynical construction, that black thinkers definitively abandoned the hopeful tone of earlier years in favor of open attacks on racial democracy as a “myth” and a tool of ideological domination.

Is racial democracy in Brazil a myth or reality?
There is a simple answer and a more complex one. The simple answer is that racial democracy is not, and never has been, a reality in Brazil. Past and present discrimination, inequality, and violence against people of color preclude any claim that the country is a racial democracy. The more complex answer is that, even though it is not a reality in Brazil, I do not feel comfortable calling it a “myth” in the sense of a “lie” or the opposite of reality. I am part of a generation of scholars who seek to move beyond the “myth” or “reality” dyad so that a myth is understood not as a lie, but as a language of negotiation, a series of concepts, values, ​​and ideals that inform and frame debates about race and citizenship. The “myth” in this sense is part of social “reality”, has an aspirational dimension to it, and allows an ideal of how Brazilians should relate with each other to be put at the center of public life. The history of black intellectuals in the twentieth century shows that even in the darkest moments of the struggle against racism, the notion that the country would one day become a “true racial democracy” was a very powerful narrative. Even if the expression “racial democracy” has now been discredited, the ideal of racial inclusion, articulated in new terms, will continue to guide the anti-racist struggle.