Joao Jose Reis, prominent Brazilian historian of slavery and African culture in Brazil, as well as of the Atlantic, was awarded the American Historical Association's Honorary Foreign Membership at the annual meeting in January this year. An interesting interview with him, "In Conversation with . . . Joao Jose Reis," by Sueann Caulfield, appears in last month's Perspectives on History (January 2008: 18-20). Here are a few extracts from it:
SC: African history has recently become a required subject in Brazilian secondary and postsecondary curricula. How have historians responded to this requirement? Has it affected public policies such as the recent implementation in public universities of affirmative action favoring low-income and African-descended students?
JJR: This is an example of a political debate in which Brazilian scholars are involved. There are those like me who believe in racial/social affirmative action while others believe that adjusting public policy to categories of ethnic identity will increase racial tensions and conflicts in Brazil, and the country will one day be as racially divided as the United States. Many believe that the Brazilian mestiço national identity, based on racial mixing, would be threatened by a racialized public policy. Some argue that the study of Africa in schools and universities is prejudicial to social peace because it is an incentive for black identity. I think differently. Racism in Brazil is an incontrovertible truth that segregates blacks and whites through the system of education and economics, and this will certainly lead to an increase in racial tensions because blacks are more and more conscious of racial discrimination. For me, affirmative action is a prescription for social peace and not for conflict. The teaching of African history is part of a self-exploration process not only pertinent to Brazilian blacks, but to all Brazilians. Aren't we a culturally and racially mixed country? Well, then the history of Africa should be as important as European history in order to better understand Africa's contribution to Brazil's material and cultural formation. In fact, Brazil has the largest black population outside the African continent—this alone justifies a strong education in African history.
SC: How would you evaluate the impact on historical scholarship, in and outside of Brazil, of the "Atlantic Studies" subfield? In what ways has Brazilian scholarship influenced conceptions of the "Atlantic" as a region (or what would the influence be if more Brazilian scholarship were translated into English or other languages and if it were read more widely outside of Brazil)? Does your own scholarship contribute to, "fit" or benefit from the broad scholarly interest in the Atlantic?
JJR: Brazilians have been studying "Atlantic history" for a long time. The history of the "old colonial system" as discussed by Brazilian historians Caio Prado (1907–1990) and Fernando Novais (1933–) is Atlantic history. The difference today is the idea of the black Atlantic, but we also have pioneers in that field. In the late 19th century, the medical doctor and ethnologist Nina Rodrigues argued in favor of the importance of Brazil's African origins and was the first scholar to discuss slave revolts in Bahia as a continuation, albeit a "pale" one, of jihad struggles among Haussa Africans in the beginning of the 19th century. In the 1960s, Pierre Verger, a Frenchman who settled in Bahia, radicalized Nina's project by studying commercial and cultural relations between Bahia and the Gulf of Benin. Both scholars, especially Verger, were literally doing black Atlantic history. Of course, today we have a more sophisticated argument introduced by Paul Gilroy's book, which unfortunately only focuses on the black North Atlantic. In Brazil, historian Luis Felipe de Alencastro is the strongest exponent of studying Brazil's historical formation in the South Atlantic, especially the relationship with Angola, as perhaps more than 80 percent of enslaved Africans in Brazil came from that region. His book, Trato dos viventes, is being translated into English, I believe, and will have an impact on the general discussion of Atlantic history. However, following in the footsteps of Charles Boxer and Amaral Lapa, a lot of work is now being done in Brazil on the commercial, political, and cultural networks of the broader Portuguese empire, which includes the Indian Ocean in its deep connections with the Atlantic world in general and the black Atlantic in particular. Until the middle of the 19th century there were Asians on Brazilian slave ships, which is an indicator of the inter-oceanic connections of which Brazil was a part.
SC: Prior to the development of "Atlantic Studies," similar concerns to understand trans-regional historical experiences took shape under the rubric of the African diaspora. How did this scholarly trend affect scholarship and teaching of history in Brazil?
JJR: The idea of an African diaspora in Brazil is primarily associated with black militant discourse in Brazil and has yet little conceptual resonance in our historiography. In Brazilian historiography, the "black diaspora" is used more as a catchword than an elaborated concept. This is interesting given the enormous preoccupation with "African origins" in the fields of history and anthropology in Brazil.
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P.S.: Aos leitores em Portugues, gostaria de sugerir que lessem os comentarios a este post, onde algumas das questoes aqui abordadas sao discutidas em alguma profundidade.