Afro-Brazilians - Identification

Afro-Brazilians did not receive the kind of attention devoted to African Americans of the United States in the scholarly and popular literature until the 1970s. To the extent that they were discussed, they were viewed as part and parcel of Brazil's exceptional race-relations patterns, in which flexibility in racial categorization and definition, linked to a history of the absence of legally mandated or sanctioned racial discrimination in the postabolition period, obviated the need for Black protest and other forms of activity geared to the gaining of civil rights. Since then, this roseate rendition of the Afro-Brazilian situation has been steadily challenged by both Brazilians and foreigner observers, controverting the impression that the specific historical, cultural, sociological, and politicoeconomic universe in which Afro-Brazilians have lived and continue to live remotely resembles a privileged environment in terms of race relations. These recent discussions offer insights into race relations, racial prejudice, and racial discrimination of another kind than that found elsewhere. Briefly put, neither history nor culture in themselves have proven sufficient to legitimize a case for a unique immunity to racism in Brazil. Furthermore, race mixture or multiracialness do not imply an absence of racial ranking, racial preference, or outright discrimination.

If there is agreement on the above issues, the question of the definition of "Afro-Brazilian" remains debatable. By the late 1970s, the term "Afro-Brazilian" rather than "Black Brazilian" appeared to be increasingly favored, especially by younger and politically active Blacks. The choice of "Afro"—meant to emphasize ancestry rather than the traditional Brazilian focus on color (in 1980 non-Whites described themselves to the census takers in an array of more than 100 shades)—became equivalent to a political statement. Any description that lays the remotest claim to accuracy must factor race, class, and gender into the categorization. It is in this factoring that Afro-Brazilians come to manifest the contradictions of the society at large (see "Sociopolitical Organization").

It is still not entirely clear how extensive the Afro-Brazilian population is within the national population of more than 150 million. Within the census categories—"White," "Brown," "Black," and "Yellow"—Afro-Brazilians can be categorized or identify themselves as both "Black" and "Brown." That being the case, it is difficult to proclaim with any degree of certainty the size of the Afro-Brazilian poulation. Furthermore, there are regional differences in the concentration of Afro-Brazilians. It is estimated that, of the 2.5 million people living in the metropolitan area of the northeastern seaport of Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, 80% are either Prêto (Black) or Pardo (Brown). There are sizable numbers in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, but Afro-Brazilians reside in less dense concentrations throughout the national territory. It is important to provide a cautionary note with regard to what has become an increasingly common statement in discussing Brazil and Afro-Brazilians within the global context of the Black world: that Brazil has the largest Black population of any nation except the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Although this statement makes for good symbolism, it is by no means clear what it actually reflects. If there is no agreement about what constitutes blackness, the claim that Brazil has the second-largest Black population becomes meaningless.

The situation is rendered more problematic by conflating Afro-Brazilian history and culture with the present-day status of Afro-Brazilians and their institutions. A closer look reveals several contradictory tendencies. There is, for example, absolutely no doubt about the presence, and an impressive one at that, of Africa-derived religious and cultural traditions in Brazil that have become Afro-Brazilianized. Whereas these institutions were the targets of official condemnation and persecution during the nineteenth century and a large part of the twentieth, they have undergone a process of nationalization in which the dominant society and its cultural institutions have extended legitimacy to the formerly marginalized and persecuted Afro-Brazilian manifestations. Nevertheless, cultural integration has not translated into a commensurate political presence. As part of a national union that views itself as one people with a common destiny—and does not brook threats to this unity—Afro-Brazilians are in the ambiguous position of asserting their nationality and striving to maintain their specificity without becoming perceived as antinational.

In a real sense, there is no Afro-Brazilian space that is separate from Brazilian national space. There is no equivalent of the Black church in the United States; no historically Black institutions such as colleges, hospitals, and funeral homes; and no Black residential areas within cities. It is axiomatic that Afro-Brazilians are found among the major religious groups in the country—Catholics and mainstream Protestants (with long histories in Brazil), Pentecostalists (of more recent provenance; they began evangelizing in Brazil in the mid-1960s, and continued their activities with increasing crescendo throughout the 1970s and 1980s), and, of course, the major Afro-Brazilian religions of Candomblé, Macumba, and Umbanda (see "Religion and Expressive Culture").

In view of the sheer size of Brazil, the cultural and linguistic differences among its regions, although they do not negate nationally shared commonalities, nonetheless serve as a warning against gross generalizations. It is therefore useless to posit a "typical" Afro-Brazilian whose physical features and behavioral patterns can be considered emblematic of all Afro-Brazilians. Variant regional historical experiences are manifested in differences in music, folklore, religion, and patterns of speech. Such differences account for the diverse responses of specific Afro-Brazilian populations to sociocultural and political movements between the 1920s and 1930s and from the 1970s into the 1990s. A major characteristic of Afro-Brazilian culture has been its ability to adapt or transform itself, Brazilianizing itself without losing its identity in the process.

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