Arts & Culture

The complex legacy of slavery in Brazil

6 min read

Scholars talk about race, color, circumstance, heritage

In Heliópolis, a favela, or shantytown of São Paulo, Brazil, an annual tradition pits residents against one another for an epic soccer game. The match is called simply Pretos vs. Brancos, or “Blacks Against Whites.” Despite the title, the composition of the teams is remarkably fluid. Every year players change sides at will, and not necessarily according to skin tone. One player recently explained that he was playing for the Whites just because he was “feeling more white.”

For Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, professor of anthropology at the Universidade de São Paulo, the Pretos vs. Blancos game is just one example of the ways race and color in Brazil are flexible concepts, linked as much to circumstance as to heritage. Schwarcz studies the history of prejudice in Brazil, as well as its contemporary manifestations.

On Thursday (April 17), Schwarcz joined Zephyr Frank, assistant professor of Latin American history at Stanford University, for a lunchtime conversation about race in Brazil in both the era of the slave trade and today. The event, titled “Slavery, Abolition and Race in Brazil,” was part of an ongoing series in the Brazil Studies Program of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

Frank, an expert in spatial history and network analysis, opened the program with a discussion of how analyzing geography and social networks can illuminate the urban experience of slaves and freed persons in 19th century Rio de Janeiro. Using parish and tax records, Frank has been able to create atlas-style layouts that reveal the details of life in the city, from property values to occupational structure to disease.

“Where you lived had an impact on your health,” Frank explained, pointing to a graph that showed the prevalence of disease by location. The number of deaths by yellow fever, for example, was highest in Sacramento parish, a section of Rio de Janeiro where many artisans lived. Tuberculosis, on the other hand, was highest in the low-rent zone of “Little Africa.”

“We can look all the way down to the level of a city block to see what is happening in any given place,” said Frank.

That kind of close scrutiny also enables Frank to trace the social network of slaves and slave traders.

“Social network analysis techniques allow us to place buyers of slaves, sellers of slaves, and the slaves themselves within the social world of cities,” he said. As an example, Frank displayed a tax record noting the sale of a 38-year-old female called “Florentina” to the director of the Banco de Brazil. He then showed an image of the director’s social network, with small bubbles representing his colleagues at the bank, his friends in various social organizations, and so on.

“As this expands, we begin to knit together the social world of Rio,” Frank explained. “We can build visualizations to see how many degrees of separation exist, to get a perspective of where individuals are embedded in the space of the city.”

The visualizations also proved useful in exploring how slaves preserved their social networks, even as they were bought and sold and moved throughout the city against their will.

“I was surprised to discover that in spite of the challenges they faced, slaves were able to maintain relatively diffuse networks across the city,” Frank said. An exploration of lay religious brotherhoods, for example, demonstrated to Frank that membership was not limited to those living nearby.

“I assumed that the brothers would be clustered around the seat of the brotherhood,” Frank said, “but by looking at the addresses of the members we can see that they were actually scattered throughout the city and often quite far afield. This made me reconsider my idea of how large communities — even imagined ones — could be.”

Though slavery was officially abolished in Brazil in 1888, racial prejudice remained — and continues today.

“Abolition was not seen as a process but as a kind of gift or present from white people,” explained Schwarcz. “Furthermore, at the same time as abolition occurred, racial theories such as social Darwinism and phrenology became popular. This created a perception of a ‘natural hierarchy’ that linked color and social status.”

Schwarcz said that the meaning of race and color is “always the subject of negotiation and change,” but it still organizes inequality and creates patterns of racial discrimination in Brazil. As she found in the soccer game, however, color is rarely fixed.

“Color is a flexible concept linked to social status and circumstance,” she said. Schwarcz cited a 1974 study by the National Program of Statistics in Houses (PNAD) in which respondents were asked to identify their color. More than 136 different colors were recorded, including “cinnamon,” “sea blue,” “honey-colored white,” “purplish,” and “chestnut.”

“People consider skin color as varied as the color of the rainbow,” Schwarcz said. She also noted that respondents would answer differently depending on the circumstance, such as the skin tone of the person asking or the presence of children in the home.

“It’s a concept of contrast,” Schwarcz explained. “No one is exactly white … you are only white by comparison.”

Schwarcz’s own research has confirmed the flexibility of color found in the PNAD study. In December of 2003 she and colleagues visited Heliópolis with a video camera and filmed residents as they responded to the question, “What color are you?”

“The responses varied according to who asked the question,” said Schwarcz. When Schwarcz, who is fair-skinned, did the interviews, respondents would say they had darker skin tones. When her colleague with darker skin posed the same question, people would generally respond with lighter colors.

“Self-description is very subjective,” she said.

Schwarcz and her colleagues also showed the respondents how they looked on TV and gave them the opportunity to change the image contrast.

“People wanted to be lighter, or redder, or even bluish,” Schwarcz said. “Everyone had the desire to play with or manipulate their color.”

According to Schwarcz, the atmosphere in Brazil has been changing recently as more and more people embrace discussions about racism and prejudice. Debates about affirmative action at universities, for example, have encouraged Brazilians to consider topics that were formerly ignored or brushed aside.

Tensions linger, however. In a recent Pretos vs. Brancos match, for example, the Pretos emerged victorious — an unexpected win that, according to Schwarcz, thwarted tradition.

“It is a ritual that the Blacks cannot win,” Schwarcz noted, “so it was quite a tense situation.”

As the tension mounted, Schwarcz asked a player, “but how can you even say who is black and who is white?”

“Just ask the police,” came the response.