From the In Conversation column of the January 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

In Conversation with ... Joao Jose Reis

Sueann Caulfield, January 2008

Joao Jose ReisEditor's Note: The AHA's Honorary Foreign Membership, which was first conferred upon Leopold von Ranke in 1886, has since been awarded to 91 other "historians working outside the United States, for their distinguished scholarship and assistance to American scholars working in their country." At the 122nd annual meeting of the AHA, the distinction was conferred upon João José Reis, a historian at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil. He is the foremost scholar of the history of slavery and African culture in the Brazilian Northeast, and has been a leading proponent of studying slavery from an Atlantic perspective. He kindly agreed to have an extended e-mail conversation with Sueann Caulfield, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan and a historian of Brazil. We present below the text of their exchanges, which focus on the changing contours of the Brazilian historical profession, and the specific implications of these changes for the study of slavery and Atlantic history.

Sueann Caulfield: You received your PhD at the University of Minnesota in 1982. Why did you choose to study in the United States, and why did you choose that university? How has this choice influenced your subsequent scholarship?

João José Reis: I left Brazil in 1975 partly because of the military dictatorship. Ironically, I went to the United States, whose government supported the dictatorship in Brazil. But it was an interesting, vibrant period, politically and culturally, with the presence of the black-power movement, the pacifist movement, youth counterculture, and the New Left. I used to read many authors associated with such movements; I listened to jazz and soul music. I felt great curiosity about experiencing all of that up close. Regarding academia, I chose the University of Minnesota in response to an invitation from Stuart Schwartz, my adviser, who taught there at the time. I had also been accepted by UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh. At the University of Minnesota, I found the ideal academic environment. At the time, discussions about slavery were hitting a high point with the almost simultaneous publications of Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese, Time on the Cross by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, and The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom by Herbert Gutman. Slavery in Africa was also being studied extensively. The University of Minnesota had an African Peoples Program to which I affiliated myself. There were colleagues in that program who became my friends, and with some I maintain contact up to this day. In addition to Stuart Schwartz, who is a historian of Brazil, Minnesota's history department included Russell Menard, who studied the colonial Chesapeake Bay; Allen Isaacman, who studied Mozambique; and Lansine Kaba, who studied West Africa. In the area of Spanish America, the department was home to a wizard of quantitative history, Bob McCaa. The debates that flourished in that intellectual environment have influenced my scholarship up to this day.

SC: Was it common for historians of your generation to pursue graduate training outside of Brazil, even when focusing on Brazilian history? Where did Brazilian students tend to study?

JJR: During the time I was in the United States very few Brazilians completed graduate study in history outside Brazil. In Brazil we had a couple of history departments that offered doctoral degrees. The master's programs—which produced theses of the size and quality of today's dissertations—were just beginning to expand throughout the country and were still concentrated in the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo region. Fellowships were rare. The few that left the country rarely went to the United States. The majority went to Europe, particularly France. Some were persecuted politically and were fleeing the dictatorship.

SC: What do you think about young scholars training abroad now, when graduate training in Brazil is so much stronger than it was 25 years ago?

JJR: Today it is a different scenario, not only politically but academically as well. It is not necessary to leave Brazil in order to pursue graduate study. We have strong graduate studies programs in history, perhaps the best system in Latin America with more than 30 doctoral programs, more than 50 master's programs, an ample network of fellowships, and very competent professionals. Today it is not necessary, and is even undesirable, to leave the country to study the history of Brazil. Unfortunately, it is still necessary to leave the country in order to receive good training in the history of other regions since the majority of our research professors only study Brazil.

SC: The French influence on scholarship and the arts in Brazil has been very powerful. Is this true for the historical profession, and has it changed in recent decades? Do Brazilian scholars still look mostly to Europe and the United States for international collaboration?

JJR: Despite the increasing influence of English and North American academia, French historians continue to be important interlocutors for Brazilian historians. In some areas, the presence of historiography produced in the United States is clearly unassailable, such as in the fields of slavery and race relations. But the French theoretical and methodological approaches, especially the ones affiliated with the New Cultural History, are still the main sources of inspiration for many students and historians in Brazil. However, in the domain of cultural history, the influence of French scholarship is now complemented by Italian historians like Carlo Ginzburg, German sociologist Norbert Elias, or North Americans like Robert Darnton and Natalie Zemon Davis. E. P. Thompson has been a big influence on social historians, particularly those studying slavery and labor history. However, I would say that the most important characteristic of Brazilian historiography today is its ability to stand on its own. Currently, the hottest debates have little or nothing to do with external "influences," but with our own historiographical traditions, which are frequently associated with current political issues and ideologies. Perhaps more so than in the United States, Brazilian academic professionals, historians included, are called upon to participate in the country's politico-ideological debates, and, although this may not always be transparently clear, it is reflected in the scholarship.

SC: African history has recently become a required subject in Brazilian secondary and postsecondary curricula. How have historians responded to this requirement? Has it affected public policies such as the recent implementation in public universities of affirmative action favoring low-income and African-descended students?

JJR: This is an example of a political debate in which Brazilian scholars are involved. There are those like me who believe in racial/social affirmative action while others believe that adjusting public policy to categories of ethnic identity will increase racial tensions and conflicts in Brazil, and the country will one day be as racially divided as the United States. Many believe that the Brazilian mestiço national identity, based on racial mixing, would be threatened by a racialized public policy. Some argue that the study of Africa in schools and universities is prejudicial to social peace because it is an incentive for black identity. I think differently. Racism in Brazil is an incontrovertible truth that segregates blacks and whites through the system of education and economics, and this will certainly lead to an increase in racial tensions because blacks are more and more conscious of racial discrimination. For me, affirmative action is a prescription for social peace and not for conflict. The teaching of African history is part of a self-exploration process not only pertinent to Brazilian blacks, but to all Brazilians. Aren't we a culturally and racially mixed country? Well, then the history of Africa should be as important as European history in order to better understand Africa's contribution to Brazil's material and cultural formation. In fact, Brazil has the largest black population outside the African continent—this alone justifies a strong education in African history.

SC: How would you evaluate the impact on historical scholarship, in and outside of Brazil, of the "Atlantic Studies" subfield? In what ways has Brazilian scholarship influenced conceptions of the "Atlantic" as a region (or what would the influence be if more Brazilian scholarship were translated into English or other languages and if it were read more widely outside of Brazil)? Does your own scholarship contribute to, "fit" or benefit from the broad scholarly interest in the Atlantic?

JJR: Brazilians have been studying "Atlantic history" for a long time. The history of the "old colonial system" as discussed by Brazilian historians Caio Prado (1907–1990) and Fernando Novais (1933–) is Atlantic history. The difference today is the idea of the black Atlantic, but we also have pioneers in that field. In the late 19th century, the medical doctor and ethnologist Nina Rodrigues argued in favor of the importance of Brazil's African origins and was the first scholar to discuss slave revolts in Bahia as a continuation, albeit a "pale" one, of jihad struggles among Haussa Africans in the beginning of the 19th century. In the 1960s, Pierre Verger, a Frenchman who settled in Bahia, radicalized Nina's project by studying commercial and cultural relations between Bahia and the Gulf of Benin. Both scholars, especially Verger, were literally doing black Atlantic history. Of course, today we have a more sophisticated argument introduced by Paul Gilroy's book, which unfortunately only focuses on the black North Atlantic. In Brazil, historian Luis Felipe de Alencastro is the strongest exponent of studying Brazil's historical formation in the South Atlantic, especially the relationship with Angola, as perhaps more than 80 percent of enslaved Africans in Brazil came from that region. His book, Trato dos viventes, is being translated into English, I believe, and will have an impact on the general discussion of Atlantic history. However, following in the footsteps of Charles Boxer and Amaral Lapa, a lot of work is now being done in Brazil on the commercial, political, and cultural networks of the broader Portuguese empire, which includes the Indian Ocean in its deep connections with the Atlantic world in general and the black Atlantic in particular. Until the middle of the 19th century there were Asians on Brazilian slave ships, which is an indicator of the inter-oceanic connections of which Brazil was a part.

SC: Prior to the development of "Atlantic Studies," similar concerns to understand trans-regional historical experiences took shape under the rubric of the African diaspora. How did this scholarly trend affect scholarship and teaching of history in Brazil?

JJR: The idea of an African diaspora in Brazil is primarily associated with black militant discourse in Brazil and has yet little conceptual resonance in our historiography. In Brazilian historiography, the "black diaspora" is used more as a catchword than an elaborated concept. This is interesting given the enormous preoccupation with "African origins" in the fields of history and anthropology in Brazil.

SC: You recently published a revised Brazilian edition of your first book, A revolta dos Malés (Slave Revolt in Brazil). Why were you not satisfied with the original version? What kinds of changes did you make? What had changed in the historiography or your own experience that made it possible and desirable for you to revise it?

JJR: The English edition published by Johns Hopkins University Press was already revised and expanded. The difference between that edition and the most recent Brazilian edition is that the latter was further expanded to accommodate a large volume of new Brazilian documentation and Africanist literature. The arguments did not change fundamentally. I continue to emphasize the ethnic factor in the 1835 revolt without losing sight of the critical role of Islam. In the new edition, the role of Yoruba/Nagô leadership in the organization of the 1835 revolt is given more importance. Haussa Africans, despite being the largest African Muslim group in Bahia at the time, had a limited role in the revolt of 1835, even though they predominated in an earlier revolt at the beginning of the 19th century.

SC: In Death Is a Festival, your investigation of a 19th-century revolt against changes in cemetery regulations opens a window on the profoundly interwoven spiritual and material realms of Bahian social life and social conflicts. Like Slave Rebellion in Brazil, this study also describes a remarkably cosmopolitan, multi-cultural city. How has this historical experience shaped contemporary Bahian society?

JJR: The Bahia depicted in Death Is a Festival is much more cosmopolitan than today's Bahia because of the large presence of African workers (slave and free) who spoke different languages and participated in diverse cultural traditions. African slaves coexisted with large European colonies, especially Portuguese and English, in addition to local groups. Bahia is no longer as cosmopolitan as it once was despite modern means of communication, but it is still a place where foreign cultural products are quickly absorbed and transformed by the local people.

SC: Would you tell us something about your new collaborative project on the life of a 19th-century Bahian Muslim?

JJR: It is a collaborative project with two friends, the historians Flávio Gomes (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) and Marcus Carvalho (Federal University of Pernambuco). The project was initiated by Flávio Gomes, who found in the National Archives a police inquiry concerning rumors of an African conspiracy in Pernambuco in 1853. The Muslim African Rufino José Maria was imprisoned for having in his home numerous Islamic manuscripts. The police in Pernambuco recalled the 1835 revolt in Bahia since the same type of manuscripts were found among rebels there. Rufino was a Muslim from Oyo, thus a Yoruba speaker, who after being a slave in Bahia and Rio Grande do Sul was able to free himself, becoming the cook on a Brazilian slave ship. The slave ship was apprehended by an English navy vessel in 1841 off the coast of Angola and taken to Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, Rufino attended a Koranic school while the court investigated the slave ship, which was liberated after some months because no slaves were found on board. Rufino sailed to Pernambuco in the same ship, and shortly after he returned to Sierra Leone where he once again immersed himself in the study of Islam for about two years. He later settled in Pernambuco where he made a living as a diviner, healer, and an amulet-maker for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Rufino was also the spiritual leader of a Muslim community in Pernambuco. The project is a biography of a genuinely Atlantic figure, and we are encountering the usual problems with source materials that studies of this nature present. I am also finishing a biographical study of another Yoruba diviner, born in Lagos and imprisoned for witchcraft in Bahia in 1862. His name was Domingos Sodré; he was not a Muslim, but rather a "pagan," a practitioner of Candomblé.

Patricia Acerbi's help with translating the text of the interview is gratefully acknowledged.