Brazil: a biography

Posted by on September 4, 2015 in History | 0 comments

Brazil has always been a country of contrasts: idyllic and diabolical, happy yet sombre, rustic and urbane, populated by the white and mixed races. Recently two Brazilian academics, anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz and historian Heloisa Murgel Starling have published a ‘biography’ of Brazil (Brasil: uma biographia) which provides a linear narrative of the history of the country. It is a kaleidoscopic biography of the country for there exists not one but many histories of Brazil. The book does not give a chronological history of the country. It describes all the different dimensions of Brazil: its political and cultural life, its public and private existence. Brazil, in this book, assumes the form of a person and like any person it has its contradictions, its virtues and vices, successes and failures.

This biography of Brazil emphasizes the role of those individuals of different origins and backgrounds who, over many centuries, have created the nation. It is not a conventional history — there is no attempt in it to hide its dark past: the cruel reality of bringing the negroes from Africa and using them as slaves. Overlapping the peaceful and tolerant image of a country are juxtaposed the racial inequalities and social exclusions that the country has seen. Lilia Schwarcz and Heloisa Starling have bravely dealt with the realities of violence, cruelty and suffering in this book.

Brazilians define themselves quite deliberately as a happy group of people who are honest and hard-working, the creation of a crossbred and pluralistic civilization. They love to claim, for example, that Brazil proclaims a benevolent and mild form of racism in comparison with the United States. But Brazil was the last occidental state in which slavery was abolished in 1888 and 40% of the Africans brought to the Americas had been in Brazil. In 1910, when the country’s population was 22 million, there were hardly 627, 000 persons with voting rights. Now, six out of ten Brazilians belong to a mixed race. In the census, they appear under the category named ‘pardos’, a word that refers to the indeterminable feathers of the sparrows.

From the violence on the enslaved perpetrated by the immigrant Europeans, the Italians, Germans and Portuguese who contributed to the industrialization of the country and who were later joined by the Japanese, from being the first republic that later fell into a state of military dictatorship, the book retraces the history of citizenship in a country now assailed by doubt. Many Brazilians are now discouraged by the political impasse; the omnipresence of corruption makes them revolt and they are exasperated by the conflict of interests everywhere in the country. They worry about the present and the future of their civic culture. In this 700-page book Lilia Schwarcz and Heloisa Starling bring to light the fundamental dilemmas that punctuate the history of Brazil.

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