Note on Language
The descendants of Africans in Brazil in the 1920s called themselves
and each other a broad array of terms. They used negro, de côr, de classe,
preto, pardo, mulato, other color terms, and all the terms for white shades
as well, of course—and many refused racial or color identifications at all,
sometimes successfully. Historical actors are as inconsistent as contem-
porary subjects; all of us encounter and use the instability of racial cate-
gories. So how should a historian write of such subjects when discussing
the impact of race?
For historians to use a single term carries elements of coercion, forc-
ing people into categories they resist or exceed, and ironing over bounti-
ful heterogeneity. Yet the use of multiple, inequivalent terms makes it dif-
ficult or impossible to recognize the organizing power of racism. Worse,
accepting the classification system on the ground in the period studied
can strengthen those elements in contemporary ideology that are the
legacies of that period. I negotiate between these twin dilemmas with a
split decision. In my own writing, I embrace the artifice of anachronis-
tic umbrella terms that highlight rather than conceal that process of co-
ercion and allow, albeit imperfectly, for a discussion of racism. For Bra-
zilian subjects I choose “Afro-Brazilian” and “Afro-descended,” the terms
emerging from anti-racist activism in Brazil since the late 1970s, avowals
of solidarity with Portugal’s ex-colonies in Africa and with Afro-diasporic
communities worldwide. I use “African American” for Afro-descended
North Americans not from Canada (gritting my teeth about the equa-
tion of “America” with the United States as the alternative is simply too
unwieldy). More happily, I use “Afro-American” for people of African de-
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