Interfacial archetypes in Afro-Brazilian cultural studies: the Pan-African consciousness of Marcio Barbosa, Paulo Colina, and Salgado Maranhao.

Author:Afolabi, Niyi
Position:Critical essay


In the Brazilian context, "post-modernism" betrays what Linda Huntcheon calls a phenomenon that can be best defined as "totally complicitous or totally critical, either seriously compromised or polemically oppositional." (1) The sense of irony and critical distance that postmodernism has invited has also brought about many mixed responses to its contradictory positions which may be summed up by the opposition between utopia and dystopia relative to the unfulfilled hopes and dreams articulated in the post-abolition era. In this essay, I explore the works of writers who are innovative and traditional at the same time with a keen eye on the "universal" to reach for humanism via the works of Paulo Colina, Salgado Maranhao, and Marcio Barbosa. That all these cultural producers choose the urban setting for their imaginative works is inevitable. The choice between the urban and the rural is a false option for the exigency of modernity and postmodernity demands that even the "rural" become subject to the critique of "primitivism" and "exoticism" that is usually associated with subaltern and indigenous societies. The very urban nature of slavery in Brazil especially in the geo-economics and politics of Coffee in Sao Paulo, Sugarcane in the Northeast, and Gold in Minas Gerais, ensured the post-emancipation location of African descendants in the urban areas. Even with the effects of labor migration from "arid" to "greener" pastures, such as from the Northeast to the South, did not have a significant economic reconfiguration or betterment of life as these "migrant populations" were contained within a space that is now known as favela [Slum]--a space that may be seen as both private and public. Within this shifting space and location, African cultures and religions survived in Brazil to the extent that the relics take on their own identity with universal ethos--hence the connections between the ancestral, the urban, and the human condition.

In her own discussion of "marginal poetry," (2) poetry produced in the 1970s in the wake of military dictatorship and what she calls a "new aesthetics of rigor" associated with the new poetry of 1990s, Heloisa Buarque de Hollanda defines "marginal" as an ambiguous expression which "oscillated between an inexhaustible series of meanings: marginal to the canon, marginal to the editorial market, marginal to the political life of the country." Although this assessment captures the challenges of members of the group of Quilombhoje and other individual Afro-Brazilian cultural producers, the poetic explosion of that generation, "traumatized by the limitations imposed upon its social experience (...) and the repressive mechanisms developed during the period of military dictatorship in the country," was not limited in aesthetic quality due to its obvious posture of transgression against canonical standards of literary historiography. Rather, what that generation brought to the fore was a kind of politics of inclusion--women and Blacks refusing to remain silent and be silenced by the mechanism of the dictatorship of politics, market, and "elite" culture. It is remarkable that of many individuals and groups, from the "affirmation of identity" groups, "Brazil of the landless," "gay outing," "digital reproduction," "spoken poetry," among others, only Elisa Lucinda is perceived by the miscegenated or white establishment as representing "poetry as show business" in a business that has equally marginalized significant poetic and cultural producers who have continued to produce since the seventies to date, such as Miriam Alves, Cuti, and Marcio Barbosa.

The case for the place of marginal poetry seems defeated if Hollanda's argument is that this poetry is less concerned with aesthetic rigor but simply with finding strategies of placing itself within the "small space" available for artistic creation and political statement. Even then, Elisa Lucinda does not represent the totality of afflicted and imaginative Afro-Brazilian cultural producers who toil to make a difference in the quality of life of the suffering masses. Elisa Lucinda projects a winning attitude as a secure female and persistent Brazilian poetic voice who needs not proclaim her Blackness and "victimhood" in order to be recognized within a whitened establishment such as Brazil. Contrary to the "oppressed" self-image and attempt to recuperate the assaulted Black body over many centuries as in the works of Miriam Alves, Conceicao Evaristo, Esmeralda Ribeiro, and Sonia Fatima da Conceicao among others, Lucinda does not set out to combat what Zillah Einseinstein calls "patriarchal capitalism" (3) which specializes in racial, sexual, and class oppression. Rather, she states that "we need to have an attitude of Afro-Brazilians who take charge of their destiny and who have a secure political posture." (4) While Lucinda speaks for some Brazilians who claim that "race" or "color" has nothing to do with success, she is definitely at odds with many Afro-Brazilians who feel she had a privileged background and is only reaching out to middle-class Brazilians not the masses. A bi-racial with green eyes, Lucinda's blend of poetry with theatrical performance is rare indeed--she captures the audience (black or white) with the same love for words, the passion to perform their message, and a certain natural bonding with her audience. According to her, she learnt to "speak from the heart" very early when her mother, Divalda Campos Gomes, took her to poetry lessons with her teacher, Maria Helena Salles de Miranda. For Lucinda, the influence of the teacher who introduced her to the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, AdElia Prado, and Cecilia Meireles, was fundamental. Lucinda's success lies in her productivity and her penchant for racial non-alignment or hybridity. With confidence, she prophesies her own reign and recognition when at the end of her own preface to O Semelhante [The Similar One], she states: "red carpets are just around the corner."

Yet, Colina, Barbosa, and Maranhao, whose cultural production is analyzed in this essay, do not fit neatly into the fragmenting terminology of postmodernity. The experiences captured by these voices do not begin and start with a specific date in mind--in essence, they are temporal experiences which cannot be time-specific. Even when situated in the historic contexts of slavery, abolition, post-abolition, and post-dictatorship, there is a sense in which the basic values and struggles of Afro-Brazilians did not change. As Ismael Xavier notes, "the early 1960s promised the redemption of the oppressed. The coup of 1964 inverted the game of power, or rather, revealed the foregoing illusions, generating a new juncture where Brazilian modernization did not fulfill the expectations of the leftist nationalism. (.) It showed also that in combating such modernization, which excluded and still excludes most of the population, moral justice was not enough" (Allegories of Underdevelopment 261). Xavier's notion of the "redemption of the oppressed" captures the yearnings of Afro-Brazilians, a dream that remains deferred whether it is in the modernist or post-modernist frame of reference. In Brazil, the "modernist" idea is dated as a historical literary current of 1922 while "post-modernist" will be events subsequent to that.

Although Lima Barreto and Machado de Assis wrote in the nineteenth century, there are some concerns in their work that are both modernist and post-modernist even in their racial, philosophical, and existentialist dimensions. The emergence of Machado de Assis in the turn of the 19th century was marred was racist ideologies that made his assertion of his African ancestry or bi-racial identity problematic. Thus, at best, as the greatest Brazilian writer of all times and member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, the odds against him were immense in terms of privileges and the implication of openly declaring his ancestry. Unlike the United States where the dynamics of race relations were more distinct as in the "one blood rule" principle that considered anyone with Black blood as "black," the case of Brazil is much nuanced since Brazil preached and continued to claim mythical "racial democracy" or the notion that all races are living in a harmonious paradise. In sharp comparison (5) to Machado de Assis, Lima Barreto, who is visibly Black, his life trajectory, work, and critical fortune, has a whole different tale to tell about race relations. On the one hand, Assis is the acclaimed great man of Brazilian literature; on the other hand, Barreto considers himself as a "cursed" writer. In contrast to Assis who was duly employed, Barreto was consistently unemployed, drunk, was placed in an asylum, and often critiqued the incompetence of the government as well as the negative stereotyping of Blacks and the poor.

In the Kingdom of the Strange

In their own rights, Paulo Colina and Marcio Barbosa occupy leadership positions within the Black movement, as one initiated perhaps the first anthology of contemporary Afro-Brazilian poetry in 1982, AxE: Antologia Contemporanea da Poesia Negra Brasileira (6) (which contrasts the ethnocentricism evident in Roger Bastide's "A Poesia Afro-Brasileira" (7)), and the other currently coedits the now famous Cadernos Negros, a series that was also launched in 1982. For Colina to have conceived of the necessity to give visibility to Afro-Brazilian voices that early in the era of new agitations for racial equality--agitations which did not gain momentum until the mid-seventies--is an achievement that Oswaldo de Camargo's O Negro Escrito, a similar effort published in 1987 by an older generation, cannot deny. Barbosa's incursion into the Black magazines of the 1930s as published by the Frente Negra Brasileira, a cultural and political group that made history in the 1930s by promoting Afro-Brazilian cultural and political values well before the birth of the Movimento Negro...

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