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  • The Masters and the Slaves: Plantation Relations and Mestizaje in American Imaginaries
  • Robert H. Moser
Isfahani-Hammond, Alexandra. The Masters and the Slaves: Plantation Relations and Mestizaje in American Imaginaries. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2005. 161 pp.

The Cuban poet and cultural critic Roberto Fernández Retamar wrote in 1971, with regards to Caribbean and, by extension, Latin American subjectivity: "Our symbol then is not Ariel, as Rodó thought, but rather Caliban. This is something [End Page 216] that we, the mestizo inhabitants of these same isles where Caliban lived, see with particular clarity." The notion of a "new race" forged in the Americas, and constructed through dual visions of utopia and dystopia, has reverberated throughout the history of European expansion to the Western Hemisphere. The list of late nineteenth and twentieth century Latin American intellectuals who have, like Retamar, declared mestiçagem/mestizaje to be a cultural asset, rather than a sign of degeneration, is long and includes, perhaps most notably, the Cuban José Martí, the Mexican José Vasconcelos, and the Brazilian Gilberto Freyre. The essays in The Masters and the Slaves: Plantation Relations and Mestizaje in American Imaginaries, edited by Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond, examine this tradition, particularly as it relates to the ideological constructions of race and nation in a post-colonial, post-slavery context.

As Isfahani-Hammond states in her introduction, the volume's focus takes this discussion one step further through its "critique of hybridization discourses that reinforce colonialist dialectics" (7). Consisting of ten essays and spanning Brazil, Haiti, Martinique, Virginia and, to a lesser extent, the Spanish Caribbean, the volume sets itself apart from recent critical studies of plantation relations through its relative focus on: 1) non-fictional texts, as opposed to primarily literary works; 2) Brazil and Gilberto Freyre's celebration of this country's biological and cultural miscegenation; 3) the paradox behind "discourses of inclusion that sustain systems of subordination" (14), as in the case of Freyre's concept of luso-tropicalismo.

One of the strengths of Masters and the Slaves lies in the consistency of the scholarly rigor therein and across a diverse range of topics, theoretical approaches, and historical contexts. César Braga-Pinto's essay, for example, reveals the interracial and homosexual dynamics that underpin Gilberto Freyre's construction of the Brazilian patriarchal family and the interrelated notion of "racial harmony" on a national scale. Braga-Pinto argues that the celebrated malleability inherent to the Portuguese, vis-à-vis the tropics and its inhabitants, is often expressed as a tendency towards bisexuality and biracial tolerance, yet in a way that ultimately reinforces the masculinity and authentic Portugueseness of the colonizer. Isfahani-Hammond builds upon this premise of Freyre's "bi-sexual writing" (32) in her essay's discussion of Freyre's efforts at "writing black." By examining, in part, the sociologist's autobiographical statements behind the creation of Casa Grande e Senzala, she notes how Freyre's personal process of "Africanization," by way of his youthful forays into Candomblé circles in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, runs parallel to Brazil's original "Africanization," as described in his seminal study. Freyre's claim of channeling, through his writing, "not only the seigniorial but also servile" (38) voices of the original Brazilian patriarchal family ultimately reinforces his own authority as an author whose essence, like the prototypical Portuguese, hinges on his ability to assimilate "the other."

In contrast, it is Thomas Jefferson's slippage into "unwriting" (or the unwitting subversion of his own argument), as it relates to the illegitimacy of miscegenation, [End Page 217] that is the focal point of Helena Holgersson-Shorter's essay. Particularly intriguing are the connections this essay establishes between Monticello's architecture with its "false fronts, secret connecting staircases, and tricks of light and shadow" (65), the shifting discourse he employs regarding the mulatto in Virginian society, and the probability that Jefferson had helped father not only a nation, but also mixed-race children through his slave mistress.

The challenge of any volume of essays is to avoid a compilation of isolated studies that rarely dialogue with one another. Masters and the Slaves goes a long way in ensuring that a conceptual overlap exists throughout...


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