Geniuses of the “race” – Djamila Ribeiro and Jones Manoel

Image: Engin Akyurt


Tracing the profile of certain relevant characters can lead us to better understand the historical period in which they are inserted

“Every genius is idiosyncratic, extremely arbitrary […] audacious […] [and] self-confident […]: [they are] exceptional” (Harold Bloom).

One of the ways in which we can understand certain eras – their thoughts and/or ideas, their predominant issues, their hegemonic culture and those that oppose it, and their political clashes – is to turn our attention to the most relevant characters of these historical periods. Some literary genres are consecrated for this task of great appreciation. The biographies of unique figures and the introduction to the reflections of a classical theorist are among the most mobilized. There is another genre or modality of making such an incursion into time: and its ultimate meaning. Writing profiles, short essays that briefly articulate the trajectory of significant people with specific points of the reflections they develop, is a suggestive style for understanding not only those portrayed but the time in which they live. Some intellectuals throughout the twentieth century wrote profiles that not only expressed the above considerations, but also part of the world view they profess. These are the cases of Jürgen Habermas (Philosophical-Political Profiles, publisher Taurus, 1984), Florestan Fernandes (The Necessary Contestation: Intellectual Portraits of Nonconformists and Revolutionaries, Ática publishing house, 1995) and Perry Anderson (Selective Affinities, publisher Boitempo, 2002). In some cases, by no means does it mean agreement with the drawn profile; sometimes there is a profound disagreement, as is the case with Anderson, in the essays he wrote about Norberto Bobbio, the intransigent right at the end of the century (Hayek, Strauss, Oakeshott and Schmitt) and John Rawls. Roughly tracing the profiles of Djamila Ribeiro, political philosopher from São Paulo, and Jones Manoel, Marxist historian from Pernambuco, is an exercise that can stimulate us about the moment in which we live in Brazilian society: its contradictions, its disagreements, its historical mistakes, its uniqueness, its positive aspects (few, very few, but there are…) and the most decisive of its contemporary political clashes. Thus, the two black personalities are geniuses of the race – in the double sense in which the expression acquires here. They are exponents of the new generation of black intellectuals who appeared on the public and intellectual stage of the nation after June 2013; and they are geniuses in the sense of the poet and essayist Enzra Pound.

A Digression into Poundian Genius

While the diluters are those who share their aesthetic and literary experiences with the other members of the community in which they live, the masters are men and women who articulate diverse constructions of the world of culture to conform certain distinct elaborations in terms of the arts (in general). Geniuses are in another realm of ordinary living for most humans. They are inventors of new existential circumstances; in their realization we find something that one might say did not belong to the immediate horizon of the commons that were relatively around them. pound[1] will say that geniuses are men and women: “whose work gives us the first known example of a process”[2]. But how do they make them? It is in the elaboration of another language (spoken and written) that they establish and extract unexpected meanings from the things under examination.[3], because while the majority is facing what has already been established, with what has already been given and what is already conventionally oriented by the norms of socialization and morality – whether sophisticated or commonplace – genius erupts with its own diction and forges a set of intellectual possibilities and practices that were not in the future. Another genius of the race, Marcel Proust, said in his In Search of the Lost Time that no one has ever imagined what it is to engender an “artistic” (cultural and political) object. A poem, a painting, a song, a philosophical and political reflection, a novel – bring suffering, anxieties, challenges imposed by the materiality of the social, failures, the non-understanding by those who live the simple and routine. Dissatisfied and irascible fools with the new are present in the very existence of inventors. (Indeed: “the saturation of language”[4] with unusual epithets, with disruptive forms and unique diction, he has always challenged the sacred structures that organize the daily lives of men in society. So, in a way, do the two black geniuses of the race.)

The Black Feminist and the Black Marxist

It is important to say right away that I have profound disagreements with the thinking and modes of action of Djamila Ribeiro and Jones Manoel. Which, in this context, do not see the occasion to be immediately polemically explained, although I cross them to some extent in the course of the essay. Graduated in philosophy by one of the most prestigious institutions of public education in Brazil, Federal University of Sao Paulo - Unifesp, Djamila undertook master's research in which he dealt with two of the most important left-wing intellectuals of the XNUMXth century. Guided by philosopher Edson Telles (human rights researcher via Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben and Michael Foucault), Djamila theorized about the feminist political thought of Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler. (As a matter of fact, even with some inaccuracies on my part, the debate about feminist thought was taking incipient steps towards a new recovery with the presence of hitherto little-studied authors, and the work and interventions of the Unifesp philosopher certainly boosted this process.) She, Ribeiro, was then moving into a peculiar phase of her intellectual and political trajectory. After being executive secretary of the municipal portfolio for Human Rights under Fernando Haddad of the PT, Djamila would innovate the entire language of feminist struggles in Brazil. Based on the “material support” of Boitempo and its publisher, Ivana Jinkins, she would disseminate to Brazilian readers one of the main American philosophers, the icon of the new left and of the American black movement, the thinker Angela Davis. So, not only Woman, Race and Class she entered the circuit of studies and activism in the country, as she launched the young black philosopher onto the public stage of disputes over ideas and political ideas. But it's with your rehearsal Place of Speech and her role as editor (of the collection Plural Feminisms) that Djamila will place herself as one of the most influential thinkers in contemporary intellectual history that Brazil would come to know. I insist that I disagree with your theoretical and political positions (especially those of the last period…); however, it is necessary to recognize that Ribeiro put into circulation a whole vocabulary (concepts themselves, to speak with Koselleck) that today spreads through the national public debate. Place of speech, representativeness, empathy, institutional racism[5], intersectionality, and colorism are inescapable lexicons for most or most of those involved in the struggle of ideas and political disputes. Djamila Ribeiro is, therefore, an event [ereignis] in itself. So, with her came a series, or at least acquired projection and space, of other researchers, intellectuals and activists of black feminism (which today is experiencing some disagreements and shocks), as well as it was from her relative “influence” , indirect rather, than theorists such as Bell Hooks, Patricia Hill Colins, Audre Lorde and even Tony Morrison and Lélia Gonzáles (the latter important and decisive black Brazilian philosopher and anthropologist with work written in the 1970s and 1980s, but not remembered in the patrimonialist academy -patriarchal and by our slave culture) became known, read and published by Brazilian publishing houses. The feat is, to go back to Pound, genius. There are few authors, thinkers who can put their own vocabulary into circulation and from there draw the lines of discussions. It goes without saying that for a black (woman) person… In Brazil, in terms of the world of ideas, certain characters in our intellectual life have succeeded: Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (a cordial man); Gilberto Freyre (racial democracy); Florestan Fernandes (bourgeois autocracy); Sérgio Abranches (coalition presidentialism); Roberto Schwarz (out of place ideas); André Singer (Lulismo). We don't need to prevaricate to admit what place of speech is found in this perspective; it is obvious with its due substantive proportions, time and social and linguistic context – well, no one who writes the social and cultural history of Brazil in the first three decades of the 21st century can fail to cite this formulation as fundamental to understanding our society in the period from then. However, the black philosopher faced polemics, harsh criticism, resistance, sometimes misguided debates and misunderstandings. Her position has always oscillated between a firm refusal of any critical look at her work and a more restricted dialogue with her immediate circle of readers. Like any and all great public intellectuals, and as it could not be otherwise, Djamila Ribeiro sometimes protects herself with the coffin of vanity that is peculiar to her – but that belongs to the public world and light (Hannah Arendt).

Jones Manoel is no different[6]. Vain and bold. But if Djamila is sometimes sober and elegant in her affectation, this is not the case with Manoel: with an ironic, irreverent and sarcastic verve, he is always facing his contenders. Pernambucano – the young black man is a historian by training, with postgraduate research, also at one of the largest public education institutions in the country, the Federal University of Pernambuco. There he developed master's studies on the main promoter in Brazil of the work of the Italian Antonio Gramsci. Former PCB militant, Carlos Nelson Coutinho was not only a disseminator of the thought of the Italian communist author of the Prison Notebooks; the reflections he undertook were attentive to the modes of political and social transformation of the Brazilian reality, above all in the immediate frame of reference of the death throes of the military-civil-business dictatorship installed here via a coup in 1964. Coutinho, not without receiving countless criticisms and negatives from sectors of the national left, postulated at the end of the 1970s the notion of democracy as a universal value, so that with its radical expansion (insurrectional in some aspects) we could not only abandon the government of the coturnos and enter the democratic regime, but also make the conditions for socialism. It is on this important thinker of left-wing culture in Brazil that Jones Manoel focuses in the investigations he carried out in the Graduate Program in Social Work from UFPE. Thus, when investigating Coutinho's strategic conceptions, Jones Manoel was necessarily forced to focus on part of the history of ideas and actions of the Brazilian left, and likewise on the tradition of the world left and Marxism. Hence his knowledge of the main debates waged throughout the twentieth century by socialists here and elsewhere. However, something distinguishes him from Djamila Ribeiro as a genius of the “race” (Poundian). In this aspect we have a paradox between the two black intellectuals. Then; while Ribeiro had to boldly launch himself into something “essentially new”, in fact invent a vocabulary and put it into circulation, which, as we have already said, led to a series of criticisms, misunderstanding and theoretical challenges and even personal inconveniences (unfortunately) , and this phenomenon is always difficult and brings inconvenience to inventors, to the extent that astonishment (the thaumazein of Socrates and Plato), and if it is a black amazement even more so..., displeases social and cultural conventions (in this case those of national white elite), Manoel enters an intellectual space that has long been consolidated. But with a highly distinctive particularity. If, on the one hand, the black historian and social worker manages to present himself in Brazil in a structured field with its habitus, codes and rites, namely, the social sciences and Marxism – there are 100 million (white) Marxists, as Nelson ironically said Rodrigues back in the 1970s – on the other hand, he is undoubtedly one of the main Marxist intellectuals of today. And more: he, Jones, puts himself clearly for those who want to listen and without pretense, which is sadly more than common in the contemporary Brazilian conciliatory left, as an intellectual and Marxist militant. In a field that in Brazil is predominantly white and accustomed to listening to researchers and university professors (and even members of leftist parties and organizations) to utter knowledge about the legacy of Marx, Marxists and Marxism – it was natural, well understood things in the “slavery” Brazil, that Jones Manoel would face difficulties and receive numerous criticisms. Frantz Fanon on Black Skins, White Masks commented that the danger is when a black person meets Montesquieu. Manoel's genius, however, is to mobilize all his knowledge of the critical culture of the national and world left and to participate in the most burning debates of the Brazilian reality, uttering precise and sophisticated comments on the situation, analysis of authors and thinkers, communist or not (such as the political theorist Hannah Arendt[7]), writing articles and publishing fundamental books for a generation that wants another future – I insist, by declaringly positioning himself as a Marxist intellectual, Jones not only spreads such a political and theoretical conception in those who exert influence, but also challenges the well-thinking and conformist status-quo ( Perry Anderson) from the national left. But as in the case of Djamila, obviously not for the same reasons (I obviously do not share his incessant action, in the last period at least, for solving the black problem via representation in circumstances of the current order), I vehemently disagree with his readings about the Stalinist experience after, "well after" you can say[8], the Russian Revolution of 1917. Stalin was not only the main figure of bureaucratic terror (as cynical and silly liberalism conveniently wants); he carried out a counter-revolution which uprooted much of the vanguard of the Bolshevik party reaching down to Trotsky in Mexico and which could establish another destiny for Soviet society and world socialism. This, however, is another discussion and is beyond the scope of this very brief profile.

Geniuses-Individuals in History and Their Role

The old George Plekhanov wrote, between the end of the XNUMXth century and the beginning of the XNUMXth, about the role of individuals in the history of human societies. The question and debate that took place in socialist circles was about whether individuals had, had and will have some role (the main one in this case) in major world events: wars, revolutions, crises. This was the moment of evolutionism; which radiated important assumptions in the SPD-German Social Democratic Party and II-International. In this case the dialectic, already questioned by the Bernstein-debate, lost its loci main. Social evolution would in any case dictate the destinies of European peoples – with or without the action of “historical” personalities in history. But Plekhanov, who inaugurated Marxism in Russia, and knew the texts of canonical social thought and past political experiences, held that individuals had, had and always will have a role to play in history. Not that they alone, like magicians pulling fundamentally non-existent solutions from any immediate perspective of social and material relations, will alter the course of time and the world, in the case here of the political struggle in Brazil. This was not what the Russian socialist argued. It's just that the individuals in history, the great personalities, the geniuses, can, thrown into the interior of historical, political, social and cultural forces, push certain trends even further. In his words: “the character of the individual constitutes a 'factor' of social development only there, only [...] at the time and only at the level permitted by social relations”[9]. The genius of Djamila Ribeiro and Jones Manoel certainly already plays a role in social struggles today – whether we like it or not. (Let us remember that both express the theoretical and cultural repercussions of June 2013 and the awakening of new black political subjects.) And it will most likely exercise in the next period, insofar as political disputes against the government of the Bolsonarist group and its project devastation of the country and its subalterns (black men and women, indigenous people, workers, LGBTQIA+, workers, oppressed women) will enter an acute phase by all indications. Concerning the black political and social subject, we will be faced with two strategies of action via the genius of one and the other: the incessant and obstinate search for black and female representation in the spaces granted by the current order – which, in a way, leads to confrontation with part of the dominant white elite, but is it alone, problematic and with complex implications – or the prospect of a kind of black-revolutionary Marxism suited to Brazil? (For my part, with the due and extensive divergences already explained a little while ago and others more, having for the last one – the black-working-class revolution.) It is to be seen which of the two geniuses of the “race” will triumph, in the pure sense of the word. In any case – beyond the triumph and the profound differences between them, they will remain geniuses of our intellectual and political history.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.


[1] I roughly appropriated the Poundian notion to interpret the profile of Djamila Ribeiro and Jones Manoel. They are not inventors tour court; there are some historical, cultural and country mediations as seen in the text.

[2] See Ezra Pound – ABC of Literature. Cultrix Publishers, p. 42.

[3] Ibidem, p. 33.

[4] Ibidem, p. 40.

[5] Here she shares the achievement, as far as I follow the debate and discussions, with other black theorists and intellectuals. Law theorist Adilson José Moreira, for example, uses a similar notion: recreational racism.

[6] It is not necessary to say or even comment on the mediation of the social phase of social networks as dynamics that interfere with the influence of one and the other. But this is right in front of our noses. And today, in the Covid-19 pandemic, which was not worth that expedient... In biblical language: throw the first stone. They are also prolific writers in cultural and political journalism. Djamila is a columnist for the largest newspaper in the country, Folha de São Paulo in addition to being a writer edited by Company of Letters and Jones is an analyst in some media and cultural spaces, such as Carta Capital Magazine, Boitempo Blog e Opera Mundi Magazine. The role of organizers of collections and books that both play stands out. One of the most prominent roles in the history of public intellectuals and one that hardly draws attention with a predominance, certainly bad, of university professors in some debates.

[7] It is worth mentioning here his controversy with one of the most important political philosophers in Brazil today and professor at Unicamp, Yara Frateschi. The debate texts can be easily crawled on Google.

[8] On the periodization of Stalinism, consult, who is interested, Pierre Broué – The Bolshevik Party, there are editions in Spanish, French and Portuguese. The unwary will be surprised by the development of the Stalinist bureaucracy and how it denied Bolshevism and the October Revolution.

[9] See George Plekhanov – The Role of the Individual in History. Antidote Publisher, 1977.

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