‘ORPHEUS’; Legacy of Domination

‘ORPHEUS’; Legacy of Domination

The New York Times

Michael Hanchard, Professor of Political Science and African American Studies
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland

To the Editor:

In his observations about the differences in the Brazilian and foreign receptions of two very distinct cinematic renditions of the Orpheus tale [“Orpheus, Rising From Caricature,” Aug. 20], Caetano Veloso makes a number of larger, insightful points about the intense processes of creolization in Brazilian popular culture, which confound easy labels like ”global” and ”local” as well as ”authentic” and ”pure.”

Two points raised by Mr. Veloso are in tension, however, with his advocacy of what he has called ”subversive Pan-Americanism.” First, Mr. Veloso seemingly abides by a key tenet of Gilberto Freyre’s views about Brazilian race relations, one that equates miscegenation with ”racial democracy.” Although Mr. Veloso rightly acknowledges that ideas of whitening are not peculiar to Brazil, he does not mention the effects of such ideologies on darker-skinned African-descended people in Brazil and elsewhere in the Americas—which, in the case of someone like Michael Jackson (whom Mr. Veloso mentions), are more than a case of playful hybridity.

Like Gilberto Freyre, Mr. Veloso seems to be suggesting that miscegenation leads to racial tolerance, whereas hypodescent (the one-drop rule) does not. If one were to apply Mr. Veloso’s premise, that racial miscegenation equals racial democracy, to race relations in the United States, South Africa or Haiti, then the fact of miscegenation would have helped engender societies that were more tolerant of alleged racial differences among their populations. It did not.

The point here is that miscegenation, in Brazil and in other former slave-holding societies, began as acts of dominance and not as an egalitarian principle that led to the erosion of unequal relations. It is important to remember that the etymological origin of the term miscegenation (as well as mulatto, by the way) is to ”mis-mate,” or mate badly. In Brazil, the celebration of miscegenation has occurred simultaneously in national popular culture and mythology with terminology that denigrates darker-skinned Brazilians, while upholding Northern European ideals of feminine and masculine beauty. Thus, miscegenation cannot be considered outside the lens of power and aesthetics…

Read the entire letter here.

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