SLAVERY UNSEEN: Sex, Power, and Violence in Brazilian History

By Kuznesof, Elizabeth Anne | Estudios Interdisciplinarios de America Latina y el Caribe, January 2019 | Go to article overview

SLAVERY UNSEEN: Sex, Power, and Violence in Brazilian History


Kuznesof, Elizabeth Anne, Estudios Interdisciplinarios de America Latina y el Caribe


LAMONTE AIDOO, SLAVERY UNSEEN: Sex, Power, and Violence in Brazilian History. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018.

Lamonte Aidoo's goal in Slavery Unseen is to "read the story of Brazilian slavery against the silence, contradictions, shame, and concealment surrounding the black body" (p. 10). His approach consists in focusing chapters on particular areas of exploitation in slavery and post-abolition that relate to sex and violence, often within same-sex relationships. He completely reverses the narrative of "racial democracy" that has dominated most of the literature related to the history of Brazilian race relations and reframes it as a history of exploitation. His methodology is narrative and primarily based on textual accounts such as Inquisition records. He argues that it is impossible to assign frequency to any of these events and some of his argument relies on reactions to works of fiction that depict slaves or white men in ways that readers found objectionable. While the book has a specific focus and uses individual stories to make its arguments, it is also in many ways a general discussion of Brazilian history and society. Aidoo discusses the actual history of slavery in rather summary fashion and makes an argument on race relations and passing which returns to historical discussions of comparative slavery and race relations in the U.S. and Brazil. He also includes two chapters focusing on post-abolition policies that are intrinsically racist. This book is less an historical study than an interpretation of Brazilian violence and sexuality in history.

Aidoo's focus on the particular conditions of the "many slaveries" in Brazil links to different cultural, geographical, and social contexts. The "slaveries" also elucidate the particular forms of exploitation shown in each chapter. In this approach, Aidoo emphasizes the power differential between slave and free, but also the effect of areas of "sameness" (for example, the ownership of slaves by free black slave masters, or interracial power relations within a single gender). He argues that "sex was necessarily central to both the institution of slavery and ... the construction of the myth of racial democracy" (p. 25). He believes that the conflation of interracial sex and antiracism still persists today and obscures forms of exploitation and violence. Racial and sexual violence pervade Aidoo's narrative while he argues against the myth of racial democracy.

In the chapter on social whiteness, Aidoo addresses relations between slaves and free people of African descent to show how "whites retained control over who could pass as white and who could not." Passing functioned as a "mechanism of containment, both securing the loyalty of black passers and upholding their preexisting racially based power and privilege" (118). The idea that blacks and mulattos are only white as long as whites are in agreement with their whiteness, so that "passing" itself is contingent and unstable, is crucial to Aidoo's analysis. The passing had to work in agreement with the social order. …

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