Autobiography of the Slave-Poet

Image: Elyeser Szturm, series We


Commentary on the book by the Cuban Juan Francisco Manzano

There is no news, in Brazil, of any text written by slaves. We know of some music, painting, sculpture or architecture made by black hands, often under the threat of the whip. Even considering that the vast majority did not know how to write, it is reasonable to think that the first literate people narrated their stories. There are freed black poets and writers descended from slaves (by the way, they are among the greatest in our literature), but contemporary accounts of slavery, if there were any, were hidden or destroyed.

In all of Latin America, the only known slave-author is the Cuban Juan Francisco Manzano (1797-1854). His writings were translated into English in 1840, sponsored by a group of British abolitionists. In the United States, ex-slaves were encouraged to tell their stories, and this led to the emergence of various testimonial historical documents, such as the famous 12 years of slavery, by Solomon Northup, adapted for the cinema and awarded the Oscar for best film in 2014. In America of Iberian colonization, this did not happen.

Manzano was translated among us by the writer Alex Castro. In a careful research effort, the Brazilian traveled to Cuba to see the autographed manuscript, organized the versions of the base text, collated the existing interpretations and made two recreations: a faithful translation, maintaining the original spelling and syntax, and a transcreation in Portuguese contemporary, within the cultural norm. It is clear that reading this second version is recommended for those who want to have a first contact with the life of Manzano, leaving the first for scholars who want to delve into the work of the Cuban pioneer.

We can say that A Autobiography of the Slave-Poet (Hedra) is a unique work, fundamental to a better understanding of slave relations in colonial America. It has an enlightening introduction by Professor Ricardo Salles, photographs, reproductions of the manuscript and careful linguistic, historical and social research carried out by Alex Castro. His notes enrich the reading with precious historical, sociological, and linguistic details.

During the reading, Manzano's fear of being censored, of seeing his work disappear, can be seen. He avoids speaking ill of his masters, and even when he describes the terrible punishments, the scourgings, the inhuman privations, he blames the taskmasters and foremen at most, not the masters. A literature of the oppressed, who cannot get rid of fear, and which even so reveals a painful and dark universe, capable of impressing its readers almost two centuries later.

It is painful to realize, in the middle of the 1988st century, that the rulers of the last nation to abolish slavery in the Americas (Brazil) still applaud the masters and condemn the slaves. The policies of repairing damages (quotas), of ethnic equality, of basic principles of modern democracy, enshrined in the 2002 Constituent Assembly and deepened by the country's first left-wing government in XNUMX, are being dismantled with increasing speed by the genocidal government of Bolsonaro .

By placing in the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights a sinister and retrograde figure like the evangelical Damares Alves, defender of one of the most absurd projects conceived in this country, the “Escola Sem Partido”, the current mismanagement reaffirmed its commitment to racial discrimination, the perpetuation of racism, the extermination of indigenous nations and quilombolas, blatantly favoring the economic exploitation of their ancestral territories.

The horror that Manzano experienced in Cuba in the XNUMXth century is manifested today with the massacre of the black population, young people from the periphery, police abuse based on skin color. Those responsible for Marielle Franco's murder would likely have been arrested by now if she had been a middle-class white woman. But she was a black woman, like the young people slaughtered in the Paraisópolis massacre, like the thousands who are passed over for jobs because they are black, like the millions of people offended daily by the supremacist arrogance of an elite forged in a slave-owning society. This arrogance is transmitted to the white petty bourgeoisie that sees in racism a possibility of humiliating the maid's daughter, who dared to take her son's place at a public university.

But let's get back to the slave-poet, before hopelessness clouds our perception of beauty. Here is Manzano's most famous sonnet, My Thirty Years, full of meanings. Legend has it that when he recited it to a cultured audience, it provoked so much emotion that it motivated a movement to buy his freedom.

When I look at the space traveled
From my cradle, and all my progress,
I shudder and salute my success
More out of terror than out of love.
I am amazed at the fight that I, fought
I held against fate vile and cold,
If I can call it that the porfia
Of such an unhappy and ill-born being.
Thirty years I have been alive on earth.
Thirty years ago, in a groaning state,
Sad fate assails me everywhere.
But nothing is for me the hard war,
What in vain sighs have I endured,
If I compare it, oh God!, with what I lack.
(Translation: Pablo Zumarán)

* Daniel Brazil é writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.

Originally posted on Phosphorus, in 2015, updated and expanded.



Juan Francisco Manzano. Autobiography of the slave-poet. Translation: Alex Castro. São Paulo, Hedra, 224 pages.


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