Manuel Querino at Brasa IX

I attended Brasa IX, the ninth congress of the Brazilian Studies Association, held at Tulane University in New Orleans, from March 27 to 29. On the afternoon of the 29th, I gave a presentation on Manuel Querino: the biographical section of “Manuel Querino: Um Pioneiro e Seu Tempo” (Manuel Querino: A Pioneer and His Time).

The conference was a very rewarding experience – well worth the long, exhausting and expensive trip from the Northeast of Brazil. Better yet, most of the panels I attended made it clear that Manuel Querino is more relevant and significant than ever. Several papers stressed the need to produce and disseminate positive images of blacks in Brazil, from slave times to the present. That was exactly what Querino strove to do during the last stage of his lifelong activism (after being a republican, abolitionist, labour leader and politician) – he was one of the “indispensable” ones, as defined by Bertolt Brecht.*

The audience for the panel in which I took part was small, but the response was very encouraging. It became clear that Querino has something to offer to people from different fields: art history, ethnography, folklore, black history and Brazilian history in general. One question that came up after my presentation merits further reflection: why was Querino overlooked and excluded from the official history of African-Brazilian studies in Brazil, by none other than Gilberto Freyre?

The simple answer is that he was a victim of ostracism and scorn because of his colour. But it goes further than that: in the words of folklorist Frederico Edelweiss, “How often [Querino] must have heard that pat and still common line: ‘what an uppity Negro!’ His vindication of his black brothers made him more enemies than friends; many more enemies…” In other words, Querino is yet another example of the “trap door” aspect of the “mulatto escape hatch”.

*There are men who struggle for a day, and they are good;
There are others who struggle for a year, and they are better;
There are those who struggle for many years, and they are very good;
But there are some who struggle all their lives,
And they are indispensable.

– Bertolt Brecht

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