Cover image for Machado de Assis: Multiracial Identity and the Brazilian Novelist By G. Reginald Daniel

Machado de Assis

Multiracial Identity and the Brazilian Novelist

G. Reginald Daniel


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344 pages
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Machado de Assis

Multiracial Identity and the Brazilian Novelist

G. Reginald Daniel

“G. Reginald Daniel’s work is a thoughtful analysis of how racial identity and race relations are dealt with in the work of Machado de Assis. It allows us to understand how Machado’s universal principles, as well as his ambiguity regarding the ‘mulatto’ condition in Brazil, in fact erode the very foundations of raciologic thinking. In so doing, Daniel opens a very interesting window onto the singularity of Brazil’s way of dealing with race and the differences between the Brazilian and the North American historical cases with regard to their African and African American (or Afro-Brazilian) heritage. Daniel’s book brings fresh air to the appreciation of Machado’s work in the United States, where it has gained the attention of outstanding critics, at the same time that it provides the reader with fundamental keys to the understanding of Brazil’s complex and at times unique position in the African Diaspora.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908) was Brazil’s foremost novelist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a mulatto, Machado experienced the ambiguity of racial identity throughout his life. Literary critics first interpreted Machado as an embittered misanthrope uninterested in the plight of his fellow African Brazilians. By midcentury, however, a new generation of critics asserted that Machado’s writings did reveal his interest in slavery, race, and other contemporary social issues, but their interpretations went too far in the other direction. G. Reginald Daniel, an expert on Brazilian race relations, takes a fresh look at how Machado’s writings were inflected by his life—especially his experience of his own racial identity. The result is a new interpretation that sees Machado as endeavoring to transcend his racial origins by universalizing the experience of racial ambiguity and duality into a fundamental mode of human existence.
“G. Reginald Daniel’s work is a thoughtful analysis of how racial identity and race relations are dealt with in the work of Machado de Assis. It allows us to understand how Machado’s universal principles, as well as his ambiguity regarding the ‘mulatto’ condition in Brazil, in fact erode the very foundations of raciologic thinking. In so doing, Daniel opens a very interesting window onto the singularity of Brazil’s way of dealing with race and the differences between the Brazilian and the North American historical cases with regard to their African and African American (or Afro-Brazilian) heritage. Daniel’s book brings fresh air to the appreciation of Machado’s work in the United States, where it has gained the attention of outstanding critics, at the same time that it provides the reader with fundamental keys to the understanding of Brazil’s complex and at times unique position in the African Diaspora.”
“One of the most fascinating aspects of Brazilian society is the unique construction of racial identity. While racial discrimination does exist in Brazil, it has never been grounded, as in the United States, in institutional segregation, and, indeed, racial matters have played an important role in defining Brazilian national identity. Reginald Daniel explores the complex construction of racial matters in Brazil by grounding himself in the ironic, skeptical, and ambiguous narratives of the great mulatto writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.”
“G. Reginald Daniel is a gifted sociologist of race as well as a sensitive analyst of literary texts. His Machado de Assis: Multiracial Identity and the Brazilian Novelist is a masterful treatment of Assis’s writings, contextualized in a precise racial history of Brazil as well as in its intellectual and literary developments and traditions. This is a must-read for scholars and students of Assis’s writings, Brazilian literary traditions, the sociology of race, and African Brazilians, especially from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century, a period that finally saw the Brazilian abolition of slavery.”
“This thoughtful, scholarly study illuminates and contextualizes the writings of Brazil’s most famous author while casting him as a universalizing ‘meta-mulatto.’ Traditional critics have argued that Machado’s detached, ironic style, egoistic upper-class characters, and unreliable narrators bespeak indifference to social issues of the day—slavery, racism—and to the debate over literary brasilidade (‘Brazilianness’). . . . Daniel shows that despite Machado’s success, light color, erudition, and European orientation, he was regarded as a racialized other who experienced the dualism of being neither black nor white. Daniel submits that the mulatto dualism serves as a metaphor for a universal dualism that Machado believed characterizes human existence generally. . . . For Machado, the struggle to reconcile binarisms is both personal and universal.”

G. Reginald Daniel is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Race and Multiraciality in Brazil and the United States: Converging Paths? (Penn State, 2006), among other works.



Introduction: Machado de Assis: The Critical Legacy

1 Neither Black nor White: The Brazilian Racial Order

2 The Mulatto Author: The Literary Canon and the Racial Contract

3 Black into White: Racial Identity and the Life of Machado de Assis

4 The Public Racial Text: Racial Identity and the Writings of the Unknown Machado

5 The Meta-Mulatto: Racial Identity and the Writings of Machado de Assis

6 The Hidden Racial Text: Racial Identity and the Writings of Machado de Assis

7 Toward Literary Independence: National Identity and the Writings of Machado de Assis

8 The Transformative Vision: Seeing with the Third Eye

9 Machado de Assis: From Romantic Realism to Impressionism

Epilogue: Machado de Assis: An Alternative Interpretation

G. Reginald Daniel with Gary L. Haddow





Machado de Assis

The Critical Legacy

On December 2, 1955, my first-grade teacher began class by saying, “Yesterday, in Montgomery, Alabama, a colored woman, Mrs. Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to let a white passenger have her seat on the bus. It’s time we colored people stood up for our rights!” The question of “rights” went over my head, and I was especially confused by the phrase “we colored people.” I knew that everyone was “colored.” Some people were brown. Others were pink (which I knew to be a blend of red and white), beige, or tan (which were blends of varying degrees of brown and white). I remember how excited I was that year when Crayola came out with a box of crayons that included pink, beige, tan, and so on, although I was somewhat perplexed by the flesh crayon. It was similar to tan, but I knew that everyone was not “flesh”-colored. Nevertheless, I was happy to see my own tan color among the crayons. Up to that time, crayon boxes included only the basic colors. I could not get pink, beige, or tan, except when I did watercolors and had access to white paint to blend with red or brown. Just to get a clarification, I raised my hand and asked who “colored” people were. “Everyone in this school!” she said, startled. “What color are they?” I asked. “We’re brown! We’re Negroes!” I had seen brown people. (In fact, there were many at my school.) I also knew that my own tan-colored skin tone was part brown. However, I had never heard of the color “Negro” before, much less come across it among my crayons or paints. This whole discussion left me confused.

At the end of class, my teacher gave me a note to take home to my mother instructing her to have a long talk with me about being Negro and about segregation. (Many years later, my mother told me that she had avoided this topic because she did not want me to develop a sense of inferiority. She now tried to explain the absurdity of segregated schools, water fountains, public parks, theaters, restaurants, hospitals, funeral homes, cemeteries, and so on.) She agreed that our family was “tan,” rather than “brown.” (There were some pink and beige family members, however, who I later discovered were not pink or beige at all but looked “white.” I had never seen anyone the color of the white crayon, or blackboard chalk.) My mother went on to explain how we came to be “tan” Negroes, throwing in details about African slavery, about our European, Native American, and Asian Indian ancestry. She concluded by saying that although we were a blend of many things and, thus, only part Negro, we were still members of the Negro race, in other words, “colored people.” This struck me as being somewhat illogical, so I said, “But Mommy, when you mix brown and white, you don’t get brown or white, you get tan.” She told me it was not the same with people. Outwardly, I acquiesced but could not understand how I could have African, Asian Indian, Native American, and European ancestry and still be only Negro. How could you take one part of my whole background, the African part, and then get rid of all the rest? “That’s stupid,” I thought. “That doesn’t make any sense. One plus one equals two, not one.”

I shelved this issue until 1965, when I stumbled upon Era Bell Thompson’s Ebony magazine article “Does Amalgamation Work in Brazil?” I learned that Brazil had earned the reputation as a racial democracy by virtue of its absence of legalized barriers to equality in both the public and private spheres. What caught my attention was a passage that spoke of mysterious creatures called “mulattoes.” They were a racial blend of Africans, Europeans—primarily Portuguese—and Native Americans and were intermediate to these groups. “Just like me!” I thought. “Just like Tabitha on Bewitched . . . Like Mr. Spock on Star Trek!”

From that point on, the classroom became not merely an academic arena but also a platform for self-discovery, transformation, and personal liberation, albeit most often under the mocking and disapproving scrutiny of my peers and superiors. I wanted to understand why multiracial individuals of partial African descent were able to identify with their other backgrounds in Brazil but were prohibited from doing this in the United States. I discovered part of an answer in a social code called the “one-drop rule of hypodescent,” which held that the offspring of interracial unions were defined as “African American,” regardless of the racial background of their other parent. In addition, not only the children of interracial unions but, in fact, anyone who had any traceable African descent, anyone with “one drop of African blood,” was designated as “black.” Thus the one-drop rule supported a binary racial order that rendered racial identification as either black or white.

The dominant European Americans used the one-drop rule to justify legal prohibitions against interracial intimacy, and especially against interracial marriage, in order to preserve white racial and cultural “purity.” The rule also conveniently exempted white landowners (particularly slaveholders) from the legal obligation of passing on inheritance and other benefits of paternity to their multiracial offspring. Moreover, the rule helped maintain white racial privilege by supporting legal and informal barriers to equality in most aspects of public and private life. At the turn of the twentieth century, these restrictions reached drastic proportions with the institutionalization of Jim Crow segregation. The one-drop rule did not become a normative part of the legal apparatus in the United States until the early twentieth century (circa 1915). However, it gained currency as the informal or “racial commonsense” (Omi and Winant 1994, 60) definition of “blackness” over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was increasingly the case during the nineteenth century and definitively so by the 1920s.

The one-drop rule is such a normative part of Anglo–North America that most individuals are unaware that it is unique to the United States. Rules of hypodescent have been applied to the first-generation offspring of European Americans and Americans of color (e.g., Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latinas/os, and so on). Successive generations of individuals whose lineage includes a background of color, along with European ancestry, however, have been treated with greater flexibility. These individuals have not always been designated exclusively, or even partially, as members of that group of color. Furthermore, self-identification with that background has been more a matter of choice. This flexibility has not been extended to individuals of African American and European American descent. The one-drop rule has not only precluded any choice in self-identification but also ensured that African American ancestry is passed on in perpetuity. All future offspring are designated as “black.” Most individuals in the United States never question the rule’s logic, and thus reinforce, if only unwittingly, blackness and whiteness as dichotomous, if not hierarchical, categories of experience.

Through my research in Brazil and the United States, I found that racial formation in both nations evolved as part of European colonial expansion and domination in the sixteenth century. Thus blackness and whiteness came to represent the negative and positive designations, respectively, in a hierarchy originating in African and European racial and cultural differences. Yet race relations in Brazil and the rest of Latin America display a more attenuated dichotomization of blackness and whiteness and more fluid racial markers compared to the U.S. binary racial order. This is reflected in the region’s history of pervasive miscegenation and the validation of this blending by the implementation of a ternary racial order, which differentiates the population into whites (brancos), multiracials (pardos in official contexts; mulatos in everyday parlance), and blacks (pretos). Moreover, blackness and whiteness are merely extremes on a continuum where physical appearance (marca), in conjunction with class and culture, rather than ancestry (origem; Nogueira 1954/1985, 78–79), determine one’s racial status and identity in the social hierarchy. This in turn has given rise to the belief that Brazil is a racial democracy.

I also found Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908)—Brazil’s foremost author of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries—to be an exemplary case study of Brazilian race relations. Indeed, there is no more fertile topic of controversy in Brazilian letters than the life and writings of Machado de Assis; and perhaps no subject has been as controversial as the question of race. Historically, Brazilians who have supported their country’s more fluid racial order, as well as a more inclusive definition of whiteness, have considered Machado branco. Many individuals have referred to Machado as “mulato”; others have regarded him as mestiço (multiracial), which they consider a less pejorative term. Still others have emphasized that Machado was negro (i.e., African Brazilian) or, more recently, afro-descendente (African-descended). Their goal is to challenge Brazil’s ternary racial dynamics, which they consider an obstacle to mobilizing blacks and mulattoes in the antiracist struggle. And, for all that, some have ceased to refer to Machado’s racial status and identity altogether.

Early criticism nurtured the belief that Machado’s life and writings betray his racial self-negation, his indifference to the plight of African Brazilians and the cause of abolition. During the first half of the twentieth century, critics were influenced by, and in no small part helped nurture, this tradition of “socially determined” criticism. Critics searched for biographical details in Machado’s writings and, conversely, used the limited existing biographical material as a means of explaining his writings. Yet the negligible autobiographical information complicates any discussion of Machado’s feelings about his racial identity, views, or both on the topics of slavery and race relations (see Romero 1897; Santos 1908; Pujol 1934; Pontes 1939; Pereira 1936; Meyer 1935; Grieco 1960).

By the 1950s, a new generation of critics challenged the findings of these earlier studies. Through the discovery of previously unknown biographical data, they disputed the belief that both of Machado’s parents were mulattoes. This research proved that it was only Machado’s father who was mulatto; his mother was Portuguese and from the Azores. They also put to rest the notion that Machado abandoned his mulatto stepmother (his father’s second wife) when he gained literary and social prominence (see Fonseca 1968; Massa 1969, vol. 1). Through a more thorough examination of Machado’s writings, other scholars found that he did explore the question of slavery and racism. Unfortunately, some of these studies make Machado appear more comfortable with his racial background and more politically active in the African Brazilian struggle than actually seems to be the case (see Coutinho 1940; Sayers 1958; Broca 1957; Magalhães Júnior 1955, 1958a, 1958b; Oliveira 1958; Pereira 1959). Other analyses in the 1970s examined social stratification in Machado’s writings, as well as the economic basis and social consequences of liberalism and paternalism in late nineteenth-century Brazil as reflected in social relationships in the earlier novels (see Chaves 1974; Schwarz 1977, 1990; Faoro 1976).

Beginning in the 1940s, many critics turned their attention to the long-overdue analysis of Machado’s literary aesthetic, including his relationship with European literature, particularly nineteenth-century literary currents (specifically Romanticism and Realism-Naturalism). The critics also examined Machado’s pessimism, irony, and skepticism, as well as the “two phases” of his writing, in which the earlier novels are classified as “Romantic” and the later novels as “Realist” (see Barreto Filho 1947; Gomes 1958, 1967, 1979; Coutinho 1966; Corção 1965; Castello 1969; Riedel 1959; Caldwell 1960, 1970). These studies include several linguistic analyses (see Câmara 1962; Soares 1968; Monteiro and Estrella 1973). This “aesthetically determined” criticism was consolidated in the 1970s and expanded rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s with nuanced analyses of narratology and characterization in Machado’s writings, particularly his later novels (Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Quincas Borba, Dom Casmurro, Esau and Jacob, and Ayres’s Memorial).

Alongside this aesthetically determined criticism, scholars have continued to provide socially inflected analyses of Machado’s writings. These include examinations of the relationships between patrons and their agregados (free clients or dependents) and afilhados (adopted kin) within the contemporary social order. There have been analyses of gender relations as well as the impact that literacy rates had on the composition of Machado’s reading public and literary aesthetic (see Stein 1984; Xavier 1986; Lisboa 1996, 1997; Pietrani 2000). The topic of race has been the subject of several separate studies and part of larger discussions on slavery.

In the chapters that follow, building on the socially and aesthetically determined traditions of Machadian criticism, I analyze Machado’s writings—particularly his novels—as they relate to the cultural processes of race relations. I examine these phenomena as part of racial formation as outlined by Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994). Racial formation theory considers race a social construct while acknowledging that the construct is based on biological characteristics. Yet the selection of particular human features for purposes of racial signification has changed over time and is necessarily a sociohistorical process. Racial formation theory makes it possible to analyze how a society determines racial meanings and assigns racial identities in the racial order—the combination of ideological beliefs, institutions, and social practices that establishes a given society’s racial categories, group boundaries, and membership.

More important, the state plays a crucial role in maintaining the racial order. It has exercised power not only in enforcing racial definition, classification, and, ultimately, identification but also in the politics of both racial exclusion and inclusion. The racial order thus has a significant impact on the distribution of resources, wealth, power, privilege, and prestige, which in turn determines groups’ social location and status in relation to one another. That said, at any given spatiotemporal juncture, many interpretations of race exist in the form of “racial projects.” Every racial project is a discursive or cultural initiative that seeks to represent or explain racial dynamics by means of identity politics. At the same time, each racial project is a political initiative that seeks to organize and redistribute resources, a process in which the state is often called upon to play a role (Omi and Winant 1994, 55–60).

My analysis draws from scholarship in Latin American Cultural Studies, which interrogates the distinction between culture, political economy, and history, as well as reevaluates forms of culture often deemed unworthy of academic investigation. Although informed by British and U.S. Cultural Studies that emerged in the 1970s, Latin American Cultural Studies as consolidated in the 1980s and 1990s has formulated a perspective originating in developing nations. It not only builds on cultural analyses informed by Latin American intellectuals but also frames Latin America’s complex interactions with the West. This provides the context for reexamining Cultural Studies analyses, particularly the concepts of hegemony, postcoloniality, and hybridity (García Canclini 2003, 12–23; Hart and Young 2003, 1–11; Lund 2006, ix–64; Santiago 2000, 9–26; Trigo 2004, 1–14).

Chapter 1 analyzes racial formation and nation making as these relate to questions of multiraciality and the social location of mulattoes in colonial and nineteenth-century Brazil. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 situate Machado’s life and writings within the mulatto experience and African Brazilian literary culture by examining biographical data and reviewing various sociological considerations relevant to the cultural processes of race relations and the literary trajectories that have emerged among mulatto authors.

Chapter 5 reconsiders the argument that Machado’s literary works are a meticulously veiled documentation of his experiences as a mulatto, which he might otherwise have discussed openly in his writings had the historical and social circumstances been different (e.g., Gledson 1984; Haberly 1983). By veiling his observations, so the argument goes, Machado could avoid tarnishing the career that served as a vehicle for escaping blackness; this literary tactic helped touch up his “real” racial status as a mulatto by furthering his situational status as white.

However, an examination of statements made by Machado and an analysis of his writings give rise to the following questions. To what extent does the apparent lack of racial consciousness in Machado’s life and writings actually reflect a denial of being a mulatto? To what extent might this phenomenon reflect a desire to transcend racial ascription altogether and achieve a sense of “racelessness”? Is it possible that Machado was seeking to go beyond the physical limitations of being mulatto and embrace an identity and a literary aesthetic based on a more inclusive or universal self, beyond questions of racial, cultural, or any other specificity? As a mulatto who was both black and white, yet neither, was Machado seeking to grapple with universal questions of duality and ambiguity of human existence—miscegenation in a higher sense?

In 1981, I sought to answer some of these questions and coined the term “meta mulatto” to frame my analysis in a paper I presented at the Fourth Symposium on Portuguese Traditions, University of California, Los Angeles. David Haberly made similar arguments in his insightful Three Sad Races: Racial Identity and National Consciousness in Brazilian Literature (Haberly 1983, 74–77; see also Daniel 1981, 10, 11–13). However, my interpretation differs somewhat from Haberly’s. I contend that Machado veiled his mulatto experience in metaphor not simply as a type of camouflage and evasion because of any discomfort he might have felt about expressing that experience in his writings, but in an effort to unveil the basis of societal dis ease, which he attributed to humanity’s own metaphorically mulatto nature—particularly the dual and ambiguous relationship between the subjective and objective dimensions of human experience.

On the other hand, I concur with Haberly’s argument that a key site where Machado examines societal dis ease is the conflict between individual morality (or conscience) and the dictates of public success premised on egoism, ambition, and acquisitive, property-based individualism—a conflict perpetuated by Western consciousness and behavior due to the materialist rationalism that became preeminent with modernity. Indeed, material considerations have more often than not overpowered the desire for and ability to achieve loving relationships.

That said, considering the racial ecology of his time, it would not be surprising if Machado felt sensitive about his racial background and projecting his experience as a mulatto in his writings. Indeed, in chapter 6, I maintain that Machado’s use of irony, parody, and the grotesque, which reflects his humor, is part of a hidden racial text (or subtext). One of the sources of this subtext is Machado’s confrontation with racist pressure and with Eurocentric standards that rewarded whiteness and restricted, if not negated, blackness in literature as well as in society. The hidden racial humor in this subtext had two functions. Psychologically speaking, it allowed Machado to distance himself from the traumas of living in a racist society. Sociologically speaking, it allowed him to launch an oblique attack on a supposedly virtuous society that depended on slavery and racial oppression for its survival. I maintain that elucidating the relationship between Machado’s critique and the African Brazilian struggle is at least as important as recognizing Africanisms, linguistic signs, thematic indicators, and the subaltern tone in more politically engaged Brazilian literature.

In fact, Machado cautioned against writing polemical and politically engaged literature, which risked falling prey both to the myopia and tendentiousness of propaganda in literary disguise and to the dangers of literary mortality, unless authors brought greater universality to the particularistic social or historical context of their writings. I assert that, apart from concerns he might have had about his racial background or jeopardizing his social and professional standing, this aesthetic prompted Machado to avoid explicit discussions of race (except in some of his short stories, chronicles, and a few passages in his novels). And when he did explore racial and other social issues, his understanding was farsighted and universal enough to convey more than their immediate implications (Nunes 1983, x).

Chapter 7 discusses race, nation, and the formation of Brazilian literary identity. In it, I maintain that Machado’s same search for the universal explains the lack of national consciousness or Brazilianness (brasilidade) in his writings, a consciousness expressed through racial types, external descriptions of local flora and fauna, and certain idioms in the writings of some of his contemporaries and successors. Machado went beneath the Brazilian epidermis to capture what he considered the “national instinct” that linked the Brazilian psyche with all humanity—a psychological world emerging from the geography and mores of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil but existing outside space and time.

In chapters 8 and 9, I reevaluate the tendency to classify Machado’s earlier novels as “Romantic” and his later novels as “Realist.” Instead, in light of Machado’s own statements, I argue that his novels represent a growing sophistication and daring in maintaining a dialogue between the aesthetic subjectivism of Romanticism (and its offshoots) and the aesthetic objectivism of Realism-Naturalism. Accordingly, Machado’s earlier novels have more in common with a hybrid mid-nineteenth-century current often referred to as “Romantic Realism.” In addition, his later novels have more in common with another late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century hybrid: literary Impressionism.

Providing a cultural analysis of Romantic Realism and Impressionism, I examine specific aspects of Machado’s novels—narrative structure, narrative point of view, characterization—that demonstrate his affinity with these currents. Without constituting a formal or well-defined school, and apart from whether they directly influenced the writings of Machado, Romantic Realist and Impressionist authors were kindred spirits who sought to bridge the subjectivist aesthetics of Romanticism (and similar trends) with the objectivist aesthetics of Realism-Naturalism. In their historically and stylistically different trajectories, Romantic Realist and Impressionist authors nevertheless metaphorically shared in the mulatto phenomenon.

In sum, I believe that Machado’s experience of being both black and white, yet neither, provided him with a keen sensitivity to the liminal space that shapes that experience. In the epilogue, I maintain that his experience of liminality enhanced Machado’s ability to convey shades of meaning when discussing issues ranging from slavery to national literature, literary aesthetics, and modernity. Given Machado’s location in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, I maintain that this “both/neither” perspective displays an affinity with the “postmodern sensibility.”

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