A few months ago, I was over at my friend Myra’s house, when she mentioned that she was going to be interviewed by Henry Louis Gates, the eminent Harvard intellectual and professor of black culture for a documentary about the black diaspora in the Americas. Myra is an author and professor of Bahian history at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) in Salvador. Her latest book, O Jogo da Dissimulação, examines the construction of racial identity in Bahia following the abolition of slavery in 1888. As the nexus of Brazil’s colonial sugar cane empire, Bahia saw the arrival of more African slaves than any other port in the New World.Yet, like many other travelers, once Gates begins to dig beneath the surface, he discovers that Brazil’s much vaunted racial harmony is – like many mythical Paradises – riddled with cracks and fissures.
The interview with Gates was for a documentary series he was making about the African diaspora in Latin America. Entitled “Black in Latin America”, the series aired on PBS between April 19 and May 10, but full episodes can be viewed for free on PBS.org. Apart from Brazil, other episodes focus on afro-descendent populations in Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba.
The issue of racism in Brazil is an extremely thorny and complex one, but Gates – with the help of important and eloquent black personalities including Rio rap artist, MV Bill, legendary actress/singer Zezé Motta, and my friend Myra – succeeds in tapping into some of the major characteristics and contradictions that define Brazil’s particular brand of race relations.
The episode’s title: “Brazil: A Racial Paradise?” makes for a fitting point of departure. “Racial paradise” certainly reflects Gates’ initial awe upon his arrival in Brazil’s most “black” city of Salvador, 85 percent of whose population is of African descent. Like most travelers who visit Bahia for the first time, Gates is impressed to find elements of traditional African culture – in the guise of capoeira, Candomblé , and Carnaval – playing such an essential role in the contemporary life of Brazil’s third largest city of 3 million.
Aside from Bahia, Gates journeys to the states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and Pernambuco. Here, he visits the home of noted Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre. In the early 20th century, Freyre was responsible for constructing what would become the official myth of Brazil as a paragon of racial harmony. Its spontaneous mixture of indigenous, African, and European peoples stood as a utopic counterpoint to the polarized conflicts that characterized race relations in the United States.
Yet, like many other travelers, once Gates begins to dig beneath the surface, he discovers that Brazil’s much vaunted racial harmony is – like many mythical Paradises – riddled with cracks and fissures. Indeed, what makes racism in Brazil so insidious is that, unlike racism in the United States, it isn’t in your face. It’s thus easier to deny it exists – and to maintain a status quo in which the whiter you are, the more money, education, and opportunities you have.
Living in Brazil for so many years, I’ve had many occasions to observe these sly manifestations of racism firsthand and, for this reason, I highly recommend that anyone interested in anything Brazilian should take the time to watch “Brazil: A Racial Paradise?” Aside from shining a bright light onto a major issue that has traditionally plagued, and continues to define, Brazilian society, on a purely aesthetic level, the cinematography and location shots are so seductive that they left me wanting to urgently revisit all the locations depicted (including my adopted hometown of Salvador).