09/21/07

SEEING BRAZIL FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Professor Kym Morrison takes on South America's biggest country.

Moravian College assistant professor of history Kym Morrison describes her visit to the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo, Brazil, this way: "We pulled up to the museum, and I saw this group of happy-looking young people waiting in line." Since the museum is housed in the top three floors of a functioning train station, she thought the children were waiting to go on a trip."But it turned out they were going to the same museum I was, and they were excited to do it. Can you imagine a group of ten-year-olds in the U.S. going to a museum of the English Language? You'd have to pull them there kicking and screaming." In this case, Brazilians were excited to simultaneously promote nationalism and intellectualism. On other excursions, though, accessing Brazil's cultural heritage wasn't so easy. One small museum listed in a guidebook turned out to have been closed for three years; a neighbor helpfully directed professor Morrison to a traditional religious temple that proved quite interesting. And then there was the strike in Rio de Janeiro, which closed down museums, cultural centers, and archives. "That was hard," she says, "But you're in Rio, so what are you going to do? Walk on the beach, go out later and samba."

Professor Morrison was especially motivated to visit the town of Salvador, a center of Afro-Brazilian culture. "It fits into my studies of African diaspora." she explains. "It's an old colonial capitol, really the first grounding of Portuguese culture in the Americas." She notes that as someone born in Jamaica, she felt very much at home in the town. "It was very reminiscent of Kingston, which was the center of British colonial rule in Jamaica. It had the same sort of black culture adapted to a different metropolitan structure." She also took note of the country's expressions of its history of slavery, and how those images compare to what she's seen in her studies of Cuba. "Brazil is a much wealthier country," she says. "So they can have a large museum dedicated to Afro-Brazilian culture." And yet, she adds, that museum captured Africa much better than it did Brazil.

Her glimpses of the complex relationship the Brazilian people have with their history came during a seven-week stay in that country in June and July. The opportunity was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, which invited select scholars with an interest in Latin America to stay at the University of Campinas (just outside of São Paulo) for several intense weeks of seminars, discussions, field trips, and language training. The program, which focused on Brazilian culture and literature, was aimed at academics who want greater inclusion of Brazil in their curriculum. "I teach colonial and modern Latin America," Professor Morrison says, "but Brazil hasn't really been an emphasis. So this experience will be helpful in teaching a sense of Brazil's importance, and its role in the story of the African diaspora." She's putting this information to immediate use in her new fall course in Black Studies.

Professor Morrison, who arrived in Brazil a week early to brush up her Portuguese and do some exploring on her own, notes that seven weeks is a long time to be immersed in the language and culture of another country. (Most of the seminars, which ran from 9-5 on weekdays, were conducted in Portuguese.) But she adds that her stay there only scratched the surface of the world's fifth biggest country and a leading economy. "You're left feeling, wow, there's so much more to explore," she says. And Brazilian scholars seem to feel the same way. "Though I'm a Cubanist, I have to know all of Latin America," says Professor Morrison. "Here in the States, there few Latin Americanists who don't have that comparative perspective. But in Brazil, comparisons drop away. If you're a Brazilian, you're in this massive country. And you're just going to understand it from the inside."