Neither Black nor White by Carl N Degler (The MacMillan Company, New York: 1971) is a comparative analysis of the developments of slavery, with an emphasis on miscegenation between the United States and Brazil during the Colonial period. This work is an attempt to understand the nature of black and white relations in the United States by seeing such relations in a different national and social context. Mr. Degler’s original aim was to compare all of Latin American slavery to that of the United States, but after realizing the tremendous scope of such a task, chose to limit his analysis to a single Latin American nation. Brazil was selected because it rivaled the United States in size and because slavery played a major role in its history. Mr. Degler originally began exploring this topic with the intention of writing a scholarly essay to be published in a scholarly journal, but soon became fascinated with the topic and decided to turn the essay into a book. Mr. Degler engaged in writing this book with two questions in mind; Did slavery in Brazil differ substantially from that of the United States? And What accounted for the different development of race miscegenation in Brazil and the United States? Initially, Degler ascribed to the theory laid out by previous historians, that Slavery in South America was more humane, because of the sympathy of the Catholic Church towards slavery, and Portuguese Laws, which recognized the human rights of slaves. Believed to be in direct contrast with American slavery, which held that slaves were chattel property and possessed no rights the law was required to recognize. The Historians credited with advancing this position were; Frank Tannenbaum in his book Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas (Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1946) and Stanley M. Elkins in his book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago University Press: 1959). However, after further examination Mr. Degler changes his opinion and within the text of his book Neither Black nor White, presents data that substantiates the claim, that there was little or no difference in the legal definition of slavery between Brazil and the United States. He also argues that Brazilian slavery was physically harsher, thereby less humane, than that of the United States. The author offers six chapters in an effort to support his conclusions. Chronologically outlined the chapters are; The Challenge of the Contrast, Slavery Compared, The Outer Burdens of Color, The Roots of Difference, and A Contrast in the Future?
The purpose of chapter One is two define the contrasts in background between Brazil and the United States. Degler systematically examines several topics including: history, education, literature, visual arts, segregation, and engineering. Within each topic Mr. Degler gives concise examples of how Brazil embraced Negro contributions where American counterparts either suppressed or totally negated the possibility of Negro contribution. By illustrating the differences between the two countries, the author is preparing the reader to explore the question; how did countries with similar systems of slavery develop such different ideologies with regards to the acceptance of Negroes in society.
The Second and lengthiest chapter of Mr. Degler’s book is entitled, Slavery Compared. As the title suggests the author closely compares slavery between the two countries. The basis for his examination is the nineteenth century. The two factors that facilitated the selection of this time period where, that slavery was well established in both countries, and a wealth of evidence existed for making the comparison, during the time period. Under the sub-title, Who Protects the Slave’s Humanity? The author chronicles the fact that there was virtually no difference in the legal definition of a slave between the two countries. This is offered in contrast to one of the traditionalist arguments (Tannenbaum & Elkins), which asserts that Brazilian law did not consider slaves as chattel property like their American counterpart, thereby making Brazilian law more humane. As evidence he cites court records from both Brazil and the United States, which grants slaves dual status, as property and as persons. After acknowledging the superior clarity in which Brazilian law recognizes the human rights of slaves, he focuses on the protection of slaves from unjust treatment by their masters under the law in both countries, which he asserts meant nothing due to the fact that plantation owners operated with virtual anonymity with respects to the treatment of slaves, again in both countries.
The traditional view also holds that the Catholic Church was responsible for making slavery more humane in Brazil by allowing slaves to join congregations, form religious fraternal brotherhoods and recognizing marriages. In refute of this point, Degler argues that like the government of Brazil, the Catholic Church was not in any position to affect a significant number of slaves, citing the fact that many slaves only came into contact with pastors once a year. The author’s opinion seems to be that the differences between Brazil and the United States with regard to the law and religion existed on paper and in doctrine but not in actuality.
Brazil contained a significantly larger population of free blacks than that of the United States. Traditionalists espouse the large number of free blacks in Brazil to mean that Brazil was more accepting of free blacks. However, Degler attributes the large number of free blacks in Brazil to three factors. The first, being that there were simply more slaves in Brazil therefore resulting in more manumissions. The second factor being the practice of Portuguese slave owners freeing sick, elderly or crippled slaves in an effort to ditch future responsibilities, financially or otherwise. The third factor Degler attributes is the acceptance of free people regardless of color by the Portuguese; they did not fear agitation or reprisal from free blacks as their white counterparts in America. He offers the fact that there were jobs that needed to be preformed by free blacks and as a result, the Portuguese had no major qualms about manumissions. Chapter two concludes with the difference in slavery between the United States and Brazil being attributed to demographic, geographic and economic reasons, rather than as Tannenbaum and Elkins suggest, Religion or Law.
The third chapter is entitled The Outer Burdens of Color. This chapter seeks to compare the contemporary challenges faced by Brazilians and Americans with regard to racial qualifications. Within the sub-topic Who is a Negro, professor Degler clearly defines the term I the two countries. In North America the term is used to describe anyone who contains any measurable amount of black blood. In contrast Brazilians only classify individuals with pure African blood as Negroes, reserving special categories for anyone who fall in between. A term used to describe the various racial mixtures is Mulatto. This term has varying degrees according to Mr. Degler based on observable characteristics. The author does acknowledge the existence of negative attitudes towards blacks on Brazil. The author goes on to enumerate that discrimination in Brazil is more covert than in the United States and he cites the location of people of color at the bottom of the social and economic pyramids. He offers several first hand examples of discrimination in contemporary Brazil. Seeming extremely contradictory at best. Mr. Degler ends chapter three without concretely outlining the causes of discrimination in Brazil. Chapter four: The Inner Burdens of Color focuses on the psychological realizations that dark skinned Brazilians and Americans place on themselves. Degler contends that colored people in Brazil accept their place in society and do not try to make issues about being included or the lack there of. Dark skinned peoples are reported to have low self esteem, and harbor resentment toward being dark and having an affection for the lighter skinned individuals. Degler concludes that if a dark person improves his lot he will indelibly try to separate himself as far from similar complexes people as possible. A charge many no scholarly black folk have been making for years in the United States. “In Brazil, as in the United States, the better educated, the more skillful, and the wealthier portion of the colored population are mulattoes. Thanks to the mulatto escape hatch, however these natural, potential leaders are encouraged to see themselves as different-indeed better-Negroes.” Degler credits the separation of the colored in Brazil as the reason for the lack of movement or political organization in Brazil along racial lines. However the fact that all colored in the United States are considered Negro then this perpetuates the social and political formation of organizations aimed at improving the lot of all blacks. According to probate and literary evidence interracial marriage is frowned upon in Brazil as in the United States. Mr. Degler’s attempt describes and explains the causes for the nuances between black and whites in Brazil falls tremendously short. However an applaud able effort was given to the task.
In the remaining two chapters Mr. Degler confronts and recaps his arguments concerning The Historical Dimension, The Presence of the Mulatto and his escape hatch, and Political and National Ideologies.
In summation of Mr. Degler efforts to answer his two main question; “to determine if slavery in Brazil differed from that in the United States?” and to “account for the difference in race relations in Brazil and the United States?” Maxine Margolis in her critique of Mr. Degler’s book contends, “hHesucceeds in his first goal” but is “less successful in his attempt to explain the contrasting features of contemporary race relations in Brazil and the United States.” I agree with Mrs. Margolis’s opinion. It is my belief that he fails in the latter of his two questions because of the peculiarity and sensitivity of the question that in my opinion has no blanketing explanation but rather a series of circumstances and situation that form from various experiences that are perpetuated my discriminatory practices which continue to this day, both in Brazil and the United States. As for Mr. Degler himself he sees the key difference in race relations between Brazil and the United states as difference of the status of the mulatto. He feels that out of this racial divide separate race relations grew in each country. Degler was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, a distinguished literary award, for his study on race relations in Brazil and the United States. Professor Degler is married with two children and lives in Stanford California. He is currently a Professor of History at Stanford University. “ This work needs to be read by all those concerned with race relations in the Western Hemisphere.”
Critical Book Review
Degler, Carl N. Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States.
Degler, Carl N. Niether Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States. The MACMILLIAN COMPANY,NEW YORK 1971.