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Brazil's Living Museum: Race, Reform, and Tradition in Bahia (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 67, Number 4, April 2011
pp. 565-567 | 10.1353/tam.2011.0008

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Over the past twenty years a growing number of books have dealt with issues of race in Brazil. Brazil's Living Museum examines the construction of ideas of race in Bahia's public sphere from the end of the nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth. The author shows that in the early twentieth century the Bahian white medical elite dominated the debates on the idea of race, in which the physician and anthropologist Raimundo Nina Rodrigues played an active and crucial role.

During the 1930s, the study of race left the arena of medical sciences to become a central concern of the social sciences. Mainly under the influence of Gilberto Freyre, Bahian intellectuals started thinking of race in terms of culture and the defense of Bahian authenticity. These claims of authenticity later contributed to disseminating the idea of Bahia's "African roots." During the Getúlio Vargas era (1930–1945), the idea of Bahia as an Afro-Brazilian cultural treasure, earlier present in the academic field, emerged in the artistic sphere as well. The author shows the extent to which artists were engaged in building an image of Bahia as the authentic root of Brazilian traditions, distinguishing itself from the rest of Brazil. Intellectuals such as José Antônio do Prado Valladares, who served as director of the Museu do Estado da Bahia from 1939 to 1959, oriented this institution to foster the contribution of indigenous and African cultures to Bahian society, helping to disseminate the idea of racial harmony.

The author also examines the role of U.S. scholars like Ruth Landes, Melville E. Herskovits, E. Franklin Frazier, Donald Pierson, and Charles Wagley, all of whom worked in Bahia during the 1930s and contributed to the race debate. In the 1940s and 1950s, Bahian intellectual circles discussed the idea of tradition as opposed to the emerging ideas of reform. During this time, UNESCO developed a project aimed at exploring racial relations in Brazil. Romo argues that although in São Paulo the project contributed to deconstructing the idea of racial democracy, in Bahia it rather helped to depict the region as a place where racial relations had traditionally been cordial. She emphasizes that according to scholars such as Wagley, racism in Bahia was the result of growing modernization.

Carrying these themes from the turn of the nineteenth century on to the middle of the twentieth, the book is successful in showing how Bahia over time redefined itself socially, culturally and racially. Following her analyses of the main public debates on race in the disciplines of medicine and social sciences, Romo shows how the promotion of ideas of racial harmony by white Bahian intellectual elites starting in the 1930s grew in the following years into a celebration of African roots, a transformation that resulted from continuous and controversial efforts. The author justifies her choice of focusing on the writings of white Bahian elites by explaining that most black Bahians are not represented in the written records. Although the author acknowledges that an extensive history of black Bahia in the early twentieth century remains to be written, black intellectuals did work and write during the period examined, which makes hard to justify why the book contains only two very short references to the work of Manoel Querino, for example. The emphasis on the role played by U.S. scholars in the construction of the idea of racial democracy, even though some of them attempted to criticize this vision, is undoubtedly valuable. Unfortunately, the author did not examine the role of French scholars such as Roger Bastide and Pierre Verger, whose works and activities were certainly crucial not only to disseminating the image of Afro-Bahia in Europe but also to promoting the connections between Bahia and West Africa.

Despite this omission, Brazil's Living Museum is a well-organized and clearly written book that adds to the extensive scholarship in the field and contributes to a better understanding of the intellectual discourses on race that developed regionally in Brazil during the first half of the twentieth century. The book succeeds in showing how the promotion of Bahia's African roots was not only a project developed by people...