Listen for the Silences: Race in the Official World of Imperial Brazil, 1822–72

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:20 AM
Denver Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Roderick J. Barman, University of British Columbia
In her classic work on the popular memories of Fascism in Italy, Luisa Passerini wrote that, during oral interviews, one must “listen for the silences.” Topics that her informants avoided were just as or more important than those they discussed." So it is with race in the official records of the Empire of Brazil during its first half century.

            In contrast to the division between slave and free, which the official world copiously recorded, race is a category that is curiously absent from official documents concerning the free born.  It could be maintained that this silence was due to avoidance of any information undermining the hegemonic assumption that Brazil was “white.”  However, the “whiteness” of Brazil was rarely asserted as such.  What was claimed was that Brazil was “civilized” or, more precisely, that the country was becoming “civilized.”  “Civilization” was equated with but was not identical to “whiteness,” since the former could be acquired and the latter not.  Accordingly, whiteness was a cultural construct, not a physical denominator.  In the official police inquiry into the Praieira Rebellion of 1849, every prisoner who was literate was recorded as “white” while every captive who was illiterate was given as “black.”

            The paper will consider the employment of the racial designations in official records in the years 1822-1872 and will analyze the significance of these designations – their presence and their absence – for understanding race in the first half century of the Empire.