Beyond the cold fact: The WPA narratives, Brazil’s black peasants, and the conduct of oral history

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By Oscar de la Torre

Last month the latest issue of the OHR hit the streets, bringing a litany of groundbreaking oral history content. Today we hear from Oscar de la Torre, author of a piece in OHR 44.2 that explored the place of narratives of good masters in the oral memories of Afro-Brazilians. Below, he asks what “layers of meaning” emerge through these recordings that perhaps fall outside the bounds of either purely factual information or oral traditions.

When the 1988 Constitution recognized and gave lands to black rural communities descending from slaves, the black peasants of Brazil made a sudden entrance into the country’s political realm. As they began to embrace their African ancestry and made it to the news all over the country, a number of scholars and journalists scrambled for some research funding, grabbed their recorders, and headed to the remotest corners of the country’s gigantic wilderness to interview these apparently unknown black peasants. It was an endeavor comparable to the famous WPA slave narratives from the Great Depression.

The process of recognizing and titling the black communities started in the 1990s with a technical report clarifying the community’s past ties to slavery, so the first wave of scholars that studied them had the goal of unearthing memories about life under this institution, just as in the case of the WPA narratives. Both sets of interviews tried to rescue experiences from a time when most interviewees were only children, and in the case of Brazil, from an era in which most interviewees had not even been born. In fact, a number of anthropologists from the states of Pará, São Paulo, or Rio de Janeiro, often collected “oral traditions,” more than personal experiences or memories. As we know, oral traditions can under certain premises be used to accompany and complement historical studies, but they need to be carefully managed, and cross-examined with other sources. Instead, a number of the early reports on the Brazilian black communities took oral traditions just as factual evidence, dismissing the rich but often ignored symbolic load that they carried. A recent PhD thesis written in Amazonia, for example, took the stories about a well where the former slaves were buried without proper rituals as factual evidence, when it is highly likely that this story symbolizes a shared past marked by collective trauma and abuse, more so than indicating a specific place where this happened.

As we know, oral traditions can under certain premises be used to accompany and complement historical studies, but they need to be carefully managed, and cross-examined with other sources.

The Brazilian scholars who collected oral histories during the 1990s and 2000s also worked under tight schedules, because some black communities started the process of official recognition as a way of stopping the land grabs of landowners and agribusiness during those years. Working to meet tight deadlines meant that some early studies lacked a deeper consideration of the type of evidence they had in their hands. In the Trombetas River (Amazonia), for example, the report published in 1991 relied on a number of oral myths and stories understood as quasi-factual evidence from the time of slavery. For example, an oral narrative about an elderly woman who was also a powerful spiritual leader at the time some maroon communities were created was interpreted as a signpost that this woman was already old during the early 1800s. Shortly afterwards, a historian found a travelogue featuring a photograph of the same woman taken in 1902. The narrative, in other words, had been used as factual evidence in a somewhat careless manner. Like this, other reports written in the provinces of Maranhão, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, or Bahia, gave a somewhat superficial treatment to the oral traditions conveyed by the black peasants, especially at the beginning.

Cases such as these point to the fact that there are still numerous stories and layers of meaning waiting to be probed in studies about black oral traditions in Brazil. The Oral History and Image Laboratory from Rio de Janeiro’s Federal Fluminense University or UFF, or the Federal University of Maranhão, are repositories of a large number of interviews with slave-descendants from the 1980s and beyond waiting to be interrogated with new questions in mind. If researchers can approach them formulating imaginative questions that point not to slavery, but to events experienced after it was abolished, and if they can approach them with new conceptual tools drawn from cultural and media studies, such collections can bear a number of valuable lessons and relate a number of interesting stories. My Oral History Review article, “Sites of Memory and Time Slips,” points to two of these concepts, but there are more. Why are there no literary studies of the figure of the patriarchal slaveowner, for example? Why has no one investigated yet the relationships between discourses about slaveowners and post-emancipation landowners? Why has no one interrogated the gender roles and representations of both black peasant women and affluent white women embedded in these sets of memories? To the best of my knowledge, there is also little to nothing published on the racial categories and representations that rural Brazilians employ in their daily life.

Oral histories about black peasants in Brazil, in sum, are newer than in the U.S. They have not experienced as many waves of scholarship as the WPA narratives, which have been alternatively embraced and rebutted by scholars like Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Leon Litwack, Eugene Genovese, Ira Berlin, Sharon Musher, or Michael Gomez, ever since they were published in the 1940s. That is why there is still substantial room to tackle them with new questions, new concepts, and new approaches. Our beloved oral histories constitute a kind of evidence that will yield rich and nuanced responses about the history of rural Brazilians–and about the history of American ones as well, once someone starts a comparative study. But in order to do so, they demand to be treated with a sensitive eye, an open-minded ear, and an imaginative tackle.

Featured image: “Vallée de l’Amazone de Faro a Alemquer, Rio Trombetas – Rio Ariramba” by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.