Brazilian art still doesn’t know how to deal with black people, says writer Ana Maria Gonçalves

a escritora ana maria gonc3a7alves na abertura do festival latinidades 2014
a escritora ana maria gonc3a7alves na abertura do festival latinidades 2014
A escritora Ana Maria Gonçalves, na Abertura do Festival Latinidades 2014
Writer Ana Maria Gonçalves at the opening of Latinidades Festival 2014. Photo: Valter Campanato

Note from BW of Brazil: You know, sometimes when you analyze a situation long enough and catch the vibe of what the people are feeling, you can kinda feel a huge change or transition coming. You can never quite pinpoint the when, but you clearly see the what and the who. Well, anyone who has kept an eye on the situation of Afro-Brazilians for the past few decades will certainly agree with this sentiment. I mean, we’ve all seen how Brazil treats its black population. We seen the Military Police senselessly take lives with what seems like no end in sight. We’ve heard the racist jokes and insults. We’ve seen how the media deals with Afro-Brazilians.

We could go on and on commenting on so many areas of society from a racial perspective, but what’s different from 30 or 40 years ago is the will of segments of the Afro-Brazilian population to stand up and be heard. They are making their presence felt in marches and confrontations, on stages, in film productions and on YouTube (see here, here and here). And it’s great to see this new activism and creativity. Because if we continue to allow our oppressor to present us in the way that they want, we cannot complain when the results are less than desirable. Thus, as the old saying goes, ‘when you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself’! Granted, there is still a LLOONNGG ways to go, but the fact that the issue is being pressed and some very talented people are taking things into their own hands is a reason to feel optimistic about the issue. Which is the feeling I get whenever I see people like author Ana Maria Gonçalves, featured in the interview below, saying what needs to be said!

Brazilian art still doesn’t know how to deal with black people, says the writer Ana Maria Gonçalves

Author of Um defeito de cor (A defect of color) speaks of racism, the difficulties of blacks being accepted as a producers of culture and white dominance in national literature

By Carlos André Moreira

The writer Ana Maria Gonçalves is the author of one of the great contemporary epics of slavery in Brazil, the monumental novel Um defeito de cor (A defect of color) (2006), a story of an enslaved woman in Daomé (Dahomey) at eight years old and sent to Brazil. Ana Maria has also been one of the most active voices to raise problematic issues in the relationship between blacks and whites in Brazil. Invited to the Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty (FLIP or International Literary Festival of Paraty), she participated in the parallel programming at a table that showed the absence of blacks in the official program of the event. In the interview below, she speaks of the reasons that, in her opinion, keep black citizens away from the national art of the country.

You presented in Paraty (Rio de Janeiro state) a workshop on “six themes for Brazil to deal with in their literature.” What issues are those?

These are issues related to racism. More specifically: slavery, racism, the black body, representation and the sexuality of black women, violence, the genocide of the população negra (black population)… It’s a course that I gave there at Itaú Cultural in São Paulo. Paraty, took a pocket version. Brazilian art still can’t deal with blacks, doesn’t know how to represent them.


We don’t have, as seen in other countries, England and the United States, for example, black writers, black directors. The majority of black writers don’t find a place in the mainstream market, then it is a picture of the society in which we live, of how restricted society has become for certain artists, and at the same time it’s a fruit of the racism that continues reproducing the same stereotypes in relation to blacks, to women. See for example on TV and in film, theater.

You were one of the people to express yourself a few years ago, when a TV commercial showed (writer) Machado de Assis represented by a white actor. Even manifestations for his death were divided between those who pointed out the fact of being black as something he “transcended” or those that, like (Joaquim) Nabuco, thought that calling him black would offend him (1). Is Machado an author in dispute?

This is a controversy that still spreads, often at the hands of those who don’t exactly read Machado. There is a work by Professor Eduardo de Assis Duarte, of UFMG Federal University of Minas Gerais), called Machado de Assis, afro-descendente (African descendant) (Crisálida Publishing, 2007). One of the major objections to Machado de Assis is that he never dealt with the racial question in his work. Indeed, in fiction you have little. But the chronicles of Machado, Eduardo recovers, are full of allusions, of criticism of slavery, Machado actually assuming there his black side (2). There is in all this something that is beginning to be spoken already: the place of the black intellectual in Brazil. It is a difficult place of them accepting you.

During Flip, writer Conceição Evaristo commented that, the prominent black in sports and music is commonplace, but are not seen as thinkers.

There is an exemplary episode of how black intelligentsia is treated in Brazil, which dates back to studies that UNESCO sponsored in Brazil in 1950. They wanted to prove there, basically, the so-called Brazilian racial democracy. And Abdias do Nascimento presented a paper at the 1º Congresso Nacional do Negro (1st National Congress of the Negro), interviewed people, collected data and concluded that Brazil is racist, yes. And an intellectual white, Luiz Aguiar Costa Pinto, took it, borrowed these data of Abdias do Nascimento, distorted and published it as if it were his original research. Abdias went to the newspaper to complain. And then Costa Pinto responded that it was unthinkable, it was as if the microbes that you study under a microscope rebelled and objected to the data from your study. This in the Brazilian newspapers from the late 1950s. This is one of the issues, we serve as an object of study, not as producers of knowledge.

Professor Regina Dalcastagné released a few years ago, a study that showed that not only the Brazilian writer, in general, is a white male of the middle class, but so are the characters. How do you see this?

We write from a place and themes that interest us. And I think that literature is one of the most elite areas of culture. There is a very interesting book called Diploma de brancura (Diploma of whiteness) (Jerry D’avila, Unesp, 2006) (3), which counts the deployment process of the Brazilian public school and how it was directed to remove blacks from education. There were many black and mulatto teachers, and with the opening of the school of normalistas in Rio, the teacher, who was often the mulatto trained by priests to practice the profession, were being replaced by the young, white woman of the middle-class or upper middle class because it was the only acceptable profession for women in the first half of the century. It’s a system that carries out at the same time the control of women and blacks. Starting there, literature, writing, has established itself as a campo de brancos (a field of whites), which is reflected in Regina’s study. Over the past 10 years, you have more foreign characters than blacks in the novels of national authors.

Source: Zero Hora clic RBS, Silva, Terezinha V. Zimbrão da. “Machado de Assis e o Mulato de ‘Alma Grega'”. Machado Assis Linha vol.7 no.14. Rio de Janeiro June/Dec. 2014. Lopes, Carlos. “Machado de Assis e a luta pelo fim da escravatura”. Hora do Povo. May 13, 2016.


Writer Machado de Assis (1839-1908)

1) The words of politician, diplomat, historian, journalist Joaquim Nabuco (1849-1910) about Machado de Assis speaks volumes for how blackness is viewed in Brazil. It is quite apparent that there was rejection of a man who would be recognized as Brazil’s greatest writer being defined as black or mulatto. Shortly after Assis’s death in 1908, Nabuco, responding to Machado being defined as a mulatto stated that: 

“…he was in fact, a Greek of the best era. I would not have called Machado mulatto and I think it would hurt you more than this synthesis. (…) Machado for me was a white and I believe it would hurt him more by this is synthesis; when there was strange blood, this did not affect his perfect Caucasian characterization. I at least I only saw in him the Greek.”(Nabuco, in a letter to José Verissimo, after the death of Machado de Assis).

Terezinha V. Zimbrão da Silva (2014) tells us that: 

“This attempt to whiten the writer manifested itself even in the choice of Machado de Assis portraits disclosed to the general public: preferably selected were those in which the mulatto appearance observed mitigated by the pince-nez (glasses) and his beard. This is the observation of the French critic Jean-Michel Massa”:

Machado de Assis (1896)

“Some considered him as white. Examining the pictures of him that remain with us, we note that, as an adult had, like many Brazilians, some Negroid features: cabelos ligeiramente crespos (hair with a slight kink/curl), the very fleshy lower lip, a nose before flattened. These traits more or less pronounced according to the various portraits are well hidden when wearing a beard.”

What should be noted here is that, as much as Brazil attempts to make a sharp distinction between black and mulatto/mixed, it is clear that in defining the racial classification of Brazil’s greatest writer, only the category of white would suffice. 

2) On attempts to whiten Assis as well early 20th century President Nilo Piçanha see here

3) D’avila’s important work has been previously featured in other posts, see here and here.

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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