Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Morte de Howard Zinn

por Thaddeus

O historiador americano Howard Zinn teve uma influência tremenda na minha vida e sob minha visão dos Estados Unidos através de seu livro de seu livro A Peoples’ History of the United States (Uma História Popular dos EUA). O fato que seu livro, que revolucionou a historiografia americana, nunca foi traduzido para português é um sinal triste de quão pouco o Brasil conhece as coisas realmente importantes daquele país.

Nascido em 1922 numa família imigrante judaica e operária de Nova Iorque, Zinn lutou na Segunda Guerra como membro da tripulação de um avião bombardeiro B-17. Saiu do Exército transformado em pacificista convicto. Trabalhou nas estalagens de sua cidade natal e usou seus benefícios de veterano para se educar nas universidades de New York e Columbia, onde formou com seu PhD em história em 1958, com 36 anos (coragem, para vocês que, como eu, entraram nessa carreira tardiamente).

Entre 1956 e 1963, Zinn era um professor na universidade negra e feminina Spelman College em Atlanta Georgia, onde se envolveu na luta para direitos civis. Por causa de seu apoio às alunas de Spelman e sua crítica da ênfase da universidade em formar “jovens senhoritas” num momento em que as mulheres negras e universitárias engajavam-se na luta contra a segregação racial, o Zinn foi demitido de sua posição. Em 1964, empregou-se na universidade de Boston, da onde aposentou-se em 1988. Até o final de sua vida, continuou ser educador, escritor e militante.

Zinn era inimigo  feroz do militarismo americano, se opondo ativamente às várias guerras dos EUA nos últimos 50 anos. Sua obra maestra, A Peoples’ History of the United States, recupera a história da luta de classe e do anti-imperialismo nos EUA e é leitura obrigatória para qualquer um que quer entender aquele país.

Sem dúvida alguma, foi o exemplo de Zinn (entre outros) que me deu ímpeto para ir atrás de meu próprio PhD e virar professor. Agora que ele se foi, o mundo ficou um pouco mais escuro e as chances da humanidade de sobreviver as próximas 50 anos minguaram uma tiquinha a mais.

Adeus a Howard Zinn, uma das poucas pessoas sobre qual podemos dizer, sem ironia alguma, “He was a great American”.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Satan responds to Pat Robertson in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

As you may have heard, Pat Roberton claims that Haiti's pact with Satan caused last week's earthquake. What you may not have heard is that Satan responded to Pat in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today. We present the following transcript of the Prince of Darkness' missive as a service to our readership.

(Tip o' the hat to Lily Coyle, who was apparently the first person to recieve Ol' Scratch's message.)

Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher.

The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake.

Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll.

You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.

Best, Satan

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Black tourism in Brazil

Capoeira, perhaps the single image most associated with Brazilian blackness by the English-speaking media.

Tourism Black and Blues

by Ana Paula da Silva

When African Americans talk about travelling to Brazil, two types of tourism tend to be discussed. On the one hand, there is a growing interest in so-called “heritage tourism” to Salvador da Bahia, supposedly Brazil’s blackest city. On the other, there’s the “scandal” of what author Jewel Woods has called black America’s best kept secret: black male sexual tourism in Rio de Janeiro. In recent articles and books, these two types of tourism have been set up as diametrically opposed faces of middle-class black America’s recently conquered global mobility. However, as an African Brazilian woman who is also something of a professional gringo watcher, what strikes me about these two forms of tourism is not their differences, but their commonalities.

Both are predicated upon structures which not only reserve global mobility to a privileged few, but which also reserve the right to represent and interpret what is seen and experienced to those same few. Simply put, both sex and heritage tourists are empowered to forge interpretations of Brazil which – given the English language’s global reach – end up drowning out the diversity, ambiguity and complexity of Brazilians own views of themselves and their country. To cop a metaphor from anthropologist Mary Louise Pratt, both forms of tourism end up engaging and empowering an “imperial eye”, which rearranges the landscape according to its satisfaction and, in so doing, creates interpretations which are widely seen as “more authentic” than native realities themselves.

It’s easy to see this black imperial eye at work in the context of sexual tourism. Jewel Wood’s recently published Don’t Blame it on Rio records several examples as does W. J. Cobb’s famous Essence article. Wood’s informants and Cobb himself often project as fact their preconceived fantasies of Brazil and Brazilians on the spaces and people through which they transit. According to these men, Brazilian women are supposedly more natural, easy-going and sexy than their American cousins, with no weight issues due to a better diet and more exercise. This will come as quite a shock to anyone who lives in Brazil and is confronted by our country’s growing obesity problem and high incidence of elective cosmetic surgery. It will also surprise Brazilian sexologists who report that Brazilian women have fewer partners, less sexual fulfillment and more conservative attitudes towards sex than most of the other women of the Americas. Finally, I’m sure that Brazilian men will find the descriptions of Brazilian women as “non-confrontational” and “non-feminist” to be amusing, to say the least.

These illusions are fairly easy to spot and critique, but what about the more subtle fantasies of “roots Brazilian culture” which are often articulated by heritage tourists?

To hear African Americans talk, heritage tourism is a more respectful form of wandering about the world, one which involves learning about “our history”.

Wait a minute: “our history”…?

Listen, I am down with the idea that there is a Black Atlantic, but it is a diaspora and diasporas are defined by cultural, political and historical diversity and yes, power imbalances. Though I may be deeply inspired by the history of the U.S. American civil rights movement, it is not my history. If it were my history, I wouldn’t need to be interrogated by immigration agents every time I visit New York, now would I? And yet Brazil’s history – which most Americans, black or white, can hardly be bothered to learn – is now somehow a part of black U.S. heritage.

The idea of heritage is itself disturbing to me. It’s one of those buzz-words which doesn’t translate well into Portuguese. What precisely is heritage, as opposed to history? Having pestered many Americans about the topic, it seems to me that heritage can best be described as a myth-making attempt to fix claims to certain elements of history as personal or collective property. It thus disturbs me when black Americans come to Bahia in search of their heritage. What they seem to be saying is that Bahia – and by extension, Brazil – makes no useful sense on its own terms and holds little interest for them except as it fits into their personal mythologies of identity.

What does this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that the forms of “Brazilian black culture” which will be visible to most heritage tourists are those which most closely fit preconceived ideas of “African culture”. Capoeira and Candomblé will thus get the nod as “roots” and “real”, whereas Jiu Jitsu or evangelism will be seen as regrettable breaches of ethnic purity – if they’re seen at all. “Black Brazilian music” needs must have an “African” or “Latin” beat (whatever that means), because black Brazilians don’t play rock, European classical music, or (perish the thought!) heavy metal. And as for black Brazilian literature, well, it’s just not on the agenda at all. The next black American heritage tourist I meet who’s read Machado de Assis – let alone Cruz e Souza – will be the first and believe me, I’m not holding my breath.

Think about what this sort of attitude implies about black Brazilians. It implies that we have not participated in the modern world, that the only cultural forms which we can call our own are those which have supposedly been handed down from African ancestors. There is nothing wrong with traditional cultural forms, but since when has the be-all and end-all of blackness been tradition? Imagine African Brazilians flocking to the Carolina Sea Islands and declaring the Gullah to be the only “real” black culture in the U.S. Imagine a North America where jazz was not recognized as a black invention, where Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison were unknown entities, where the black churches were seen as “sell-outs” because they didn’t openly acknowledge the Orixás. Many times I have heard African Americans describe Brazil as “backwards” simply because things here aren’t done the same way they’re done back in the U.S.. Hearing this, I have wanted to shout “But isn’t that precisely why you’re here? Because you believe that we belong to another time and world, one that is not your own, but one which you feel free to define for us?”

American tourists of all colors recognize their own diversity and yet often reduce Brazilians to a superficial singular type. Of course, all peoples the world over engage in this sort of behavior – it’s practically a defining characteristic of being human. The problem is not that it happens, but that American structures of power, prejudice and pride are so strongly imbedded in the global scene that they almost completely drown out anything Brazilians have to say about themselves which does not fit into the limitations predefined by Americans.

And this, my friends, is where the “nasty” African American sexual tourist and his supposed opposite, the “respectful” heritage tourist, meet and shake hands: smack dab in the middle of imperial privilege. While it might seem ludicrous to decry African American privilege, given the deep and abiding white supremacy that still characterizes mainstream U.S. culture, it must be recognized that African Americans are playing a growing role in designating what is “really black” and what is not in the world beyond the Empire’s borders. Whether it’s playas with a couple of months of accumulated experience in Copa’s red light district expounding on what it means to be female in Brazil, or earnest social workers back from two weeks in Bahia, rhapsodizing about the Boa Morte Sisterhood as a “living document of African culture”, black Americans are determining what is to be seen and what is to be overlooked in Brazil. In so doing, they are ascribing to themselves – consciously or not – the role of purveyors of black Brazilian authenticity. And black Brazilians, as was traditional in the days of the casa grande e senzala, are left to cater to strangers’ fancies, whether these be carnal or of a more rarified nature.

Personally, I have no problem with either breed of tourist. I’m happy Brazilians can make a buck selling dreams to Americans. But I reserve the right to call “brother” and “sister” those people who attempt to step eyond fantasy, who are willing to accept me as an equal on my own terms and who recognize that I and the peoples which surround me have histories which cannot be reduced to the building blocks of U.S. American heritage – whatever its color.

Photos: Geographer Milton Santos, dramaturge and Senator Abdias do Nascimento, symbolic poet Cruz e Souza. Three of the many icons of black Brazilian modernity which are largely off the black American radar screen when it comes to thinking about Brazil.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Tossing flowers to Iemanjá

Hoje é dia de festa, hoje é dia de festa
É dia de levar flores para o mar
É dia de dar presentes para Iemanjá
Sabonete, colônia, água de cheiro
Batom, esmalte, rouge, pente, grampo, escova, jóias e espelho
              "Hoje é Dia de Festa", Jorge Ben Jor

On Tuesday afternoon (29/12/2009), Ana Paula and I biked down to Copacabana to participate in the annual celebration/invocation of Iemanjá, the Afrobrazilian goddess of the sea by Rio de Janeiro's main candomblé and umbanda centers.

Tradionally, the festival occurs on New Year's Eve or one day before that. In the last few years, however, the city's preparations for their blow-out New Year's party has made it difficult to find a calm and open stretch of beach for a night's worth of drumming and singing. Additonally, increased religious intolerance on the part of Rio's ever-growing evangelical Christian community has made having the celebration on a fixed and pre-determined date without police support a Bad Idea. For five years now, Iemanjá's have had toi work together with the city government to assure that their celebrations won't be interrupted by fanatics spewing filth in Jesus' name.

So we'd had our ear to the ground for a couple of weeks and finally discovered on Saturday that this year's event would occur on Tuesday evening.

Basically, the Barco de Iemanjá is put together by several of the city's main terreiros and is set up principally for the faithful. Other events will be put on for other groups during the New Year's party, but these are mainly for gringos to see. The terreiros set up camp on Copacabana and start their rituals at about 5PM. There's singing and dancing and free consultations with the various divinities that show up and take possession of the faithful. People make their own altars in the sand and give offerings to Iemanjá, typically cheap champagne, perfume and flowers. Finally, a boat is put to sea filled with the terreiros' offerings to Iemanjá. The event opens a cycle of religious activity in Candomblé/Umbanda which will close on February 2nd, Iemanja's "official" day.

Offering boat.

We arrived at the beach at 5PM, just when everything was started, and set up our altar close to the waves. The wind was so strong that we couldn't get our candles lit, even after place them in a foot-deep sandpit. We eventually had to pile them all together and light them at once, as it was the only way to get and keep them going.

The faithful begin to gather.

Members of one of the various terreiros set up their "official" altar.

Our sad excuse for an altar.

Post-modern Pai de Santo, complete with Tommy Hilfinger bag....

It's interesting to note that while Rio's terreiros proudly display their African roots, they still insist on portraying Iemanjá as a white woman. Compare Iemanja´s portrait in New Orleans, for example, and her icon at the head of the main altar (shaped like a sea horse) during the 2009 ceremony in Rio:

The ironic thing about that New Orleans image is that it's an almost perfect copy of a typical Brazilian image sold all across the nation, except for the fact that Iemanjá is portrayed as brown. Below is a copy of the Brazilian original of that painting, set next to an African-Brazilian portrayal of Iemanjá. What this means is that somewhere in the past, some gringo voodoo practicioner came to Brazil, bought the most commercial Iemanjá image s/he could find, took it back to New Orleans and did a brown-skinned version of, essentially, a white lady. One wonders why this person didn't just pick up a black Iemanjá in the first place? What's more lulzworthy is that said Iemanjá image probably gets passed off to tourists as an "original" based on "slave drawings" or what have you...

At about 6PM, the singing and drumming began with a recital of Brazil's national anthem. This might sound odd to some folks until one remembers that African-Brazilian cultural phenomena such as candomblé, capoeira and even samba were seen as being "backwards" until they were enshrined as "national culture" by the Vargas administration in the 1930s and '40s. Since then, events of this sort have gone to some pains to emphasize their essential patriotic nature as "organic expressions of true Brazilian culture".

Shortly after the anthem, however, Iemanja's sister Iansã apparently got narked off and decided to piss all over us - or, as Ana puts it "Iansã wanted to mark the celebration with her blessings", In any case, the heavens opened up and poured rain. We beat a hasty retreat to a nearby beer kiosk, along with some 200 other faithful. The terreiro people took refuge under their tents and immediately started sending up prayers to Iansã. About an hour later, Saint Barbara decided to reduce the rain to a drizzle and we decided to head out for some Arab food.

"Look! Blessings!"

After dinner, I decided to head back to the celebration to snap some final photos. The terreiros were still thanking Iansã who was still raining blessings down from on high, though albeit not as violently as earlier. Many of the altars had been lit and were now beautifully ablaze, in spite of the drizzle. Also, the Orixá (who'd apparently also taken a powder in the beer tent during the downpour) had shown up and were dancing and giving out consultations.

Altars near the sidwalk, blazing away.

Woman praying at an altar.

Woman praying at the main altar.

Woman consulting a Preta Velha, apparently regarding some problem that her child is having.

One consultation went on for  a long time and apparently involved a Preta Velha and some problem that a woman was having with her young daughter. Or it could be that the woman simply wanted the Preta Velha's blessing over her daughter. Only Umbanda has "Preto Velhos". Candomblé - at least the more traditional variants - tends to hew closely to the original African orixá. Here's what Wiki has to say about "Preto Velhos", the original "magical negros"...

They are wise, peaceful and kind spirits that know all about suffering, compassion, forgiveness and hope. They also often prescribe herbal remedies. The female counterpart of this spirit is the Preta Velha ("old black woman") who demonstrates maternal compassion and concern [can you say "mammy"?]. In the beginning of Umbanda, Preto Velho introduced himself as an old slave who died after being flogged for some unjust accusation; today, Pretos Velhos introduce themselves as old slaves who died in persecution after they had run away from the plantation.

It's no wonder that Umbanda tends to be seen as "whiter" than Candomblé (racists in Umbanda will even sya that it's "more evolved").

I wanted to talk to Exú, but the lines were just too long and I was worried that Ana would be wondering where I'd gotten to if I didn't get home on time. I avoided a rather nasty mugging while biking way home across Flamengo, so Exú was keeping an eye out for me, in any case and he has my most sincere thanks.