Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil

Smith, Christen A. Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 261 pages; $26.00 paper.

Christen A. Smith’s timely intervention hits sharply at the performative and theatrical character of anti-black state violence across space and time, engaging the all-too-familiar rehearsal of white supremacist racial scripts in Brazil. Afro-Paradise effectively guides the reader through the hauntings produced by transnational patterns of black experience, pivoting on the black body in pain: “ We have seen this before, are seeing it now, and will see it again ” (158: emphasis in the original). Although her ethnographic fieldwork is based in Bahia, the scope of her analysis boldly extends to diasporic dimensions. As her subtitle — Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil— indicates, the work demonstrates how the growing field of black performance studies can strengthen conversations about the reproduction of racial hierarchy in ostensibly “post-racial”, Latin American societies, without flattening local specificities. However, the work has equal importance beyond the academy, speaking directly to conversations amongst activists and artists on the ground about the role of social protest theatre within social movements. Trained as an anthropologist, one of Smith’s many strengths is that she shows what “Afro-paradise” is ethnographically before launching into theoretical explanation. When she presents the central aim of the book— to unpack the reality of the paradoxical relationship between Bahia’s identity as a place of black fantasy, and a space of black death due to anti-black state terror— a range of the reader’s senses are already engrossed in their analytical development.

The book’s five chapters are interspersed by five interludes that provide transcripts of particular vignettes from a play, Pare Para Pensar (Stop To Think, 2003), by the Afro-Brazilian street-theater group, Choque Cultural (Culture Shock). Her video footage of the play is also accessible for free online at the University of Illinois Press’ website.[1] When screening the video alongside the text, the reader can more fully appreciate the non-discursive elements that abound. The book’s layering of theoretically-engaged analysis (ranging from Fanon and Mbembe to DeCerteau and Bahktin), ethnographic description, and visual representation provide reprieve from the, at times, stilted writing style, and form a dialectical montage or echo chamber. Moments in the vignettes echo in the accounts of recent and past events, amplifying their symbolic significance. And vice versa. For instance, when you read the last interlude describing a specific unsolicited moment of audience interjection (Plataforma!)— adding to the named list of peripheral neighborhoods subject to police violence— the opening ethnographic vignette in the introductory chapter taking place in Plataforma, becomes that much more haunting. Therein lies the tragic poetics of Afro-Paradise. Perhaps the chapters are framing the interludes rather than the other way around. Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. In effect, the book’s structure performs the productive paradox of Afro-Paradise itself.

Smith’s key intervention lies in the assertion that the appropriation of black culture and the killing of black people is not inconsistent. Afro-Paradise’s paradox — blackness defined by folklore and culture on the one hand, and pain and violence on the other — is not a contradictory one. Instead this two-pronged approach is precisely how the modern nation-state performs itself, against the backdrop of the black body in pain. This argument pushes us to think more critically about spectacles of racial tolerance (like the incorporation of black culture into national identity) as self-evident signs of progress.

The breadth and detail of the historical and social research that Smiths recruits to situate each ethnographic and performance vignette highlight the “nonarbitrary way that race is inscribed on the body” (12-13) through repetitive embodied actions over time. Her notion of “scenarios of racial contact” —borrowing from Diana Taylor’s (2003) definition of scenarios and Mary Louise Pratt’s (1992) definition of contact zones — pinpoints these repetitive actions of non-arbitrary racial inscription. Performances like police raids, for example, resulting in black bodies left for dead on the street for their loved ones to find, reinforce racial hierarchy. Repeated with impunity, the naturalization of these acts mark the body and brand the collective imagination over generations. It is from that longue durée of pain that collective black identity (and whiteness, in turn) is produced. These “scenarios of racial contact” are effective precisely because their performance deals in shared colonial understandings and behaviors that stretch across time and space. Black performance theory then becomes central to understanding subject formation within modernity. Rather than consider theater a liminal space of possibility (Turner 1974), here it is a space of communal witnessing, to collectively interpret acts of terror that seek to individuate shared pain. Smith demonstrates how Culture Shock’s plays counter the erasure of crimes against black life, by setting apart on display the embodied aspects of quotidian racism. This may in turn have an impact on the community’s capacity to struggle against those very forms of daily oppressions. However, rather than arguing for the political efficacy of theater for social change, she puts forth that the use of theater, in and of itself, highlights the performative nature of anti-black violence in a racial democracy. Only by taking the performative aspect of racism seriously can we begin to understand why and how communities turn to theater as a central tool to refract racism’s effects.

Smith builds upon knowledge production from grassroots activism in Brazil, including the Reaju ou Será Morto (React or Die!/React or Be Killed!) political campaign, while highlighting black feminist anthropological work (Caldwell 2007, Rocha 2012, Perry 2013, Williams 2013) that collectively make the case for the disproportionate effects of state violence on black women. She engages the heteropatriarchal nature of spectacles of black pain along with the unseen dimensions of torture inflicted on black families, leading to their eventual if not immediate death. These invisible dimensions of state violence are described in Chapter Five as attacks on the power of black “social mothers.” “The state hopes to prevent social mothers from giving birth (politically, biologically, philosophically) to children (read as biological, communal or revolutionary) that the state will then have to kill in order to preserve the moral social order” (204). Thus, Smith shifts the dominant thinking to understand black women and families as the targeted primary audience of the spectacles of state sanctioned murder.

Afro-Paradise is about Brazil, yet is tragically diasporic. The ethnography is extremely grounded in local dynamics of blackness and quotidian lived experience in Bahia, and yet draws connections to diasporas of protests as funeral marches and funeral marches as protests. The echo of her intervention evokes a solemn critique of modern nation-state formation as a global white supremacist project. Beyond the book’s bibliographic import for Black Studies, Latin American Studies, and Performance Studies, its ethnography is useful for activists on the ground to reflect upon their own organizing, and hone in on how they can harness their bodies to speak over the silences, react, or/and die.

Maya Berry is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music. She completed her MA in Performance Studies at New York University, and earned her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, African Diaspora Program. An artist-scholar of Afro-Cuban dance and identity politics, her research appears in Afro-Hispanic Review and Black Diaspora Review. Her current scholarship focuses on sacred and secular performance and practices of black self-organization in Havana. She is a recipient of the 2015 Zora Neale Hurston Travel Award from the Association for Feminist Anthropology.



Works Cited

Caldwell, K. L. 2006. Negras in Brazil: Re-envisioning Black Women, Citizenship, and the Politics of Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Perry, K.-K. 2013. Black Women Against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justic in Brazil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Pratt, M. L. 1992. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge.

Roche, L. d. 2012. Black Mothers' Experiences of Violence in Rio de Janeiro. Cultural Dynamics , 24 (1), 59-73.

Taylor, D. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham : Duke University Press.

Turner, V. 1974. Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Williams, E. L. 2013. Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.