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  • The Black Atlantic RevisitedAna Maria Gonçalves's Um defeito de cor
  • John Maddox (bio)

Paul Gilroy's legendary work of cultural theory The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (1993), which still dominates diaspora studies, is not enough to tackle the complexity of Afro-Brazilian Ana Maria Gonçalves's neo-slave narrative Um defeito de cor [A Color Defect] (2006).1 On one hand, Gonçalves's saga reaffirms some of Gilroy's claims regarding double-consciousness (being a hybrid of Western "values," "subjectivity," and "reason" along with discourses excluded from the projects that created these concepts). On the other hand, the novel's breadth and complexity go beyond Gilroy's Anglocentric approach by focusing on Brazilian slavery from a woman's point of view. It creates a more dynamic understanding of double-consciousness and Slave Coast history. I call this fluidity and itineracy that dialogue with Brazil's unique history "Afro-Brazilian flux." The novel portrays Brazil, where most enslaved Africans were sent and for the longest period of time (early 1500s to 1888). Gilroy ignores Latin America, except for a footnote on Brazilian slaves who returned to Africa, like Gonçalves's narrator-protagonist Luísa Mahin/Kehinde, called retornados (199). What is at stake for the reader is the need to continually expand the geographical and linguistic reach of African Diaspora studies, provide economic and colonial context for black identity, and place Brazil's unique national and diasporic history at the center of the African diaspora.

Um defeito de cor is the first novel in Portuguese set in the times of slavery to be narrated entirely from the point of view of a woman who is African, enslaved, and a fully developed character. Its unique take on slavery was a factor in its being awarded the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize for Brazilian literature in 2007. It is even more significant for the complexity of its 951 pages, hundreds of characters, setting in various regions of Brazil and the former Slave Coast of Africa (specifically Dahomey and Lagos, currently Benin and parts of Nigeria), and the extensive, historical timespan of 1810 to roughly 1890. Kehinde witnesses the Middle Passage, Brazilian independence, the nation's only war with its neighbors, and the return of numerous captives to Africa during the slave era. The work is being adapted for a Brazilian television mini-series like Alex Haley's Roots (1976) (Greenwald).

Defeito is the Brazilian equivalent of a neo-slave narrative. Bernard Bell argues that, beginning with Alice Walker, "some contemporary black fabulators combine elements of fable, legend, and slave narrative to protest racism and justify the deeds, struggles, migrations, and spirit of black people" (285). For Arlene Keizer, in this subgenre, slavery is [End Page 155] "a catalyst and site for theories about the nature and formation of black subjectivity" (1). Ashraf Rushdy limits "neo-slave narratives" to the elements of first-person narration by a captive, escape from slavery, and the pursuit of freedom in imitation of the abolitionist slave narratives, considered the first novels to be written from the slave's point of view, and he studies only the United States (4).2 But for Tim Ryan, "the overemphasis upon the questionable generic category of 'neo-slave narrative' in recent critical studies simply reveals a desire on the part of scholars to construct a coherent black literary tradition concerned with slavery that stands in stark opposition to a white canon of works on the subject" (188). Gilroy's "double-consciousness" is a way out of this rigid binary, but Brazil's history of hybridity complicates that process. For critic Laura Chrisman, "A better way to counter Afro-centric nationalism might be to emphasize black US intellectual, political, and cultural cross-fertilization with the Caribbean, Latin America, proletarian cultures . . . as well as Third World liberationist thought" (79). But first, one must understand Brazil's history of literature on enslavement.

Hegemonic Readings of Brazilian Slavery

Despite being the largest slave-based nation and having the largest Afro-descendant population in the history of the Americas, very little has been written in Brazilian literature from the slave's point of view. Due to the...