The Black President Before Obama

The Black President Before ObamaThe sweeping Obama phenomenon has caught Brazil, and it comes as no surprise in the country with the world’s largest population of African descendants. Blogs are commenting on all things Obama, from his stand on ethanol to the ‘rumors‘ of his appraisal of Brazil’s free software policies. An especially notable thread is the one reporting on the resurgence of a weirdly interesting 1928 Brazilian sci-fi novel — ‘The Black President’ — that predicted a US election matching a black, a feminist, and a conservative candidate in the then remote year of 2228.

The author, Monteiro Lobato, is very famous in Brazil for his tales for children and teens. The set of books ‘Yellow Woodpecker Ranch‘ was turned into popular TV series that reigned supreme on Brazilian tubes through 5 different remakes — the first in 1952, and most recently in 2001. But, in this case, the book is an obscure and rare incursion of Lobato into adult science fiction. The resurgence of interest in it now is totally connected with what stands out as an incredible intuitive guesswork on what has come to be our present situation, but 80 years ago (!) almost unimaginable.

Most of the Brazilian readers of Monteiro Lobato (1882-1948) know him for the episodes of the ‘Yellow Woodpecker Ranch’ series, and few are acquainted with his ‘adult piece’… Originally published in 1926 as a ‘feuilleton‘ in the newspaper ‘A Manhã’, (but then titled as “The Clash of Races”, which today stands as the subtitle), “The Black President” is a doubly curious book: first for being a science fiction piece, an uncommon genre among Brazilian writers, and second because the plot anticipates the current scientific and intellectual debate during the first decades of the 20th century.
Monteiro Lobato’s Black PresidentALPHARRÁBIO – por Viegas Fernandes da Costa

The huge coincidence with the US elections was enough to turn “The Black President” into ‘cult’ reading, although some other of Lobato’s predictions, such as his description of the Internet, have also attracted the attention of commenters. The contorted political psychology of the triangle that binds the white male, the feminist, and the black candidate is also apparent.

‘The Black President’ is a scary book. Frightening in many ways. Firstly, by the prescient character of the piece. In 1926, Lobato forecasts the invention of a kind of data radio transmission that would make it possible for human beings to accomplish their tasks from their home, without having to relocate to work. He also anticipates the disappearance of the printing press, for the news will be “radiated” directly to the houses of the individuals and will appear in bright letters on a screen — exactly how it is happening with whoever is reading this very text. [It is] in one modern word — the Internet. But the premonitions don’t stop there. By the time he was moving to the US as commercial attaché at the Brazilian embassy, Monteiro Lobato foresaw the election of a black president in the US. The specific political moment in the year of 2228 that bore such a situation would be due to the split that occurred in the white race, between a candidate from the Masculine Party (Kerlog) and a candidate from the Feminine Party (Evelyn Astor). The neo-feminist Evelyn Astor has the victory almost guaranteed, but then the black leader Jim Roy surges and ends up being elected President.
The Black President. A Scary BookAcerto de Contas

The wars were also finished, as soon as the War Ministries were replaced by the Peace Ministries. Despite that, the US is on the verge of descending into chaos and bloodbath on the eve of the election of its 88th president, such was the disruption caused by the contest. On one side, the millions of black voters are gathered to support Jim Roy, from the Black Association. On the other side, the white women who follow the Feminine Party candidate, long for Evelyn Astor. And finally, there are the white men, who prefer the reelection of Kerlog, from the Masculine Party, which surged from the merge of the Democrat and Republican parties. Here is the essential part of the plot: it is not only a clash of races, but also a war between the sexes. The white men, in order to get a ‘whiter’ America, plan to send the blacks to the Amazon, which is not part of Brazil anymore [!]. Our country was divided in two independent nations: the north, of atavistic malemolencia, and the prosperous South, the “big Republic of Paraná”, which also includes Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Monteiro Lobato… A Prophet?Resistência Democrática

Brazilian writerEven in some of his far-out references, Lobato [caricature with the rag doll Emília, his creation] seems to keep throwing light on images that, if not real, are quite recurrent to say the least. But, on a closer inspection, his plot reveals clearly that, although getting it right on the surface, his interpretation of the signals were often projections of weird concepts. In fact, what previously called attention to this book — prior to the current historical coincidence with the US elections — was the evidence of Lobato’s sympathy with Eugenics, a racist social philosophy that acquired some followers in Brazil during the 20s and 30s, and advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention, mainly segregating races.

Miss Jane, Benson’s daughter, is the one who gives voice to Lobato’s ideas: “What is America if not the happy zone which right from the start has attracted the many elements from eugenics of the best European races? Where is the vital force of the white race located if not there?” While defending American segregation, he also has something to say about the Brazilian miscigenetion: “Our solution was shabby. We ruined both races, by merging them. The blacks have lost their admirable wild physical qualities, and the whites have suffered the inevitable worsening of character as a consequence of the crossings among different races”.
Racismo à BrasileiraBravo Online

Indeed, Obama is definitely not the black candidate of Lobato’s tale, but rather the result of a political, cultural and genetic mix with whites. There is a core difference between the societal position of African descendants in Brazil (more mixed) and in the US (more separated), but Obama’s surge is perceived by some Brazilians as the result of the 70s US affirmative action policies in which these social programs appear now as the game changer.

From a Brazilian perspective, the inevitable question that Afro-descendants are asking themselves now is what has made Obama’s success possible in the US — with their ‘segregation’ and separatism — while an analogous situation in more mixed Brazil still looks like a distant dream, far from becoming a reality.

Against all the expectations that already have been here more than a hundred years, “blacks and mestizos will surpass the number of whites in this year of 2008” in Brazil — “the country with the largest Afro-descendant population outside Africa”… These observations, followed by the finding that the country “does not have any black politician of national projection”, comes with reference to the campaign of Senator Barack Obama for the Presidency of United States… Lagging behind around fifty years in relation to the social conquests of the US black people, we heirs of the same plunder that permeated North American society (and from which Obama, we should make clear, is not a direct victim) are being forced to believe for more than 120 years that this country is “happily mixed and de-racialized”. There has never been segregation or any ku-klux-klan and [therefore] our inferiority is due only to economic problems and can be brought to nil with good schools and good school lunches for all.
OBAMA, HIS ERA AND THE DREAMAldeiaGriot

In the developing debate over affirmative action and the different perspectives on quota schemes in Brazil it is quite natural to see Obama’s sucess in terms of long-standing tensions, but the effects of his possible election may reverberate differently in the many different layers of culture. If he is elected, the deep psychology that underlies the appearence of such an archetypal persona in history will become a part of the social-political-cultural debate.

Some bloggers are aware of this Obama inherited complexity that is helping to transcend the obvious polarities.

When, years later, [Obama] condemned the Iraq War, his arguments where based on the conclusions he arrived at through his life. His parents tried to reinvent themselves by abandoning their traditions and, in the process, they lost their identities. Tradition is what binds a society together. Facing change, tradition will allways resist. Change, in history, comes in slow steps. For him, there is some naivety in the idealistic American dream that ideas, by themselves, will cause big changes. Ideas are not enough. Barack Obama, as described by Larissa MacFarquhar in a New Yorker Magazine profile, ‘is deeply conservative’. Democracy could never be simply imposed in a country where it never existed.
Who is Barack Obama, and what does he think?Pedro Dória Weblog

From Lobato’s black president prevailing in a context of separation to the complex profile of Barack Obama in a world of emergent possibilities appears now as the measure of political change.

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