Book Review: The Masters and the Slaves (Casa-Grande & Senzala)

Book Review: The masters and the slaves (Casa-grande & Senzala) : A study in the development of Brazilian Civilization

Because of his status as perhaps the most well-known scholar of Brazilian history and culture, The Masters and The Slaves is carefully valorized as “classical” Brazilian literature and rightfully so. Freyre has written prolific amounts of books and scholarly and journalistic articles. He is most known for a series of three books that have been translated into many languages over the globe: Casa Grande e Senzala (1933),Sobradose Mocambos (1936) and Ordeme Progresso (1959) .

Translated globally from his native Portuguese language, The Masters primarily tells an origin story of his beloved country and how Brazil’s social order emerged from colonial plantation systems and transition to a modern society. With the tropical plantation stage as Brazil’s metaphorical garden of Eden, Freyre creates an almost science-fantasy from the Mestiço history beginning with a sexual contact zone fueled by lust and curiosity. Using this framework, Freyre presents a Brazilian identity which would generally be accepted as truth for the next fifty years. The nation appropriated the idea that historic miscegenation that is Brazil’s calling card, was evidence of a predestined interracial, animalistic attraction and not a violent strategy of settler colonialism.

Before the internet, racial quotas, and the Movimento Negro, Freyre’s theories dominated Brazilian studies. It is a very common idea, even today, that the racial mixing widely practiced in Brazilian society represents a primary social-historical difference between a “unified” Brazil and the racially divided United States. It is also believed that racial mixing explains the alleged absence of racial prejudice that gave Brazil the moniker of a "racial paradise.” But in a post-Obama world, The Masters and the Slaves ages in a way which supports and reveals various social-political paradigms depending on the Brazilian social climate and more importantly, the momentum of the ever-dependent socio-economic class groups. In the 1980’s his book was a powerful pretext by the White Brazilian population, guarding them from a new Black consciousness movement as well as a growing workers movement.

In 2017, a college student can read The Masters and The Slaves and learn not only of how Brazil came to be but how the myths of Brazil came to be. The most defining myth being that of “Racial Democracy,” an idea that dominated Brazilian race thinking until the very end of the twentieth century. It remains the petrified backbone of ideology regarding Brazil’s “racial etiquette”, muffling any examination of the historical physical and sexual violence and exploitation against Afro Brazilian women. To the most modern reader, alive in a moment with access to intersectional, feminist, antiracist, and anti-colonial frameworks, Freyre’s emphatic centering of the hyper-sexual force shaping early Brazil, has been flagrantly attributed to the Brown and Black populations. A modern read should conclude that Freyre’s insistence on using the concept of “mingling” to describe interracial sexual encounters, is one of many ways he sidesteps, ignores, or sugarcoats the massive historical scale of sexual plundering and molestation of indigenous and African women and girls. Yet, Freyre’s story simultaneously tells a very different and almost opposing view, which he ironically accounts for as well.

“ There is nothing to authorize the conclusion that it was the Negro who brought to Brazil that viscous lustfulness in which we all feel ourselves ensnared the moment we reach adolescence. That precocious voluptuousness, that hunger for a woman, which at the age of thirteen or fourteen makes of every Brazilian a Don Juan, does not come from contagious contact with, or from the blood-stream of, the “inferior race,” but rather from our economic and social system. The climate, perhaps, has something to do with it… For it is impossible to deny the effect of climate upon the sexual morality of societies.”[p. 327]

This is a mild example of the pornographic spirit of Freyre’s classic. He savors the “evidence” of an erotic, destiny shared between European, African, and Indigenous populations. It then begs the question, who is “we”?

The power of Freyre’s text rests in his belief that Catholicism would moralize a new nation unified through miscegenation and whiting policies and that all the descendants of the new race would have access to opportunities in the society. Because of this, it is important not to divorce the sociologist from his own Euro-Brazilian social upbringing, including his strong Catholic background, affection for Portugal’s reputation for cultural plasticity, and his formal training in American universities during the early 1900’s. He wrote the early drafts of the texts while at Columbia University. This bespoke pedigree gave birth to a fantasy that launched a new stage of modernism for Brazil but simultaneously became the primary rationale for an unutterable racial hierarchy that exists as a haunting phantasm to this day. Among the legion of examples given by Freyre of this rapid progress towards racial democracy:

“ By the time the relations of the Portuguese with the black woman were no longer purely animal in character as in the early days; for many a female African had succeeded in winning the respect of the white man, some through the fear inspired by their “mandigas,” or spells and others through their sexual allure… A position as “housekeepers” and “concubines” to the white; they were no longer mere animals to be fattened up in the slave shed for the physical pleasure of their masters and the purpose of increasing his human capital.” [p.426]

Freyre’s is a romp in fetishized positivism which quickly became the romantic backdrop for Brazil’s moment on the postmodern stage, a guiding foreplay to social death. The seriousness granted to his creation justified it as a blueprint on how to disguise a perpetual antebellum social hierarchy as a racial paradise, meanwhile accumulating multiple racial genocides. Like the King James Bible, The Masters and the Slaves, will long be a crucible where facts, fantasy and perversion are blended into a white mythology that valorizes the cannibalistic existence of the historical consequence that is "Brazil".

Freyre, G. (1956). The masters and the slaves (Casa-grande & senzala) : A study in the development of Brazilian civilization (2d English-language ed., rev.. ed.). New York: Knopf.

 © 2020 Sed Miles

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