Floating foams; The slaves



Excerpt from the Introduction to the new edition of two books by Castro Alves

Em The slaves, by Castro Alves, the encouragement of the insurrection of black captives runs parallel to compassion and, in an apparently paradoxical way, to a certain feeling of resignation in the face of torture and captivity. Here and there, the lyrical incitement of this insurrection represents a latent threat, driven by the example of the North American Civil War.

In “The Century”, young men and “the mouths of a thousand slaves” carve out abolition. The poem “Despero” unfolds according to the maxim that the crimes of a slave against those who imposed captivity on him are natural rights. In this work, black revenge is a sublime law, inherent to the human condition: “That says: 'In the shadow of crime/ Revenge must march'./ Don't you hear a cry from the North,/ That beats at the feet of the infinite,/ That Will Franklin wake up?”[I]. Along The slaves, the appeal in favor of black freedom also takes place as a celebration of historical figures who defended the abolitionist agenda,[ii] such as José de Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, Benjamin Franklin and Pedro Ivo.

“Bandido Negro” and “A Mãe do Cativo” are, among others, the most poignant poems in which the author prioritizes the praise of the black insurrection. The main aspect of Castro Alves' speech on the subject lies in the vivid intensity with which he dramatizes this revolt, thus designed to excite pity. The speech of the hero of “Black Bandit” predominantly adopts the present tense and, in doing so, makes his warlike actions present. In alternating sextilles and quatrains, the poem stages the hero's accelerated ride, together with his companions, towards the slave owner's farm to settle accounts. The sound intensity with which Castro Alves paints the central action of the poem is evident in the pounding rhythm of the verses and the gallop of the horses that imitate the hero's panting, anger and the cry for freedom he utters.

The poet intended serious and serious lyrical forms for the enslaved, including songs of troubadour extraction. “Black Bandit” is modeled on the ballad, a lyrical species of medieval origin, intended to narrate sinister or supernatural adventures of love, war and legendary subjects. The poem transposes the heroicization of the cursed and marginal character, or noble “bandit”, typical of romanticism, to the figure of black people, an elevation accentuated by his characterization as a fearless warrior or “African lion”.

The eight quatrains of the poem, alternating with the eight sextilles, always contain the same verses: “Fall, dew of the slave's blood/ Fall, dew on the executioner's face./ Grow, grow, red harvest,/ Grow, grow, fierce revenge .” The anaphoric repetition of “Cai, devalho” and “Cresce, cresce”, the alliterations, assonances and the regularity of the external rhyme (ABCB) recall the sound system of popular songs. Bearing in mind, however, that almost all stanzas contain images of blood, fighting and terror, the quatrains create an effect that oscillates between playful and sinister.

To evaluate the teachings that the mother intends for her son, “A Mãe do Cativo” is composed as a pretended dialogue between the lyrical self and the mute heroine of the title. While waging this debate, the poet incorporates into his speech the values ​​with which she educates him, focused on the practice of virtue, Christian humility and experience with “hard” work. But for the subject of the enunciation, this type of education forms a cowardly and servile individual.

In contrast, he advises, with a doctoral tone for contemporary tastes, the moral formation of a revolutionary leader who becomes familiar with situations of dishonor and misery, with a life of crime, in the cold and in the scorching sun. Among the advantages of this method, the boy, now an adult, in addition to not receiving misery and torture in exchange for his hard work, would not be forced to hand over his wife “to the debauched bed of the master himself!…”.

Other Castroalvin poems stimulate an indignant commotion against the commodification of the black body. But, unlike what happens in the poems above, some poems disseminate conformism. In “Lúcia”, the painting of affective relationships with the family that owns her body produces the image of the slave faithful to those who, supposedly kind, “wanted you so much and loved you”.

This patriarchal family contrasts with another type of patriarch represented in poems, such as in “Tragedy of the Home”, as a child-kidnapping executioner. Along The slaves, the most notable among this character's crimes is the instrumentalization of the letter of manumission in favor of the patriarch who, thus, frees himself from the expenses for the survival of the old enslaved people, condemning them to begging; the corruption of young black men by the patriarchy that forces them to commit criminal acts; torture; the sexual violence and prostitution of the black maiden; and the murder of so many others.

But in counterpoint to this type of patriarch, in “Lúcia” the sentimental argument that the white lyrical self learned, from the girl in the title, songs that mark his affective memory; that, even though she sold the heroin, this family treated her “as if she were a daughter and not a captive…”; All this does not imitate the existing, but the ideal of an impossibly benevolent paternalistic patriarchy. At the moment when Abolition was just flashing and while it did not arrive, Castro Alves prescribes the mythical relief of “softening” the slavery system.[iii]

In his poems starring, above all, enslaved women, children and elderly people, the lyrical self offers the consolation of freedom conquered through death. The resignation of these helpless characters stems, in large part, from the limits of the author's own “realistic” romanticism, which reduces revolutionary action to young male heroes. The jaguar's fury of the mother in “Tragedy in the Home”, against the kidnapping of her son, is not enough to stop the drug trafficking, which has been illegal for some time.

The possibility of revenge for young black warriors contrasts with the isolation to which women, children and the elderly are subject. In this way of representing the impossibility of reacting against captivity, the alliance between trafficking, the market and the farm, with the approval of justice, guarantees the almost absolute effectiveness of this system.

Despite this, in “Vozes da África”, Castro Alves, according to Alfredo Bosi, traces the slave regime back to a biblical origin and, in doing so, naturalizes and mythologizes it. The poem supports the ideology that Noah's condemnation of his son Ham would have been transferred to all his black descendants, in a myth that leads the African nation to apologize for its supposed ancestrally inherited error.[iv]

Analogously to what Madame de Staël proposes, in From literature,[v] Castro Alves' poetic system foresees, in the midst of its practical functions, to sing a groan in the face of the social evils that were plaguing the country, to sweeten the sacrifice of its citizens for the nation and to spread resignation: “It's just that to mourn the small pains, God made the affection, to mourn humanity – poetry”.[vi]

Recurrently, in The slaves, the condensed description of actions that represent the daily violence suffered by black people presupposes, in this complaint, properly bourgeois values[vii] or moral standards of conduct typical of the patriarchal layer, stylized as a negative absence. In the counterpoint that trafficking imposed on the formation of families by black people, Castro Alves idealizes loving relationships between them that are essentially monogamous, somewhat ascetic, typical of the bourgeois family. As seen in “Desperation”, family, religion and laws are, for him, the main institutions of civilization.

Em Paulo Afonso's waterfall, the poet wanted to make “the situation of the slave more hateful through the struggle between nature and social fact, between the law and the heart”.[viii] In Lucas, fraternal feeling, considered natural, is placed above the rights of the citizen. Among other precepts with which the poet stylizes Afro-descendant culture, there is a tendency in his poems to endow the black heroine with a supposed and valuable “instinct” of motherhood, recently invented with the rise of the bourgeoisie since the end of the 18th century. The black woman becomes an allegory of the mother, sister and lover, Marianly described as a saint, religiously responsible for the life and death of children and loved ones.

In “The violist's song”, the loss of the woman he loves implies the violist's decision to stop loving the land where he lives. In “Lúcia”, the sale of heroin shakes the feelings that linked her to the physical landscape of the region.

Thus, in the painting of African culture, Castro Alves, as already recognized so many times, speaks according to his social place, but not from the perspective of black people. Son of a well-to-do family identified with whites, the poet of The slaves He demands from his peers respect for the right of black people to exercise the same values ​​that the bourgeoisie held sacred. His work foresees as an implicit reader the literate people of the patriarchal layer whom he seeks to teach and correct.

In this sense, the poet does not propose to, and could not, trace the “cultural and psychological specificity of black people”, as José Guilherme Merquior wanted.[ix] Castro Alves characterizes his characters through categories external to their inner life, transforming them into an allegory of goodness or evil. This was a trend in Brazilian romanticism, although not exclusive. Gonçalves Dias, Maria Firmina dos Reis, José de Alencar (with the exception of Lady e luciola) and Castro Alves resort to the method of composing moral and sentimental characters and, in doing so, reduce human conflicts to a watertight opposition between vice and virtue, subject and object.

“The African Song” paints Africa using techniques similar to those that Gonçalves Dias uses in “A Escrava” (First chants, 1847) and Maria Firmina dos Reis, in Úrsula (chapter IX, “The black Susan”), using the metonymies of the scorching sun and the desert sand to represent that continent, but without alluding to the slave trade. In Castro Alves, Africa represents itself as a community whose members would live in supportive harmony, alien to commodification: “People there don't sell themselves/ Like here, just for money”.[X]

But in the vast majority of his poems, people of African descent identify with the Brazilian landscape. The poet thus distances himself from some romantics, such as Gonçalves Dias, who praise Africa as a strategy to defend the return of Africans to their origins, thereby excluding them from Brazilian citizenship. In Castro Alves, black women gain typical features associated with the tropical beauty of Brazil. By integrating black people into the local landscape, he keeps them included in the picture of the country's social life, recognizing that, despite their exclusion, they deserve the rights that belong to everyone.

As in much of the literate culture of the time, the feeling of belonging stylized by him is linked to the generality of the inhabitants of a nation, as seen in the song of the Spanish, Italian and English sailors in “The Slave Ship”. The alliance between poor working blacks and whites is not expressed in his work. His poetry understands that the deposition of a political regime is a joint work of the nation's inhabitants.

The figuration, in Castro Alves, of the feeling of belonging is linked to the entire national community, even though this feeling, invented recently, was not disseminated throughout the population, being restricted to the country's literate and political elite.

Castro Alves does not address the semi-slavery of free black workers, or poor white workers who, in their time, depended, to survive, on the ideology that the opportunity to work would be a benevolent action of the patriarchy, paid with poverty wages. Having lived in the period immediately prior to Abolition, the expansion of the labor market and the country's industrialization process, he died before he could witness the perpetuation of slavery practices in the lives of free black people, thrown into begging, and in that of the working class. His defense of the development of the country's productive and economic forces leads him to advocate formal, so-called “free” work.

Some of his poems identify the free worker with rural tasks. In “Ao romper d'alva”, the lyrical self qualifies the tropeiro as a singer of songs of longing for his beloved and distinguishes him by his use of ponche. The hyperbole with which the cowboy's intrepidity becomes indifferent to the roughness of the jurema's trunk and superior to the strength of the tapir, which hides in his presence, aestheticizes his work of leading the herd.

The praise of the freedom of labor activities of some free workers borrows resources typical of the regionalism in vogue. Setting them in a beautiful silent landscape, their painting also draws on themes from pastoral poetry. By bringing them closer to the figure of the pastor-singer, the poet left aside the social and economic experiences of the workers.

The urgency, in his work, of extinguishing slavery is realized, therefore, not only considering the philanthropic and humanitarian nature of this action. Conceived from the perspective of the progressive and democratic literate elite, the abolitionist themes of his poems are interconnected with the author's other liberal principles, considered an essential set for the country. Paradoxically, this idealism preaches the same productive forces of the global capital accumulation system that, in Brazil, always create obstacles to the achievement of these utopias.

Despite all this, the poet of The slaves In his time, he achieved to confer humanity on the enslaved and to dignify, in his own way, the black-themed poetry that had already emerged since the previous decade.[xi]

The greatest tribute that a romantic author pays to his heroes consists in affirming their autonomy, that is, the right to freedom to choose their mode of action, fairly and consciously, and to control the direction of their own life, the only way with which the individual, in this Kantian perspective, becomes properly human. In this sense, the greatest crime that someone can cause to another is to deprive them of this greatest good.

*Cilaine Alves Cunha is a professor of Brazilian literature at USP. She is the author, among other books, of The beautiful and the misshapen: Álvares de Azevedo and romantic irony (Edusp).


Castro Alves. Floating foams; The slaves. Text establishment: Ricardo Souza de Carvalho. São Paulo, Penguin & Companhia das Letras, 2024, 406 pages. [https://amzn.to/3TNMq50]


[I] ALVES, Castro. “The century” in Floating Foams/ The slaves. Org. Ricardo Souza de Carvalho. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2024, p. 216.

[ii] See FILHO, Domício Proença. “The trajectory of black people in Brazilian literature” in Magazine of the Institute of Advanced Studies, v. 18, no. 54, p. 164.

[iii] See COSTA, Emília Viotti da. From monarchy to republic. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2010, p. 291.

[iv] BOSI, Alfredo. “Under the sign of Ham” in colonization dialectic🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992.

[v] Alongside George Sand, Emilia de Girardin and Harriete Stowe, Castro Alves considers Mme. de Staël to be one of the representative women of those times who would still achieve, from this perspective, female emancipation and win her the vote. See ALVES, Castro. “Letter to the ladies of Bahia” in Complete work. Org. Eugênio Gomes. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Aguilar, 1997, p.772.

[vi] Idem. “Poetry” in Complete work, op. cit., p. 667.

[vii] Cf. CANDIDO, Antonio. Formation of Brazilian Literature. Belo Horizonte/ São Paulo: Ed. Itatiaia/ Edusp, p. 274-276,

[viii] ASSIS, Machado. Letter of February 18, 1868 to José de Alencar in ALVES, Castro. Complete work, op. cit., p. 797.

[ix] MERQUIOR, José Guilherme. From Anchieta to Euclides. Brief history of Brazilian literature. São Paulo, Realizações Editora, 2014, p. 164.

[X] ALVES, Castro. “The Child” in Floating foams/ The slaves, op. cit., p. 248.

[xi] For a survey of articles, works and writers who, with the enactment of the Eusébio de Queirós Law, in 1850, reflected on slavery or produced poetry with a black theme, cf. RAMOS, Péricles Eugênio da Silva. From baroque to modernism. Brazilian poetry studies. Rio de Janeiro: Technical and Scientific Books, 1979, p. 93-98.

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