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Rethinking Race and Culture in Brazil's First Afro-Brazilian Congress of 1934

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 February 2007

Department of History, Texas State University – San Marcos.


Bringing together diverse scholars such as Arthur Ramos, Édison Carneiro and Gilberto Freyre, Brazil's First Afro-Brazilian Congress of 1934 encapsulated a pivotal transition in the history of the social sciences and race in Brazil. The Congress, organised by Freyre, represented an attempt by many scholars to break with racial determinism and to emphasise the importance of culture rather than race. This approach seemed to offer increased potential for social equality. However, the new focus on culture reproduced the same hierarchies that scholars were trying to escape. As this article demonstrates, scholars at the Congress redeemed the black race through the use of a new cultural framework, but the role ascribed to African culture was still bound by the same concepts of superiority and inferiority.

Al reunir a diversos académicos como Arthur Ramos, Édison Carneiro y Gilberto Freyre, el Primer Congreso Afro-Brasileño de Brasil de 1934 encapsuló una transición clave en la historia de las ciencias sociales y de la raza en Brasil. El Congreso, organizado por Freyre, representó un intento de muchos académicos por romper con el determinismo racial y enfatizar la importancia de la cultura en vez de la raza. Este enfoque pareció ofrecer un mayor potencial para la igualdad social. Sin embargo, el nuevo planteamiento sobre la cultura reprodujo la misma jerarquía que los académicos estaban tratando de romper. Tal y como lo demuestra el artículo, los académicos en el Congreso redimieron a la raza negra a través del uso de un nuevo marco cultural, aunque el papel adscrito a la cultura africana aún se encontraba limitado por los mismos conceptos de superioridad e inferioridad.

Reunindo diversos estudiosos como Arthur Ramos, Édison Carneiro e Gilberto Freire, o primeiro Congresso Afro-Brasileiro do Brasil em 1934 incorporou a transição fundamental na história das ciências sociais e de raça no Brasil. O congresso organizado por Freire representou uma tentativa de muitos estudiosos de romper com o determinismo racial e realçar a maior importância da cultura sobre a raça. Esse enfoque parecia oferecer maior potencial para a igualdade racial. No entanto, esse novo foco na cultura reproduzia as mesmas hierarquias de que os acadêmicos procuravam escapar. Como demonstra este artigo, os estudiosos presentes no congresso redimiam a raça negra através da utilização de uma nova estrutura cultural, mas o papel designado à cultura africana continuava atrelado aos mesmos conceitos de superioridade e inferioridade.

Research Article
© 2007 Cambridge University Press

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The research for this article was funded in part by a Research Development Grant from Texas State University. Janet Olson of the Melville J. Herskovits Collection at Northwestern University and the ILL Department of Texas State offered prompt and friendly research assistance. I wish to especially thank Patrick Barr-Melej, James McWilliams, Allison Tirres, Dwight Watson and the anonymous reviewers at JLAS for their insightful comments on early drafts of this article.