The purpose of this paper is to add to the body of studies on colonial and post-colonial black writers who incorporate or appropriate the classics in their works. When considering the subject of classical reception in the works of black writers in the Americas, in regards to issues of racial and national identity, one would do well to look towards Brazil. Most African slaves brought into the continent during the colonial period (1500- 1820’s) ended up there, and Brazil remains the country with the largest black population outside of Africa (50.7% of the overall population). In this paper, I will discuss the literary productions of two colonial and early post-colonial Afro-Brazilian writers, the poet Luís Gama (1830-1882), and the novelist Machado de Assis (1839-1908). Both writers are part of the country’s literary canon, and both produced literature which engaged with the classics in ways that directly and indirectly relates to race-specific concerns (e.g. Luis Gama’s poem Orfeu de Carapinha, ‘Kinky-Hair Orpheus’, and Machado de Assis’s Carta à Mario de Alencar, ‘Letter to Mário de Alencar’). Machado de Assis wrote dozens of novels and short stories, many translated into English (e.g. The Posthumous Memoir of Bras Cubas, 1881; Esau and Jacob, 1904), and is internationally recognized, especially in academic circles. Luís Gama wrote a famous collection of poems (Primeras Trovas Burlescas de Getulino, 1904), and though less well-known outside Brazil, he is extraordinarily important for the literary development of Afro-Brazilian Literature as the first poet to explicitly assert himself as a black subject within his poems
Since the selected texts I will consider here were originally written in Portuguese, they do not benefit from the same scholarly exposure and treatment as do similar works produced in the Anglophone world. Therefore, I hope to make them more accessible and visible to a larger audience outside Portuguese-speaking contexts, specifically through the lens of classical reception and racial representations. The relevance of this study for classicists is in the extent to which both Luís Gama and Machado de Assis can be read as part of a similar literary tradition among Anglophone black writers who also dealt with the classics, such as Ralph Ellison (The Invisible Man), W.E.B. Dubois (The Souls of Black Folk), Derek Walcott (Omeros), as well as among scholars whose research in reception address the subject of blacks and classics, or blacks in classics, such as Michelle Valerie Ronnick (The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader, 2006), Patrice Rankine (Ulysses in Black, 2006), and Emily Greenwood (Afro-Greeks: Dialogues between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century, 2010), to name just a few. In other words, it is appropriate to bring Afro-Brazilian writers who address the classics into the fold of classical reception via translation.
While the classics have had a well-established literary and academic tradition in Brazil, black writers have interacted with this tradition obliquely, marginally, or subversively. Luís Gama and Machado de Assis receive and handle the classics in ways that are relevant to representations of race both as individual, and collective identities, as well as national identity. The classical presences in these writers are often and interestingly deployed to serve as social commentary, satire, and the dramatization of closeness and distance, silence and resistance in relation to the mainstream culture. Insofar as both writers were mulatto authors, I also examine the extent to which their own racial hybridism may be a factor in the ways they represent ‘the classical’, now as and body of knowledge referring to ancient Greece and Rome, now as an expression of cultural ‘gold’ standard and superiority, and again as a viable mode of self and collective expression through language.