H-Diplo Review Essay 314- "Shifting the Meaning of Democracy"

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H-Diplo Review Essay 314

18 February 2021

Jessica Lynn Graham.  Shifting the Meaning of Democracy: Race, Politics, and Culture in the United States and Brazil.  Oakland:  University of California Press, 2019.  ISBN:  9780520293755 (hardcover, $85.00)

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Michael E. Neagle | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Molly C. Ball, University of Rochester

In Shifting the Meaning of Democracy: Race, Politics, and Culture in the United States and Brazil, Jessica Lynn Graham asks us to reconsider the connected underdevelopment of racially inclusive policy and rhetoric in the United States and Brazil.  The years between 1930 and 1945 witnessed civil strife in Brazil, Jim Crow laws in the United States, Communism on the rise globally, and the Great Depression and World War II. In this tumultuous climate, political parties and leaders jockeying for popular support at times pushed toward racial inclusion as each sought to define democracy within their own framework.  Graham shows transnational dialogue and the interplay between Communists, anti-Communists, and fascists created a space for racial inclusion, but that space all too often remained in the rhetorical realm or was muted by a drive to preserve ‘national security.’ Based on a variety of archival documentation from both countries and skillful analysis of historical actors, Graham’s study both contributes considerably to our historical knowledge and resonates within the current context, asking the reader to reconsider to what extent both countries have progressed beyond rhetorical democracies.

For the Brazilian historian, comparing the role racial inclusion played in defining democracy in Brazil and the United States is an important contribution to the extensive literature on racial inclusion in Brazil.  This question has been at the forefront of international scholarship on the country since the 1940s and 1950s, when sociological research highlighted the considerable opportunity and resource disadvantages facing non-white Brazilians.[1] When it comes to making explicit comparisons between the two countries, however, sociology still continues to dominate the scholarship.[2] Historians have explored the twentieth-century Black experience, political participation, and inclusion in Brazil, but the comparative lens rarely reaches beyond the Brazilian regionalities, with particular emphasis on São Paulo and Salvador.[3] For scholars of the United States, Shifting the Meaning of Democracy switches the narrative of the impact of the United States on Latin America and shows how Brazilian ideas and policies impacted the course of U.S. history. This makes Graham’s dialogic approach to Pan-American relationships a good companion to recent studies by historians Rubén Flores and Katherine Marino.[4] Effectively, Graham is successful in advancing her analogy of Brazilian and U.S. histories as “a set of train tracks…at times the histories run parallel, at times they diverge, and at times they intersect dramatically (27).” She provides a much-needed binational approach, demonstrating both histories would be incomplete without the other.

Shifting the Meaning of Democracy also contributes valuable language to analyze racial inclusion and rhetoric, providing four categories for discussing these ideals and policies.  “Racial realism” recognized racism’s existence and tended to concentrate among Black activists in the United States, in contrast to “racial denialism,” which was more common in Brazil (8).  In policy issues, “racial dissuasion” encouraged Blacks to support the status quo, often in an effort to curb Communism, while “racial obstructionism” actively fought against racially inclusive language as a means to silence racial realists (8). At times Graham explicitly invokes these categories, reminding us that they were neither mutually exclusive nor restricted to one country.  The de-marginalization of Black culture in both countries during the 1930s provides a good example of what Graham calls “a veritable racial democracy smorgasbord” (137).  Often, however, it is the reader’s prerogative to make these connections and to discern to what extent a racially inclusive democracy includes other marginalized groups.

The book’s structure is straightforward, significantly aiding the reader in navigating these interrelated histories.  Shifting the Meaning of Democracy is divided into seven chapters, with the first four largely exploring the pre-war years and the last three focusing on developments during and shortly after World War II. Each chapter speaks specifically to both Brazil and the United States, and while the source base for the countries varies considerably, Graham manages to thematically connect the countries’ trajectories.  Chapters four and six pair exceptionally well in their discussion of state cultural production and complement well historical studies of samba and cultural production.[5] Declassified diplomatic reports, state publications, Congressional committee reports and diplomatic correspondence feature prominently as sources, as do Black press publications, like São Paulo’s O Clarim d’Alvorada, the Chicago Defender, and the Pittsburgh Courier.  Graham also evaluates speeches and includes a range of insightful biographies of Black Brazilians and Americans who contributed significantly to the debates surrounding racism and democracy.  These serve as a most welcome contribution.  The stories and trajectories of men like Isaltino Veiga dos Santos, co-leader of Brazil’s right-leaning Frente Negra Brasileira who became a political prisoner under Vargas regime for suspected ties to Communism, and Rayford Logan, the Howard University professor and historian who was the lone African American invited to serve on the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA) advisory committee, both diversify the historiographical cast of characters and make diplomatic and political history engaging and full of individual personalities. As Graham notes, future lines of research would further expand those voices to include more influential women like educator Mary McLeod Bethune and artist Mary Winslow, and to explore how the broader population reacted and interacted with state policies.

The first three chapters largely deal with how Communists, anti-Communists, and fascists, respectively, contributed to furthering rhetorical racial democracy.  In adhering to C.B. Macpherson’s view that democracy “became ambiguous [with] opposite meanings for several decades,” Graham demonstrates how Black leaders could support all three ideologies as a means to finding democracy that was racially inclusive (105). Black organization publications, Communist pamphlets, and consular reporting reveal how Brazil’s Communist Party invoked the Scottsboro Nine, nine young Black men wrongfully accused and convicted of rape in Alabama, and how the United States Communist Party invoked the imprisonment of Luis Carlos Prestes, a prominent Brazilian Communist leader, in Brazil as a call to challenge liberal democracy.  Anti-Communists also lobbied for both countries to adopt more racially inclusive rhetoric in order to hold Communists at bay and ensure national security. In terms of the United States, Graham suggests that a substantially different trajectory could have resulted if the money and time spent on anti-Communism had been invested into investigating the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and lynchings.  For Brazil, after Communist insurrections in 1935, Getúlio Vargas’s Estado Novo confiscated Communist literature that spoke of racism in Brazil and secret police records show direct government efforts to prevent Communist recruitment of Blacks.  The mini biographies in chapter three of figures like the white-passing, pro-fascist intellectual Lawrence Dennis (United States) and the Black activist and journalist José Correia Leite (Brazil) are particularly effective in showing how Blacks both called attention to Hitler’s totalitarianism and cautioned that racism in the United States and Brazil could weaken the wartime positions of both countries.  While the first three chapters largely examine ideologies and rhetorical commitments, a shift toward policy in chapter four provides some hope that there might be a place for action-oriented racially inclusive democracy.  Close analysis of official cultural policies, like Vargas’s brasilidade campaign and the Federal One project that included artists in the Works Progress Association (WPA) take center stage.[6] According to Graham, the diffusion of black culture like jazz and samba, had a limited impact because white mediators were all too often preferred as performers.

It is in the latter three chapters and under wartime pressures that the ideological rhetorical sparring highlighted in the first three chapters began to play out more directly in policies.  Graham attempts to solve the puzzle of Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas’s support of his allies in fighting for democracy.  Chapter Five creatively integrates sources and methodology to discuss the possibility of a social democracy in Brazil.  Most of the Brazilian records are inexistant, but Graham consults consular reports and Inter-American Affairs department records housed in the United States National Archives to provide a sound documentary base for understanding the relationship between the two countries.  Close readings of intellectuals’ depictions of Brazil and the United States offer further support, but Graham’s argument falls a bit flat when it moves beyond a racial binary.  Underdeveloped discussions of Japanese and Mexican Americans make it unclear if and how non-Black groups fit within the racially inclusive social, economic, or political democracy ideal, a critical question for scholars of both countries.[7]

Graham’s creative combination of U.S. and Brazilian sources shines through when she utilizes Brazilian archives to uncover attitudes in the United States and vice versa.  This is the case in Chapter Six when, met with a lack of Brazilian archives related to official cultural policies, she uses records from Brazilian censors in New York City who vetted U.S. programming before it was broadcast in Brazil and documentation surrounding filmmaker and cultural ambassador Orson Welles’s unfinished documentary on Brazil’s famous annual Carnival festival held before Lent.  The documentary’s fell out of favor with the Brazilian government, bringing to light preference for white mediators among Brazilian state officials (201; 212-218).  Chapter Seven explores how Black activists in the United States and Brazil used the Axis/Allies binary to concretely effect social change.  Graham argues, however, that these changes were linked to war efforts and failed to directly confront racism mitigated their ability to effect social change.  In Brazil, a post-war opportunity to include an antiracist clause in the 1946 Constitution failed to even garner the support of the sole Black member of Congress, and the country’s 1951 Afonso Arinos Act, which made racist practices a criminal offense, passed only after black U.S. performers Katherine Dunham and Irene Diggs were turned away from hotels in Brazil because of their skin color.

Regarding the United States, Graham looks again to the Black press and House Committee testimony to examine how politicians reacted to anti-racist pushes for action-oriented legislation.  It was in the wake of the 1941 March on Washington Movement and within a wartime context that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order 8802 finally banned racial discrimination in some contexts.  The decree, however, addressed defense industry employment and had minimal enforcement capabilities.  Here, again, an unanswered question on gender looms: how did this emphasis on national defense in racial equality impact and affect women as compared to men?  Graham’s insightful conclusion shows how the ‘national security’ defense persisted into the Cold War era, thwarting Black activists under Brazil’s military dictatorship and McCarthyism in the United States.

Writing a transnational intellectual and political history that highlights the intertwined pursuit of racial democracy in the United States and Brazil is a formidable task in terms of nomenclature alone.  Graham’s ability to smoothly connect intellectual debates and events is admirable, and it not only makes the book accessible and interesting for historians and social scientists of both the modern United States and Brazil, but is an ideal assignment for upper-level undergraduate seminars and graduate reading lists. Brazilian scholars will benefit in particular from the mini-biographies and in the reconceptualization of polices and attitudes toward democracy. In essence, Graham’s Shifting the Meaning of Democracy is a thought-provoking, readable, and remarkably versatile study that will be a welcome addition to many a personal and institutional bookshelf.


Molly C. Ball, Ph.D., is a lecturer of history at the University of Rochester.  She is the author of Negotiating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2020) and her current research project is “Moving Past GDP: Quality of Life as a Woman’s Measure.”



[1] Sociologists dominated these early discussions, with a series of studies initiated by UNESCO after WWII and similar studies arising from the São Paulo School of Sociology.  These studies found racial inequities, but privileged Brazil’s persistent class inequality as the more prominent issue.  Some influential studies include Florestan Fernandes, A integração do negro na sociedade de classes (São Paulo: Dominus Editora, 1965) and Luis A. Costa Pinto, O Negro no Rio de Janeiro: relações de raças emu ma sociedade em mudança (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Universidade Federal Rio de Janeiro, 1953).

[2] Edward E. Telles, Race in Another America: the Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). Noteworthy Latin American comparisons include historian George Reid Andrew’s Afro-Latin America: Black Lives, 1600-2000 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016) and anthropologist Peter Wade’s, Race and Ethnicity in Latin America (New York: Pluto Press, 2010).

[3] George Reid Andrews, Blacks and Whites in São Paulo, Brazil, 1888-1988 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991) and more recently, Ramatis Jacino, Transição e exclusão: O negro no mercado de trabalho em São Paulo pós abolição, 1912/1930 (São Paulo: Nefertiti, 2014) provide particularly salient examples of labor market discrimination.  Historians Kim D. Butler, Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition, São Paulo and Salvador (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998) and Paulina L. Alberto, Terms of Inclusion: Black Intellectuals in Twentieth-Century Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011) focus on the post-Abolition Black community and intellectuals, respectively. Historian Barbara Weinstein’s The Color of Modernity: São Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Brazil (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015) explores regional divisions and São Paulo’s prominence.

[4] Ruben Flores, Backroads Pragmatists: Mexico’s Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Katherine Marino, Feminism for the Americas: The Making of an International Human Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[5] Marc A. Hertzman, Making Samba: A New History of Race and Music in Brazil (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013); Bryan McCann, Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[6] Brasilidade (Brazilianess) refers to Getúlio Vargas’s campaign for cultural nationalism.  While unique in its articulation, the search for cultural unity spanned the hemisphere, as demonstrated by the quest to define mexicanidad (Mexicaness) in the post-Mexican Revolution era.

[7] Jeffrey Lesser, Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999); Yuko Miki, Frontiers of Citizenship: a Black and Indigenous History of Postcolonial Brazil (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); and Julie M. Weise, Corazón De Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South since 1910 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).