By Renata

Current estimates put the number of Africans transported as slaves to the New World at between twelve and thirteen million. Of this total—around four million–were taken to Brazil (the Portuguese were the biggest slave traders); the British took around two and a half million to their colonies in the West Indies (two million) and North America (half a million), and the Spanish distributed around two and a half million among their various American colonies. The Dutch and the French took their share to their West Indian colonies (around five hundred thousand and a million and a half, respectively). The numbers are not entirely accurate, but give an idea. In 1807 the British abolished the slave trade, though not slavery, and began to make life difficult for other nations still engaging in the trade. Canada was the first in America to abolish slavery in the late 1700s; Brazil was the last, in 1888.

About half the population of Brazil, where I was born and raised, consists of Afrodescendants. In school we learned about the history of the slave trade, the regions in Africa where Africans came from, and some of the elements in surrounding Brazilian culture derived from Africa. We also heard about differences between Brazil and the US in that respect. Abolition in Brazil was very late—though talk of it and even passage of a law that was not obeyed started in the early 1800s—and was done in phases (children born after a certain date were declared free; then slaves over the age of 60 were freed; there was a movement of individuals freeing their slaves; some slaves were able to buy their freedom; children of plantation owners and slave women might be raised and educated together with their half-siblings and even sent to university abroad). But there was no civil war to achieve it; there was racism and discrimination, but there were no American-style Jim Crow laws and classification went largely by skin color. So Brazilians might pat themselves, most undeservedly, on their backs for all that.

I first came to the US in 1960, as a scholarship student at Ohio University. Though the 60s properly speaking did not arrive there till about 5 years later, there were some signs of things on the move. One of them, I was told, was that applications for admission no longer required photos. They had to explain why that was progress: the admissions office would have to base their decisions on grades, and not be able to discriminate against Black students, since they would not know which students were Black. Oh, I see.

I learned about Greeks, and that they were not people from Greece, but members of student organizations identified by (mispronounced) Greek letters—and that these organizations did not accept Blacks (or Jews, for that matter). Blacks and Jews formed their own “Greek” associations. I thought that was buying into the system, but kept my opinion to myself.

In my second year I had a “Black” roommate. She was light-skinned, and in Brazil she would not have been called “Black.” (In Brazil, on census forms, people can classify themselves by “race” and the forms offer choices; there isn’t the “simplicity” of the one-drop rule.) One day I found her dejected: her boyfriend had gone to New York and there had taken up with a “Caucasian.” I understood the hurt but thought the designation peculiar. What did I, for instance, have to do with the Caucasus? And it was clear no form of support from me would have been useful. The following year, my roommate was Black also. Before confirming my assignment, the housing office contacted me: if I objected to that assignment, they’d understand and get me another room. I did not object. We got on well, but did not become friends. On a trip to Louisiana, to spend Thanksgiving at a friend’s, I saw my first segregated set of drinking fountains. On the other hand, in New York I had seen a new well-kept car driven by a Black person who obviously owned it—not something I had seen before in Brazil where, though light-skinned Afrodescendants could be found in the civil service and other positions defined as middle-class, the darker members of the population tended to be too poor to own cars.

Whole books could be, and have been, written on the subject. This is just a brief sketch. But I would like to conclude with a very short list of great books—novels—by Black authors of both nations that give a lived sense of what I have barely touched upon (contemporary great authors are easier to know about at this time; those below  are from a century or more back, informative about the past and how it survives):

  • Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition(1901) based on the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, when whites took over the city: attacking and killing many Black people—especially journalists, doctors, business owners, and ousting the elected biracial government; and The House Behind the Cedars (1908), dealing with “passing” (Blacks living as if they were white).
  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952); one of the great 20th – century American novels.
  • Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small Winner or, in another translation, The Posthumous Memories of Bras Cubas (1880); by one of the greatest Brazilian authors, who was himself Black, fully appreciated in his lifetime.
  • Lima Barreto, The Sad Fate of Policarpo Quaresma (1911). Barreto was much less diplomatic than Machado de Assis about the situation of Blacks in Brazil.

They are very much worth reading.