- Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil by Christen A. Smith
Scholars across the humanistic and social science disciplines have argued about racism’s role in shaping Brazil’s cultural profile for nearly a century. While some argue that the lack of segregationist laws and the country’s embrace of a Freyrian model of racial contiguity precludes the possibility of racism, their challengers insist that persisting inequalities in light- and dark-skinned Brazilians’ socio-economic status, health, and safety quantifiably demonstrate otherwise. Christen Smith’s impassioned text confronts this debate head-on, insisting within its first pages that “there are tangible effects of racial discrimination that define racial subjectivities and make them legible. . . . Denying that race is coherent, and by extension that blackness exists, stands in contraposition to the hyperrealities of blackness in the nation” (11). Highlighting the visible evidence of racism in law enforcement’s violence toward Afro-Brazilian communities, Smith boldly positions herself as a harsh critic of Brazilian state policing and advocate for Afro-Brazilian political and cultural activism. Her position is laudable, but—as Smith herself acknowledges—it complicates her ability to conduct ongoing anthropological research in Brazil and demonstrates the stakes of opposing the national rhetoric as a foreign researcher.
Smith’s directness complements the highly innovative format of her text, which uses the script of a short play, Stop to Think (Pare para pensar), performed by the Bahian community activist group Culture Shock, as a scaffolding for her analysis of the bio- and necropolitics that structure the Brazilian government’s treatment of its Afro-Brazilian subjects. Her principal argument—that Brazil’s self-representation as an exotic “afro-paradise” (as manifest in the way Salvador’s carnival celebrations are marketed to white Brazilians and foreigners) is predicated upon the violent repression of black bodies from the colonial period to the present—is animated by the voices of contemporary Afro-Brazilians proclaiming “Stop to think!” and “This is terrorism!” (114). This entanglement of performance and research is sometimes belabored, but more often it provides a vital textual reconstruction of contemporary dramatizations of violence against Afro-Brazilian communities.
In the first dramatic “interlude,” members of Culture Shock and their street audience enact a call-and-response during an amateur theater festival [End Page 189] held in the periphery of Salvador, Bahia (39). Their repeated cries of “No one does anything!” in response to various abuses of state power resonates in the following chapter as Smith explores the bloody history of the Pelourinho, the city’s historical center and site of the wooden pillar where slaves were publicly beaten, their punishment often executed by fellow black slaves (52). Smith’s surprise at discovering this dark history under layers of tourist-friendly local exoticism seems a bit feigned, but her description of the place resonates with the past and present terror of black Brazilians facing discriminatory governmental policies.
Narratives of black bodies in pain from the colonial period to the present form the basis for Smith’s theory of Bahia as palimpsest—a layered, multi-temporal space that anchors and enables the myth of afro-paradise (62). Once the idea of the palimpsest takes root, it becomes the controlling metaphor for Smith’s text. In the second chapter, Smith debates the possibility of black citizenship by outlining the paradox of a nation that uses the black body as a national symbol while simultaneously torturing those who inhabit black bodies (79). She argues convincingly that colonialism persists in Brazil post-independence in the systemic structures and physical separation that reinforce a segregated society (108).
One of the most useful things about Smith’s text is the way she de-essentializes race by showing racism’s effects on individuals rather than rooting her analysis in generalizations and statistics. Her recounting of a death squad attack on two activist hip-hop artists on the outskirts of Salvador, and their long, unsuccessful campaign for justice, is especially powerful (119). Throughout her book, Smith serves as a witness to what she calls a terror...