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Machado de Assis, black or white, from Fla or Flu?

Ferreira Fernandes*

This week, Le Monde’s correspondent in Brazil published the article “The rediscovery in Brazil of the great black figures that were whitened”…

The text even refers to a president, Nilo Peçanha, with an ephemeral mandate (1909-1910) but with decades of campaigns opponents called her “mulatto”. There are four or five Brazilian presidents with notorious or slight African features and only the most recent, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003, Lula’s predecessor), assumes a “slave” great-grandmother: “I am mulatinho”, when he was still a candidate. And already elected, speaking alongside South African President Thabo Mbeki, Fernando Henrique insisted on the origin: “Just look at me to see that white in Brazil is a relative concept.

”But the text of the French newspaper is almost entirely dedicated to Machado de Assis, an always interesting subject and more now, with this news so pregnant with #racism. “Today, many do not even know that the greatest writer in the country was black,” writes Le Monde. The son of a white Azorean washerwoman and a mestizo painter of walls, this, of a slave mother, Machado de Assis was born in 1839, in Rio de Janeiro. He made a reasonable career as a civil servant and, like his father, married a Portuguese woman, Carolina Augusta Xavier de Morais. She was from a wealthy and cultured Porto family. In Porto, he had stayed with Camilo, before going to Rio, where he went to help a sick brother and met the future founder of the Academia Brasileira de Letras. Carolina was important in her husband’s literary education.

It is common and old in Brazil to disdain Portuguese colonization, sighing because it must have been Dutch. But the Portuguese should have had some merit, as they provided the chance of having a mestizo, in the middle of the 19th century, with a white mother and wife … It would be too much to bet – Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Quincas Borba, Dom Casmurro – to want to replace these works for the mere promise of public accounts always settled. Those family relationships, mestizo with white mother and woman, and at that time, nineteenth century, would be highly unlikely in a country born from a former Dutch colony. Soon, there would be no Machado de Assis, nor the beauty of his novels (and the stories and chronicles).

It is said that as a novelist, in the Portuguese language, only Eça de Queiroz compares to him (Eça who knew by heart a whole chapter of Memórias Póstumas de Brás). American literary critic Harold Bloom says Machado de Assis is the greatest black writer ever. They are lists. I say that he is the author, to quote short, of Memoirs Posthumous of Brás Cubas, Quincas Borba, Dom Casmurro. Personal matter, so much pleasure. Personal consequence, being amazed, at Cosme Velho, in Rio, in front of an ordinary modern condominium, and being moved by the memory of a chalet, which no longer exists. Old photo shows the narrow villa with lacy eaves of the Brazilian-made-travel houses, in northern Portugal, three portals giving each one to a wrought iron balcony – on the upper floor lived the Wizard of Cosme Velho and his wife. And I stopped to see what was gone.

Didn’t Machado de Assis oppose the manias of the woman’s family? For the love of the saint, he married Carolina! Didn’t you fight against racism? Well, he did more: he was poor, mestizo, stutterer and epileptic – and he swallowed the racists

In the most classic photo by Machado de Assis, the light on his face whitens his complexion, his nose is too thin and his hair is straight like that of Duke Ellington and other jazz players blacker than the Brazilian. In 1908, on the death certificate, a registrar of Cosme Velho added to the deceased’s name what was not even mandatory: “white color”. His busts and statues, made in his time, are made of white marble, never black basalt. Last year, the Zumbi dos Palmares University ran a campaign showing other photos of the writer, the darker skin, the curly hair and the broader brimmed nose. The Brazilian website Resistência Afroliterária has no doubts: “Machado de Assis is a black writer.”

Is it correct, as in that doubt: is the glass half full or the glass half empty? Because they are too many perspectives, the glass, although repeated, is worth less than the content. White, despite the dark skin; black, despite the genetic succession of the white grandfather and the white mother, and the sociological osmosis brought by the upper class woman. Machado de Assis, white or black? According to the times and the fashions the answer is dichotomous, one or the other. Today we would be at the Machado de Assis black writer stage: even a newspaper from France by Victor Hugo just defined it.

It is a poisoned gift. If so, if Machado de Assis is a black writer, how is it that his work seems to overlook the great question of his time, the liberation of slaves? Why are Machado women not from the hills but the elegant women from Rua do Ouvidor? These accusations were put to him a hundred years ago, when his non-militant non-militancy was compared to that of mulatto journalist José Patrocínio, one of the leaders of the cause. Or, worse, when it was pretended that the mulatto writer Lima Barreto had less literary projection because he was a pamphleteer and scared the world of whites, contrary to Assis’ custom of not going against anyone … A critic, in 1939, decreed about him: “It was a great writer. He was not a great man. The people will never understand you.

”If that’s how it was decades ago, guess how modern #Me Too will scrutinize Machado de Assis’ peccadillos. The first phase is completed, its African traits have already been highlighted and made them exclusive. He will say the next stage: then how can he admit that he himself did not insist on showing the photos in which his curly hair and black nose are notorious? And having the woman’s aristocratic family made it known that she was against Carolina’s marriage to a mulatto, why didn’t he shoot him with a literary scandal? And so on.

From the edge of white society that erased the characteristics of genius that reminded us of an improper origin, we now move on to militancy and indignation stamping anathema. Glass half empty, glass half full – a cross-eyed view. Unable to perceive a larger artist who was just because he was not or-or, black or white, he was, rather, an extraordinary copulative “e”: Machado de Assis was this and that, yin-yang, the duality of the opposing forces and complementary to Brazilian society. And the world in general. Mestizo, or on the way to being.

He was the mestizo from the lower classes, from domestic servants and without studies, he went up small, he was a typographer, and through a talent he entered high society, married in the bourgeoisie and was appreciated by the emperor D. Pedro II. This talent served him to know both sides; getting to know both sides served to enhance his talent. He knew, like no other Brazilian intellectual, the two sides of the world and he always looked at them from the outside and from the inside. “I don’t want anything but with disguises”, warns the narrator in Quincas Borba… Writing is enchanting the other, taking the reader to the water of his mill. It was always so good for me to be manipulated by Machado de Assis … Black and white, neither one nor the other, in front of both. He was basically mestizo, said the future. Now, translated by kids. Didn’t Machado de Assis oppose the woman’s family’s mania? For the love of the saint, he married Carolina! Didn’t you fight against racism? Well, he did more: he was poor, mestizo, stutterer and epileptic – and he swallowed the racists. And being a genius he became the Brazilian universal writer. Being Garrincha, why reduce it to Fla or Flu?


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