Barbara Weinstein. The Color of Modernity: São Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Brazil. Radical Perspectives Series. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. Illustrations. 472 pp. $30.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-5777-3; $109.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-5762-9.
Reviewed by Colin M. Snider (University of Texas at Tyler)
Published on H-LatAm (June, 2017)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
As a quick glimpse at the historiographical record reveals, scholars have shed no small amount of ink exploring the ways in which race in Brazil operates and is expressed through mechanisms like region or modernity even amid Brazilian claims of racial democracy. Yet Barbara Weinstein’s landmark study The Color of Modernity: São Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Brazil is a major and groundbreaking contribution to the scholarship on race, region/nation, and notions of modernity in Brazil. The Color of Modernity is that rare book that prompts historians to reconsider many things they thought they understood about Brazil, even as it offers innovative approaches to the consideration of region for scholars of Latin America and beyond.
At its core, The Color of Modernity explores how São Paulo discursively established its regional identity via exceptionalist narratives that privileged and linked whiteness, modernity, and development in what was alternately an overtly and latently racialized project. Weinstein’s opening inventively distinguishes between notions of internal colonialism and internal Orientalism, deploying the latter to illustrate how, far from retroactively reflecting its past, paulista exceptionalist narratives preceded and constituted São Paulo’s place in Brazil. As Weinstein illustrates, São Paulo’s emergence as a national power occurred in the late nineteenth century, at the height of ideologies of scientific racism. From their genesis, regionialist narratives of paulista identity could not avoid privileging whiteness as modern and civilized. The high degree of European immigration to the city also helped reinforce notions of São Paulo as simultaneously white and modern, setting the stage for subsequent racialization of region (and the regionalization of race). The remainder of the book focuses on two key moments—the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolution and the 1954 quatercentenary of the city’s founding—to explore the ways in which a variety of actors deployed such racialized visions of modernity and region, even as such notions transformed in response to their political, cultural, and social contexts.
This synthesis cannot begin to capture the depth, range, and focus of Weinstein’s analysis. By using 1932 and 1954 to understand the intersections of race and modernity, Weinstein provides pioneering ways to understand regionalism and identity not just in Brazil but anywhere. She abandons the naturalization of region and the juxtaposition of region as something that stands in opposition to nation. Instead, Weinstein uses the case of São Paulo to show the symbiotic, if tension-riddled, relationship between regional identity and nation, with paulista narratives simultaneously situating their contribution as vital to the nation even while setting themselves as superior within it. Her discursive analysis of region moves beyond a myopic, internal consideration of region to explore how notions of difference within and between varying regions simultaneously constitute one another and contribute to struggles in defining the nation. Typically, regional studies of Brazil have treated regions as hermetically sealed units that developed their exceptionalist narratives from an internal gaze to the region’s population, history, and culture. Countering this dominant trend, Weinstein draws on Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) to illustrate how intellectuals, politicians, artists, and others in São Paulo, alongside foreign diplomats and travel writers from the United States and Europe, discursively defined themselves against a Brazilian Northeast. This intra-regional juxtaposition provided paulistas and outside observers a racial and developmental “other” against which to establish paulista exceptionalism. And it was not just those in São Paulo who reinforced their own notion of paulista identity; those in the Northeast also juxtaposed themselves against São Paulo’s alleged “modernity,” even while they reified regional identities that associated São Paulo with an (implicitly white) modernity. The result was that regionalist narratives and discourses of São Paulo as white and modern were not mere constructions of a handful of paulista intellectuals but a much broader process of identity construction both from within and without the state.
This new approach to regionalism is far from Weinstein’s sole methodological contribution. She anchors her discursive analysis in material experiences and everyday lives in important ways. All too often, works that focus on discourse lack historical subjects who articulate or experience changes wrought by such discourses. Weinstein avoids this pitfall by focusing on a wide range of individual actors who contributed to and reified such discourses. Her work goes a great distance to illustrate discursive geneses that focus on not only who articulated such discourses but also how such discourses rippled throughout São Paulo and the nation and affected everyday lives, be it in governmental policy, state-led celebrations, or even working-class migrants’ assumption that, by working in São Paulo, they were superior to workers in other states. Such approaches allow her to offer a compelling, Foucauldian consideration of ruptures as much as continuities in questions of identity and discourse. Likewise, she abandons analyses of power that dichotomize into either history from the “top-down” or “bottom-up,” instead encouraging scholars to explore the history of power, discourse, and identity “from the middle” (p. 118). Such an approach offers an important reminder to scholars who often divide society into a Manichaean “elites and workers” framing of the role that middle classes have in discourses of identity, both as subjects and objects.
Weinstein’s work is meticulously and exhaustively researched, drawing on materials ranging from regionalist tracts to secret police files, from newspapers and governmental archives to foreign travel writings and diplomatic reflections, from propagandistic posters to paintings and statues. Such a breadth of sources allows her to unmask various tensions in Brazilian history, be it São Paulo’s claims to whiteness amid a rhetoric of racial democracy or the tensions between regionalist narratives that simultaneously situate themselves as part of, yet exceptional within, the nation. And as thorough and detailed as Weinstein’s analysis is, as it progresses, the focus does shift from São Paulo-as-state to São Paulo-as-city, something she herself admits. Her reasons for this shift are compelling and her analysis thorough, but this shift also points to avenues for future studies regarding race and region. It would be especially interesting to see how these notions of regionalism operated in the rural parts of the state or in cities outside of the state’s namesake, such as Campinas (originally a larger settlement in the colonial past, as she notes) or Ribeirão Preto.
This observation in no way is meant to detract from the innovative and transformative impact of Weinstein’s work overall. If the utility of The Color of Modernity were simply confined to Brazilian historiography, it would be invaluable simply for the new angles, interpretations, and insights Weinstein offers on well-known subjects like 1922’s Modern Art Week, the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolt, or the mid-century populism and urban migration. However, her conceptual consideration of the intersectionality of hierarchical systems like race or modernity with each other and with region render her analysis invaluable to more than just Brazilianists. Her analytical insights on region—its multiplicity and intersectionality within a country; its mutually constitutive nature; its tense, but not automatically oppositional, relationship with national identity—offer invaluable insights for Latin Americanists more generally (as her allusions to Bolivia and Colombia suggest) and to any country where regional identities play vital parts in hierarchizing identities based on place within a nation. In The Color of Modernity, Weinstein has produced a work that will long be invaluable to scholars of region, race, or modernity throughout the hemisphere and beyond.
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Colin M. Snider. Review of Weinstein, Barbara, The Color of Modernity: São Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Brazil.
H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews.
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