Black Roots Tourism in Brazil

Salvador, Bahia, Brazil (Flickr: Matt Kieffer)

Patricia de Santana Pinho’s Mapping Diaspora: African American Roots Tourism in Brazil is a compelling ethnography that explores the journeys and motivations of African American roots tourists in Bahia, Brazil. Pinho conducted “irregular and intermittent ethnographic work” over a period of 12 years for this methodologically rich, multi-disciplinary text. Pinho utilized diverse methods such as participant observation (i.e. events of the Coordination of African Heritage Tourism [CAHT] and accompanying a tour group of African Americans during their trip to Bahia and Rio de Janeiro), qualitative semi-structured interviews (with tourists, tour guides, travel agents, Afro-Brazilian leaders, intellectuals, artists, and activists), and an analysis of magazines, books, films, and tourism promotional materials. Thus, it is an ethnography firmly grounded in history, the archives, and media.

Drawing upon David Hellwig’s classic volume African American Reflections on Brazil’s Racial Paradise (1992), chapter one examines the history of African American engagement with Brazil. While many now reject the myth of racial democracy, in the 1920s, African American physician L.H. Stinson (incorrectly written as “Stinton” in the book) claimed that Brazil would be an ideal place for US Blacks to migrate. Pinho continues this historical grounding by tracing the origins of African American roots tourism in Brazil to the late 1970s (1). In highlighting the pivotal role that Alex Haley’s Roots played in inspiring African American roots tourism to African countries, Pinho claims that “no other country outside the African continent has become as significant as Brazil for African Americans craving African heritage” (30).

Many of the African American roots tourists to Bahia that Pinho interviewed were college-educated, Protestant, retired middle-class professional women in their 60s and 70s who were affiliated with Black institutions. Many had already visited African countries prior to Brazil, and were very interested in ancestralidade (the heritage of the ancestors). Pinho points out that while ethnic tourism often emphasizes a search for “exotic cultures or the Other,” these tourists were seeking sameness and similarity as they visited capoeira schools, candomblé temples, and Afro-Brazilian social justice organizations. Notably, African American tourists were known for donating money to organizations that empower Afro-Brazilians. This is similar to Bianca Williams’s point in The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism (2018) that African American women tourists to Jamaica traveled with “diasporic heart” by engaging in strategic forms of “tourist consumption and spending practices” to maximize the impact their US dollars would have on Jamaican lives. Pinho highlights how the travels of African American roots tourists to Bahia were ultimately inspired by yearning and longing: they wanted to experience African traditions that were “lost among US blacks, yet preserved by Afro-Brazilians.” They wanted to feel what it was like “to be among a black majority” and to be able to “blend in” (45). As a Black U.S. woman who has been traveling to Salvador since I was a college student in 2001, I echo these desires.

Themes of diasporic identity construction through tourism, transnational Black solidarity, and the geopolitics of the Black diaspora are paramount in this book. Ultimately, the book makes two key arguments: 1) that tourism allows “oppressed communities to reinvent themselves and construct projects of solidarity across national boundaries” (22), and 2) African American roots tourism “strengthens the connections among diaspora communities” outside of Africa (2). In chapter 2, Pinho applies John Urry’s notion of “the tourist gaze” to African American roots tourists, and criticizes them for holding problematic ideas about Afro-Brazilians’ lack of modernity. This, in part, fuels her argument that roots tourism actually has “more in common with ethnic tourism than meets the eye” because both are “grounded on the asymmetry of transnational encounters … [and] … sustained by a Western gaze that represents the inhabitants of tourist destinations as living in the past” (95). This seems to contradict her earlier argument about roots tourists searching for sameness rather than the exotic Other.

Pinho defines solidarities as both “transformative political relations” and as “a transformative process that makes and remakes identifications” (140, 143). Chapter 3 discusses two cases of famous African American visitors who were barred from luxury hotels in Brazil due to racial discrimination (Carl Hart in 2015 and Katherine Dunham in 1950). Interestingly, both Hart and Dunham “strategically deployed the attention they received to shed light on the racism affecting black people in Brazil” (108). These cases, she argues, exemplify how African Americans use their “privileged positionality” (as Americans in Brazil) “to establish … solidarity with their diasporic counterparts” (108).

Chapter 4 foregrounds the gendered dimensions of travel, noting that women are often represented as the “guardians of culture,” and thus it is female tourists who “bring home the roots” (164). Many of the women Pinho interviewed understood travel as a way to recover “a lost heritage” that was “crucial for the cultivation of a strong and dignified black identity in the United States” (144). Pinho astutely notes that tourism literature more often portrays women as tourism workers rather than as tourists. She also noted that while many women preferred organized travel in groups for safety reasons, the “bubble” of package tours paradoxically “affects the prospect of establishing the much-desired connection with the diasporic counterparts” (148). In my estimation, this was the weakest chapter in the book. Given the overwhelming majority of African American women as roots tourists, the gendered dimensions should have been woven more throughout the whole text rather than relegated to a single chapter.

Pinho introduces the term, “map of Africanness,” as a framework for attributing meanings to particular countries such as Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. Within this framework, Bahia is seen as a “more accessible” or “closer Africa,” and it is associated with happiness (alegria) rather than the sorrow of the slave trade that haunts West Africa (2, 55). Chapter 5 describes the Bahian state’s “belated acknowledgment of roots tourism,” and discusses how tourism promotional materials like the Turismo Étnico Afro na Bahia (Afro-Ethnic Heritage Tourism in Bahia) book and the Viver Bahia magazine depend upon the discourse of baianidade (Bahianness) and “its reliance on stereotypical representations of blackness” (197). For instance, these materials have portrayed Bahia “as a magical place where one’s contained, essential blackness can be let loose” (173).

While this engaging ethnography is accessible to undergraduates, graduate students, and academics, I noticed a troubling issue concerning the politics of citation. With the emergence of the #CiteBlackWomen project, founded by Christen Smith in 2017, and the prevalence of conversations in the academy about the politics of citation, I was surprised to see Pinho write the following:

[R]eproducing the same old portrayals of Bahia as a mystic land of happiness, grounded on the harmonious mixture of races and cultures, the state government, even while led by a center-left political party, continues to feed the notion that Bahia is more a joyful state of the soul than a geographic state that is brutally marked with class asymmetries and racial inequalities. Furthermore, the same state that has, on the one hand … symbolically promoted black emancipation, has used the other hand to maintain its ruthless policing and oppression of the black poor. (199)

Of course, Pinho is absolutely correct in stating this. However, it must be noted that this was the major intervention and central premise of Christen Smith’s ethnography, Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil (2016). For instance, Smith states the following:

There is a paradoxical relationship between Bahia’s identity as an exotic, black, jovial play land where anyone, especially tourists, can enjoy black culture and black people and the state’s use of terror against the very black bodies that ostensibly produce this exotic space — afro-paradise. This gendered, sexualized and racialized imaginary has made the region a sizzling tourist industry on the one hand, and fueled the violent repression of black bodies on the other. (3)

I was dismayed to notice that Smith’s work was not cited anywhere in Pinho’s book, nor was it in the index or bibliography. Furthermore, in the Epilogue, Pinho notes a new trend in recent years of activist diaspora travel to Brazil. She concludes the book by positing the following:

Perhaps the younger generation of African Americans and Afro-Brazilians that have been mobilizing across national boundaries to fight the globalization of police brutality will gradually pave the way for a new trend of diaspora tourism, where searching for roots may be less vital than asserting, even now, the humanity of black lives. (206)

This notion follows Smith’s discussion of the React or Die!/React or Be Killed! Campaign to protest anti-Black genocide and their recent efforts in transnational organizing. Given its transnational framework and grounding in studies of the Black Atlantic, this book will appeal to Brazilianists, Latin Americanists, African American Studies, Anthropologists, and scholars of the African Diaspora.

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Erica Williams

Erica Williams is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Spelman College with interdisciplinary interests in Women’s and Gender Studies, Latin American Studies, and African Diaspora Studies. Her areas of expertise is on of race, gender, sexuality, tourism, and black feminist activism in Brazil. She is the author of Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements (University of Illinois Press, 2013). Follow her on Twitter @EricaLWilliams7.