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Gilberto Freyre Learned in the US How to Craft a New Brazilian Self-image

Gilberto FreyreBrazil, the perennial country of the future, has finally taken its place on the world stage. Yet, as the United States learned after the Second World War, Brazil now realizes that with economic prosperity comes responsibility.

The American government had to eradicate racial segregation to avoid recriminations from the Russians during the Cold War. Similarly, Brazil has witnessed a marked increase in demands from within and abroad for greater inclusion of Blacks in mainstream institutions.

Some, such as Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., head of the Harvard Afro-American Studies Department, contend that affirmative action is the solution. These American-style approaches to racial diversity cause consternation in Brazil. Many call for a Brazilian answer to Brazilian problems.

The best approach just might be for Brazilians to take a cue from their intellectual heavyweight Gilberto Freyre. The doctor was a Brazilian who became the consummate Americano.

Freyre received his education in racial theory in the United States and then tailored that knowledge to the Brazilian context. In this respect, Freyre used a synthesis of new world thinking to help enlighten him about the situation at home. Likewise, rather than dismissing American public policies, Brazilians might do well by embracing these initiatives, to a degree.

Born in the Northeast state of Pernambuco, the professor attended college at Baylor University in Texas and Columbia University in New York City. His scholarship employed the race theories of Franz Boas, the father of American cultural sociology.

Freyre used this knowledge gained in the United States to craft a new Brazilian self-image. He helped create a society that did not ignore, at least publicly, its history of race mixing. In fact, Brazilians began to celebrate their multi-racial heritage.

In his magisterial work The Masters and the Slaves (1933), Freyre advanced the idea that Brazilian society was essentially a racially mixed one. Over the centuries, Africans, Portuguese and Indians had intertwined culturally and sexually to create a new people, the book explained. The multifarious colors visible on any street were evidence of this miscegenation.

The Portuguese comprised the master class, yet to Freyre, they remained open to the contributions of the others to society. Part of the explanation for this liberality was that Portugal had itself endured centuries of domination by the darker-complexioned Moors.

Hence, Brazilian society supposedly never dehumanized its oppressed classes, even during slavery. The nation was an example of a veritable racial democracy. All groups possessed a spot in the national self-image. In fact, this racial mixture was a thing to celebrate, rather than deny, as was common throughout Latin America.

Despite its critics, Freyre’s work still stands unchallenged as literature that integrates Blacks and Indians into the national myth. Though some find Freyre delusional about the state of race relations, no one can deny inclusion is a positive aim.

That there is racial inequality in Brazil is a fact Freyre did not attempt to challenge. His goal was to figure out just where the nation should proceed, starting from its current situation. Freyre used the past to imagine a unique Brazilian solution to the future.

Brazilians today should consider embracing American ideas and theories about race. Freyre demonstrated that viewing the nation through the lens of an outsider could help increase perception of the meaning of being Brazilian.

The United States has much to learn from Brazil too. Americans waited until the late-1980s, over fifty years after The Masters and the Slaves, to embrace multiculturalism and diversity.

Americans have eradicated racial segregation and taken overt action to increase minority presence in society. Nevertheless, while acknowledging the need for diversity programs, the United States implicitly conceived of these groups as perpetual outsiders.

Brazilians have experienced less of a problem accepting multiculturalism. Freyre taught Brazilians to accept diversity as the point of origin rather than a destination. The question is how the Luso Tropical nation can better integrate its national institutions. In sum, both countries need intellectuals, artists and activists willing to learn from the other side.

Dr. David Kenneth P. is a professor of History and English language instruction.

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