- Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil by Christen A. Smith
In Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil, Christen A. Smith presents the results of her ethnographic/activist research project which she conducted for a number of years in the early 2000s in Bahia, a state where nearly eighty percent of the population self-declare as Afro-descendant. In particular, her ethnographic narrative emerges from her direct interaction with Culture Shock, a local grassroot organization in Salvador that devises social activism strategies to mobilize and educate black disenfranchised communities, and React or Die!, an anti-police violence/black genocide movement in the same city. In doing so, the book seeks to examine different tactics and strategies related to Brazil's anti-black violence, including state terrorism, racial apartheid, and racial genocide. As an African American scholar, Smith chooses to adopt a politically engaged approach to anthropology, in which she intertwines critical research with hands-on activism, often aligning herself with the struggles lived and felt by working-class black Brazilians. Across the book, Smith departs from her close contact with local artists and activists, and the events they organize (e.g. political protests, theatrical plays, etc.), to shed light on the complex negotiations of power relations punctuated by race matters, including necropolitics.
For the author, the image of Bahia as a paradise for African descendants, or Afro-paradise, is a farce. Or rather, "a paradox that hides the economies of black suffering that sustain it" (5). In that sense, one of the highlights that Smith brings to the discussion is her critical and unapologetic view of this paradoxical scenario as "a choreographed, theatrical performance, between the state's celebration of black culture and the state's routine killing of the black body" (3). Basing her argument on different instances, from carnival celebrations to a faulty judicial system, she demonstrates how blackness (especially its cultural capital) is celebrated and monetized, while black citizens are continuously neglected and terrorized. For the author, "Afro-paradise is a performance that is staged and scripted, choreographed and performed over and over again against the backdrop of the black body in pain" (5). In the end, as she puts it, the state "does not, in practice, extend black people equal protection under the law, provide equal access to state services, or allow black people to participate in civic and cultural society unhindered" (80).
Smith's argument follows five points: 1) the maintenance of Brazil's racial democracy ideology, the root of Afro-paradise, depends on state violence against the black body; 2) these recurring demonstrations of performative violence superimpose past, present, and future experiences; 3) anti-black violence is palimpsestic, that is, it is etched onto black bodies via processes of erasure, reinscription, and repetition; 4) the ongoing state terrorism against the black body, i.e. genocidal assemblages, amount to "spectacles of racialization that produce and articulate the moral and the social boundaries of the nation" (15); and 5) the trauma [End Page E15] resulted from the racial contact between the (military) police and (largely) black men also extends into a kind of gendered terror, whose tangible effects reverberate across their families and communities.
Despite the strong emphasis on examining the clash between the state/military police violence and "the black body in pain," one of the greatest achievements of Smith's monograph is her ethnographic account of what those marginalized black bodies do (or have done), notwithstanding the physical and epistemic violence inflicted upon them. In the sections such as "Appealing to Justice" and "The Performative Nature of Violence: Framing the Theater," for instance, Smith uncovers how the black community in Bahia has also employed performance to reenact, question, or overcome such scenarios of oppression, and to produce social change. In doing so, Smith implicitly demonstrates how these subjugated individuals are not only "erased" or "written upon," a process she calls "palimpsest embodiment" (205). Regardless of the brutal attempts to inhibit or silence their participation as full bodied citizens, they also "write...