Slavery, Abolition, and Quilombos: Racialized Narratives in Cold War Brazil’s Cultural Production

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:40 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Sarah Sarzynski, Claremont McKenna College
This paper focuses on how popular poets, filmmakers and rural social movement activists in Northeastern Brazil used historical themes of slavery, abolition, and quilombos to advocate for agrarian reform before the 1964 coup. To encourage rural men to join the fight for agrarian reform, popular cultural productions depicted large landowners as white and rural workers as black, referring to legacies of slavery and abolition. Filmmakers focused on rural Afro-descendent populations and stories of quilombos (maroon societies), using realism to portray the nordestino (Northeasterner) as African, savage, impoverished, and determined to survive. By examining how cultural actors represented race and blackness, I show how race factored into political and cultural struggles in Cold War Northeastern Brazil, a topic that has been overlooked in the scholarship in part because of the prevailing idea of the nordestino as a mixed-race regional type. I use Stuart Hall’s definition of popular culture as a site of consent and resistance to examine how popular poets, filmmakers and rural social movements dismantled Gilberto Freyre’s idea of a benevolent Brazilian-style slave system, questioning one of the core premises of racial democracy. And yet the strength of the arguments about slavery and abolition drew from the stereotype of nordestinos as a racialized Other who were nonwhite victims lacking agency. For the most part, advocates for agrarian reform preferred to mobilize the idea of the nordestino as a victim-slave instead of a rebel. Racialized narratives shaped the cultural and political struggles for change in the Northeast and at the same time redefined what it meant to be Nordestino and a part of the Third World during the Cold War.