CONEXÕES – African Diaspora Research Project, Michigan State University, vol.4, n.2, november 1992, p.12/13
The Black Stream in Brazilian Literature
By Luiz Silva
Versão: Vera Lúcia Benedito
One function of literature is to provide an escape from reality. This function was taken seriously in Brazil if we judge by the huge quantity of literary works, particularly those that reflect the contradictions within the society. Initially deeply influenced by the cultural traditions of the colonizer, Brazil’s literature passed through a number of imitative phases before it began to find its own voice.
In the early period and through the eighteenth century, the Baroque, Arcadian, and Romantic literary styles were adopted from Europe, and there was little national consciousness in our literature. Even after independence in 1822, and despite the continuation of slavery (which was a major contradiction in our newly “free” society), writers still followed the guiding principles of European art, particularly the French aesthetic. Along with the notion of Romantic individualism, however, came the gradual indigenization of our literature. This was particularly true in the field of poetry, which voiced the long-delayed movement toward abolition, most notably in the works of Castro Alves.
Romanticism also included the notion of the Noble Savage, a mysterious and idealized figure who lived in a state of nature uncorrupted by society, and the indigene was sometimes seen in this light. The image of the African slave was minimized. (Recall that one function of literature is to provide an escape from reality.) As characters, neither indigenous peoples nor Africans were treated realistically in the works of white Brazilian writers, yet each was treated differently. While the indigene was sometimes used to forge a mythic Brazilian past, the African was presented in a way that maintained the status quo, that did not tamper with the social structure. Thus, abolition was based on compassion for the slaves that was channeled into legislation, but revolutionary movements were not advocated. Some literary works incorporated abolition but not as the central theme. To condemn the exploitation of the enslaved was a threat to the economic system, and because they were dependents of the ruling elite, writers were ideologically compromised.
The literary styles that succeeded Romanticism, such as Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, and Regionalism, perpetuated the black character so prevalent in folklore, an invisible figure living in material and existential misery. The first literary testimony of black subjectivity came in the work of Cruz e Souza and Lima Barreto, for example, but this theme was not assimilated by the poets of the Week of 1922. They developed a neoindigenization and reverted to the folkloric image of blacks, focusing on the legendary and linguistic elements of African origins. They did not view former slaves as a significant segment of society or as individuals.
Despite numerous black heroes in Brazilian history, such as Zumbi, Henrique Dias, Calabar, André Rebouças, Machado de Assis, and João Cândido, blacks have emerged only gradually as literary figures. The black character still receives very cautious treatment from white writers or those who consider themselves such.
As for black writers, under pressure from the public and critics, they rarely wrote about themselves, except through metaphoric nuances. Most sought to avoid the accusation of “reverse” racism, which would have had a high (symbolic and material) cost for their career. There were some exceptions, however, such as Luiz Gama (1830-1882).
Today, as the result of consciousness raising by the black movement, there is growing awareness of the historical falsehood committed against the large segment of the population of African ancestry. Several recent works present a new dimension of black Brazilians as authors and characters. Studies such as those undertaken by Zilá Bernd, David Brookshaw, Benedita Damasceno, and Moema Parente Augel, among others, have contributed to the emerging importance of black poets and fiction writers.
The work of Oliveira Silveira, Éle Semog, Oswaldo de Camargo, and others express themes and viewpoints with an eloquence that has achieved recognition for Brazilian black literature far beyond national boundaries. In West Germany, for example, Schwarze Poesie, an anthology including 16 black Brazilians, was published in 1988. In Brazil, several works have been published, such as the Cadernos Negros (Black Notebooks), edited annually since 1978 by Quilombhoje, a group of writers in São Paulo. Members of the group also have published individually.
In the past, the role of Africans in Brazilian culture and history has been referred to as their “contribution”. Currently, the term participation is being adopted to suggest a nonpassive role. It reflects the struggle that has characterized the African experience in Brazil and calls attention to the fact that racism persists and still seeks to exclude.
From the perspective of participation, black literature cannot be seen as separate from Brazilian literature, but it can be understood as a distinct stream. It is not solely the domain of black writers, as whites also have focused on the same themes. Today, however, black writers are leaving their isolation and creating a particular genre that appeals to an increasingly wide audience. This has given them more creative freedom and assurance.
There is a growing confidence about expressing individual and collective experience and about addressing national problems. The carioca Salgado Maranhão has expressed a theme often found today in black Brazilian poetry: resistance.
The sun has no doubt
that we will survive
even inside a cell,
even in the hidden fibers,
like the shellfish in the stone.
Such novels as Paixões Crioulas (Black Passion), by Márcio Barbosa, a member of Quilombhoje, and short stories like Santugri, by Muniz Sodré, Leite do Peito, by Geni Guimarães, or Cauterizei o meu umbigo and Flor de Sangue, by Eustáquio José Rodrigues, are dealing with social reality. In this way black Brazilian writers are responding to the invisibility in which Africans have been cloaked for so long. Despite the prejudice of publishers, Eurocentrism, and white dominance in Brazil, black literature is emerging that deals with all aspects of life – intimate, erotic, passionate, revolutionary, and tragic.
For a long time the object of observation, if they were seen at all, black Brazilians are now observing; once analyzed and interpreted, today they analyze and interpret; once the “other”, they are becoming themselves. In addition, white and mestizo writers also are beginning to explore the racial question, which is intimately tied to democracy. Equality is far from being a reality in Brazil, despite the struggles for social transformation and despite the fact that Brazilian culture is pluralist. The national identity will assume a clearer profile once racism and sexism are eliminated from our society and from our literature as well.
Cuti (Luiz Silva) is a poet and author whose works include: Poemas da Carapinha (1978), Suspensão (play, 1983), and Quizila (short stories, 1987).