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By Lydialyle Gibson

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Investigations ::

Race in Brazil

In 1889, when a nearly bloodless coup installed a republican government in place of Brazil’s 67-year-old constitutional monarchy, the country’s national identity was up for grabs. Slavery had ended a year earlier, abolished by imperial order after more than three centuries. Along the coast, rapidly industrializing cities drew workers from the countryside and immigrants from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Russia. Separation of church and state loosened Catholicism’s religious monopoly and lured Protestant missionaries. Middle-class followers of occultism and French paranormal researcher Allan Kardec channeled spirits du-ring parlor séances, and believers in Auguste Comte’s Positivist philosophy—which revered scientific knowledge as the only true knowledge—founded a church in Rio de Janeiro.

“This is also the moment when Brazilian politicians first have to face the challenge—or the threat—of urban mass democracy,” says Dain Borges, associate professor of history and director of the University’s Center for Latin American Studies, whose current book-in-progress is tentatively titled Races, Crowds, and Souls in Brazilian Social Thought, 1880–1920. The answer to that challenge, he says, turned out to be “authoritarian, elitist, and excluding.” By 1898, Brazil’s republic had hardened into an agrarian oligarchy, “but in the 1880s and 1890s, the political outcomes weren’t at all settled. There was incredible political experimentation and political mobilization.”

Between 1880 and 1920, Bra-zilian social thought too was exploring uncharted ground. Intellectuals flirted with Positivism and the occult, they weighed the merits of social Darwinism, race science, and crowd psychology. In a country largely without formal higher education, they were self-taught thinkers. “This was a generation,” Borges says, “that was really beginning to use the sciences of their time—ambivalently, albeit, and some of the better writers reject what is outrageous—to try to understand people’s political actions, their motivations, their moral qualities, and their collective racial heritage.”

Attention to race, in particular, Borges says, provoked thorny contradictions and, occasionally, outright confusion. Brazilian authors—nearly all members of the elite writing to a tiny readership of other elites—used the word “race” to mean “what we understand today as ‘culture,’” he says. “They speak of ‘the Brazilian race.’ At the same time, they’re painfully aware that there’s a worldwide Victorian anthropological classification, a hierarchy of races and color groups, and that whites were at the top.” A nation of dark-skinned natives, African former slaves, and myriad European immigrants, Brazil’s population ranked somewhere below.

Some writers promoted race sociology. In his 1902 masterpiece, Rebellion in the Backlands, engineer-turned-journalist Euclides da Cunha chronicled the army’s 1897 annihilation—after three attempts—of a millinerian uprising in the countryside. The book criticized the conflict at the town of Canudos as evidence of Brazil’s religious, racial, and social divisions. “It’s a study of the misunderstandings between the government and people the author considers primitive, who live in the backlands and practice heterodox religion,” Borges says. “Euclides da Cunha represents a social Darwinist, crowd psychology, scientistic way of seeing races and politics and people.” The book became an immediate best-seller and, later, an icon to Brazilian nationalists. Da Cunha was voted into the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

Occupying the same literary turf were several mixed-race intellectual and political leaders. “This generation is notable for the prominent role of men of color,” Borges says, “at the same time that there’s an etiquette of not talking about the race of individual people.” (Especially in political discourse, race was a “delicate matter.”) As president of the Academy of Letters, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, a writer of African and Portuguese descent, oversaw da Cunha’s academy investiture for writing Rebellion in the Backlands, “a 600-page treatise saying an epileptic mulatto like Machado de Assis is a degenerate doomed to inconsistency, who can never be a whole person,” Borges says. Considered Brazil’s leading writer at the height of his career—Borges compares him to Henry James—Machado de Assis worked as a high-level civil servant in the government’s agriculture ministry. He was also a subversive, Borges says, embedding his “seemingly apolitical parlor novels” with a sharp social commentary that critics have come to recognize only in the last 30 years. “Many of these Brazilian writers couldn’t be read—and weren’t read—in a close way,” Borges says, “until the 1970s’ racial and culturalist discourse.”

Others were less coy. Alfonso Henriques de Lima Barreto, a mestizo and mulatto novelist, journalist, and war ministry official, became “one of the few Brazilian writers of this era to denounce bigotry,” Borges says, “to criticize the ideas that da Cunha puts forth in Rebellion in the Backlands, that a people is formed by its racial makeup.” An engineering-school dropout with a science education, he grew up in Rio de Janeiro’s teeming streets and lived in a working-class suburb along the commuter rail line.

One of the most confounding aspects of late 19th-century social thought is what Borges calls the “forgetting of slavery.” Today Brazilians widely acknowledge the role slavery played in forming the nation, but “in 1888, literally two days after the abolition of slavery, people start writing, ‘The barbarism of past centuries is over,’ as if it were ages ago,” Borges says. “There’s a kind of tacit silent pact among writers not to say that slavery made Brazilian society.” Intellectuals who felt free to lament importing Africans instead of Swiss peasants would not write that “forced labor and domination made Brazil what it is today.” Even the outspoken Lima Barreto held his tongue in public. “No one breaks ranks on this,” Borges says. Abolitionist leaders burned wagons of slave registers in a Salvadoran public square “as a public auto-da-fe of the slave past, a way to erase the memory.” For conservative writers, he says, the silence makes sense. For abolitionists and black advocates, the answer may lie partly in their “commitment to an ideology of racial progress and uplift that makes it uncomfortable to say they have to build on a historical base of enslavement and dispossession.”

Many of the social theories that informed late 19th- and early 20th-century Brazilian intellectuals—discredited ideas like eugenics, mesmerism, and crowd psychology—were lost to scholars for decades. “After the scandal of Nazi (and U.S.) eugenics laws, social scientists were brought up to scorn, to deny, and to forget all these influential turn-of-the-century thinkers,” writers like Gustave Le Bon, a French sociologist and psychologist who argued for racial superiority and popularized the notion of crowds as irrational, dangerous, and hysterical. “But if you were a provincial writer in Brazil, and even if you were in the capital city as a medical student or professor or politician, Le Bon was the latest word from France.” In the past two decades, Borges says, fresh historical inquiries have revived scholarly awareness of crowd theory and eugenics, unlocking once-inscrutable or long-misread texts. “There’s a certain message-found-in-a-bottle quality to the ways critics have reread the authors of the turn of the century,” he says. “All of a sudden people are getting the message.”