- Brazil’s Black MeccaRace, Justice, and Entanglements of Tradition in Bahia
A resident of Salvador, the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia and a city associated closely with Afro-Brazilian tradition and politics, once joked to me about a tourist who, in the midst of frenetic carnival celebrations, exclaimed to a Brazilian nearby, “Wow, this is the best music in the world!” Faced with the outsider’s enthusiasm, the reveler responded, “Yeah! It’s even the best music right here in Bahia!” Such fulsome exceptionalism is apparent also in Bahian novelist Jorge Amado’s description of Salvador as “exalted by Greeks and Trojans … capital of all Africa, situated in the east of the world, on the sea lane to the Indies and China, on the meridian of the Caribbean, fat with gold and silver, perfumed with pepper and rosemary, copper-colored, flower of mulattery, port of mystery, beacon of enlightenment.”1 This fantastic, encyclopedic description of the former command center of the Portuguese South Atlantic gestures at Salvador’s early modern importance while simulating European chronicles of discovery. Amado thus calls up (and ironizes and even folklorizes) the idioms and glaring contradictions that mark a nodal point whose violent but often beautiful history and expressive culture help explain why Bahia and “Black Rome” have played such an outsized role in social scientific approaches to racial politics, globalization, slavery and freedom, Brazilian nationalism and regional development, new social movements, African Atlantic religion and cultural production, and the commodification of culture and history.
In what follows I discuss certain arguments and implications of three recent ethnographies of different, albeit entwined, aspects of Bahian life put forth by a diverse group of U.S.-based academics. Allan Dawson’s In Light of Africa: Globalizing [End Page 266] Blackness in Northeast Brazil surveys provocatively the spaces between the everyday and the broader political and intellectual valences of a Bahian-based “Africa” and black political identification in Salvador today. In Black Women against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil, an ethnography of a remarkable neighborhood movement led by women, Keisha-Khan Perry develops a diasporic and feminist perspective that girds her argument that citizens’ agentive ways of being black have been covered up by dominant forms of conceptualizing Afro-Bahian culture and politics. In Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements, Erica Williams examines slightly different facets of such contradictions by exploring an array of Bahian actors’ means of engaging, and at times redirecting, the desires of international pilgrims who travel to Salvador in search of Afro-Brazilian bodies and culture.
All three ethnographies are impressively researched and generally well-written first books that, in part because they are based on relatively recent dissertations, might be taken as emblematic of shifting tendencies in the Anglophone academy as well as alterations in politics and social life “on the ground.” I approach the texts as representative of the ongoing place of Brazil’s blackest region in social scientific debates in multiple locations: Salvador and Bahia—the capital city and the state names are often used interchangeably to refer to the modern metropolis—are larger-than-life stages and symbols for the enactment and support of global imaginaries. They are also lived spaces significant to, and inhabited by, millions. The interplay of ambiguously distinct foreign gazes and native practices, diasporic or transnational concerns and neighborhood particularities, and vernacular culture and its representation and mobilization as national or regional culture, girds each of the texts analyzed.
Dawson’s In Light of Africa moves serially from Salvador’s Pelourinho Historical Center and the African immigrants who frequent this UNESCO World Heritage site to the pacts and divergences...