Brazilian Culture,

Mestizo Culture





In Brazilian culture, it is easy to see the coupling of poetry and samba. However, it is more difficult to recognize black involvement in cultural forms termed fine arts like literature, classical music and the plastic arts. The problem is that the samba is a recent phenomenon, measured in decades, while the presence of the black in our cultural history must be measured in centuries. The samba was born on the eve of the modernist movement at the start of the Twentieth Century in the preliminaries of Brazil’s urbanization and industrialization and of our sometimes frustrated efforts to democratize the country.¹  The samba was already born mixed, as beautiful in Ismael Silva as in Noel Rosa, the product of a mestizo people that, for the first time, begin to be recognized in history. The samba was born at almost the same time that the Brazilian people emerged into political history.


The presence of the black in cultural forms such as literature, classical music and the plastic arts came much earlier. It comes from the first centuries of colonization, from a Brazil that was said to be “a country without a people”. We were immersed in the ignominy of slavery, which has left us with scars that we have not yet been able to altogether heal. One of the vestiges of this past is revealed in a certain discomfort when we start to discuss the presence of the black and his descendants in culture. (Obviously, the exception is samba and its poetry.) The unease begins with a measure of indecision about word choice. Can I talk about “Negroes” and “mulattos” with the respect they deserve when I know that these words were used as an insult over and over for centuries? If we are talking about culture, would it not be better to gild the lily, invent other words, pretend there are no problems?




Happily for Brazil, after the 1920s we can begin to recognize a glory in our popular music in, for example, Pixinguinha. What may be said of Pixinguinha may also be said, starting in the 1920s, for many others, white and black, who made the connection between the refined and the popular one of the most fortunate traits of Brazilian music. For those who have doubts, I recall that some verses of popular music are the among the most beautiful in our language.


The famous verse of a song that we all know is not an exception: the poet recalls his lover walking on the earth floor of the hut speckled with stars and says “you distractedly tread on the stars”. Look at this verse from a samba by Cartola about a love that he seeks desperately not to end: “Aye, if I could pretend that I love you, if I could”. Or again: “You should come to see my sad eyes and maybe to dream my dreams”. Or this verse from Nelson Cavaquinho: “Get your smile out of the way, because I want to pass with my pain”. More hopefully, Dona Ivone Lara says: “My dream, my dream, go find the one who lives far away, my dream”.


By making an effort with our memory, we find that the presence of the black in our culture was not always so clear. Not even in music, where blacks and their descendants have been giving a seminal contribution for centuries. Other than lovers of fine music, how many of us know that the masters of sacred music of Minas Gerais, like Fr. José Maurício and Lobo de Mesquita, were descendants of slaves? How many of us know that master Francisco Braga was of black ancestry, and entered the Asylum for Abandoned Children in Rio de Janeiro in the Second Reign at the age of eight?²


Until now, something of the blindness and violence of the slave-owning world interferes with our perception and our memory. Even if we are disinclined to admit it, prejudices weigh upon us that interfere with the self-esteem of blacks and their descendants and cloud the recognition of our identity as a people. Although we have changed since the Abolition - and have been changing rapidly, especially since the 1920s and 1930s - the truth is that the ghost of an ignoble past still lurks about. If this specter does not appear with the terrible violence of the period of slavery, it is still strong enough to make appreciating the presence of blacks and their descendants in art, science and technology difficult, hurting them in the other spheres of human activity.


A Subtle and Sly Racism


Some say that we do not have racism in Brazil. Perhaps we do not have the virulent racism of other countries, but we do have a subtle and sly, but still malevolent, racism. One of the tricks to be found in this is what Joel Rufino called “whitening”,³ in referring not to the policy of “whitewashing” that took place in the Empire and the First Republic as a stimulus to immigration policy, but to the world of the imaginary, the touching up of portraits of blacks and mestizos to make them appear white. A delicate operation this, involving subtle traps and damaging associations, even for the victims themselves. If talent was recognized in a black or a descendant of blacks, the idea was to “whiten” his image. This was manifested in football clubs at the start of the Twentieth Century, where some stars were coated with rice powder because the team only allowed whites.


There are many examples. Juliano Moreira, who was the director of an important psychiatric institute for decades, practically disappeared from our iconography. As a result, today, many of us do not know that he was black. Those who know something about abolitionism also know that André Rebouças was black. Even so, his image for the public in general was “whitened” to the point of obscuring historic memory. Of the millions of Brazilians who have passed along Rebouças Avenue, in São Paulo, or Rebouças Tunnel, in Rio, how many of them know that the man who gave them their names was a black. I can give a personal example of the effects of “whitening”. It was only very recently that I found out that the engineer Teodoro Sampaio, who gave the name to one of the principal streets of Pinheiros that I customarily pass along on my way to the University of São Paulo, where I studied and worked for thirty-five years, was a black. I haven’t the slightest doubt that many of my students and colleagues still don’t know that Teodoro Sampaio was black.


The most outstanding case is in the field of literature. Here we find Machado de Assis, whose memorial eulogy, written by José Verissimo, started an argument with Joaquim Nabuco. Verissimo says of Machado that this “mulatto was, in fact, a Greek from the golden era”. This was a eulogy but Nabuco retorted: “For me, Machado was a white and I believe he saw himself thus”.4


Nonetheless, could there be a greater motive for the pride of blacks and their descendants than to say that, recognizing the black ancestry of Machado, that he was so great that he was and is considered the greatest Brazilian writer? Could there be a greater reason for pride for Brazilians aware of their identity as a mestizo people? How many writers of Machado’s stature are there in the world?


Nabuco, white and aristocratic, as well as one of the most generous spirits of his era, was, as a great abolitionist, one of the first to distinguish between the black as a human being and the slave, to whom the iniquitous system denied all humanity. A personal friend of Machado, no one better than him had the authority and style to say that the racial origin of the writer adds to his greatness and that his glory ennobles all of us. However, it was some time before Lúcia Miguel-Perreira gave us the right words about Machado, this “mestizo who so elevated his people and his country . . . this personality that towers over Brazilian literature, like a symbol of the thought and power of the spirit”.5


Fascination for Whiteness


If the great were subjected to whitening, what happened to the small? Still today, whitening reveals a difficulty Brazilian culture has in accepting that blacks and their descendants can be competent, brilliant, in areas that were believed for a long time to be the private reserve of whites. And thus, the wide horizons of a culture we all want to be democratic and open are obscured. We are looking at the imaginary expropriation of the glories of the blacks, expunging, especially among the poorest, the example of leaders that could suggest other paths besides their daily humiliation. We Brazilians in general help to maintain the illusion of a white society that we are not and never were.


An example of the illusion of the white society is the criticism of the mulatto, which has been going on at least since the Seventeenth Century, with the talented Gregório de Matos, who, homesick for Lisbon, fanned the scorn for Bahia and Brazil. In the period of Independence, we had an Indianist and anti-Portuguese nationalism, but the fascination for white society remained, exemplified by Paris and London. As the country moved on to the Republic, this prejudice affected even a genius like Euclides, who, exalting the value of the country folk – for him a descendent of the Indian – deprecated the worth of the mestizo, descendent of the black. Some sociologists at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, like Oliveira Vianna, tried to distinguish between good mestizos and bad mestizos according to their area of origin in Africa. In a sad spectacle of cultural flagellation (and auto-flagellation), he produced a criticism of the mestizo even though the critic, he himself, was a mestizo.


Another example of the fascination for whites comes in the literature of the Nineteenth Century, A Escrava Isaura, by Bernardo Guimarães, and O Mulato, by Aluísio Azevedo. While it is true that these two notable writers were against slavery, and Guimarães, in another of his books, had a happy opportunity to affirm that “in Brazil nobody can pride himself that among his grandparents there had not been someone who shot arrows or played the marimba”.6 So how do we understand that the slave and the mulatto in those popular books were presented as whites? Aluísio Azevedo’s mulatto was the son of a Portuguese and a black, but, due to the genetic miracles of art, he was born white with blue eyes, and, in addition, he remained in the most complete ignorance of his origins up to the start of his adulthood. See how Guimarães presents Isaura: “Her complexion is like the ivory of the keyboard, white that does not dazzle, dimmed by a delicate nuance, which leaves us unable to say if it is a slight paleness or a faded pink... (...) she had an excellent education, and has a good figure; she could pass for a free woman of good society”. She is the beloved of Álvaro, who is “original and eccentric as a rich English lord”, a “liberal, republican and almost a socialist”.7


Is it just a question of aesthetic taste? In a society that boasted, even more than today, a majority of blacks, mulattos and half-breeds, an aesthetic taste that reaches the point of whitening the black and his descendants is just another name for the prejudice that dominated the epoch and afflicted even the best of its writers. In fairness to Aluísio de Azevedo and Bernardo Guimarães, we recognize that like many in their period and still today, they waffled in the face of the ethnic and racial complexities of Brazil. In his novel Rosaura, a Enjeitada, Guimarães presents the character in the following way: hair the color of ebony, skin the color of a ripe olive, mestiza of questionable origin, loved by a young white man of good family.


Miscegenation and Mestizo Culture


Our confusion about the black question is at the fulcrum of our confusion about our own identity as a people. For a time, our racial mixtures were cited as a reason for pessimism relative to the country. A positive vision of Brazil as a mestizo culture only began to conquer intellectuals in the beginning of the Twentieth Century. We can see some hints in Lima Barreto, but even so, at times this talented mestizo was inclined to view in the mulatto in general as someone destined to failure. The recognition of Brazil as a multiracial country, with a vigorous process of miscegenation, only began in the 1920s with the Modernist Movement, and particularly in the great talent of Mário de Andrade, a mestizo himself, and a bit later in Gilberto Freyre. We might recall that it was in the 1920s and 1930s that the samba was celebrated as national music throughout the country, not only in the slums on the hills of Rio.


With Mário and Gilberto, we began to see that we were becoming a society that was not only racially miscegenated, but also culturally mestizo: a society were the black matrix is fundamental. We also discovered the national meaning of the Baroque that, as Fernando Henrique Cardoso observed, “showed that the hybrid nation spawned in the tropics was already sufficiently mature to produce autochthonic solutions, to dialog with different aesthetic matrixes”. As the creation of black and mestizo geniuses like Aleijadinho and Master Valentin, the Baroque “anticipated Brazil’s coming of age in the artistic plane”.8


The white social paradigm lasted longer in our imagination than its checkered history merited. Although our Catholicism worships images of black saints and, in many parts of Brazil, the African gods link to the Church saints, in our imagination a paradigm of a white society dominated, imported by an elite that was ashamed of a people where blacks and half-breeds were the majority. This elite was most ashamed of not itself being as white as it would have liked.


Perhaps because of this – that is, perhaps because in the elite itself there were, and are, many mestizos – some think that we do not have racism in the country. Because of this as well, and despite the fascination with whiteness, Brazil never had a convincing verisimilitude of the pathetic beliefs that support racism in other countries, of the existence of a pure and superior white race. Neither among the people nor the elite did we ever have a way to support such a credo. We have always been plural and mixed, and, as a result, those who whipped the black or abominated the mestizo were also spitting in their own plate. Their racism had no way to go very far. Even the moments of greatest passion for whiteness, there was always someone who recalled the arrows and marimbas of our grandparents. Or, as the black intellectual abolitionist Luis Gama said in a repartee to those that had insulted him as a “goat”: “Here, in this good land, all butt, all bleat”.9



The Hidden Matrix


Four hundred years of slavery reserved treatment for blacks as terrible in reality as it is confused in our imagination. As a result, we are the heirs of bitter paradoxes. The Baroque music of the Eighteenth Century and beginning of the Nineteenth Century is, in large part, the work of blacks, but it is also, inevitably, an outgrowth of the music of Europe, that is, white. Carlos Gomes was a mestizo, grandson of a slave, but O Guarani is a beautiful work idealizing the Indian. It is true that Carlos Gomes also wrote music inspired in the blacks, but this is the less well-known side of his work. Even an opera like O Escravo, of abolitionist spirit, is inspired in the Indians and only exceptionally was presented by blacks. Despite our mestizo reality, something impels our culture to hide the black matrix that is at its very roots.


Antônio Cândido tells us that, in the Nineteenth Century, when indianism appeared in literature, the Indian was already in the past, while “the black was a degrading reality, without a category of art, without a heroic legend”.10 This is an argument that can be extended to much of the Twentieth Century, allowing us to understand how, throughout our history, we have spoken so much about the black as a force of labor, and so little as a person. The black entered literature in the abolitionist campaign with two black intellectuals, Luis Gomes and José do Patrocínio, to be seen as a “social problem” more than as a literary character.11 Gonçalves Dias, a mestizo, will remain in our memory for his beautiful poems about the Indian. Cruz e Sousa, a black, left us little about his race, with the exception of some pages about the “against the wall”. Castro Alves, himself a mestizo, the most generous of our poets, was the only one in the Nineteenth Century, according to Antônio Cândido, to attain the “literary miracle” of presenting the black as a human being.12


The picture of neglect and paradox only began to change in the Twentieth Century, with Macunaíma, by Mário de Andrade, Moleque Rícardo, by José Lima do Rêgo, Tambores de São Luiz, by Josué Montello, and some poems of Jorge de Lima and Ascenso Ferreira. And already in this XXI Century we have Saraminda, by José Sarney. This is a short list on which we must reserve a place for many of the works of Jorge Amado. Overall, however, we remain with the impression that over the centuries we have had more black writers than black characters in our literature.


Nabuco said that it was not enough “to put an end to slavery”, but that it was “necessary to destroy the work of slavery”. We put an end to slavery at the end of the Nineteenth Century, but its “work” persisted for a long time and there remain strong remnants even today. In the second half of the Twentieth Century, as typically modern a phenomenon as the TV drama reveals prejudices as strong as or stronger than those in the Nineteenth Century novel. In the 1970s, A Escrava Isaura inspired a television drama of national and international success, with Isaura remaining as white as when she was born to the page. There are also cases when television produces the whitening of a famous character, like Tieta by Jorge Amado. Mestiza in the book, white on TV. By this same author, the mestiza Gabriela became almost white on TV.


We have given a few examples from a sweeping gallery that began in soap operas of the 1960s like O Direito de Nascer and Cabana do Pai Tomás, of 1969 with Ruth de Souza and Sérgio Cardoso, a great white actor who, to avoid a black actor in the part, was ridiculously blackened by makeup.13 In the 510 soap operas from 1963 to 1997 studied by Joel Zito Araújo, a black appears as a protagonist in only two. Black families appear in only four. In the soap operas of a primary network producer examined from 1980 to 1998, in 29 blacks have less than 10% of participation and in 28 they have no participation at all. Discounting such exceptions as Sinhá Moça and Pacto de Sangue, blacks appear, when they do appear, as supporting actors.


A Slow and Difficult Solution


A painting from the first half of the Nineteenth Century entitled The Redemption of Cam may be taken in the plastic arts as representative of the mentality that has been left behind. In the description of Emanoel Araújo, the painter puts on the canvas “a black grandmother contemplating her mulatto daughter beside her white son-in-law and a small grandson as yet showing no signs of blackness”. Thus, The Redemption of Cam is not an affirmation of the black, but of his disappearance. The examples of travelers like Debret and Rugendas that in their time portrayed blacks as the central element of the human panorama of the country found few followers until the 1920s. This means that the genius of  Aleijadinho and Master Valentim took more than a century to be recognized. The image of whitening suggested by The Redemption of Cam only starts to lose relevance with the arrival of Modernism. It is only then that the presence of the black as a model begins to be felt in the works of Portinari, Lazar Segall, Di Cavalcanti and Tarsila do Amaral. This was a trend that grew in diverse forms with Carybé, Mário Cravo, Mestre Didi, Bandeira, Ismael Nery, Rubem Valentim, Emanoel Araújo and many others.


Something similar took place in popular music. Although we have always had examples of tenderness for the black and his descendants, we have also had reversions as in the phase when Nilo Chagas, a singer in the Trio de Ouro, was called a “black with a white soul”. This was the same period when in Carnival we sang Nigger Girl with Kinky Hair, Crazy Nigger Girl, Your Hair does not Deny, or more recently, Samba of the Crazy Creole   [Translator’s note: these song titles do not translate adequately but, to give an idea of their affective and associational content, the co-optation of ‘nigger’ for use as a term of endearment among US Afro-Americans reflects the same phenomenon]. However ingenuous they may have been, how can we avoid seeing a sign of prejudice in these songs? Over the years, the influence of innumerable blacks, mulattos and whites allowed us to reach, in the 1960s and 1970s, that happy moment when Vinicius de Moraes declared, with the candor of poets, that he was the “white with the blackest soul in Brazil”. Or, more recently, some beautiful sambas of Chico, Caetano, Dona Ivone de Lara, Cartola, João Bosco, Aldir Blanc, Gil and Martinho are perhaps those that best express the mestizo values of Brazil among our more recent samba writers.


Over the centuries – of indecision and vacillation but also of light – we can and should criticize the mental clichés that are the remnants of the abject inheritance of the “work” of slavery. Because up to now, when we talk about blacks, as I have mentioned, we get a bit uneasy about word choice. There was a time when, to quell this angst, we replaced the term “colored people” with “black”. I ask myself if by any chance whites do not have a color. It is also true that we have conquered territory, so much so that some movements against racism directly call themselves “black movements”. In the  Brazil Rediscovery  exhibition held in São Paulo last year, Emanoel Araújo touched on our theme in a section entitled: Black in Body and Soul. That is, we have blacks who take pride in being black.


By the way, if we should abandon the old clichés,  we should also abandon, in this subject more than any other, the importance of words and concepts. When some term Brazilian blacks “Afro-Brazilians”, I believe they are missing the point. The expression “Afro-Brazilian” has the obvious advantage of recalling Africa, where, as Jorge Amado observes, the navel of Brazil is buried. It also calls up an ancestral religiosity worthy of memory, especially in that religion was, in Brazil, the first form where the slave was recognized as a human being. However, I fear we err if we want to identify “Afro-Brazilians” as a minority in the American manner. In the United States the meaning of the expression “Afro-American” is tied to the fact that there blacks are a demographic -- 13% of the population -- and cultural minority; they are a part of a country with a culture that is predominantly Anglo-Saxon. Here blacks and their descendants are a bit over half of a country with a mestizo culture where the black matrix is fundamental.


A Conquest to Make


The recognition of mestizo Brazil that began with the intellectuals in the 1920s is still a conquest to be made in the elite and, perhaps, among most of the people. For example, there is the testament registered in A Mão Afro-Brasileira: “My color is light and my hair, when I let it grow, can be combed. From Bahia up and from the middle class down, I can say I’m white”. Jocular words that give, however, the measure of our confusion about identity. We have statistics based on self-classification criteria that say that 54% of Brazilians consider themselves white, 39.5% brown (pardo) [Translator’s note: this word is arbitrary with no clear associations except skin color] and 5.7% black. Do we have so many whites? Are there that many browns, whatever they may be? Are there so few blacks?


Just as we have progress in culture, we also have it in politics, although the institutions concerned with blacks are very recent. It is true that in the 1930s, Mãe Aninha, founder of Opô Afonjá (Translator’s note: Opô Afonjá is a candomble center in Bahia), managed to get Getúlio Vargas to abolish laws that considered candomblé [Translator’s note: an Afro-Brazilian mystic practice involving trance states and healing] a crime. However, it was only in 1976 that the government of Bahia eliminated mechanisms that required police permission to practice the cult. In any case, Mãe Aninha’s conquest can be seen as a precursor to the Afonso Arinos Law of 1951. But it was only in 1988 that we managed to approve the constitutional principle according to which the lands of the quilombos belonged to their descendants. In the same period we find the Caó Law, against racism, and the creation of the Palmares Foundation, in connection with the Ministry of Culture.


From 1995 to now, we have conquered territory, in that President Fernando Henrique Cardoso created the Interministerial Group for the Appreciation of the Black Population. The Quilombos Law was instituted in 1999 and the Palmares Foundation has already authorized deeds of ownership to dozens of communities, opening the way for recovering a basic meaning in our history. However, the importance of the registration of Zumbi [Translator’s note – Zumbi was a black leader of a movement against slavery in the Eighteenth century] together with Tiradentes in the Book of National Heroes should not be underrated. This marks the beginning of a recognition that cannot remain restricted to historians, but is to be understood by the people. Zumbi is our greatest black hero, not, however, the only. Nor is Palmares our only quilombo. How do we explain registration to the hundreds of remaining quilombos, if we ignore the fight of the blacks to create them?


This is the biggest danger of whitening: to limit the role of the black in history to the condition of a labor force, ignoring their social struggles and the cultural role. Whitening the images of blacks we also whiten the history of our country. At times we forget that before the Aurea Law there had already been the liberation of the slaves in the Amazon, Rio Grande do Norte and Ceará, as a result of the struggles of whites and blacks,  among which was the 1880 “strike of the fishermen” in Fortaleza.14 Not only those above, but also those below make the history of the country. And in as much as I have mentioned the fishermen, it would also be appropriate to recall, 22 years later, João Cândido, who we also celebrate in November as “the black sailor” who, as the samba says, “has as his monument the footworn rocks of the jetties”. From the great to the humble, the freedoms won by blacks cost them centuries of suffering and struggle, a struggle that still continues today.


Black: Literature and Samba


By your leave, I will say a word or two about literature and samba. If literature has spoken little of the black over the centuries, when it has, the result has been nonpareil. I will restrict myself to two examples from Jorge de Lima, son of a white father and a mestizo mother, who was born in the Palmares Confederation in Alagoas close to Serra da Barriga. From early on he heard stories about Zumbi.


I have taken from Jorge de Lima a word about a woman - I  realized that I am in danger of being misunderstood - that the poet eternalized in one of the most beautiful poems in the Portuguese language, Essa Negra Fulô. To the many, generally men but sometimes women, who still read Essa Negra Fulô  with suspicion, I suggest that you read it again and you will see that Fulô is neither the flirtatious mulatta of so many prejudiced stories that we know, nor was she whitened, like Isaura, to become acceptable to a supposed white aesthetic paradigm. Fulô is black and beautiful. Because of this, because she is black and beautiful, she is dangerous.

We should recall that the one who tells us Fulô’s story is another woman, wounded by jealousy. Told by another woman, Fulô’s story becomes a mark of a moment in the life of all women, a mark of all women who, in their supposed fragility and submission, are capable of conquering men, who - in their stupidity - imagine themselves their masters. In the jealous vision of this woman, Fulô’s having stolen household items matters less than the fact that she has stolen the heart of her man.


I suggest that men read (reread) the poem but that they avoid reciting it in public, no matter how small the audience. Recited by men, the poem can yield misunderstandings.  Before the beauty of Fulô, we are just men, little does it matter whether white or black, always tempted by our own prejudices. In the inevitable insecurity of the macho, it is difficult to abandon the false pose of the conqueror that, before a woman so beautiful, winks an eye to the audience, generally to other men, the only ones who can fathom our fear. However, we know that at some point in life, we all fall in love with the grace of Fulô, just as with Capitu’s bloodshot eyes or the malice of Gabriela. Black and beautiful, Fulô is one of the most significant women in Brazilian literature.[Translator’s note – Capitu is a character in Machado de Assis masterpiece, Dom Casmurro. Gabriela is Jorge Amado’s creation in Gabriela, Cravo e Canela].


Amid his brilliant poetic work, Jorge de Lima also left us brilliant political verses about the black, for example, in the poem Olá Negro!. As with all things political, we may disagree here or there. But these are verses that should be read and, in fact, recited by all of us, men and women, whites and blacks. Because, in speaking of the black, he speaks of everyone, calling to all:



“The grandchildren of your mulattos and half-breeds

and the fourth and the fifth generations of your suffering blood

will try to extinguish your color!

And the generations of these generations when they expunge

your abhorred tattoo,

will not erase from their souls, your soul, black!”15


Blessed be the poets for they touch on the essence of things! “They will not erase from their souls, your soul, black!”


Therefore, something has remained of what has been said by writers and poets that, since Castro Alves, have been able to see in the human being in the black man and black woman. Names from the past to whom we must join more recent poets and writers like Solano Trindade, Edouardo de Oliveira, Carolina Maria de Jesus, Oswaldo de Camargo, Abdias do Nascimento, Joel Rufino, Carlos Moura, Dulce Pereira, Marilene Felinto, Adão Ventura, Emanoel Araugo and Nei Lopes among others. As a result of them, today we can see better.


If we want, as Nabuco counseled, to destroy the “work of slavery”, we need to erase the “abhorred tattoo” that Jorge de Lima speaks of. However, this tattoo is not in the color of the skin, but in the wounds inherited from the ignominy of this past. The poet suggests that we awaken the black soul in mulattos and half-breeds. We want this and even more we want to awaken the soul of the black wherever it is to be found. Also in whites. And even – Who knows? – in many blacks. We must awaken it in each of us.


Finally, a word about samba. And once again, we must bless poets like Cartola when he says: “Inhabited by simple people so poor that only the sun covers them all, how can you sing, Mangueira?” [Translator’s Note – Mangueira is a Samba School from Rio de Janeiro]. How can those from the slums make those from the asphalt sing? How can we make not only the poor and simple sing, but also those who are not so poor and not so simple? This is the question that spreads beyond Mangueira and beyond samba over the centuries of our history. How could the blacks, over centuries of so much suffering, construct the powerful culture to which we are all heirs. The samba says: “Ask the Creator who painted this watercolor, free of the slavequarters and the Master’s whip, prisoner in the misery of the slum”. How can a history like ours -- so hard and, for so long, so brutal -- build such a rich culture? Once again, poetry allows us to recognize the essential, the black root of the Brazilian people that the Schools of Samba celebrate every time they `enter the Avenue`.


We have much to learn from the Schools of Samba. In the first place, the sense of organization that leads them to dedicate themselves for months to enact on the Avenue, in Rio de Janeiro, the greatest spectacle of popular art in the world. Next, discipline: there are thousands of people in each School, separated into files and blocks, who sing and dance the same music, at the same time and rhythm, in the spaces and steps rigorously determined by the procession. However, the Schools are more than organization and discipline.


For me their greatest beauty is the joy and pride of being what they are. Joy and beauty that is expressed in the colors they adore and in the beat of the drums. In the Schools the ancestral drum reaches extreme sophistication, that is to be seen from the moment the drums takes position at the retreat from the Avenue. It is like a military movement that, however, is not done marching but sambaing, every drum section with its own style. “Every one knows you from afar, from the sound of your tambourines and the roar of your drums”. Through the complex and disciplined maneuver of the drums entering the Avenue, the people identify their School even before you can see them. “When you hear this beat, it is that Mangueira has arrived”.


Thus, it comes as a surprise to no one, if the poet invokes the heavens, the saints and the African gods when singing of his School. If they discourse on the great movements of history, of Brazil and of the world. If they say of their School that “seen like this from above, it looks most like heaven on the ground”. If they sing, for example, the name of Joaquin José da Silva Xavier, o Tiradentes, and the great heroes of our land. No one is surprised if the poet sees in the colors of his  School the blue cape of the Patroness of Brazil, Our Lady Aparecida, opening the “procession of the samba”. “Hail the blue and white cape of Portela, parading triumphant on the altar of carnival”. [Translator’s note: Portela  is another great Samba School from Rio). By the way, there must be some good reason why we have chosen the image of a black Our Lady for the Patroness of Brazil.


This is the way the Schools affirm their roots and their identity. And when they do it, they also affirm the roots and identity of Brazil. Our black and our mestizo, our mulatto and our white, our cultural wealth and our social dramas, our struggles as a people in formation. Coming from the humblest folk in Brazil, the Schools call Brazilians, all Brazilians, to greatness. They do this with the dignity and elegance of those who offer the world a beautiful example of what it means to be human.



Francisco Weffort

State Minister of Culture


1- Cabral, Sergio, "Música brasileira é coisa de negro", in Araújo, Emanoel, A Mão Afro-Brasileira, Tenenge, São Paulo, 1988, pág. 321. See also Negro Brasileiro Negro, Revista do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, nº 25, IPHAN, Ministério da Cultura, Rio de Janeiro, 1997, and Vianna, Hermano, O Mistério do Samba, Jorge Zahar Editores, Rio de Janeiro, 1999.

2- Cf. Araujo, Emanoel, A Mão Afro-Brasileira, op. cit.

3- Rufino, Joel, in Araujo, Emanoel, A Mão Afro-Brasileira, "Prefácio", p. 7.

4- Stegagno-Picchio, Luciana, História da literatura brasileira, Editora Nova Aguilar, Rio de Janeiro, 1997, p. 276.

5- Miguel-Pereira, Lúcia, Machado de Assis-Estudo crítico e biográfico, Companhia Editora Nacional, 1936, São Paulo, p. 338.

6- Citado em Bosi, Alfredo, História concisa da literatura brasileira, Editora Cultrix, São Paulo, 1994.

7- Mello e Souza, Antônio Cândido, Formação da literatura brasileira, Editora Martins Fontes, São Paulo.

8- Cardoso, Fernando Henrique, "Apresentação", Brésil Baroque – entre ciel et terre, catalog edited by the Latin Union, for an exposition of the same name held in the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, in 1999, p. 27.

9- Gonçalves, Magaly Trindade et alia, Antologia da Poesia Brasileira, Musa Editora, São Paulo, 1995, p. 203.

10- Cf . note n.º 7.

11- Idem

12- Idem

13- Araújo, Joel Zito, A Negação do Brasil – O Negro na Telenovela Brasileira, São Paulo, 2000, Editora Senac. See also the documentary produced by the Author with the same title.

14- For this information I thank Almino Affonso and the Mayor of Mossoró, Rosalba Ciarlini Rosado.

15- Lima, Jorge de, "Olá! Negro", in Jorge de Lima – Poesia Completa, págs. 315-316, Editora Nova Aguilar, Rio de Janeiro, 1997. See also Freyre, Gilberto, "Poemas Negros", idem, p. 90-94.