Picturing Families in Black and White: Race, Family, and Social Mobility in Colonial Minas Gerais, Brazil

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:00 PM
Salon V (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Mariana L. Dantas, Ohio University
This paper compares the trajectory of two families of mixed-descent, the first headed by patriarch Jacinto Vieira da Costa, a wealthy Portuguese mining entrepreneur, and the second by matriarch Luiza Rodrigues da Cruz, a freed African slave turned wealthy property owner, by focusing on three generations of their descendants whose lives spanned much of the eighteenth century. The life stories of some of the members of these nontraditional families—recovered through the analysis of parish records, inventories and wills, and other colonial documentation—offer valuable insight into the complex relations between whites and blacks in colonial Brazilian society, highlighting the role family, property, inheritance, and race played in the development of interpersonal relationships. They also offer a view of the broader patterns of social interactions between these social groups within the contexts of colonialism and racial formation. In particular, these life stories reveal the paradoxical role networks of sociability involving white and black individuals played in the development of colonial social and power structures: while participation in such networks afforded persons of African descent the means to pursue social mobility, improvements to their social or economic standing often relied on their relationships to white relatives or patrons, as well as their willingness to recognize and uphold the social privileges associated to whiteness. Moreover, marriage patterns, professional paths, property investments, etc., within these families point out the possibilities and limits of social mobility for African descendants that shaped in subtle and non-violent ways the social and racial structure of colonial society in Brazil. Through a close examination of the Vieira da Costa and Rodrigues da Cruz families and their social environment, this paper will address how mixed-race families and their networks of sociability were the locus of both individual black challenges to social and racial subjugation, and of collective reinforcement of white domination.
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