Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Precocious Boys: Race and Sexual Desire in the Autobiographical Poems of Carlos Drummond De Andrade

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Precocious Boys: Race and Sexual Desire in the Autobiographical Poems of Carlos Drummond De Andrade

Article excerpt

Similar to their sisters, our forefathers were boys nearly devoid of boyhood.

- Gilberto Freyre

The mammy figure, while a personification of the aristocratic ideal of servility, turns up in sociologist Gilberto Freyre's early publications and in several Modernist writings (fiction, poetry, plays, memoirs) as evidence of the harmony, or "sweetness" inherent to the relationships between whites and blacks within the intimate space of the Brazilian patriarchal family. It also suggests the healthy, affectionate, and sanitary relations between the plantation house and the slave quarters. Indeed, as a redeemed version of the Belle Epoque (1889-1914) contagious and morally corrupt wet nurse, the Modernist memorialized mammy was glorified for her unconditional devotion to her foster white children, as well as for her "place of honor" in the plantation house. In addition to their recurrent association of the mammy to the values of loyalty, maternal devotion, and religiosity, the Modernists would also emphasize her central role in "tropicalizing" the European Portuguese language and folklore. I shall argue that the ultimate aim of these strategies is to de-eroticize the mammy's contact with the aristocratic family and children, and exemplify less threatening, asexual forms of Afro-Brazilian assimilation.

It is a known fact, however, that these intellectual and artistic advocates of the Afro-Brazilian culture do not always exhibit in their writings a pure and asexual view of the relationship between the black wet nurse and her white foster son. For instance, Freyre's first allusion to a black nursemaid in Casa-grande e senzah: introduçâo à historia da sockdade patriarcal no Brasil (1933) points precisely to the impact of that relationship on the child's sexuality. According to him, "[t]here have been those who have suggested the possibility that much of the sexual penchant for women of color by the family-son in enslaving countries developed from the child's intimate relationship with a black wet nurse" (343; my emphasis).1 To Freyre, due less to fashion, as was the case in Europe, than to necessity, "precocious fifteen-year-old mothers," "small-bodied" and with numerous offspring, required assistance with their mothering from black slave women-women with "better eugenic qualities" (414) than whites for breastfeeding, according to the day's medical literature and public opinion up until the first half of the nineteenth century. In addition to breastfeeding, other duties were transferred to a slave woman, such as child's hygiene, a task, according to Freyre, that was also better performed by the nurse than by the "legitimate" white mother. "Rigid notions [brought from Europe] about restraint and protection," he argues, as well as the "superstitious [Portuguese] horror of bath and air [as] harmful to children in a temperate climate, often times meant death in a hot climate" (418).2 If on the one hand, therefore, Freyre elevates such physical tasks as breastfeeding and child hygiene, emphasizing the historical context - child mortality, early motherhood-surrounding the black wet nurse's emergence on the scene in the patriarchal family life, on the other, he himself highlights the impact of such care, or "intimate relationship," on the child's sexuality. Freyre thus reinforces the bourgeois panic about interracial domestic "promiscuity," that is, the "family-son's" "sexual penchant" for women considered culturally and morally "inferior," and what is worse, the child's possible identification with the values of this social "underclass."

It is not surprising, then, that the Guia medica das mâes de familia, by Doctor J. B. A. Imbert (1843), which Freyre chose to substantiate the colonial period's preference for the slave wet nurse, nonetheless emphasized "the need for family senhoras to supervise [their] black nurses" (415). The nation's modernization project, which mobilized various members of urban elites in the second half of the nineteenth century, would intensify the proliferation of regulatory discourses on family and domestic life, such as medical guides similar to Dr. …

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