Sites of Memory and Time Slips: Narratives of the "Good Master" and the History of Brazilian Slavery


Oral histories about slavery and the postemancipation period in Brazil and other regions of the Americas often contain descriptions of masters who were kind and humane to their slaves. This article takes one such testimony as a point of departure to analyze why descendants of slaves depicted former masters in a positive light. It argues that, instead of indicating forms of false consciousness and naiveté, narratives of good masters often reflect two operations taking place in the oral memories of Afro-Brazilians: the creation of sites of memory and the occurrence of time slips. As identified by Pierre Nora, sites of memory are entities that condense a community's symbolic heritage. Time slips, a concept borrowed from science-fiction literature, are a type of anachronism that applies to specific individuals. While these two concepts probably do not exhaust the whole range of explanations for the good-master narrative, they do contribute to depicting Afro-descendants as historical actors capable of discussing their own experiences in a nuanced and multi-faceted way.