Machado de Assis, the greatest Brazilian novelist of all times, was born black and poor, in one of the hills of Rio de Janeiro, the grandchild of freed slaves. His mother was born in the Azores islands, that belong to Portugal, but his birth certificate, from 1839, was clear: he was mulatto. But, in 1908, when Machado died, covered in glory, the founder president of Academia Brasileira de Letras (the prestigious club that congregates the elite of the country’s writers), his death certificate stated that he was white.
Another great writer, Lima Barreto, himself a slave descendant, had a different fate. This lonely, drunkard anarchist spent time in a psychiatric hospital, before dying at 41, in 1922. His birth certificate indicated he was black. His medical papers, the first time he was taken to the hospital, when he was enjoying celebrity, said that he was white. Finally, when he died in disgrace, his death certificate sent him back to the black community.
Traditionally, in Brazil, society identifies individuals as black or white according to their money. A few years ago I interviewed a successful black businessman that would be considered black anywhere in the world . He thought of himself as black – and I suppose that is what really matters. He told me that he was a member of several trade associations and his partners would frequently hint that he wasn’t REALLY black. “They say to me: look at your nose, look at your skin tone, you are white!”, he told me, laughing.
If you are into this topic, you can also check my former post Racism, the Brazilian Way. Don’t miss the comments. Some are pretty cool. And if you want to dive into the universe of Brazilian literature, look for a decent translation of Machado de Assis’s “Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas“, “Dom Casmurro” or “Quincas Borba“, and Lima Barreto’s “Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma“.