Brazil: The Black President Before Obama

A small portrait of the translator

June 17, 2008 @ 17:44 UTC

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Barack Obama
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Civil Rights & Ethnicity, Media & Internet, International Relations, Government & Politics
 

The sweeping Obama phenomenon has caught Brazil, and it comes as no surprise in the country with the world's largest population of African descendants. Blogs are commenting on all things Obama, from his stand on ethanol to the ‘rumors‘ of his appraisal of Brazil's free software policies. An especially notable thread is the one reporting on the resurgence of a weirdly interesting 1928 Brazilian sci-fi novel — ‘The Black President' — that predicted a US election matching a black, a feminist, and a conservative candidate in the then remote year of 2228.

The author, Monteiro Lobato, is very famous in Brazil for his tales for children and teens. The set of books ‘Yellow Woodpecker Ranch‘ was turned into popular TV series that reigned supreme on Brazilian tubes through 5 different remakes — the first in 1952, and most recently in 2001. But, in this case, the book is an obscure and rare incursion of Lobato into adult science fiction. The resurgence of interest in it now is totally connected with what stands out as an incredible intuitive guesswork on what has come to be our present situation, but 80 years ago (!) almost unimaginable.

Para a maior parte do público leitor brasileiro, Monteiro Lobato (1882-1948) é lembrado pelos episódios da série O Sítio do Pica Pau Amarelo. Muitos, porém, desconhecem a “obra para adultos” que Monteiro Lobato escreveu… Originalmente publicado em 1926, como folhetim, no jornal A Manhã, (onde recebeu o título de “O Choque das Raças”, hoje seu subtítulo), “O Presidente Negro” é uma obra duplamente curiosa: primeiramente por se tratar de uma ficção científica, gênero pouco cultivado entre os escritores brasileiros; e em segundo lugar porque em sua trama retrata o debate científico e intelectual vigente nas primeiras décadas do século XX.
O Presidente Negro de Monteiro Lobato - ALPHARRÁBIO - por Viegas Fernandes da Costa

Most of the Brazilian readers of Monteiro Lobato (1882-1948) know him for the episodes of the ‘Yellow Woodpecker Ranch' series, and few are acquainted with his ‘adult piece'… Originally published in 1926 as a ‘feuilleton‘ in the newspaper ‘A Manhã', (but then titled as “The Clash of Races”, which today stands as the subtitle), “The Black President” is a doubly curious book: first for being a science fiction piece, an uncommon genre among Brazilian writers, and second because the plot anticipates the current scientific and intellectual debate during the first decades of the 20th century.
Monteiro Lobato's Black President - ALPHARRÁBIO - por Viegas Fernandes da Costa

The huge coincidence with the US elections was enough to turn “The Black President” into ‘cult' reading, although some other of Lobato's predictions, such as his description of the Internet, have also attracted the attention of commenters. The contorted political psychology of the triangle that binds the white male, the feminist, and the black candidate is also apparent.

O Presidente Negro é um livro assustador. Assustador em vários sentidos. Primeiro pelo caráter premonitório da obra. Em 1926, Lobato prevê a invenção de um tipo de radiotransmissão de dados que possibilitaria o ser humano a cumprir suas tarefas da própria casa e sem a necessidade de se deslocar para o trabalho. Fala também do desaparecimento do jornal impresso porque as notícias serão “radiadas” diretamente para a casa dos indivíduos e aparecerão em caracteres luminosos numa tela - exatamente como acontece com quem está lendo esse texto. Em uma palavra atual: internet. Mas as premonições não param por aí. Às vésperas de viajar para os Estados Unidos como adido comercial da embaixada brasileira, Monteiro Lobato preconiza a eleição de um presidente negro nos EUA. O momento político (no ano de 2228) que possibilitaria isso viria da divisão da raça branca, entre um candidato do Partido Masculino (Kerlog) e uma candidata do Partido Feminino (Evelyn Astor). A neofeminista Evelyn Astor está com a vitória praticamente garantida e eis que surge o líder negro Jim Roy, que acaba eleito presidente.
O Presidente Negro. Um livro assustador - Acerto de Contas

‘The Black President' is a scary book. Frightening in many ways. Firstly, by the prescient character of the piece. In 1926, Lobato forecasts the invention of a kind of data radio transmission that would make it possible for human beings to accomplish their tasks from their home, without having to relocate to work. He also anticipates the disappearance of the printing press, for the news will be “radiated” directly to the houses of the individuals and will appear in bright letters on a screen — exactly how it is happening with whoever is reading this very text. [It is] in one modern word — the Internet. But the premonitions don't stop there. By the time he was moving to the US as commercial attaché at the Brazilian embassy, Monteiro Lobato foresaw the election of a black president in the US. The specific political moment in the year of 2228 that bore such a situation would be due to the split that occurred in the white race, between a candidate from the Masculine Party (Kerlog) and a candidate from the Feminine Party (Evelyn Astor). The neo-feminist Evelyn Astor has the victory almost guaranteed, but then the black leader Jim Roy surges and ends up being elected President.
The Black President. A Scary Book - Acerto de Contas

As guerras igualmente foram extintas, tão logo os Ministérios da Guerra foram trocados pelos da Paz. Apesar disso, os EUA estão prestes a mergulhar no caos e no sangue às vésperas da eleição de seu 88º presidente, de tal forma o pleito cindiu a população. De um lado, estão agrupados os milhões de eleitores pretos, que apóiam Jim Roy, da Associação Negra. De outro, as mulheres brancas que seguem a candidata do Partido Feminino, miss Evelyn Astor. E, por fim, há os homens brancos, que preferem a reeleição de Kerlog pelo Partido Masculino, que fundiu o Democrata e o Republicano. Eis o essencial da trama: não apenas um choque de raças, mas também uma guerra de sexos. Os homens brancos, a fim de embranquecer os EUA, planejam enviar os negros para a Amazônia, que já não é parte do Brasil. Nosso país foi dividido em dois, independentes: o Norte, de atávica malemolência, e o Sul bem-sucedido, a “grande República do Paraná”, que engloba ainda a Argentina, o Uruguai e o Paraguai.
Monteiro Lobato… Um Profeta? - Resistência Democrática

The wars were also finished, as soon as the War Ministries were replaced by the Peace Ministries. Despite that, the US is on the verge of descending into chaos and bloodbath on the eve of the election of its 88th president, such was the disruption caused by the contest. On one side, the millions of black voters are gathered to support Jim Roy, from the Black Association. On the other side, the white women who follow the Feminine Party candidate, long for Evelyn Astor. And finally, there are the white men, who prefer the reelection of Kerlog, from the Masculine Party, which surged from the merge of the Democrat and Republican parties. Here is the essential part of the plot: it is not only a clash of races, but also a war between the sexes. The white men, in order to get a ‘whiter' America, plan to send the blacks to the Amazon, which is not part of Brazil anymore [!]. Our country was divided in two independent nations: the north, of atavistic malemolencia, and the prosperous South, the “big Republic of Paraná”, which also includes Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Monteiro Lobato… A Prophet? - Resistência Democrática

Even in some of his far-out references, Lobato seems to keep throwing light on images that, if not real, are quite recurrent to say the least. But, on a closer inspection, his plot reveals clearly that, although getting it right on the surface, his interpretation of the signals were often projections of weird concepts. In fact, what previously called attention to this book — prior to the current historical coincidence with the US elections — was the evidence of Lobato's sympathy with Eugenics, a racist social philosophy that acquired some followers in Brazil during the 20s and 30s, and advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention, mainly segregating races.

Miss Jane, filha de Benson, é quem verbaliza as idéias de Lobato: “Que é América senão a feliz zona que desde o início atraiu os elementos mais eugênicos das melhores raças européias? Onde há força vital da raça branca senão lá?”. Defendendo a segregação americana, acrescenta sobre a miscigenação brasileira: “Nossa solução foi medíocre. Estragou as duas raças, fundindo-as. O negro perdeu as suas admiráveis qualidades físicas de selvagem e o branco sofreu a inevitável piora de caráter, conseqüente a todos os cruzamentos entre raças díspares”.
Racismo à Brasileira - Bravo Online

Miss Jane, Benson's daughter, is the one who gives voice to Lobato's ideas: “What is America if not the happy zone which right from the start has attracted the many elements from eugenics of the best European races? Where is the vital force of the white race located if not there?” While defending American segregation, he also has something to say about the Brazilian miscigenetion: “Our solution was shabby. We ruined both races, by merging them. The blacks have lost their admirable wild physical qualities, and the whites have suffered the inevitable worsening of character as a consequence of the crossings among different races”.
Racismo à Brasileira - Bravo Online

Indeed, Obama is definitely not the black candidate of Lobato's tale, but rather the result of a political, cultural and genetic mix with whites. There is a core difference between the societal position of African descendants in Brazil (more mixed) and in the US (more separated), but Obama's surge is perceived by some Brazilians as the result of the 70s US affirmative action policies in which these social programs appear now as the game changer.

From a Brazilian perspective, the inevitable question that Afro-descendants are asking themselves now is what has made Obama's success possible in the US — with their 'segregation' and separatism — while an analogous situation in more mixed Brazil still looks like a distant dream, far from becoming a reality.

Contrariando expectativas que já duram mais de cem anos, no Brasil, “país com a maior população afro-descendente fora da África”, “negros e pardos vão superar o número de brancos neste ano” de 2008… As afirmações, acompanhadas da constatação de que o país “não tem um único político negro de projeção nacional”, vem a propósito da candidatura do senador Barack Obama à presidência dos Estados Unidos… Atrasados em pelo menos cinqüenta anos com relação às conquistas sociais do povo negro nos Estados Unidos, no Brasil, nós, herdeiros do mesmo brutal despojamento que plasmou a sociedade norte-americana (e do qual Obama, esclareça-se, não é vítima direta) vimos sendo, há mais de 120 anos forçados a acreditar que neste país “alegremente mestiço e desracializado”, nunca houve segregação nem ku-klux-klan, e que nossa inferioridade deve-se apenas a problemas econômicos e pode ser zerada com boas escolas e boas merendas para todos.
OBAMA, SUA ÉPOCA E O SONHO - AldeiaGriot

Against all the expectations that already have been here more than a hundred years, “blacks and mestizos will surpass the number of whites in this year of 2008″ in Brazil — “the country with the largest Afro-descendant population outside Africa”… These observations, followed by the finding that the country “does not have any black politician of national projection”, comes with reference to the campaign of Senator Barack Obama for the Presidency of United States… Lagging behind around fifty years in relation to the social conquests of the US black people, we heirs of the same plunder that permeated North American society (and from which Obama, we should make clear, is not a direct victim) are being forced to believe for more than 120 years that this country is “happily mixed and de-racialized”. There has never been segregation or any ku-klux-klan and [therefore] our inferiority is due only to economic problems and can be brought to nil with good schools and good school lunches for all.
OBAMA, HIS ERA AND THE DREAM - AldeiaGriot

In the developing debate over affirmative action and the different perspectives on quota schemes in Brazil it is quite natural to see Obama's sucess in terms of long-standing tensions, but the effects of his possible election may reverberate differently in the many different layers of culture. If he is elected, the deep psychology that underlies the appearence of such an archetypal persona in history will become a part of the social-political-cultural debate.

Some bloggers are aware of this Obama inherited complexity that is helping to transcend the obvious polarities.

Quando, anos mais tarde, condenou a Guerra do Iraque, ele argumentaria com base nas conclusões que tirou da vida. Seus pais tentaram se reinventar abandonando as tradições e, no processo, perderam a própria identidade. A tradição é o que dá liga à sociedade. Perante a mudança, a tradição sempre resiste. Mudança, na história, vem a passos lentos. Para ele, há ingenuidade no ideal do sonho americano de que idéias, por si, causam grandes mudanças. Idéias não bastam. Barack Obama, como o descreveu Larissa MacFarquhar num perfil para a revista The New Yorker, ‘é profundamente conservador’. Democracia não seria simplesmente imposta num país onde ela jamais existira.
Quem é e o que pensa Barack Obama? - Pedro Dória Weblog

When, years later, [Obama] condemned the Iraq War, his arguments where based on the conclusions he arrived at through his life. His parents tried to reinvent themselves by abandoning their traditions and, in the process, they lost their identities. Tradition is what binds a society together. Facing change, tradition will allways resist. Change, in history, comes in slow steps. For him, there is some naivety in the idealistic American dream that ideas, by themselves, will cause big changes. Ideas are not enough. Barack Obama, as described by Larissa MacFarquhar in a New Yorker Magazine profile, ‘is deeply conservative'. Democracy could never be simply imposed in a country where it never existed.
Who is Barack Obama, and what does he think? - Pedro Dória Weblog

From Lobato's black president prevailing in a context of separation to the complex profile of Barack Obama in a world of emergent possibilities appears now as the measure of political change.

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  • 1 comment

    1. Pete Says:

      Hey, I’m a student in New York studying Brasilian race relations and really enjoyed this article.

      Having lived in Brasil for only 7 months last year and not really staying with the Portuguese as much as I should have, my language skills have deteriorated quite rapidly. I don’t know what you could do, but I have been looking for a copy of this book in english for some time, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist.

      If you know differently, or possibly could point me in the direction of any other information, that would be really appreciated

      Thanks

      Pete

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