Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Miscegenation and lusotropicalism

‘Could this odor really be from a burned black man? I don’t know - but this definitely gave me the chills. I never thought that such horror could be possible at this time in the United States. But it is. Here there is still lynching, killing, and burning of blacks. This is not an isolated incident. It happens often.’ This is from the diary of Gilberto de Mello Freyre, a much respected Brazilian sociologist and the originator of Lusotropicalism, who died 30 years ago today. He kept a diary only when young, and decided to publish it nearly half a century later. One researcher, though, believes Freyre considerably revised the diary entries over time ‘for the sake of impressive self-presentation’.

Freyre was born in 1900 in Recife into an old Brazilian family descending from the first Portuguese colonisers. He started school at a Baptist missionary school run by Americans. This led him to converting from Catholicism to Protestantism, and also to a scholarship at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. After graduating, he enrolled at Columbia University where he studied for a masters in political and social sciences. While at Columbia, he moved away from religion and, influenced by the pioneering anthropologist, Franz Boas, became enthused towards the cultural anthropology of his own country. His thesis, Social life in Brazil in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
, was translated and published in English (see Internet Archive).

After travelling in Europe for a year or so, Freyre returned to Brazil in 1922. He worked as a journalist but also organised the first northeastern regionalist congress in Recife and created a Regionalist Manifesto for the encouragement of local novelists, poets, and artists. In 1927, he was appointed as head of cabinet for Estácio Coimbra, governor of the State of Pernambuco; but with the 1930 revolution, headed by Getúlio Vargas, both Coimbra and Freyre went into exile. Freyre went first to Portugal where he worked as a translator, and then to the US where he travelled and found work as a visiting professor at Stanford.

By 1932, Freyre had returned to Brazil. The following year he published what would become his most famous book Casa-Grande & Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves). Where many Brazilians had been anxious about their lack of identity, he argued that Brazil’s cultural mixture or miscegenation, resulting from immigration and interbreeding, was precisely what made Brazilians distinctive. He was the prime mover in organising the first Congress of Afro-Brazilian Studies with the goal of studying African minorities. In 1936, he was appointed chair in sociology at the University of Brazil; further books followed. 

In 1941, Freyre married Magdalene Guedes Pereira, and they had two children. Following the coup which deposed Vargas, Freyre was elected to the federal Congress, where he contributed to the negotiations on a new constitution. He was instrumental in launching social research institutes, the first of which was established in 1949. A year later, he became director of the Regional Center for Educational Research in Recife, where he promoted policies attentive to Brazil’s diversity. At the invitation of Portugal’s government, he travelled to Portuguese provinces in Africa.

Freyre is particularly remembered for Lusotropicalism, a name he gave to the distinctive character of Portuguese imperialism overseas which, he considered, to have been better than that of other European nations. This was due, he argued,
 to Portugal’s hot, tropical environment and from it having had much experience of previous European empires and cultures. In 1962, he was awarded the Prêmio Machado de Assis of the Academia Brasileira de Letras, one of the most prestigious Brazilian literature awards; he received numerous other awards, both in Brazil and abroad. He died on 18 July 1987. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, a Gilberto Freyre tribute site, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In the mid-1970s, Freyre decided to publish a diary he had kept as a young man: Tempo Morto e Outros Tempos: Trechos de um diário de adolescência e primeira mocidade, 1915-1930 (J. Olympio, 1975). A few (undated) extracts in English can be found in Luso-American Literature: Writings by Portuguese-speaking Authors in North America, edited by Robert Henry Moser, Antonio Luciano de Andrade Tosta (Rutgers University Press, 2011), parts of which can be previewed at Googlebooks. The extracts, translated by Jayne Reino, are included in the chapter entitled The Dead Season and Other Occasions.

However, Maria Lucia G. Pallares-Rurke argues - in an essay The Creative Memories of Gilberto Freyre in Literature and Cultural Memory (Brill, 2017) - that the text of Tempo Morto e Outros Tempos ‘was written and rewritten over the years’. Although she quotes other examples of how Freyre adapted past writings ‘for the sake of impressive self-presentation’, her essay focuses on the published diary. Here is part of her argument (taken from Literature and Cultural Memory available online at Googlebooks):

‘In his preface, Freyre noted that the published text was “extremely incomplete”, since the manuscript had been left in an old chest and was eaten “pelo cupim” (by termites). He also claimed that the revision “had been minimal”; respecting the words of the adolescent and the young man that Freyre had been at that time. However, as I discovered, Freyre did not tell the whole truth and Tempo Morto is not so much a diary as an autobiography in the form of a diary. In fact, the text was written and rewritten over the years. In 1948, for instance, 18 years after the text comes to an end, Freyre wrote to his friend, the novelist José Lins do Rego that “I have added various things about you to the diary. It is becoming a book”.

It scarcely seems an exaggeration, then to describe Tempo Morto as a masterpiece of self-presentation or self-fashioning (to employ the now famous phrases of Erving Goffman and Stephen Greenblatt) or, following Coffman’s dramaturgical approach to everyday life, to describe Freyre’s text as a dramatization of his youth - and it is no accident that Tempo Morto was adapted for the theatre in 1981, six years after its publication. As in the case of Yeats and Gandhi, it may be suggested that the text of TM tells us more about the later Freyre who was writing or rewriting it, and perhaps writing with nostalgia about a time long-passed, than about the young man of the years 1915-1930.’

And here are several excerpts from Freyre’s diary as in Tempo Morto e Outros Tempos (taken from Luso-American Literature).

‘Aboard the “Curvelo,” 1918.
I travel full of saudade. But I am also filled with great curiosity: to know what awaits me in the United States. What will my studies be like? How will I adapt to the Yankee lifestyle? It is true that my brother has already paved the way. But though we are brothers, we are not exactly the same. In various respects we are different.

I practice my English with an English family that, unable to return to England, is going to the United States: the Joyces. She’s a widow. The daughter is a pretty young British girl with whom I’ve been conversing a lot along the way.

Mr. J. was a missionary in Bahia, it seems. Or in Espirito Santo. He died from a chigger flea wound. The vermin was poorly removed. The poor Englishman’s foot couldn’t withstand the infection.

I think about the fact that no Brazilians die from chigger fleas. On the contrary: it’s hard to find a Brazilian who hasn’t had chigger fleas as a child. It’s an initiation into becoming Brazilian that few children escape. The vermin enters the foot of the Brazilian child: it installs itself there and begins to itch. It’s extracted with a hot pin, lime is rubbed on the little wound, and that’s all there is to it. The itch does leave behind a certain saudade. But if the foot is that of an Englishman, things can transpire like they did with Mr. J.: infection, fever, delirium, death.

Getting a chigger flea is like having yellow fever on a much smaller scale: it does no harm to a Brazilian but it can be fatal to a foreigner. What a shame for that girl’s poor father.’

‘Waco, 1919.
I seldom receive any letters from Brazil. One here or there. Almost all of them are from my family. I rarely receive one from a friend. Meanwhile, here, all of the students receive word from their hometown, not only from their families, but also from their friends; numerous letters per week.
Could it be that we Brazilians don’t have a spirit of friendship, but only that of camaraderie? That’s how it seems to me sometimes. It’s safe to say that Brazilians are far from rivaling Americans from the United States in their epistolary friendships. Here, correspondence is something sacred among friends.’

‘Waco, 1919.
I had imagined that Waco’s “black neighborhood” would be some kind of terrible place. But it was even more horrible than I had foreseen. Filthy. Squalid. A disgrace for this philistine civilization that, in the meantime, is sending missionaries to the “pagans” of South America and China, India and Japan. Such missionaries, before crossing the seas, should take care of these domestic horrors. They are violently antichristian.

As a matter of fact, since my first contacts with the United States, I have been losing respect for their Evangelical Christianity. It seems to me that this country needs to be Christianized, evangelized, and purified of its sins, in order to have the right to give lessons about “Romanism” and “papism.”

I have already spoken with various blacks. Bitter people, but resigned. A young black woman approached me. She was pretty, though in no way as alluring as a Brazilian woman of color. “Baylor University?” she asked me. Yes, I responded. We talked a lot. I asked her several questions. One of her female friends became impatient: “Do you boy want jig-jig?” At least that’s what I understood. She was convinced that the only thing that had brought me to that dive was my hunger for a loose woman.’

‘Waco, 1919.
The trip I just made to Dallas was truly macabre. I went with some of Professor Bradbury’s other Biology students to the University Medical School in Dallas. They tell me that the school has the reputation of being, or at least of becoming, one of the best in the United States. Old Brooks is Baylor’s President and the Medical School is the apple of his eye.

We, the Biology, pre-Anthropology students, went to observe how quasi pre-medical students dissect cadavers. The cadavers gave me fewer chills than I had expected. Green. Incredibly green; they seemed like dolls to me. They didn’t give me the impression that they had once been men or women, instead they seemed like dolls that had been made to be studied, examined, and taken apart in extremely white, antiseptic rooms.

What did give me the chills was the intense smell of burnt flesh that we sensed on our return, as we were passing by a city or village called Waxa-haxie (I believe that is how this complicated name is written; the word is American Indian, I suppose, just like Waco). We were informed with relative simplicity: “It’s a black that the boys have just burned!” Could this be true? Could this odor really be from a burned black man? I don’t know - but this definitely gave me the chills. I never thought that such horror could be possible at this time in the United States. But it is. Here there is still lynching, killing, and burning of blacks. This is not an isolated incident. It happens often.’

‘Montreal, 1921.
There is something that I recognize here, something that I find familiar and similar to Brazil. It must be the Latin allure left behind by the French Catholics, who, to some degree, still resist assimilation to Anglo-Saxon ways and Protestantism. It is a country that welcomes a Neo-Latin from Brazil. The fraternal spirit originates from two influences that were common in the developing civilization of America: the Latin and the Catholic traditions.

At the same time, Canada is a civilization, a people, a landscape, already very influenced by the Anglo-Saxons: at times there is the feeling that one is still within the United States. But it is only an impression.’

‘New York, 1921.
A few days ago, I saw sailors from the Brazilian Navy walking through the snow in Brooklyn. To me, they seemed small and fragile, lacking the physical vigor of authentic sailors. Is it mal de mestiçagem, the malady of racial mixing? Nonetheless, the wise John Casper Branner admired the racial mixture of Brazilians - even those who are not at all athletic or robust - in an article that I requested he write for El Estudiante, a magazine for Latin American students that I co-edit with the Chilean Oscar Gacitua. Branner tells of an occasion when he was traveling by train through the interior of Brazil and the locomotive broke down. There was dismay among the passengers: they wouldn’t be leaving any time soon from that desolate area where the engine had stopped. The engineer didn’t inspire any confidence at all: he was one of those feeble and clumsy mestiçozinhos [diminutive persons of mixed race] that are indistinctly referred to in Brazil also as caboclos [persons of indigenous and European ancestry). Or, in Portuguese that is even more Brazilian, amarelinhos [little yellow fellows]. He was, however, a marvelous mechanic and technician. He fixed the engine in no time. It was as if the engine’s clamour held no mystery for him. For Branner, it wasn’t an isolated case. The mestizo, the cabodo, the amarelinho - perhaps this is the best description of a type that many Brazilians today call the Brazilian Jeca [a rustic type or hick] - is, in fact, intelligent and capable, despite his unfavorable appearance at times.’

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