Conversations/Joao Jorge Santos Rodrigues;
By JAMES BROOKE
Published: April 11, 1993
Published: April 11, 1993
After Nigeria, Brazil has the world's largest black population. But Joao Jorge Santos Rodrigues, a leading promoter of black culture here, was not surprised to see film distributors delaying releasing "Malcolm X" in Brazil.
To explain why, Mr. Rodrigues flipped through a recent issue of Veja, the country's largest-selling news weekly. Thumbing through the 100-page issue, he failed to find a single advertisement with a black or brown face.
"Black models are used in the public service messages -- you know, to teach about AIDS and cholera," he said. "Advertisers seem to think that only whites buy cars, perfumes or clothes."
Or go to the movies. To promote the belated release last Friday of "Malcolm X" in Brazil, Mr. Rodrigues sported a "Malcolm X" shirt produced by craftsmen working for his cultural group, Olodum. As president of Olodum, a world-renowned samba-reggae drum corps, Mr. Rodrigues has become a spokesman for Brazil's invisible half -- the estimated 70 million Brazilians who trace all or part of their ancestry back to West Africa.
For years, Brazil, the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, glossed over its racial divide with the concept of a racial democracy. But exposed to close scrutiny, its racial democracy myth falls apart. Last month, statisticians released detailed census data showing the country's economic gulf has narrowed little since the abolition of slavery in 1889. The average black Brazilian man earns $163 a month, or 41 percent that of his white counterpart.
"Brazil's racial harmony is based on the idea that the black man or woman knows his or her place," said Mr. Rodrigues, a former chemical plant worker who is now studying law. "For example, a lot of companies have a coffee server who is black, a doorman who is black, an elevator operator who is black. The white manager has a very different social situation. But he chitchats with the elevator operator about soccer games, about the lottery. There is no relationship beyond that." A Visible Disparity
Growing up in Salvador, the coastal capital of Bahia state, Mr. Rodrigues quickly learned Brazil's unwritten racial geography.
During colonial days, Salvador was Brazil's main destination for slave ships from West Africa. Today a growing city of 2.5 million people, modern Salvador has a population that is 70 percent black or mixed race. But, belying its informal title as capital of "Black Brazil," all but three members of Salvador's 35-member city council are white. From state legislators to television anchors, the local elite is Latin.
"Our parents and grandparents warned us: Don't go to that neighborhood, don't go to that beach, don't go to that apartment building -- you will have to go up the service elevator," Mr. Rodrigues, now 36 years old, recalled of growing up black in Salvador in the 1960's. "In South Africa, it was clearly written: 'No Blacks.' In Brazil it is the social fabric that proscribes, that says: 'Listen, you are prohibited from coming here.' "
"The city was divided in half by an invisible wall," he continued. "Even today, if you take a television camera, you will see a very clear difference at the beaches. The beaches of the black community are either polluted or near bus stops. The white beaches are outside of town, clean and reached by car."
Retreating behind the city's invisible wall, the young Rodrigues moved in an all-black universe. He danced to American black musicians. He devoured the writings of independence leaders from Portuguese-speaking Africa -- Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau, Agostinho Neto of Angola and Samora Machel of Mozambique.
From this tropical cauldron of cobblestone streets, decaying colonial buildings and resentment against Latin domination came the black pride carnival associations that dominate this city's cultural scene today. One of the first, Ile Aiye, paraded in 1981 -- a twilight year of Brazil's military dictatorship -- with dancers dressed as African independence fighters, waving papier-mache AK-47's. More recently, reflecting a new interest here in black North America, Ile Aiye's 1993 carnival theme was "Black America -- the African dream" -- complete with floats in homage to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers and Malcolm X.
Mr. Rodrigues, whose office is down the hall from Olodum's Malcolm X Library, complains that American blacks do not reciprocate with an interest in black South America.
"I was in the States recently and saw a poster labeled "Black Heroes of the Americas," he said. "There was not one Brazilian, not one Venezuelan, not one Colombian."
"It is important that the North American black community know about Zumbi dos Palmares," he said, referring to the black resistance leader during Brazil's colonial era. In an effort to offset the imbalance, he flew to Miami earlier this month to participate in a University of Florida seminar entitled "Black Brazil."
In addition to the English-Portuguese language barrier, Mr. Rodrigues said north-south relations are further complicated by a religious barrier. Carnival's Power
"Most North American blacks come from a Protestant background, and they just don't understand carnival," he said, referring to the secular street celebrations that erupt in Catholic societies every year before the start of Lent. Carnival provides a time when the hierarchy of Brazilian society stands on its head, when street sweepers are kings and maids are queens.
Indeed in Salvador, the Carnival associations are emerging as building blocks for black economic and political power. Olodum, which has 475 members, plans to open a carnival factory this month. Designed to employ 350 people, the factory will produce Malcolm X souvenirs as well as caps, shirts and key chains with the drum corps' distinctive red, green, black and yellow logo. Having recorded "Rhythm of the Saints" with Paul Simon and played with Jimmy Cliff, Olodum is acquiring growing economic clout at home.
Drawn by the international cachet of Olodum's music, Salvador this February rivaled Rio for the first time in the number of tourists attracted for carnival.
Last month, state officials covered Olodum with praise as they inaugurated the first part of a $30 million restoration of the group's neighborhood, the Pelourinho, which is Portuguese for whipping post. Declared world historical patrimony by Unesco, the Pelourinho was a collapsing shell of its former colonial glory when Olodum opened its first office there in 1979.
"Restoration of the Pelourinho has always been part of our struggle," Mr. Rodrigues said, referring to the state-financed project to restore 450 colonial era town houses.
The politicians crowding the band stand recently were overwhelmingly Latin. But the Olodum president was unperturbed.
"All this cultural movement is going to be translated into political movement," predicted the promoter of Afro-Brazilian culture.
Aiming at Salvador's younger generation, Olodum has started the Olodum Creative School to build "self-esteem, self-affirmation and economic ascension" among black children. Heightened black consciousness already seems to be underway. When Nelson Mandela visited here in 1991, children excitedly ran alongside the motorcade as it moved slowly from the airport to Pelourinho.
Photo: Joao Jorge Santos Rodrigues in his Malcolm X T-shirt. (James Brooke/The New York Times)