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The Samba of the Crazy Black Man: Possessing the Mulata through a Choreography of Disidentity
by Carla Melo

 

What are the possibilities of politicizing disidentification, this experience of misrecognition, this uneasy sense of standing under a sign to which one does and does not belong?  --José Muñoz1

At first, for what seemed like a long time, all I saw was the dark silhouette of a fit body standing tall and motionless upstage right, against a backlit and semi-translucent backdrop whose quilt-like pattern was composed of numerous depictions of the Brazilian flag. As a slow electronic rhythm started to pulse, this body whose identity was hidden in darkness began a slow undulation of its arms and a subtle swaying of its hips. While this movement spelled a languid and seductive femininity, the corporeal shape read as masculine. Though ambiguously marked, the title of this performance piece, O Samba do Crioulo Doido, which translates as The Samba of the Crazy Black Man, suggested that this was the body of a black male, while his thigh high silver boots, besides being an obvious sign of queer identity, also made a strong reference to the Brazilian "export mulata."2 The sexual difference was shockingly demonstrated when the performer showed his profile to us. As his penis was thrown in all directions from the frenetic shaking of the hips combined with the squatting motion characteristic of samba moves, the middle-class, largely white, southern Brazilian audience gasped in shock. This was only the beginning of a very confrontational piece which, prior to its arrival at a famous international theater festival in the south of Brazil (in September of 2004), had created a great deal of controversy around the country and, in spite of its seemingly transgressive nature, had won the nation's most prestigious dance award.

This instant and somewhat nervous "applause" seemed to contain a great deal of anxious denial since, for most critics, the piece blatantly denounced the objectification of the black body, and thereby exposed the stereotype that foreigners have of Brazil.3  In spite of the current deconstruction of the myth of racial democracy (which denies the existence of racism in Brazil), these critics have failed to examine The Samba of the Crazy Black Man as a critique of racial politics within Brazilian society. Although the national dance award can signify an instant cooptation that neutralizes the transgressive possibilities of Luiz de Abreu's corporeal tactics, it can also lead to a questioning of the logic behind this legitimization, since black subjects continue to occupy a subaltern position in Brazilian society. In addition, with the stamp of hegemonic approval, the critical potential of the performance has managed to infiltrate a larger stage in which it can generate a wider dialogue around a series of questions: How is black Brazilian identity deconstructed and reconstructed in this piece? How does gender and sexual identity function within this deconstruction? How are power and agency choreographed? Does the body as the main site of rebellion re-inscribe its objectification through its explicit exposure? Given that essentialist discourse on race is focused on the black body, can a performance centered on the body resist racism? Although I do not intent to answer all these questions in the sense of bringing closure to them, through the trope of possession and an adaptation of José Muñoz's theory of disidentification, I will posit that Luiz de Abreu disidentifies with the current degree of assimilation of black culture into the larger Brazilian culture, thereby carnivalizing the myth of racial democracy. To disidentify means to inhabit a site that is crossed with contradictions; it means to allow oneself to be possessed by these contradictions and thereby destabilize binaries that make up hegemonic notions of identity. Abreu achieves such destabilizing through a minimal and confrontational dance of a docile body turned grotesque. Yet, itis not the body alone that resists, transgresses, and complicates several layers of discrimination, but rather the choreography of this body with signs that conjure the conflation of various systems of identification, including racial, national, gender, sexual orientation and class.

Given that racial politics is at the center of this conflation, it is important to briefly trace the historical development of this complex scenario, which is also central to the construction of Brazilian identity. Although such an attempt is always somewhat simplistic and generalizing, it is paramount for the analysis of the negotiations of identity taking place in The Samba of the Crazy Black Man.

According to Lilian Schwarcz, around the time of Brazil's independence (1822), blacks and mestizos did not figure into the monarchy's and the romantic poets' portrayal of the country as a tropical and prosperous land.4 Besides, with the rise of racial Darwinism at the end of the 18th century, the general belief was that the mixing of races had a degenerative effect.  As a result, Europe considered Brazil the best example of a "racial laboratory," which justified its image as the epitome of "primitive" America. Schwarcz also notes that not only Europeans, but also a number of Brazilian intellectuals, condemned "the local mestizo reality." Thus, great racial anxiety took hold of the newly installed republic, which furthered the marginalization of its racial others.5 In 1872, over a decade prior to the abolition of slavery, "census revealed that while the enslaved population decreased (due to runaway slaves6), the black and mestizo population progressively grew to 55%" (Schwarcz 2001:22-26). Thus, the anxiety was based on the difficulty in determining who was an Other, since miscegenation was a growing reality. It wasn't until the 1930s that Gilberto Freyre, an anthropologist associated with a populist dictatorship, constructed a counter discourse that sought to solve the problem of Brazil's racial "uniqueness."  Infused with a strong nationalist ideology, his seminal book, Casa Grande and Senzala (1933), proposes a redefinition of miscegenation as integration—as an essence of Brazilian culture.  Thus, "a celebration of our uniqueness" re-signified the degenerate connotation of the term miscegenation and what was once a sign of hopeless doom became a signifier for utopian nationalist promises. The actual racial fusion was redefined as cultural tolerance permeated by erotic exchanges, while the mestizo was transformed into the main symbol of this romantic myth.

To call "racial democracy" a myth is not to deny the historical reality of miscegenation; rather, it is to foreground that the acceptance and the appropriation of black and mestizo culture came with the high price of "whitening" and the fading of racial identity in favor of one unified Brazilian culture.7  In spite of this myth, social and economic status is still closely linked and "hierarchy-cized" in accordance to a spectrum of skin color. Unlike contemporary U.S. racial politics, racial markers in Brazil have little to do with ancestry, and everything to do with color. Although half the population claims to be white, the percentage of whites is much smaller. This should come as no surprise since, as Ana Maria Rodriguez described, "it only takes a drop of 'white blood' for Brazilians to consider themselves white" (Rodriguez 1984:3). Thus, as another Brazilian scholar points out, the myth of racial democracy entails "unconscious" whitening, veiled social exclusion, cultural assimilation, as well as denial of the existence of racism, or at least an othering of it, through which this "monster" is attributed to one's neighbor and never to oneself (Schwarcz 2001:27-36). Ironically, while blacks and mulattos generally desire the status of being white, whites generally and perhaps unconsciously want to be like the mulatto while maintaining white status. Such status is largely determined through an equation in which class can slide one up on the spectrum of color.

Another manner of sliding up on this spectrum is through sexual power, which explains why the mulata is celebrated. Yet the explanation is not so simple; it is made up of a complex set of negotiations, which I theorize utilizing Andrew Lattas' theory of ventriloquism and my own notion of "split possession." Based on his study of the cultural role of the Australian aborigine in the construction of Australian national identity, Latta defined ventriloquism as a process "through which one culture is forced to speak on behalf of another" (qtd in Holledge and Tompkins 2000:74). This process takes on a slightly different dynamic in Brazil, where the black/mestizo culture, mainly through samba, is appropriated so that the hegemonic voice can speak through its body.8  Thus, the exoticized body of the export mulata stands in for "Brasilidade"—a kind of essence of being Brazilian. There is yet another trope that seems to account for the liminality that the mulata inhabits. As the black possesses the white (as he/she desires to be whitened) and the white possesses the black (through ventriloquism), the mestizo and specifically the mulata becomes the site of this encounter in which both processes take place at the same time, generating what I will call a "split possession."

 

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