From What impressed me

Reassessing the life of Chica da Silva: A tale about Brazil

There is no doubt that Brazil’s history remains under-researched and under-theorised. Especially with regards to the country’s extensive colonial legacy, different periods can be open to negotiation and interpretation, but most of which are still stuck in a range of stereotypes that say little about the complexities of its characters.

The biography of the 18th-century slave, Chica da Silva (1732-1796) is one of these attempts to re-interpreting history in all its caveats. Silva lived in the village of Tejuco, in the modern city of Diamantina, a city in the north of the Minas Gerais state. She has become notorious and iconic to contemporary audiences due to programmes and films featuring her life.

Owned as a slave in a big household, she managed to be sold to the Portuguese diamond merchant João Fernandes de Oliveira, a representative of the Portuguese Crown. Despite the blur that surrounds her life after marriage, the few accounts amount to an extravagant lifestyle. Owner of dozens of slaves herself, she lived in a lavish house, entertained herself with exotic goods and lots of guests.

Besides the colourful details of her biography, this is at the same time a tale of class mobility that has attracted so much attention. How much of it was true? What does this tell us about colonialism, race, and mobility in Brazil? It was indeed an extraordinary life,  even for modern Brazil, with such a meteoric rise even to modern day standards. Her fairy tale is also about challenging the order, but also focuses on her personality as a distinctive trait that would allow her to move forward.

In sum, her grace and power would carry an antidote against a racist and obscure society. Examples abound in her lifetime: if the Church does not allow your presence inside, let’s build a new one; if she could not travel to the sea, she made them build a lake. IHer myth is as sociological as it is celebrity-driven. To the left, she was an icon of resistance that would inspire the black movements; to the right, she showed how racial relations in Brazil were not too harsh.

A documented reassessment was made possible thanks to “Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteen Century” (Cambridge University Press), a book by Junia Pereira Furtado. The book’s main merit stems from Furtado valuable effort to shed light on Silva’s physical existence in the 18th century, still doubted by some, as well as to confirms further details of her life. Furtado is successful in placing Silva’s in a wider context, moving her into a less spectacular place.

Silva’s life, according to the book, was not an average one. This is for sure. After all, any black individual breaking the 18th-century social contract, based on slavery and inescapable use of African individuals as economic commodities, could not have lived a normal life; leave alone a rise-up to own and ostentate a luxury lifestyle.

On the other hand, in her will to balance, Furtado also recognises the impossibility to tell more about Silva, except that once married to a white Portuguese man, she behaved as many other women in her condition. The evidence failed to show anything more than an uninteresting life after her establishment in society.  No surprises or breaks from the order what one would see in a woman of her wealth, whether of black or white skin.

What strikes me after reading Furtado’s enlightening account is the transformation of this character over time. Silva’s story is one of a slave’s luck, from the senzala into the heart of the Catholic, colonial Portuguese society. Instead, the conventional saying tells us that all glories from her marriage to a white, rich man stem from her sexuality and outstanding beauty. This attractive picture is the way in which she has appeared over centuries (since the 19th century at least).

The documents also tell us about the conservative turn of Chica da Silva, different from the confrontational stances that soap opera authors have told. Once her husband returns to Portugal, her option, for instance, was to hide in religious “sisterhoods”, sustained by members of the elite. The book also informs us about the fate of her sons, some of whom once moving to Portugal, had deliberately erased her presence from their backgrounds.

In sum, Chica da Silva’s trajectory is not only one of a rise-and-shine at expense of struggle against the gold-fed establishment of Minas Gerais, an important piece of Brazil of the time. Her trajectory is one of confirmation of the mechanisms of inequality and the ephemeron fractures that allow a few to emerge from time to time. As Furtado encapsulates it, it is about the average black lady “Chica”, an archetype so common in countryside Brazil, and one of a sexual volcano, white man temptation “Xica”, graphed in a marketable x.

Confronting the homogenised Xica (like in Caca Diegues’ eponymous movie or in the famous soap opera of the extinct Manchete TV), Junia Furtado’s book dismantles this portrait, but not necessarily puts up another one. We simply don’t know more about it. After many trips paid to archives in Brazil and Portugal, what she achieves is to fit an otherwise disruptive character into Brazil’s course of history. Maybe because these documents are so revelatory of Silva’s ordinariness, to the extent of the deceptive, that this book is not more popular than it deserved.

Back to the starting argument, there are signs that the recklessness with history is changing. The new Joaquim movie released in 2017, directed by Marcelo Gomes, gives a new direction to the image of the martyrised hero. Who knows this film could be the beginning of a critical re-appraisal of the country’s heroes, at least as the media see it.

As Furtado’s study digs deep into Chica da Silva’s contradictions, it is possible to assert that Brazilians have cared very little about history. If they did not do so, they could search for new meanings and, in the meantime, find opportunities to reflect on past misconceptions that could offer new teachings for the present’s faults.

What impressed me recently (1): Arendt, Fox, Lithuania, and Chagall

cri_000000118515Hannah Arendt’s Lying in Politics (1971)

Arendt’s style is not for beginners. She throws at you lots of background information, random quotes in Latin, archaic terms, tricky references. However, once we join her, at least when we think we do, it is hard not to transform her reason into a shared passion.

The Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers are already too far from our generation. In the face of post-Snowden outrage, the public slowly gets used to Trump’s politics as a natural consequence of democracy. But after all, what does Watergate tell us today regarding what one thinks of good and evil government?

After we escalate the Arendt mountain, we can enjoy the view of her profound reflections on an early decline of the United States, but which seemed unlikely in the early 1970s. The US government comes up as a machine of “problem-solvers”, governmental liars, and disinformation in the high ranks. She also places guilty to the universe of “intellectuals” that helped to theorise the war:

“What is surprising is the eagerness of those scores of “intellectuals” who offered their enthusiastic help in this imaginary enterprise, perhaps because it demanded nothing but mental exercises.”

As we watch new Syria tensions on the rise,  Arendt’s initial thought that “the only individual who should not take uninformed decisions is the President of the United States” is strikingly true. The many degrees of complacency with US-native ignorance is a history apart, but the series of myths that have led to the Vietnam war, once unveiled in the Pentagon Papers, cost a huge price in US trustworthiness seen to this day:

“No reality and no common sense could penetrate the minds of the problem-solvers who indefatigably prepared their scenarios for “relevant audiences” to change their states of mind – “the Communists (who must feel strong pressure), the South Vietnamese (whose morale must be buoyed), our allies (who must trust us as ‘under-writers’), and the US public (which must support the risk-taking with US lives and prestige).

So much so because these categories haven’t changed a lot today (perhaps from Communists to “terrorists”?), but one could argue that they matter little. The extent to which the lessons from an ill-fated Vietnam War can be all forgotten is Arendt’s primary concerns. Ultimately, is having Donald Trump at the office in 2018 still a surprise to the same outraged public? What this quick naturalisation of such man in power tell us about the relevance of US prestige, power, and decline? A genuinely independent follow-up to Hannah Arendt’s lucid account needs to be written as soon as possible.

Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World

51C6UiGyDRL.jpgFox’s book is from the 1980s but the 2006’s edition still attracts lots of interest. At some point in 2016, I decided to learn more about what was “paganism” and what was its relationship with Christianity.

In fact, Fox’s writing and method are labyrinthic. His prose is kind and gracious, but his prose envelops you with bits of evidence here and there, then it goes over and over before it finishes a point, which ends very far from where it started. It does not matter though. His proof is sharp, and he’s the best thing a historian can be, sceptical.

At the end of the 800-page book, which took me nearly a year, we have an engaging narrative that includes Pagans, Christians, but also Manicheans, Persians, “perfectionists”, “over-achievers”, and other labels. The way Fox feeds these names makes it easy to map the mentality of the years 250-325 when the book seems to focus upon.

When looking at Christianism we might not recognise its current bureaucratic face. Indeed, from a religion of death, martyrdom, never-ending fasting and zero sex, it has suffered numerous deaths across history. On the other hand, Fox’s book invites fresh reflection on traces of the Christian faith in its continuous mutation into the modern world.

I am not sure if it is the case of stretching Christian influence up to the so-called ‘identity politics’, or to the renovated focus on notions of truth (fake news) and chasing purgatory for deviant men (The Weinstein scandals), or even to the modern sanctification of children. These contemporary developments may reach to one’s mind when learning about the slow counter-attacks from the Christians against the Hellenic religious order.

In any case, after reading Fox’s lines on the dubious interests that drive a religion into mass expansion (state and society, personal and collective, emancipatory and correctional), I would not say that the Christian faith is lost in the context of the West. At worst, we have it thriving under another name.

Lithuania’s case of anti-semitism underneath the skin

Vilnius’ Holocaust Museum (The Green House) 2015

The New York Times story about how anti-semitism has been entrenched in Lithuania’s urban fabric has a potential for greater debate. Although based on the anti-semitic past and how it is mingled in the urban fabric, it focuses on how facts (the country’s massive adherence to the Nazis) are met with denial.  It is when the legal verbiage “occupation” equates Soviet oppression with Nazi mass-extermination. I’ve seen many of these traces of denial in my visit to Vilnius in 2015. To be fair, I was received very well during my stay and there is no single trace of contemporary, open anti-semitism. However, the “holocaust” museum that does not dare to say the name of the perpetrators, the obscurity of the locals on the “diaspora” that ended exterminated in the suburban wet forests remain very little known and people seem happy with this.

Leave aside the name of many Lithuanian-Jewish artists that migrated that lie forgotten in the public imaginary. The brilliant painter Lasar Segall is one of them.

Marc Chagall: In search of a new fascination

I was walking through the streets of Hampstead, London, when I was faced with a painting. It was on a peaceful road close to the Finchley and Frognal station. It was a quiet Winter afternoon when even the birds have all gone silent. What I spotted that purposefully decorated living room, with a charming chandelier, in complete emptiness, I thought: it was definitely a Chagall.

I am not sure what type of individual has such self-confidence (and confidence in London’s safety) to do this shameless and informal public exhibition of such artwork, but it gave me a spell of fascination for Chagall’s rural landscapes. His scenes are all made of chaotic, colourful characters. It is surreal. It is romantic. It is nonsense.

I just can think of “I and the Village” (1911) as an allegory of his entire body of work, as a symbol of Chagall’s relationship with reality, or better saying, of ignoring reality.

This particular painting is an assemblage of many characters, with a prominent horse face in the foreground. If Chagall meant to represent his Hasidic village so beautifully and saw magic in it, I am authorised to seek the same fascination of being in a gloomy London of mid-February without going mad.