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Brazil Changes Course

By Selwyn Ryan

 Many have probably wondered why so many people of colour the world over make Brazil their first choice in terms of the outcomes of the World Cup football games. Is it because they identify with Pele and regard him as their poster boy? The greatest Brazilian football player? 

Many have indeed grown up with him. Is it because they have bought into the myths about the race in Brazil and the differences which existed between what obtains in Brazil and what occurs in the United States and in European states? Why does one see so few blacks in the beautifully designed spaces built for sport in Brazil?

Why and where are they hidden or erased?

To understand what has been taking place in the recent past and the violence which took place on the eve of the games and before, one has to know a little about the legacy of slavery. More slaves were imported into Brazil than anywhere else in the Americas and the Caribbean. Forty-three million slaves were brought into the Americas to work on the coffee and sugar plantations and the mines. Brazil also has a large indigenous Indian population. Following Emancipation, the ruling elite took the view that Brazil was too black, and that it should be “whitened”. Between 1884 and 1934,  some four to five million Europeans and 187,000 Japanese were imported to Brazil on a subsidised basis.

It is relevant to note that Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery.  

This event took place in 1888, some 50 years  after slavery was abolished in the Caribbean and one year after it was abolished in Cuba. Another important thing to understand about Brazil is that it is the largest speaking Yoruba country in the world. Purer Yoruba is spoken in Brazil than is spoken in Nigeria. 

There are many other traditional gods which have survived despite the efforts which have been made to eradicate them. There are also large numbers of people who are Catholics who came to Brazil via Central Africa and the kingdom of the Congo. It is also not widely known that large numbers of poor European males were deliberately sent out to engage in sexually predatory behaviour with African women. The by-products of all this sexual and cultural criss- crossing was a society of enormous complexity. 

It was in this context that the view prevailed that Brazil was the flesh pot of the Americas.

The person who was largely responsible for creating the mythology that “We are all Brazilians”, a unique cocktail, was Gilberto Freyre who in 1933 wrote an iconic book called The Masters And The Slaves which many Brazilians now regard as their official ideological text. 

It has now come to define Brazilianism. As Freyre says of Brazilianism, “Every Brazilian, even the light-skinned or fair-haired one, carries out in him, or in his soul, and when not soul and body alike, the shadow or at  least the birthmark of the aborigine or the Negro.

 In our affectious or excessive mimicry, our Catholicism which so delights the senses, our music, our gait, our speech, our cradle songs, in everything that is a sincere expression of our lives, we almost all us bear the mark of that influence.”

But there is another myth which many  Brazilians do not like to talk about much, especially in the last three decades.

Abdias do Nascimento, founder of the Institute of Afro- Brazilian Studies, considers much of what Freyre says as a “lie”. 

In his view, the quality of the black experience in Brazil is not at all due to the benign nature of the slave experience. 

“Slavery in Brazil was not very gentle or very friendly. These are all fabrications.  Slavery in Brazil was violent and bloody. It was further argued that while slaves were plentiful and cheap and that many were free, it made more economic sense to work them to death than to take care of them.”

As Nascimento continues, “I am saying this with profound hatred and bitterness for the way people in Brazil are treated. It is shameful. Brazil has a majority of blacks, but they remain second-class.”

Brazil is a society in which very few blacks are seen in places of social significance. 

To this day, everyone in a position of occupational or social significant is white. It is also true that the African gods and African cultures were “whitened” away. 

Only now have they begun to regain tolerance.

Nascimento observes that black Brazilians are so racially subdued that most accept their negritude with equanimity.

This also explains why there has never been any radical civil rights or black power movement in Brazil.

Most who live in the favelas are blacks and have dropped out of school or have never been there. 

Black youth fill the prisons with impunity and return if they are under 18 years.

Levels of education and literacy are extremely low as are levels of public health. Cause of death is mainly homicide. 

Blacks on average earn three-fifths of the incomes earned by whites. 

Buying a ticket to attend the games was thus an unthinkable dream for most blacks.

Things are however beginning to change.

There is now a growing pride in one’s black ancestry.

In Bahia, which is in the main black, the university reserves 80 per cent of places for poor blacks.

Brazil was once the football capital of the world, and a land and of beautiful beaches and women. One assumes that in the future, Latin Americans, Africans and Europeans will challenge for supremacy on the soccer field. Brazilians will have to work hard and smart to regain its primacy among the Afro world. 

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