Against the grain, black culture flourishes
In 1902, the African-descendant Rodrigues Alves took office as the president of Brazil. Nevertheless, it was precisely during this African-descendant’s administration that the country started to put into practice, starting with the capital, a cultural program aiming at becoming totally European. Since the abolition, the elite strove to build the nation it had always intended to. In it, the African culture and even the presence of blacks was undesirable. After all, thinking of a country of “savage inferiors” and “loutish degenerate blacks”, in the words of a literate such as José Veríssimo (1857-1916) was not promising.
In spite of that, old slave descendants sought self-assertion and social inclusion through their cultural practices. The time elapsed from the abolition to the 1920 population census was, for African-descendant artists and intellectuals, a period of intense activity. Writing and acting at dozens of theatrical productions and circuses in Rio and throughout Brazil, Benjamin de Oliveira, “The black clown”, creates the Brazilian popular theater, as important at the time as television is in our day. Likewise, the period marks the apogee of Eduardo das Neves, a competitor yet a friend of Benjamin’s; of composer Chiquinha Gonzaga; composer and conductor Paulino Sacramento; journalist Francisco Guimarães, the Firefly, pioneer of Carnival chronicle; Zeca Patrocínio, pioneer of Brazilian cinema; Hemetério dos Santos, author of the first Portuguese grammar, as well as the appearance of Pixinguinha and Grande Otelo, to mention only a few examples.
At that time, in Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, the foundations of the “jeje-nagô” orixás worshipping, the strongest trace of African heritage in Brazil, are strengthened and spread through ialorixá Mãe Aninha. Meanwhile, the Bantu “batuques” (drum playing), re-created in the countryside, complete the amalgam from which samba was born.
That was Brazilian culture being forged by the hands of the “colored people”. Soon after, this entire universe of actions and intentions was appropriated, and later suffocated by the globalized cultural industry.
In today’s Brazilian cultural scene, we blacks and mulattoes are, at the most, supporting actors, and could count in the fingers of one hand those who reach a position as protagonists. And, among those who do, most part has to give up our essence and African heritage, hindered by modern forms of slavery, captives of the media and the market – which still want us the way Brazilian society wanted us to be a hundred years ago.
NEI LOPES IS A COMPOSER, WRITER AND AUTHOR OF THE BOOK ENCICLOPÉDIA BRASILEIRA DA DIÁSPORA AFRICANA (SELO NEGRO EDIÇÕES, 2004).
(RHBN. No. 32. Maio 2008. P. 22)