chapter  8
19 Pages

Afterword: Ginga Baiana—The Politics of Race, Class, Culture, and Power in Salvador, Bahia

One has only to glance at the stately townhouses lining old Salvador’s winding narrow streets or purchase African bean fritters from the turbanned women vendors on a lazy afternoon to imagine the ever-present Bahian past. The history of Salvador da Bahia is as imposing as the city itself. For those who would know Salvador, the city is a constant dialogue between past and present, between change and continuity. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Salvador still walks with many eguns, the ancestral spirits that guide the living. At their most fundamental level, Afro-Bahians’ struggles today address the same issues that their African forebears faced when they first arrived in the sixteenth century. Countering the impositions of a slave society in which a small elite dictated the rights and prerogatives of others, Afro-Bahians have consistently fought for self-determination and equal access to sociopolitical power. Applying countervailing pressure against hegemony, people of African descent have used existing mecha­ nisms, created new ones, and seized upon moments of sociopolitical trans­ formation to find self-fulfillment and dignity in a society that once defined them as chattel. The chapters in this book provide insights into each of these modes of struggle, showing how Afro-Bahians have shaped new roles and carved out social spaces for themselves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Basic truths about Bahia have defined its society since the sixteenth

century. True power, derived from wealth and influence, is vested in a

relatively small segment of the population and is accessed through complex chains of patronage. Government is frequently little more than a venue for patrons and clients to negotiate favors. The dynastic nature of power in Bahia is such that few non-elites (not only Afro-Brazilians) have been able to enter a ruling class defined by its origins in the landed aristocracy of the sugar colony. Nor is wealth the sole arbiter of Bahian power; those seeking elite status without all of the other tacitly defined keys of access discover that they must either accept limits on their advance or, alternatively, create their own private spheres of influence. Notwithstanding these continuities in Bahian society, the last centuries

have also seen great dynamism and change. Bahia’s political structures have ranged from a donatary captaincy to the seat of Portuguese colonial government; as a province and subsequently a state, Bahia has at times been part of an empire, a republic, a dictatorship, a military state, and a democ­ racy. Afro-Bahia too has experienced notable change. What began as one of the New World’s most nefarious plantation economies, where slaves were worked to death because it was cheaper and easier to replace them than to keep them into old age, is today a Mecca of African culture in the diaspora. Afro-Bahians have created one of the most vital alternative communities in the Afro-Atlantic world, with institutions such as Candomble through which people of African descent maintain a distinct value system and world view. Through these institutions, Afro-Brazilians find the personal dignity, self-worth, and social power that is so frequently denied them in the larger society. This book explores the ways in which people of African descent have

negotiated the boundaries of power and prerogative in an exclusionary and discriminatory society. Together, the chapters reveal three overarching pat­ terns of Afro-Brazilian struggle. The first is the use of socially sanctioned avenues of advance, avenues that in modem Brazil are part of the national mythology of equality of access and non-discrimination. The doctrine of “racial democracy”—the official view that Brazil is a democracy in which discrimination does not exist-is a fundamental part of this mythology. The officers of Salvador’s black militia regiment and the Afro-Brazilian cacao farmers of Ilheus believed in earlier versions of this Brazilian meritocracy. The second pattern is the use of historical disruptions to seize power

outside of the sanctioned avenues. Afro-Brazilians were as acute as EuroBrazilians in recognizing opportunities and developing new strategies. The collapse of slavery in the second half of the nineteenth century was the most profound of these changes. While Bahian elites were still defining the limits of the “citizenship” that would be extended to freedpersons, Afro-Bahians quickly staked out rights to, among other things, religious freedom, as evi­

denced by the Candomble practitioners’ actions in Cachoeira and Salvador. The third pattern is the creation of alternative power bases. Candomble

emerged from the repression of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to become one of the most important centers of Afro-Brazilian power and political leverage. Jocelio Teles dos Santos’s chapter details elite recognition of the political power of other Afro-Brazilian cultural institutions, notably capoeira, and government attempts to manipulate them. The Afro-Bahian ability to challenge and withstand such hegemony has been carefully honed over generations, as revealed in Michel Agier’s account of Vila Flaviana. This afterword briefly examines these three strategies, each of which has

historically constituted an avenue of upward mobility for Afro-Bahians. It then takes a closer look at the third strategy, the creation of new bases of power through Afro-Bahian cultural institutions, a dynamic process of par­ ticular importance in the late twentieth century, as the blocos afros (Carni­ val societies connected to the black consciousness movement) have become key institutions of Afro-Bahian cultural politics. In closing, it calls attention to some of the complex dialectics of social transformation brought to the forefront by the contemporary black consciousness movement and exempli­ fied in the case of Olodum, one of Salvador’s leading blocos. The title borrows the term ginga from the language of capoeira. It refers

to the martial art’s basic movement, which balances and anchors adversar­ ies as they prepare to spring into either offensive or defensive action based on their assessment of the other’s position. Capoeira is used here as a metaphor because social change in Bahian race relations has been the prod­ uct of many cycles of a dialectic struggle between the descendants of the Europeans and the Africans who first came to Bahia in the sixteenth cen­ tury. As in capoeira, the adversaries come and go while the circle contin­ ues. Contemporary Bahia’s racial politics, like modem capoeira, is an artful contest of position that often seems to avoid the violence and hatred of racial politics elsewhere. Yet surface appearances belie the intensity and high stakes of the underlying struggle. Interracial amity in Bahia does not negate the reality of the poverty, violence, and lack of opportunity that disproportionately affect people of African descent. Afro-Bahians have had to perfect their ginga through the complexities of race and class relations as they strive to make the dream of racial democracy a reality.