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Affirmative policies for the Blacks in Brazil

Carlos Vogt

It was only in the 20th century that studies and intellectual attitudes and policies positively focused on the Black question in Brazil developed. In the 19th century, there was a whole abolitionist literature that, however, treated Blacks as a problem homogenized by slavery, like a blotch.It is true that Nina Rodrigues, a pioneer in African studies in Brazil, had been working on the theme since the end of the 19th century, and then in 1900 had published in theJornal do Commércio [Journal of Commerce] what was afterwards to become a chapter of the posthumous bookOs Africanos no Brasil [The Africans in Brazil], from 1933. In it, there appears as an epigraph the warning that Sylvio Romero had made in 1888 ? the year of the Abolition of Slavery ? about the urgency of turning studies in Brazil towards the question of the Negro: “[…] we have Africa in our kitchens, like America in our jungles and Europe in our halls […] Let the specialists hurry up, because the poor Mozambicans, Benguelas, Monjolos, Congos, Cabindas, Caçangas? are dying off…”

The adoption of this epigraph sums up well the contradictions in attitudes that marked the work in Bahia of the physician and intellectual from Maranhão: a defender of the cultural values of the Africans in Brazil and of their right to the freedom of religious practices, Nina Rodrigues nevertheless paired himself with Sylvio Romero in the “scientific” view of the racial inferiority of Blacks.”The scientific criterion for the inferiority of the Black race has nothing in common with the revolting exploitation that the slave-owning Americans made of it”, he stated in the above-mentioned book. “For science”, he went on, “this inferiority is no more than a phenomenon of a perfectly natural order, a product of the unequal march of the phylogenetic development of humanity in their various divisions or sections (…).”

Contradicting the myths

In 1941, M. Herskovits, the author of several works about Afro-American culture, published ?The myth of the Negro past ?. He declared right away the intention of contributing towards “improving the interracial situation” in the USA, carrying out researches about the culture of African origin in the country. He thus constructed a book to help to understand the history of African Americans, taking up a position counter to the five “myths” then in force. First, that Blacks, like children, react peacefully to: unsatisfactory social situations”; second, that only the weaker Africans were captured, while the more intelligent ones succeeded in escaping; third, that the slaves, as they came from all the regions of Africa, spoke various languages, came from varied cultures and had been scattered over the country, would not be able to establish a common “cultural denominator”; fourth, that although Africans from the same tribal origin would sometimes manage to keep themselves together in the USA, they would not be able to keep their culture, because this was inferior to the culture of their masters; fifth, that ” the African is therefore a man without a past”.

In the preface to the second edition of his book, in 1958, Herskovits was to recognize that many things had changed since 1941. The number of Blacks who rejected their past was diminishing slowly, and the attitudes of the whites with regard to their earlier points of view were becoming transformed, which would allow him to conclude: “And the American Black, discovering that he has a past, acquires greater certainty that he will have a future”.The opposition between the culturalist optimism of Herskovits and the scientistic pessimism of Nina Rodrigues is to be explained by, amongst other things, the very change of the theoretical paradigms in dealing with Africanisms in America and by the scientific discredit which ended up befalling Lombrosian phrenology, which left such a mark on the intellectual posture of the doctor and of many others in Brazil, including Euclides da Cunha in?Os Sertões? [Rebellion in the Backlands].

Be that as it may, Nina Rodrigues? sympathy for the culture of the African peoples brought here as slaves, the processes of the adaptations, transformations and influences from the interaction with the other formative elements of this new reality was what survived his positivist modishness. And made the ethnologist who partook of this influence more important for the development of the studies of Blacks in Brazil in the beginning of the 20th century.Along these lines, his followers or admirers were legion, Artur Ramos and Edison Carneiro being a particular case, even when they contrasted in theoretical and methodological differences, or when they took sides in the regional disputes for the primacy of the authenticity of the African cultural manifestations in Brazil.

This is what happens, for example, in the article “O Congresso Afro-Brasileiro da Bahia” [The Afro-Brazilian Congress of Bahia], published in 1940, in which Edison Carneiro praises that encounter, which took place in 1937, and contrasts it with the Congress of Recife, of 1934, on the criterion of the greater or lesser purity of the rites and ceremonies presented: “This immediate connection with the Black people, which was the greater glory of the Congress of Bahia, gave the proceedings a unique coloring”, as Gilberto Freyre had already foreseen. Artur Ramos, in a letter that he wrote to me about an interview for the Diário de Pernambuco [Journal of Pernambuco], was to say: “The material there that [Gilberto Freyre] deems merely picturesque will constitute precisely the part of greatest scientific interest. The Congress of Recife, taking ?babalorixás?( priest of African-Brazilian religions), with their music, to the stage of Santa Isabel, cast doubt over the purity of the African rites. The Congress of Bahia did not fall into this error. All the occasions on which the members of the congress came into contact with the things of the Blacks , it was in their own original milieu, in the candomblé (African-Brazilian religion) rites and the rounds of samba and capoeira”.

A sociological view

Edison Carneiro, in his article “Nina Rodrigues”, of 1956, despite the criticisms, recognized his merits, in particular that of having proposed a comparative method for studying the behaviors of Blacks in Brazil and in Africa ? of which he and Artur Ramos are heirs. “Languages, religions and folklore were elements in this comparison to which history gave the final perspective. This was how the Blacks gained his true importance vis-à-vis Brazilian society”, he says.Compare what is said in the last part of the quotation from Edison Carneiro with the observation by Herskovits about the past and the future of the American Blacks, and you will have an objective measure of how much the political-intellectual propositions of these authors coincided, taking into account, of course, the differences between American society and Brazilian society.

In one case and the other, it was a question of re-encountering the history of blacks by enhancing their culture, in Africa and in the country of destination, comparing it in the two situations, and making it, this time, reach the United States, Brazil, or wherever, through the door of dignity and distinction that the passport of rites, of languages and of the cultural complexity of its origins confers on it.This was the heroic stage of the studies of blacks in Brazil. By around 1950, it was brought to a close, according to Edison Carneiro, and the so-called sociological stage starts, as can be read in his programmatic article “Brazilian studies of the Black “, of 1953. “If the Blacks, with their presence, have altered certain traits of the white and the native Brazilian, we know that these latter have, in turn, transformed the whole of the material and spiritual life of Blacks, which today (1950) accounts for only 11% of the population, uses the Portuguese language, and in practice forgets his ancient tribal connections, to take an interest in the national problems, like a dyed in the wool Brazilian. All this means that we ought to analyze the particular without losing sight of the general (…), always bearing in mind the old scientific finding that modification in the part implies modification in the whole, just as any modification in the whole results in modifications in its parts”.

There was now taking shape, particularly with the works of Florestan Fernandes, Octavio Ianni and Fernando Henrique Cardoso at the so-called São Paulo Sociology School, a new trend towards studies aimed at the analysis of the class structure in the country and, within this, the history of Blacks, first as a slaves, afterwards as a free worker marked by the stigma of color prejudice.As we wrote in the book ?Cafundó ? A África no Brasil? [Cafundo ? Africa in Brazil], in co-authorship with Peter Fry and with the collaboration of Robert Slenes, the romanticism of the theoretical phase is followed by a realism of a sociological inspiration, with a social background and a socialist aspiration. To sum it up, the movement of these studies could be characterized, in its first steps, by its scientific emphasis; culturalism was to dominate the second phase; and the sociological view, the third.

Repercussions in the Black movement

These three moments contribute towards understanding the different stages through which the Black movement passed in the 20th century, from the point of view of its battles, demands, banners, and of the scientific, cultural and sociological explanations that form the foundations of the emphases of its political actions.Accordingly, in the 1920s, the Black organizations themselves reflected the view that the main problem of the Black population in Brazil lay in itself, given the precarious conditions of its formal education, the weakness of its organizations, and the consequent lack of ability to contend in the disputes in the job market, all this with the addition of “color prejudice”, which was a barrier to social integration and discriminated against the blacks in society.Racial democracy, as a pragmatic political and social ideal, concomitant with the return to democracy of the country in 1945, coinciding with the end of the Second World War and the victory of the allied countries over Nazi-fascism, fostered the development of actions in the educational, cultural and even psychoanalytic fields ? the case of the Experimental Theater of the Negro, in Rio de Janeiro ?, which, through different organizations, aimed at reinforcing, when not awakening, the sentiment of pride for being black and, in this way, contributing towards qualifying them for facing up to their worst enemy in society, racial prejudice, also an agent that perturbs the country?s integrated progress in the communion of races, credos and differences.

This movement thus reflects specific characteristics of the second phase of the studies of the blacks in the country. The transformation of the racial democracy with its political ideas into myth and into ideology, and therefore into an expedient of social illusionism was to take place from the 1970s onwards. Perhaps one of the most important facts in this new trend and posture is the foundation in São Paulo, in 1978, of the Unified Black Movement ( Movimento Negro Unido).There will be no difficulty in identifying, at this moment, aspects that coincide with those that are to be found in the sociological line of studies of the blacks, since the major responsibility for the Blacks?s situation of exclusion lies, in actual fact, in society?s structure of domination by the white establishment, consolidated in the government and wide-spread in civil society. One moves, then, from racial democracy, integrating and generating full rights, to the denouncement of a real domination seated on the base of a diffuse and powerful racism.

Affirmative actions

What ensues, up until today, in the history of black studies and movements in Brazil has to do, roughly speaking, with the characteristics of the different phases of its evolution. In 1988, in the year of the centenary of the Abolition of Slavery, the new Constitution of the Federative Republic of Brazil was promulgated. As a result of the struggles for the civil rights of Blacks, it enshrines, in Title II ? On the fundamental rights and guarantees ?, Chapter I ? On the individual and collective rights and duties ?, Article 5 ? All are equal before the law, without distinction of any nature, guaranteeing all Brazilians and foreigners resident in Brazil the inviolability of the right to life, to liberty, to equality, to security and to property, in the following terms: Article XLII ? the practice of racism constitutes a crime without the right to bail and that does not become statute barred, and is subject to the penalty of imprisonment, on the terms of the law.

The regulation of this paragraph came afterwards, with Law nº 7716, of January 5, 1989, modified by Law 008882, of June 3, 1994, and once again modified on May 13, 1997, by Law nº 9459, which also added to Article 140 of the Penal Code a provision relating to the crime of injury by the use of “elements referring to race, color, ethnicity, religion or origin”, establishing a penalty of “imprisonment of from one to three years and a fine”.The next step was to be the affirmative actions, the model for which could be sought in the USA in the 1960s and, more recently, in the government of Nelson Mandela, in South Africa.Here indeed, in a fourth phase, an important change is worked in the classic paradigm for Black studies and movements in Brazil, although it was itself also derived from the great transformations that, in the economy, in politics and in culture, the contemporary world comes to know, above all from 1989 onwards, with the consolidation of the phenomenon of globalization. The ideal of a mixed-blood Brazil is left aside, to proceed to the actions for the ethnic-racial recognition of the Negroes.

In this regard, Antonio Sérgio Alfredo Guimarães, in his article “Access of Blacks to the public universities”, of 2002, observes that “in the first days, from 1995 until recently, the reaction of civil society, represented by its intellectuals and means of mass communication, was largely contrary to the adoption of policies with a racial bent.”. He recalls that the Black movement and the few white intellectuals who defended them found themselves politically isolated, under the accusation of allowing themselves to be colonized by American values. “Accordingly, those who perchance had solid interests in the maintenance of inequalities found allies whose motives were purely ideological, people who saw in the policies giving preference to Blacks the penetration in Brazil of ?multiculturalism? and ?multirationalism? of Anglo-Saxon extraction.”

Breaking down resistances

The country has made headway in recent years with regard to the scenarios for social mobility, personal development, professional training and the chances for Black men and women to compete in the job market.But there is still much progress to be made and many resistances to be broken down amongst intellectuals and civil society, if one considers, for example, the 2001 data from the survey under the “The Color of Bahia/UFBA” program and of the Ethnic Racial Census I by USP and the IBGE.According to this data, at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the number of white students is 76.8% and of Blacks 20.3%, for a black population in the state of 44.63%; at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), the whites are 86.6% and the blacks 8.6%, for a black population of 20.27%; at the Federal University of Maranhão (UFMA), whites are 47% and Blacks 42.8%, when the black population in the state is 73.36%; at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), 50.8% are whites and 42.6% are Blacks, and the black population in the state is 74.95%; at the University of Brasilia (UnB), 63.74% are white, 32.3% are Blacks, and the Federal District has a black population of 47.98%; at the University of São Paulo (USP), white students amount to 78.2%, and the blacks 8.3% and the percentage of the black population in the state is 27.4%.

It can be seen, then, that the deficit produced by these differences is very unfavorable to the blacks in the states where these universities are to be found. There is, however, progress, above all on the part of the government, as to the adoption of affirmative actions, amongst them the official abandonment of the doctrine of “racial democracy”, following the World Conference against Racism, held in Durban, in South Africa, accompanied by the institution of job quotas in several ministries and services, besides the creation of programs focused on human rights, professional training, and the recognition of the right to title deeds of the remaining lands once occupied by runaway slaves, amongst others.The quotas in the universities have a strategic role in this struggle for equal opportunities and are part of a larger set of affirmative actions that tend, fortunately, to grow more and more in our society. A few pages from the novels and chronicles of Machado de Assis show situations that sketch, in strokes of attentive critical observation, the social relations between white masters and Black slaves or freedmen, and depict, with a lightness of style and sensitivity, the complex nature and the weight of the problems that this slave-owning society was to bequeath to the future generations in Brazil.

Here, I pick up again a chronicle from the book ?Bons dias?[Good Days], of June 26, 1888, which recorded, with the fine irony that is peculiar to the author and with the opportunist cynicism characteristic of many of his personages, a situation that was revealing of the ethos of the masters on the day after the legal act of the Abolition. One month having elapsed from the Abolition, our fictitious chronicler architects ways of taking economic, and not merely political, advantage of the new situation. Like a tropical Chichikov, he sets out to buy, just as in Gogol?s novel, Dead Souls, in this case freedmen, with documents dated prior to May 13, and hence to be able to “sell them” to the authorities, to recover the “losses” incurred with the Abolition.

“Let the reader suppose that he had two hundred slaves on May 12, and that he lost them with the law of May 13. I would show up at his establishment and ask him:
? Did all your freedmen stay?
? Only half; a hundred stayed on. The other hundred scattered; I hear they are in Santo Antônio de Pádua.
? Do you want to sell me them?
The reader surprised; I, explaining:
? Sell them all to me, both those who stayed and those who fled.
The reader, astonished:
? But, Sir, what interest can you have…
? That is none of your business. Will you sell me them?
? Freedmen are not to be sold.
? That is true, but the deed of sale will bear the date of April 29; in this case, it wasn?t you that lost the slaves, it was me. The prices registered in the deed will be those of the table of the 1885 law; but I won?t really give you more than ten mil-reis for each.”

Machado de Assis, whom the American critic Harold Bloom regards as the “greatest black man of letters to have appeared to the present date”, left us a peerless artistic legacy in Brazil and in the universal literature of all times. Through him, we were able to get to know better the Brazilian imperial society, and with him we enter the atrium of the conflicts of the republican society that was announcing itself, without historicism, without sociologism, without pamphletary programatism.With the esthetic legacy, the ethical legacy. And, with the same discrete perspicacity, part of it is the record of situations of the pure exercise of the white master?s domination with regard to the Negroes, or of the derisive sharp dealing of those who have acquired the habit of trying to take advantage of everything, as happens in the two chronicles here referred to.

It is a historically dated situation. It does not fail, though, for its very historicity, which gives it concreteness, to refer us to the explicative force of the social paradigm that it presents.It is against the permanence of this model of social relations, constituted in the white patriarchal tradition of Brazilian society, that the intellectual and political effort was made, characterized in the different phases of its evolution and transformation, just as we have shown, to break with it and surpass it for once and for all.The affirmative actions of the Black movement and the public policies for its assertion in Brazil are a contemporary stage of this long historical process. The public university quotas, a strategic part of this movement.

Carlos Vogt is a poet, a linguist, the president of FAPESP, the coordinator of the Advanced Studies in Journalism Laboratory at Campinas State University (Unicamp), and vice-president of the SBPC.