Brazil seen from the outside

Di Cavalcanti, "Carnival"


Commentary on the book by Thomas E. Skidmore

Thomas E. Skidmore (1932-2016) was certainly among the North American researchers dedicated to the history of Brazil who found the most readers in our country. This is explained, in part, by his predilection for contemporary political history. But it is important not to underestimate his sense of opportunity and, above all, his confession that he wrote with a Brazilian audience in mind.

Initially, Skidmore studied political science and philosophy at Denison. With the intention of devoting himself to academic life, he obtained a scholarship at the English University of Oxford, specializing in political and economic philosophy. In 1956, he entered Harvard, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on German politics after the end of the Bismarck era (the government of Chancellor Caprivi), and where, in 1960, he became a professor.

The impact of the Cuban Revolution provoked a reformulation of the North American school system in the area of ​​humanities, similar to what happened shortly before in the exact sciences with the Soviet Union leading the way in the space race. At Harvard, a Bliss family grant bolstered the Department of Latin American Studies. Skidmore took on the task of reinvigorating the history department, whose chair had been vacant since 1956.

Financed by a post-doctoral grant, Skidmore learned Portuguese, went on a trip in which he visited all regions of Brazil, and finally settled with his family in Rio de Janeiro between October 1963 and April 1964. first idea was to study the period after the proclamation of the Republic, the condition of a privileged ocular observer of the setting up and consummation of the 1964 coup pushed him into contemporary history.

Brazil: from Getúlio to Castelo (1969), his first book published here, had enormous repercussions. The scope, the focus on politics, at a time when there was a strong presence of censorship (and, therefore, self-censorship), made Skidmore the protagonist of a polemic about the sources of funding, the interests and objectives of the “Brazilianists”. Access to information that was not very widespread at the time, the procedure (common in North American historiography) of using interviews as a source of research, aroused unreasonable suspicions that were only completely resolved when Skidmore signed, in 1975, a petition against the torture practiced by military.

In the next book, Black on white: race and nationality in Brazilian thought (1976), Skidmore returns to the period in which he began his research, developing skills and interests awakened since graduation. In addition to political history, followed in an arc that extends from the beginning of the abolitionist campaign to the end of the First World War, it focuses on social history in a reconstitution of the “racial question” that belies the myth (disseminated by the work of Gilberto Freyre ) of Brazilian “racial democracy” and also about cultural history, insofar as it does not shy away from investigating the ideas and positions of the main intellectuals of the period.

His work continued in this vein, sometimes dealing exclusively with political history, sometimes mixing it with social and cultural history. In the first aspect, it is highlighted Brazil: from Castelo to Tancredo (1988), in the other lineage Brazil seen from the outside (1994). As the publication of the latter went almost unnoticed, it is convenient to approach it more slowly.

Nothing is more inappropriate in the case of Thomas Skidmore than trying to understand him through the metric (of Freudian origin, although frayed by misuse), which allows highlighting in some intellectuals concerns and questions that relate more to the reality of their country than to the nation they are researching.

Even when he resorts to facts of North American society – such as, for example, the racial segregation in force before the Civil Rights Act (1964) – to highlight the falsity of the thesis, spread worldwide in the post-war period, of Brazilian “racial democracy” , such opposition takes place in the frameworks, explained and justified by the author, of a comparative history.

In addition, its attention to themes, study methods and bibliography prevailing here, makes the title of the collection of articles, Brazil seen from the outside, indicate a theoretical position rather than a geographic position or something related to your condition as a foreigner.

Far from the mixture of subjectivism and dilettantism, predominant in travel reports, Skidmore's writings obey the traditional requirements of scientific knowledge: the search for neutrality and objectivity, maintenance of a certain distance, of exteriority in relation to the object of study.

The straitjacket of academic rules does not fail, on the one hand, to confine his texts to the rarefied space of papers, preventing him from even perceiving the formal novelty, the essayistic character of the books he analyzes, and also leads him, in another register, to an extreme rigorism that does not hesitate to censure Gilberto Freyre for his thematic and methodological heterodoxy. On the other hand, the concern to evaluate Brazilian history in an impartial way tends to push him to critical positions in the face of local intellectual dogmas.

The book consists of three parts that bring together articles that can be classified according to different academic specialties: the first block deals with the issue of national identity from the perspective of cultural history (or ideas); the second focuses on the racial issue from the angle of social history; and the last confronts Brazil and Argentina after 1945, in the record of comparative political-economic history.

The first part establishes a picture of the question about Brazilian identity based on intellectual attitudes towards the United States, prioritizing a cast of thinkers who are not very valued today, but with important repercussions in their time: Monteiro Lobato, Vianna Moog, Moniz Bandeira, etc. .

The relevance of this inventory becomes evident not only by highlighting that the United States, from 1889 onwards, came to be seen as a decisive factor in the construction of the Brazilian nation, either as an active presence or as a desired model; but also for showing how the hypotheses about the specificity of Brazilian society owe much to a comparative confrontation with the predominant idea here about how North American society develops. In the restricted universe of Skidmore's selection – weakened by the absences, among others, of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda and Celso Furtado (whose Economic Formation of Brazil has, by the way, as one of its main axes the comparison of Brazilian colonization with North American) – two names stand out: Gilberto Freyre and Eduardo Prado.

According to Skidmore, Freyre adopts the “rise and fall of the patriarchal family” as a key to understanding Brazilian history. Despite having created his own way of writing and conceiving it, inspired by the techniques of social anthropology, the results of Freyre's work were weakened both because of his heterodoxy (his initial attempt to interpret family history in terms of social history leads to an interpretation of Brazilian social history restricted to the scope of the family), as well as the positive appreciation it grants to the racial issue. His celebration of Brazilian uniqueness – Skidmore speculates – would have its origins in Freyre's experience of racial segregation in the southern United States.

Eduardo Prado, a Catholic, monarchist and anti-American activist at the turn of the century was more aware. Little affected by the positivist ideas that prevailed at the time, Prado diverted the question of national identity from the cultural sphere, taking it in its political dimension, which made his nationalism, in Skidmore's eyes, more fruitful and intelligent.

Although one of the author's concerns is to replace, in the discussion about race relations in Brazil, the subjective evaluation, the opinions based on anecdotal and non-quantitative evidence by the objective analysis of institutional data - which allows to clearly demonstrate that "race" is a significant variable in determining the life chances of Brazilians –, Skidmore also highlights the debate about the Brazilian national character.

After all, he recognizes, a long series of Brazilian essays addresses, albeit in a disguised way, racial relations, hiding, to a large extent, the complexity of the racial classification system in force in Brazil, constituting an ideology that is quite revealing of the self-image of the local elite. The operative ideal of this layer since 1920, the belief in “racial democracy” and “whitening”, derives from a “rationalization” of the practical impossibility of imposing endogamy and segregation, due to the low presence, in the colonial period, of Europeans, a process that forged a misleading perception of the Brazilian racial situation.

Skidmore, comparing the dynamism of racial perpetuation systems, does not hesitate to question one of the most cherished myths of Brazilian self-image: the situation of blacks in Brazil, according to him, would still be today, both in legal and social terms, much worse than that of the North American blacks.

The third part investigates the possibilities and limits of the formulation of national policies in two situations that are at the same time similar and different, the Vargas and Perón governments. The change in tone, focus and even bibliography (the sources, which used to be mostly Brazilian, are replaced by texts in English by foreign or Brazilian specialists) reflect a significant change – also present in Brazilian university production – of the North American academic view from Brazil. This is no longer considered an exception (the only Portuguese-speaking nation in Spanish America) and is increasingly understood as part of a bloc whose parts have, at least in the political and economic field, undeniable similarities.

*Ricardo Musse He is a professor at the Department of Sociology at USP. He edited, among other books, Contemporary China: six interpretations (Authentic).

Originally published on Boitempo's blog, on June 24, 2016.


Thomas E. Skidmore. Brazil seen from the outside. São Paulo, Paz e Terra, 1994, 292 pages.


BIEBER, Judy. “History of Brazil in the United States, 1945-2000”. In: BARBOSA, Rubens Antônio et alii (org.) The Brazil of the Brazilianists. Sao Paulo, Peace and Earth, 2002.

BOM MEIHY, José Carlos Sebe. The Brazilianist colony. Oral history of academic life. Sao Paulo, Nova Stella, 1990.

SKIDMORE, Thomas E. Brazil: from Castelo to Tancredo (1964-1985). Sao Paulo, Peace and Earth, 1988.

SKIDMORE, Thomas E. Brazil: from Getúlio to Castelo (1930-1964). Sao Paulo, Peace and Earth, 1969.

SKIDMORE, Thomas E. Black on white: Race and nationality in Brazilian thought. Sao Paulo, Peace and Earth, 1976.


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