The essay — really bad first draft

Denise da Silva’s work, as her commentator points out, is rough going because it is “dense” and also reference-laden. Who is so familiar with Kant et al, and Hartman et al, etc.? And da Silva is not just explaining them, she is doing something with them, so it is hard not to feel one is losing the ground under one’s feet. This, she has told us, is also the point. Like many dense texts it requires rereading, but one realizes this is more like rereading a modernist novel: you are not just reading again to grasp what is said, but construct what it is saying to you, and you become a speaker as well as an addressee (as in Ulysses, with its shifting narrators, characters are both subject and object of discourse).

This essay will not attempt to explain, but to point the reader to her work which according to me is key to understanding Latin American discourse on race, and also the Latin American literary traditions that draw upon it and help to naturalize it. (I am talking about works as canonical as 100 años de soledad, that naturalizes racial hierarchy as it participates in the allegedly egalitarian “mestizo” discourse of the 20th century, but more importantly pre-1930 works like Cecilia Valdés, which exposes every form of racial injustice and teaches us to identify the category-confounding, iniquity-exposing mulata, María, where the anxiety about incest barely covers miscegenation, or O Mulato, where no violence is spared to make sure Black characters disappear.)

I have been wondering about texts like these for years, that seem to come from a world the theorists of the 30s (Freyre, Ortiz, Vasconcelos) claim does not exist, and that have become so popular/so naturalized that they’re seen as common sense and also as insurgent as they considered their own selves to be (viz. the popularity of Anzaldúa, mixed-race studies, and so on). What is being done here? A standard answer is that the national subject is being formed, but my reading is that it’s not the mestizo national subject we’ve been told about: it’s a hierarchizing one that annihilates the darker. This is what da Silva’s first book helps read. Her second one, speaking from the place of the black/native/ woman, the engulfed one, is about resurrecting that and rethinking the world from it.

Next paragraphs: the first book. It is notable because it discusses Brazil without getting anthropological / exceptionalist / etc., and because it is willing to look at race as a world system (rather than race in Latin America as something that cannot be understood, or that needs special explanation/justification of its multicolored hierarchy). It’s also interesting because it says racialization is fundamental to modernity — not a blemish but part of the foundation. She is not, certainly not by now, the only person to say this but it is still worth thinking about, since it explains why reforms don’t work (again, she is hardly the first to say this, even MLK came to say it over 50 years ago, but it is still worth pausing on).


Note: Part of what she is talking about is solidarity — the feeling Le Sueur talks about (see that In These Times article). This is what the second book is working to create.

Another part, that is a major point in the first book, is giving up the mestizo dream of Latin America. We have to revisit Mignolo here: Latinity excludes Blackness and indigeneity. And this “Latin” idea was, as we know, largely a French/Catholic project, about empire and homogeneity. All these claims of identity allow us to posit an original “Latin” culture that obscures the original violence and original roots.

Note too: Haberly points out that Brazilian abolitionist literature is “both anti-slavery and anti-slave.” A novel like Sab exposes the injustices of slavery but is pro-slavery. (This is what I have always had such difficulty understanding; note too that in these novels the Black characters die or disappear.)


Most significantly, however, she explains the evoke-and-elide strategy, and the scene of engulfment (here I must check notes, there may be one more thing). Explain, and explain “transcendental poesis” (I believe that is the third thing).

It is always unsettling, to me, to say we must give up all of modernity and to blame Descartes, but this is where the second book comes in and is convincing.

Now, I explain the second book. And that is the entire outline, for what looks like a review essay but I am hoping to actually get some literary interpretation in here, move ahead.


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