Get to Know a Brazilian – Gilberto Freyre

This is the fourth in what will be a weekly series of posts on Sundays. Previous posts have looked at Pedro Álvares Cabral, Machado de Assis, and Tom Jobim.

As I restart this series, I want to turn to Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, one of the more important writers on race and ethnicity in Brazil in the twentieth century, both for better and for worse.

Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987), one of the more influential thinkers and writers in Brazil in the 20th century.

Freyre was born in the northeastern state of Pernambuco to one of the older Portuguese families in Brazil. As a child, he spent time both in Recife (one of the most important ports of colonial Brazil) and in the Pernambucan countryside, where his time spent on old sugar plantations would come to play a major role in his future academic development. As a young adult, Freyre traveled to the United States, where he obtained his bachelors degree at Baylor University. At the age of twenty, he relocated to New York City, where he studied anthropology at Columbia University under the famed anthropologist Franz Boas, whose ideas on cultural anthropology and criticisms of evolutionary models and racial determinants would play a key role in Freyre’s later writings. While in the United States, Freyre began to combine his US anthropological training with his childhood in Brazil, focusing on racial identity, culture, and history in Brazil, beginning with a tentative foray into these topics with his article “Social Life in Brazil in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century,” which appeared in an early volume of the Hispanic American Historical Review in 1922.

Although Freyre had begun to make a name for himself as a Brazilian intellectual, it was with his 1933 work Casa-grande e senzala (translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves) that he became  best-known. Challenging positivist philosophical narratives that portrayed Brazilians as inherently “inferior” due to their mixture between indigenous, African, and Portuguese people dating back to the colonial era, Freyre argued that it was this exact mixture through sexual relations (relations whose violence Freyre glossed over) that made Brazilians free from any source of racism. According to Freyre, through this history of mixture, Brazilians had acquired the best traits of three races, while the physical markers had blurred beyond the point of easy identification, making Brazil a land where racism could not exist. In making this argument, Freyre contrasted Brazil to the United States, where he pointed to the racism that emerged from strict racial dichotomies that he saw in his time spent there, particularly in the Deep South. Contrasting Brazil with the United States, scholars would later describe what they imagined to be a racially harmonious Brazil as a “racial democracy,” a term that is all too often incorrectly attributed to Freyre; although he himself later adopted the term, it appeared nowhere in Casa-grande e senzala.

An early edition of Freyre’s most famous work, “Casa-grande e senzala.”

This argument would have a profound impact on how scholars in both Brazil and the United States thought and talked about race for generations to come, setting up an often-frustrating narrative debate over “whose racism was worse” that failed to address the complex racial relations of either country. Ironically, though, in declaring Brazil to be free of the types of racism found in the US, he almost completely overlooked indigenous peoples in his first version of Casa-grande e senzala, focusing instead on Afro-descendants and Europeans and thereby reifying the idea of the “disappeared” indigenous person as a historical character with no relevance to the present (a conceptualization that recent ethnographic work shows continues to the present, with detrimental impacts on Brazil’s indigenous peoples). Additionally, according to Freyre in Casa-grande e senzala (and taking a page from his education with Boas), any shortcomings of Brazilian society were not due to race, but to cultural and historical obstacles.

Freyre certainly was not the first Brazilian intellectual who wrestled with narratives of Brazil’s racial past. Euclides da Cunha’s classic Os Sertões (in English, Rebellion in the Backlands), showed an ambivalent approach to the idea of racial mixing, one that did not necessarily embrace Brazil’s mixed history but that was also increasingly hesitant to condemn it. Other Brazilian intellectuals throughout the 1910s and 1920s also had begun to challenge past narratives of race and celebrate Brazil’s diverse background. In this regard, Freyre was not the first to make such claims (in spite of many erroneous claims otherwise after the publication of Casa-grande e senzala). However, Casa-grande e senzala came out at a time when a new sense of Brazilian nationalism was beginning to emerge, making his work particularly useful to politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals who wanted to push a new identity of a unified Brazil. His message particularly fit well with the nationalist and centralizing messages of president Getúlio Vargas, who sought to recreate Brazilian government and society after the deterioration of Brazil’s federative First Republic (1889-1930). Additionally, Freyre’s argument was in many ways conservative, celebrating what Freyre imagined to be a hierarchical and patriarchal past, in which order and privilege among the agrarian elites (like those on the sugar plantation he spent time on as a child); this argument was appealing to a number of conservative elites throughout Brazil, giving his book a unique heft that his forbears had not necessarily had. In the transnational context, Casa-grande e senzala also came at a time of broader re-evaluations of ethnicity and race in other parts of Latin America, including works such as José Vasconcelos’s La Raza Cosmica (The Cosmic Race) and writings on race by Cuban writers Fernando Ortíz and, at the end of the nineteenth century, José Martí.

With the fame and respect garnered from Casa-grande e senzala, Freyre published several more works, including Sobrados e Mucambos (in English, The Mansions and the Shanties) in 1936, which focused on the decline of Brazilian slavery and the Brazilian aristocratic class in the 19th century, and Ordem e Progresso (Order and Progres) in 1957, which analyzed the late-nineteenth transition from an empire to a republic. In these works, Freyre revealed an increasingly conservative tendencies, as evidenced by his support of the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal, tendencies that became even clearer in 1964, when he quickly came out in support of the military dictatorship that overthrew President João Goulart.

By the latter part of the twentieth century, Freyre’s arguments regarding Brazil’s patriarchal past and a society free of racial tensions increasingly came under attack. A new wave of social scientists and Afro-Brazilian activists began not only to criticize Freyre’s arguments regarding an absence of racism in Brazil, but to even fault the popularity of the idea of Brazil as a “racial democracy” as a myth that hid very real racial differences and prejudices within Brazilian society. With Freyre’s support for and ties to a military dictatorship that did little to address real socio-economic or racial divisions in the country, Afro-Brazilian intellectuals and social scientists in both Brazil and the United States suggested that the “myth of racial democracy” had done much greater harm to Brazil by allowing Brazilians to deny any sense of racism even when it still existed. As they argued, it was even more difficult to undo a problem that many people refused to acknowledge existed, a refusal that drew in no small part on Freyre’s arguments in Casa-grande e senzala.

In spite of these criticisms and the emergence of new questions and methods of analysis of race and ethnicity in Brazil, Freyre remained celebrated up until his death in 1987. In 1983 in particular, as Casa-grande e senzala turned 50, Freyre was the subject of a variety of homages and celebrations throughout Brazil. At his death at 87, he was still a vaunted figure, celebrated for his contributions to Brazilian thought, writing, and national identity in many quarters. It is only in the last couple of decades that scholars and intellectuals have fully begun to  more critically analyze and consider Freyre’s role in Brazilian writing and thinking. in an attempt to move beyond the questions and arguments Freyre offered and to provide new and more nuanced analyses. Indeed, the fact that Freyre still looms large in the scholarship, even in works on Brazil that are critical of the Freyrean model and narrative, shows just how far Gilberto Freyre’s writings and ideas on race and Brazilian history reached, in Brazil and beyond.


About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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