Note from BW of Brazil:In reality, like everything else in Brazil, most Brazilians have probably never even thought about this topic. But I will present this challenge to any Brazilian who likes to spend at least some of their free time reading books and novels: Go to any of your favorite bookstores (Livraria Cultura, Livraria Saraiva, etc) and count how many books (whether novel, biography or non-fiction) prominently feature Afro-Brazilian characters, subjects or authors. As this writer has a wide range of areas of interest, I spend quite a bit of time in bookstores perusing through new book releases, magazines, etc. We’ve documented in several previous posts the near complete invisibility of Afro-Brazilian faces on magazine covers or in content (excluding sports figures) (see here, here or here) (1) but I would argue that this invisibility is even worse in relation to books.
Excluding titles about Afro-Brazilian sports stars (Neymar, Anderson Silva or Pelé) it’s almost impossible to find books about important Brazilian figures who happen to be black. There was recently renewed interest in a book about Soul singer Tim Maia due to the release of a film about the controversial singer, but again, sports and music are pretty much the only fields Afro-Brazilians are expected to play prominent roles. This rule also applies to a new book about actor/singer Antônio Carlos Bernardes Gomes, better known as Mussum.
Now this is not say that books about Afro-Brazilian historical figures don’t exist. One can always find books by or about the great 19th/20th century writer Machado de Assis, but as a rule, out of thousands of titles in any well stocked Brazilian bookstore, one would be hard-pressed to see any people of color as subjects or writers. Today’s article is somewhat of a follow-up to a similar report about black women characters in Brazilian novelas back in April of 2013.
Study on Brazilian novels points to small presence of black characters
By Leonardo Lichote
Exposed in the newly completed study “Personagens do romance brasileiro contemporâneo” (Characters of the contemporary Brazilian novel) held at the University of Brasilia (UnB), coordinated by Professor Regina Dalcastagnè, the numbers are impressive. The work, a survey of all the novels published by some of the major Brazilian publishers (Companhia das Letras, Record, Rocco and Objetiva/Alfaguara), points out that 96% of authors and 79% of the characters are white.
“Brazilian society is racist. It is racism that distorts our relationships, that hinders the presence, visibility and appreciation of blacks in all instances of representation”, evaluates Dalcastagnè. “And literature can reinforce, and even legitimize, racist discourse, replicating its ideology, linking the multiple experiences of blacks exclusively to violence and crime.”
More than the absence of blacks in the Brazilian novel, however, the teacher draws attention to the way they appear in the works (she analyzed 549 books of 304 different authors). There is the repetition of stereotypical roles (2), the little emphasis (“they are much more supporting cast than protagonists”) and the very rare occurrence of black narrators (thus the characters don’t have, “the possibility of speaking about the world around them,” explains Dalcastagnè).
“The problem is not having black characters who are criminals, drug addicts etc., the problem is that these are virtually the only possibilities of existence within a vast array of literary representations. It’s in this set that blacks, and even more so black women, are invisible or stereotyped, she reiterates. “What our research is finding is what lacks in contemporary Brazilian literature, as the numbers of survey on the novels indicate eloquently, incorporate the experiences, dramas, oppression, but also the fantasies, hopes and utopias of the marginalized social groups, be they defined by class, by gender, by race and color, sexual orientation or any other criterion.”
Problem of representation
The limited presence of black characters in Brazilian literature ends up generating a representation problem – taking away from them the nuances and reinforcing stereotypes.
“As they are so few, they end up becoming, when they appear, not only possible individuals, but representatives of an entire group,” the professor notes. “It doesn’t happen with white characters, especially the male, which are so many and so varied that they always constitute themselves, each of them as “unique”. The white criminal or addict is next to the white doctor, white writer, white shopkeeper. The black characters don’t have this variety, being fixed in a few occupations: they are the drug traffickers, maids and prostitutes. This is the stereotyping (which is revealed in other data, such as showing four times more the occurrence of substance abuse among black characters compared to whites).”
Issues of race and gender intersect in the research, as Dalcastagnè leaves clear in her comment about black women. The research – whose first phase covered between 1990 and 2004, and had already been presented – shows that 71% of writers and 60% of the characters are men. Economically, 80% belong to the privileged classes.
“Our literature, in general, is produced by and destined to the middle class. And the Brazilian middle class, which is branca and embranquecida (white and whitened), doesn’t look for blacks, is not interested in them, doesn’t imagine them, doesn’t cede space to them, does not speak of them, unless they are pointing a gun to their heads, or threatening their space in university seats, with the adoption of quotas.”
Conceição Evaristo and Ana Maria Gonçalves stand out
In a scenario in which the representation of black is reduced to poor standards of complexity, Dalcastagnè highlights two novels for their “different options of addressing the absence of the black character in our literature”: Um defeito de cor (A defect of color) (Record), by Ana Maria Gonçalves, and Becos da memória (Alleys of memory) (Pallas/Mulheres) by Conceição Evaristo:
“The first is the corpus of my research. The second no, she clarifies, by e-mail. –“The burden carried by black characters that I referred to before is undoubtedly shared by the authors, many of them black as well. After all, there is always a tension present in this process, a set of choices and decisions that does not affect, at least not necessarily, the author of white characters. To begin with, it’s necessary to counter representations already fixed in the literary tradition and at the same time, reaffirm the legitimacy of its own construction. Therefore, you must make a number of options that, besides aesthetic, are also political. Ana Maria Gonçalves chose to build an epic hero, a slave who gets his own freedom and goes back to Africa, after following the struggle of his people for freedom. Conceição Evaristo, who also speaks of slavery, will dilute the history of this fight in more than a dozen characters, giving the leading role of the novel to the experiences of black men and women in a favela (slum).”
1. Vega magazine’s choice of personalities for its covers provides ample evidence of this. See here.
2. Similar to Afro-Brazilian characters on television. Various articles approach this topic. See here.