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Castro Alves: Brazil's Abolitionist Poet


If you're a kid in Bahia, Brazil, you are familiar with the bronze statue depicting slaves being whipped on top of the memorial theater bearing his name.

When you memorize his poems in school, you learn that he's more than just the most influential abolitionist thinker Brazil had ever known: he is a major Afro-Brazilian writer, the man who humanized the slaves to their masters and made the very idea of abolition possible. Lately, though, some Brazilian historians have been painting a different picture, one of a troubled white kid more interested in lashing out at privilege and tradition than in freedom for enslaved Africans.

Some biographers have speculated that Ant„nio de Castro Alves' furious campaign against Brazilian slavery was actually a projection of his own rage at having to suffer so much. As a teenager, he watched his older brother commit suicide and both parents succumb to tuberculosis. By the age of sixteen he knew he was himself infected with TB, and died from it at twenty-four, in 1871 -- well before slavery was abolished in 1888.

Castro Alves certainly considered himself an abolitionist, but during his short lifetime he was not a great abolitionist figure. His poem "Slave Ship," arguably the most influential abolition poem ever, became well known a full decade after his death. Though trained as a lawyer, he didn't like speechmaking, and his goal wasn't simply to change his country at any cost. His writing style didn't depend on his political agenda. He was more of a dreamer, whose fierce lust for life and fixation on justice made him just the right guy to bring the immense suffering of slaves into the sitting rooms of the slaveholding elite.

That said, Catro Alves didn't portray enslaved Africans as faceless masses or noble savages. In one long sequence of poems, he tells the story of Maria and Lucas, two escaped slaves who narrate their own capture in Africa, abuse on plantations, sudden liberation and schemes for revenge. Each poem is a small snapshot from their lives, but together the sequence, called Paolo Afonso's Waterfall is epic in scope and bears comparison with the greatest epic poems of the African diaspora, doing for late Brazilian slavery what Rita Dove's novella-in-verse Thomas and Beulah did for the United States' Great Migration.

When most Americans talk about slavery, it's easy to forget that Brazil exists at all, or if we do remember it, to fall for the old myth of a multi-racial paradise. True, slavery was different in Brazil. Many African religious and cultural traditions survived under the hands-off approach of Catholic coffee and sugar growers, but slaves were still worked to death regularly. More slaves were integrated into daily urban life as hand-servants, but it was never easy to buy one's own freedom. And while the white minority of Northeast Brazil quickly dissolved into an African majority, creating a dizzying spectrum of racial categories, it can still be hard to get even the darkest of Afro-Brazilians to identify with Africa. Hardly a racial paradise.

Even after the British cut off the slave trade in 1850, the slave economy limped on for a few decades and finally died with a whimper in 1888. Though not inevitable, emancipation was long overdue by the time a single stroke of Princess Isabel's diamond-encrusted pen freed 1,500,000 men, women and children. The stakes were high, but surprisingly little violence ensued: it was part of a larger transition from colonial monarchy to free-labor republic. Being an abolitionist was also easier in Brazil because the culture of dissent was more robust. Artists were full of national lust and spite, fearlessly making bold political statements. And although most people were illiterate, slaveholders generally were not and they actually claimed to listen to their poets and playwrights, often called "the conscience of the nation."

While New England poets like Longfellow used subtle images to win the moral high ground, Castro Alves wasn't afraid to attack the graphic horrors of slavery head-on. Consider this line from "Slave Ship":

I saw the decks bathed in blood
Legions of men black as night
Dancing with horror
Black-mouthed and wasted kids
Hanging from their black mothers' breasts
Spattered with blood

It builds from here, as the enraged poet accuses God and nature of disgraceful neglect. Now, these images demand a certain amount of empathy. But a slave owner might tell himself that they are meant to condemn the obsolete slave trade, abolished in 1850, and not the institution of slavery as currently practiced in Brazil.

What Castro Alves knew would be hardest to ignore, however, was an appeal to patriotic dignity. "A nation has borrowed this flag / To cover their cruelty and fear..." he laments at the end of the same poem. "This bloody cloth ... will be a shroud for my people." Here is how history will remember your nation, he implies, murdering your own because you were scared of the future. This position did not become publicly viable until several years after Castro Alves' death. But when it did go mainstream a few years later, it was in large part because of the path "The Slave Ship" had carved in the conscience of a nation.

In current day Bahia, it seems that none of the African population feels conflicted about celebrating Castro Alves, even identifying with him. He was a white boy after all, and that's a little puzzling. Imagine if, year after year, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were pushed out of the black history curriculum to make room for Henry Longfellow and Walt Whitman.

The irony points to the long recovery from racist attitudes that Brazil is undergoing. Almost everyone in Bahia is black by American standards. But if you have any white blood at all, it's common in Brazil to claim white status, and failing that, to use any of dozens of mixed terms (mulatto, pardo, cafþ com leite, etc) -- anything but black. This internalized racism has endured, not just because of the obvious racial basis for persistent economic and social inequalities, but due to an ugly "we have no race problem" myth that is just starting to crumble; only lately has an Afro-pride movement started to make some incursions into mass self-perception. In a way, keeping Castro Alves at the top of the slave-poet pantheon is sending the wrong message. There were plenty of black abolitionist poets, starting with ex-slave lawyer Luiz Gama.

But with the impending unjust war, now is a good time for American readers to discover Castro Alves. If you go to poetsagainstthewar.com you'll find some of the worst poetry imaginable, trying so hard to be on the right side of history that it just voids itself on the spot. Castro Alves, on the other hand, is effortlessly political, grounded in a stubborn and meticulous faith in the horrors of the Afro-Brazilian slave experience. He draws hope from it somehow, and this shows through in the bitterest of denunciations.


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 14, 2003 1:59 AM.

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