Brazil’s Greatest Writer Was A Black Man, But They Whitewashed His Image For Decades

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“Machado de Assis was a Black man. Racism portrayed him as white.” These are the first phrases of the campaign created by Faculdade Zumbi dos Palmares (), in São Paulo, in partnership with the advertising agency Gray. The action, launched in April – in the month of Dia Mundial do Livro (World Book Day) – aims to highlight the Black identity of one of the greatest Brazilian writers and founder of the Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Academy of Letters).

Under the title “Machado de Assis Real” (the Real Machado de Assis), the project encourages people to sign a petition for publishers to stop publishing books with photos in which he appears whitened and replace the distorted photograph with one in which the author appears with color and Black physical traits. In addition, a new image was made available on the campaign’s website so that people can download and paste it onto their own books of the storyteller.

In the manifesto of the initiative, the university also affirms that “racism hid who he was for centuries. His official photo, reproduced to date, changes the color of his skin, distorts his features and rejects his true origin” and says that “it is past time for this mistake to be corrected.”

The process of embranquecimento () Machado de Assis has been about the social imaginary that the Brazilian people have built in relation to the , which is seen as inferior and incapable by the non-Black population, says Luiz Maurício Azevedo, executive editor of the publisher Figura de Linguagem and postdoctor in Brazilian Literature from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).

“Popularly, Black people are linked to physical force and animalization, not to their intellectual potential. When these individuals earn projection for their talent in literature, for example, mechanisms are created to keep Blacks in the place of subcategory. Therefore, they turned a Black person into a white person, because socially Black women and Black men ‘cannot have’ author status. And history made use of the fragile documentation of the time to reinforce the image of a non-Black Machado de Assis,” says Azevedo.

Brazil's Greatest Writer Was A Black Man, But They Hid This For DecadesMachado de Assis is depicted as a white man in Brazilian books and media.

The scholar further emphasizes that Brazil promotes the hierarchy of the races by having suppressed what was understood as different.

“This country lives in conflict, we don’t live in harmony as it preaches racial democracy. There was and still is bloodshed,” complements the postdoctor in Brazilian Literature.

Jeferson Tenório, a writer and doctoral student in Literary Theory at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), recalls that an advertisement from Caixa Econômica Federal, 2011, also embranqueceu (whitened) Machado and that this is only a reflection of how the Brazilian sees the Black people in the country: not worthy of certain deeds.

“Therefore, it is necessary that there is a revision of history and representation. Because when we see ourselves in certain spaces, we feel motivated to be there too. This is a very well thought-out campaign, as it helps to rescue this extremely important personality and Black identity that has been denied and constantly whitened for many years,” says Tenório.

By: Iarema Soares

Brazil An inconvenient History