Africanity vs Blackness: Race, Class and Culture in Brazil

September 25, 2007

Most of what the world knows as Brazilian culture, and what Brazil projects in international performance, is of African origin. When one thinks of the music and dance of the country, the image that usually comes to mind is the compelling rhythms and intricate footwork and hip movements of samba, and the excitement of carnival. European pre-Catholic “pagan” in origin, carnival acquired its reputation as the world’s biggest party as a result of the masquerading and parading traditions of Africans and their descendants, who in Brazil and elsewhere in the Americas appropriated the celebration from the white elites who had prohibited them from participating, and transformed it to fit their own style. And capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art/dance form that has gained popularity and students internationally, manifests its Central African origins in the name of the most traditional style, capoeira de Angola. Indeed, one of the most striking elements of Brazilian popular culture is its pervasive Africanity.

In the film classic, Black Orpheus, and the recent remake, Orpheu, European mythology is recast in an Afro-Brazilian milieu of the secular festivities of carnival and the sacred mysticism of Afro-Brazilian religion. Religion is a foundation of the Afro-Brazilian culture that permeates Brazilian society. On New Year’s Eve on Rio de Janeiro’s fashionable beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and beyond, Brazilians of all colors and social strata gather to offer presents to and ask blessings of Yemanja, the Yoruba divinity brought to Brazil in the holds of slave ships in the heads of captive Africans. Some Brazilians say that on New Year’s Eve everyone in Rio is African.

The Afro-Brazilian religion known as Candomble in Bahia, Afro-Brazil’s spiritual and cultural epicenter, is based primarily on the religion of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Benin, with influences also from Central African Bantu-speaking peoples, as well as from Brazil’s indigenous people. Yoruba religion in Brazil centers on the worship of the “Orishas,” spiritual beings who rule and represent the natural forces of the universe and human life. Yemanja, for example, the Orisha of the oceans and mother of the waters, also represents principles of maternity and fertility, literally and figuratively, in human life.

During religious ceremonies held in their honor, the Orishas “manifest” their presence by dancing the gestures of their cosmic roles to the drum rhythms that invoke them by embodying themselves in the beings of their entranced devotees. The gourmet gods also share their favorite foods with their worshipers in a communion meal.

The Orishas reign over and intervene in the everyday life of human society, and are part of the daily lives of most of the Afro-Brazilian population. This is especially true in Bahia, the state with the largest population of African descent. Salvador, Bahia’s capital and Brazil’s fourth largest city, has a population more than 70% of African origin. The Orishas and the Candomble are so much a part of this modern city of skyscrapers, shopping centers, and traffic jams, that their symbols are common elements of everyday life, familiar to all who understand what they are seeing.

The women cooking and selling food on the streets identify themselves as members of the Candomble by the colored beads around their necks that represent their spiritual guardians. And the foods they sell, like many of the other elements of Bahia’s “typical” cuisine, include favorites of the Orishas. The most characteristic of these delicacies, acaraje, a black-eyed pea fritter deep-fried in red palm oil and garnished with dried shrimp and hot pepper, is a favorite food of Yansan, Orisha of the winds of storms, and Shango, Orisha of thunder and lightening. Eating acaraje is thus sharing in the food of the gods, adding a whole new dimension to the idea of soul food.

The Candomble is the inspiration for art, music, popular dance and even commercial symbols. The façade of a dermatological clinic in a fashionable residential area features an image of Omolu or Obaluiye, the Orisha of skin diseases. The pool of the former Hotel Méridien had a tiled Yemanja, in the form of a mermaid, on the bottom. And Salvador’s modern postal center has in front of it a statue of Exú, the Orisha responsible for communication, who presumably helps the mail go through. But Exú is a trickster.

African culture continues to be a much more obviously pervasive presence in Brazilian culture than is the case in the United States for several reasons, one being the relative proportions of populations of African descent. Brazil has the world’s second largest population of African descent after Nigeria, and twice that of the United States. Additionally, both the slave trade and slavery lasted longer in Brazil than in the United States. The slave trade lasted officially until 1850, and clandestinely for at least two more decades in Brazil, while the institution of slavery lasted until 1888, as compared to 1808 (the slave trade) and 1863 (slavery itself) in the United States. Thus, new Africans and influences from Africa continued to flow into Brazil in large numbers for two generations longer than in the United States. Hence, people born in Africa lived further into the twentieth century and continued to help shape Brazilian society much longer than was the case for the United States. Some contemporary Afro-Brazilians knew their African grandparents or great-grandparents, so had direct sources of knowledge of Africa.

During the late period of Brazil’s slave trade, as a result of civil wars within Yoruba kingdoms and between them and their neighbors, large numbers of Yoruba people were sold into bondage and found themselves concentrated in urban areas in northeastern Brazil. Because it was conflict among Yoruba groups that had facilitated their enslavement, government policy sometimes allowed them to congregate regularly for social dances, to keep alive their enmities and not unite in common cause against their oppressors. The result was to make it possible for the Yoruba to recreate much of their culture, and to superimpose it upon the African/Afro-Brazilian culture that had preceded them.

Another key factor in allowing Afro-Brazilians to maintain so much of their culture was the inadvertently hospitable environment offered by the Catholic church, which unwittingly facilitated the survival of African spirituality while seeking to destroy it. When prohibited from worshipping the Orishas and obliged to learn about the Catholic saints, the Yoruba perceived similarities between the two and worshipped the Orishas using the names and visual images of the saints. Statues of saints came to represent Orishas with similar characteristics who, as forces of nature, cannot be represented materially. And saints’ feast days offered opportunities to worship the Orishas in the guise of the saints. Catholic priests created Afro-Brazilian lay brotherhoods and sisterhoods to bring the Africans into the church. But when the Africans came into the church, they brought their Orishas with them, using these Catholic organizations to help preserve their own religious system. Today the Candomble exists freely and openly, and some of its members, even some spiritual leaders, are descendants of the Portuguese who tried to eliminate it.

Whereas the African cultural presence is very apparent in Brazil, especially in Bahia, a capital of African culture in the Americas, this presence is less obvious in the United States for the temporal reasons cited, as well as because of demography. African-Americans have always been a relatively small demographic presence in the United States. Almost 50% of all enslaved Africans were taken to Brazil in contrast to less than 5% to the United States, and current census figures reveal 50% of Brazil’s population self-identifying as black or mulatto in contrast to a 13% African-American population in the United States. Awareness of the obvious presence and pervasiveness of Afro-Brazilian culture can, however, help to highlight the culture of African origin that continues to exist in the United States.

Knowledge of Afro-Brazilian religious patterns can help African-Americans perceive the similarities between, for example, “shouting” or being “filled with the Spirit” in traditional African-American Protestant churches, and “manifesting” the Orishas and “incorporating” them in one’s body in the Candomble. Both are provoked by the rhythmic stimuli of drums or of percussive organ or piano playing and hand clapping, foot tapping, and song. The dynamics of the services are similar, building to a palpable crescendo at which the “Spirit,” or the Orisha, enters into the human community to move in the bodies of the people, dance the sacred dances, and share blessings with the congregation.

For the spirit to come into direct and intimate contact with the human community through the bodies of worshippers is the purpose and essence of ceremonies in both societies. If this transcendent moment does not occur, the religious experience has not happened. The plethora of Orishas and other African spiritual beings whose continued existence was facilitated by Catholicism in Brazil have become singularized and abstracted as the “Spirit” in the U.S. African American Protestant church. The still similar behavioral and conceptual results, however, point up the common genesis. And in both societies it is the African-based music of the sacred traditions that has provided the basis of the popular music and dance of the secular nation.

In addition to their different degrees of cultural Africanity in both the population of specifically African origin and in the larger society, Brazil and the United States also differ with respect to how people of differing racial origins are categorized, and the nature of the relationships between them. Whereas the racial situation in the United States may be best characterized by the African-American saying, “The only two things I really have to do are be black and die,” the situation in Brazil is better characterized by the saying, “The poor white person is black, and the rich black person is white.” This comparison might suggest a possible amendment to the African-American perspective to, “…or I can be black, become rich, go to Brazil, and become white!”

In Brazil “money whitens” to the extent that some Brazilians use that cliché as proof of Brazil’s alleged “racial democracy.”Of course, the immediate problem that this formulation poses in a society that some people still manage to defend as a racial democracy, is the troubling correspondence, and worse, the explicit equivalence, between blackness and poverty, and whiteness and wealth. Yet, Brazil is still clearly a very different world from the United States where a person who was “one thirty-second black,” i.e., had one great-great-great-grandparent of African origin among thirty-one of European origin, was legally, if imperceptibly, black according to the infamous “one drop” rule. And even the poorest white person retains, at least theoretically, the attendant white-skin privileges of a society that makes no pretense at being a racial democracy.

The idea that wealth or any other variable can somehow rescind one’s most significant racial origins, i.e., those that determine into which of the only two available categories one falls, is a foreign concept in the United States. In contrast, a Brazilian anecdote tells of a poor Afro-Brazilian who laments to a very affluent Afro-Brazilian about how hard life is in Brazil if one is black. The rich man’s response is, “I know. I used to be black.” (In many apocryphal versions of the story, the reply of the rich man is attributed to world-renowned soccer player Pele, now Minister of Sports.) Consequently, in Brazil, being black, or for that matter being white for the economically unfortunate, just may be a transitory state.

Additionally, in Brazil only a minority of the population is referred to as either black or white because Brazil does not have only the two polar and hermetic categories of the United States, but acknowledges linguistically as well as conceptually all the nuances of hue between the two that exist in reality. In the United States, the operative variable is African or European ancestry, whereas in Brazil appearance determines people’s “racial” identity. People are described according to what they look like, with most people falling into the middle categories between pale-blond and blue-black. In Brazil, color is used as the actual descriptor that it clearly is not in the United States, where there are people who “are black, but look white.” Hence, a Brazilian nuclear family may include children categorized as white, as varying shades of brown, and as black, depending upon their appearances, all of which can be modified by relative affluence. This situation has, however, been evolving toward the U.S. model as a result of the politics of Brazil’s Black Movement.

Even with respect to appearance, the lines drawn at the limits of the shared categories of black and white are in different places in Brazil and the United States. Many “white” Brazilians would be considered black in the United States by both appearance and ancestry. And some people who have spent their lives being black in the United States have been surprised to learn that they are considered white in Brazil either by appearance alone, or because of the factoring in of the wealth presumably undissociable from their North Americanness. Wealth in Brazil can compensate for such features as skin color, hair type, and other somatic features of obvious African origin.

So, in Brazil there can be white people of African origin, an inconceivable contradiction in the United States. And some “white” Brazilians acknowledge their African ancestry, although for some this acknowledgement is volunteered—perhaps just to U.S. African-Americans—only to the extent that they believe it to be insufficiently visible as to be unproblematic. If told that their African genetic heritage is showing, some deny that that is possible, or attribute it to the effects of the tropical sun! Even President Fernando Henrique Cardoso acknowledged having “um pe na cozinha,” “one foot in the kitchen,” an expression referring to his having had a black ancestress. But in the United States, no white person can acknowledge any African ancestry, because by definition anyone with African ancestry is black.

African-Americans are clear about being black in the United States’ simple, if anomalous, dichotomous system. Whereas in Brazil becoming affluent involves becoming white, in the United States the various socio-economic strata of African-American culture represent a variety of ways of expressing blackness. Most African-Americans, however affluent, see their black identity as a normal fact of life, identifying with their particular social class expression of that culture. An example is the fact that comedian Bill Cosby made a gift of $20 million to Spelman College, a specifically African-American institution of higher education, in an eloquent symbol of a major difference between the two societies. Both rich and still black, in contrast to Pele, who because he was rich could become white (although as a government minister he apparently became politically blacker), Cosby self-consciously created positive media images of affluent African-Americans for black and white America and the world, and with the proceeds contributed to the further development of African-American institutions.

In Brazil things are not so clear. There have been no formally separate institutions that openly acknowledged discriminating by ethnic origins, although there continue to be widely known code words that mean “white only,” such as the “of good appearance” of employment announcements. But charges of racism are still met with denial by many Brazilians who subscribe to what progressive thinkers refer to as the “myth of racial democracy.”Or they explain that the problem is socio-economic rather than racial, as exemplified by the symbolic switch in color status of poor whites and rich blacks. Such a response manages to ignore the systematic correlation between color and economics, most Afro-Brazilians being poor and almost all rich people being white. It bases its proof on the existence of many poor whites and an infinitesimal number of rich blacks, which presumably proves racial democracy. In reality, those examples serve better as the exceptions that prove that the myth is just that.

Yet in Brazil, it is actually possible for people to consider themselves just Brazilian, whereas in the United States there can be no plain Americans. All U.S. citizens are clearly color-coded and labeled by both society and the state as black or white, and Brazil’s intermediary categories are considered black—as is pointed out by recent efforts to officially create an intermediate “mixed” category. A result of the differences is that for many Brazilians, the United States appears too racially conscious, rigid, and segmented. And for African-Americans, Brazil seems hypocritical if experienced and examined more than superficially.

But blackness is not the same as Africanity. Most Afro-Brazilians, even most Brazilians who are white by both Brazilian and U.S. standards, have maintained a great deal of obviously African culture because the African presence remains an integral, defining and acknowledged component of Brazilian culture. In fact, some Euro-Brazilians are more culturally Afro-Brazilian than some Afro-Brazilians, and are definitely more culturally African than many African-Americans. In the United States, although African-American and all-American culture contains many more Africanisms than are generally known and acknowledged, most African-Americans are not aware of them and so do not claim their Africanity. Some even deny it because of the negative images of Africa with which they have been assaulted by both mass media and the educational system.

For many Afro-Brazilians, culture of obvious African origin exists overtly in their everyday environment. Although elements of African culture have survived in African-American religion, music, dance, crafts, language, gastronomy and aesthetics, as is especially evident in some areas of the south, the African culture to which most African-Americans look for roots, identity, and inspiration is something foreign rather than a part of their everyday experience.1 African-Americans seek their African roots across the ocean, while many Afro-Brazilians live with them in their home or neighborhood. Whereas Afro-Brazilians live an obvious continuity with their African legacy, African-Americans are currently seeking to reconnect with an ancestral heritage that has become foreign.

The African heritage of Afro-Brazilians has never been alienated from them or them from it, although they found it necessary to resort to camouflage and/or compromise to preserve their religious culture, for example. It is true that in the process of cultural “whitening” to conform to the ideal of the alleged racial democracy, upwardly mobile Afro-Brazilians have also tended to distance themselves from their African culture along with their blackness. But it has remained persistently with them, not only in the neighborhood, but also in the fabric of overall Brazilian culture. In fact, it is because of this Africanity that others are fascinated by the exciting culture of Brazil.

One consequence of this very different situation is that the Afro-Brazilian relationship to Africa is direct and specific. Because the dominant obvious African cultural influence is Yoruba, especially in Bahia, most Afro-Brazilian knowledge of Africa is specifically and limitedly Yoruba, although much of their African cultural presence comes from elsewhere on the continent. The African-American relationship to Africa, being less obviously specific, is more generic and eclectic, and hence also more pan-Africanist in orientation. Lacking both the advantages and the constraints of specific real connections to Africa, African-Americans have chosen to re-establish those symbolic connections with which they feel an affinity, and have felt free to take the whole continent as their province and source of identity.

Currently, there is a convergence between Africanity and blackness in both African-descended populations due to their reciprocal influences on one another as well as to the increased contact by both with Africa and the rest of the African Diaspora. Thus Afro-Brazilians are claiming their blackness and African-Americans are claiming their Africanity, often with each other as both mirror and inspiration.

Sheila S. Walker is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas. She is the editor of African Roots/American Cultures: Africa In The Creation Of The Americas, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) and is director of the African Diaspora Education Project in Washington, DC.

1. See Sheila S. Walker, ed., African Roots/American Cultures: Africa In The Creation Of The Americas (Lan-ham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001).

Tags: Brazil, Afro-Brazilian, race, Candomble, religion, culture, wealth

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