Brazil’s Tourism Black and Blues

CapoeiraWhen African Americans talk about traveling to Brazil, two types of tourism tend to be discussed. On the one hand, there is a growing interest in so-called “heritage tourism” to Salvador da Bahia, supposedly Brazil’s blackest city. On the other, there’s the “scandal” of what author Jewel Woods has called black America’s best kept secret: black male sexual tourism in Rio de Janeiro.

In recent articles and books, these two types of tourism have been set up as diametrically opposed faces of middle-class black America’s recently conquered global mobility. However, as an African Brazilian woman who is also something of a professional gringo watcher, what strikes me about these two forms of tourism is not their differences, but their commonalities.

Both are predicated upon structures which not only reserve global mobility to a privileged few, but which also reserve the right to represent and interpret what is seen and experienced to those same few. Simply put, both sex and heritage tourists are empowered to forge interpretations of Brazil which – given the English language’s global reach – end up drowning out the diversity, ambiguity and complexity of Brazilians own views of themselves and their country.

To cop a metaphor from anthropologist Mary Louise Pratt, both forms of tourism end up engaging and empowering an “imperial eye”, which rearranges the landscape according to its satisfaction and, in so doing, creates interpretations which are widely seen as “more authentic” than native realities themselves.

It’s easy to see this black imperial eye at work in the context of sexual tourism. Jewel Wood’s recently published Don’t Blame it on Rio records several examples as does W. J. Cobb’s famous Essence article. Wood’s informants and Cobb himself often project as fact their preconceived fantasies of Brazil and Brazilians on the spaces and people through which they transit.

According to these men, Brazilian women are supposedly more natural, easy-going and sexy than their American cousins, with no weight issues due to a better diet and more exercise. This will come as quite a shock to anyone who lives in Brazil and is confronted by our country’s growing obesity problem and high incidence of elective cosmetic surgery.

It will also surprise Brazilian sexologists who report that Brazilian women have fewer partners, less sexual fulfillment and more conservative attitudes towards sex than most of the other women of the Americas. Finally, I’m sure that Brazilian men will find the descriptions of Brazilian women as “non-confrontational” and “non-feminist” to be amusing, to say the least.

These illusions are fairly easy to spot and critique, but what about the more subtle fantasies of “roots Brazilian culture” which are often articulated by heritage tourists?

To hear African Americans talk, heritage tourism is a more respectful form of wandering about the world, one which involves learning about “our history”.

Wait a minute: “our history”…?

Listen, I am down with the idea that there is a Black Atlantic, but it is a Diaspora and Diasporas are defined by cultural, political and historical diversity and yes, power imbalances. Though I may be deeply inspired by the history of the U.S. American civil rights movement, it is not my history. If it were my history, I wouldn’t need to be interrogated by immigration agents every time I visit New York, now would I? And yet Brazil’s history – which most Americans, black or white, can hardly be bothered to learn – is now somehow a part of black U.S. heritage.

The idea of heritage is itself disturbing to me. It’s one of those buzz-words which doesn’t translate well into Portuguese. What precisely is heritage, as opposed to history? Having pestered many Americans about the topic, it seems to me that heritage can best be described as a myth-making attempt to fix claims to certain elements of history as personal or collective property.

It thus disturbs me when black Americans come to Bahia in search of their heritage. What they seem to be saying is that Bahia – and by extension, Brazil – makes no useful sense on its own terms and holds little interest for them except as it fits into their personal mythologies of identity.

What does this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that the forms of “Brazilian black culture” which will be visible to most heritage tourists are those which most closely fit preconceived ideas of “African culture”. Capoeira and candomblé will thus get the nod as “roots” and “real”, whereas Jiu Jitsu or evangelism will be seen as regrettable breaches of ethnic purity – if they’re seen at all.

“Black Brazilian music” needs must have an “African” or “Latin” beat (whatever that means), because black Brazilians don’t play rock, European classical music, or (perish the thought!) heavy metal. And as for black Brazilian literature, well, it’s just not on the agenda at all. The next black American heritage tourist I meet who’s read Machado de Assis – let alone Cruz e Souza – will be the first and believe me, I’m not holding my breath.

Think about what this sort of attitude implies about black Brazilians. It implies that we have not participated in the modern world, that the only cultural forms which we can call our own are those which have supposedly been handed down from African ancestors.

There is nothing wrong with traditional cultural forms, but since when has the be-all and end-all of blackness been tradition? Imagine African Brazilians flocking to the Carolina Sea Islands and declaring the Gullah to be the only “real” black culture in the U.S.

Imagine a North America where jazz was not recognized as a black invention, where Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison were unknown entities, where the black churches were seen as “sell-outs” because they didn’t openly acknowledge the Orixás.

Many times I have heard African Americans describe Brazil as “backwards” simply because things here aren’t done the same way they’re done back in the U.S.. Hearing this, I have wanted to shout “But isn’t that precisely why you’re here? Because you believe that we belong to another time and world, one that is not your own, but one which you feel free to define for us?”

American tourists of all colors recognize their own diversity and yet often reduce Brazilians to a superficial singular type. Of course, all peoples the world over engage in this sort of behavior – it’s practically a defining characteristic of being human.

The problem is not that it happens, but that American structures of power, prejudice and pride are so strongly imbedded in the global scene that they almost completely drown out anything Brazilians have to say about themselves which does not fit into the limitations predefined by Americans.

And this, my friends, is where the “nasty” African American sexual tourist and his supposed opposite, the “respectful” heritage tourist, meet and shake hands: smack dab in the middle of imperial privilege.

While it might seem ludicrous to decry African American privilege, given the deep and abiding white supremacy that still characterizes mainstream U.S. culture, it must be recognized that African Americans are playing a growing role in designating what is “really black” and what is not in the world beyond the Empire’s borders.

Whether it’s playas with a couple of months of accumulated experience in Copa’s red light district expounding on what it means to be female in Brazil, or earnest social workers back from two weeks in Bahia, rhapsodizing about the Boa Morte Sisterhood as a “living document of African culture”, black Americans are determining what is to be seen and what is to be overlooked in Brazil.

In so doing, they are ascribing to themselves – consciously or not – the role of purveyors of black Brazilian authenticity. And black Brazilians, as was traditional in the days of the casa grande e senzala, are left to cater to strangers’ fancies, whether these be carnal or of a more rarified nature.

Personally, I have no problem with either breed of tourist. I’m happy Brazilians can make a buck selling dreams to Americans. But I reserve the right to call “brother” and “sister” those people who attempt to step beyond fantasy, who are willing to accept me as an equal on my own terms and who recognize that I and the peoples which surround me have histories which cannot be reduced to the building blocks of U.S. American heritage – whatever its color.

Ana Paula da Silva is a professor at the Centro Universitário Augusto Motta (UNISUAM) in Rio de Janeiro, She’s an anthropologist and studies among other subjects the intersections between sex, gender, race and class and how these configure the myth of modern Brazil. You can read more from her on her blog:


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