Uneven Encounters: Making Race and Nation in Brazil and the United States

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In Uneven Encounters, Micol Seigel chronicles the exchange of popular culture between Brazil and the United States in the years between the World Wars, and demonstrates how that exchange affected ideas of race and nation in both countries. From Americans interpreting advertisements for Brazilian coffee or dancing the Brazilian maxixe, to Rio musicians embracing the “foreign” qualities of jazz, Seigel traces a lively, cultural back and forth. Along the way, she shows how race and nation for both elites and non-elites are constructed together, and driven by global cultural and intellectual currents as well as local, regional, and national ones.

Seigel explores the circulation of images of Brazilian coffee and of maxixe in the United States during the period just after the imperial expansions of the early twentieth century. Exoticist interpretations structured North Americans’ paradoxical sense of themselves as productive “consumer citizens.” Some people, however, could not simply assume the privileges of citizenship. In their struggles against racism, Afro-descended citizens living in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, New York, and Chicago encountered images and notions of each other, and found them useful. Seigel introduces readers to cosmopolitan Afro-Brazilians and African Americans who rarely traveled far from home but who nonetheless absorbed ideas from abroad. She suggests that studies comparing U.S. and Brazilian racial identities as two distinct constructions are misconceived. Racial formation transcends national borders; attempts to understand it must do the same.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“I can think of few works about Brazil that reveal so much about the United States, and no work about the United States that tells us so much about Brazil. . . . . [A]n important, thought-provoking book.” - Marc A. Hertzman, A Contracorriente

Uneven Encounters is an imaginative, thoughtful, and eloquently argued work of Atlantic history.” - George Reid Andrews, Journal of American History

“Drawing widely from postmodern, postcolonial, feminist, diasporic, and queer studies, Seigel approaches this topic through a bold use of sources, archives, and theoretical approaches, arguing quite convincingly that Afro-Brazilians played an active role in the international circulation of ideas and cultural expressions in the tumultuous 1920s. . . . [An] outstanding study.” - James M. Green, American Historical Review

“ . . . Micol Seigel offers a refreshing analysis of racial perceptions in the USA and Brazil. . . . The contributions of Seigel’s are many and to different fields, including history, American, Latin American, cultural and race and ethnic studies. Rather than a comparison of national traits and differences, Seigel’s sophisticated study explores the complexities in the encounters between Brazil and the U.S. in the transnational scenery of popular artifacts. It sheds new light on notions of race and nation in Brazil and the U.S. by maintaining that these were forged often in relation to on another.” - Cileine de Lourenco, Ethnic and Racial Studies

“Seigel . . . displaces scholars who have argued that the myth of racial democracy was possible in Brazil due to an ignorant lack of black identity, showing instead how blacks helped create and shape racial democracy.” - Felipe Cruz, The Latin Americanist

“I suspect everyone, depending on research interests, will find something here that illuminates previously held understandings of complex and sometimes misread histories of the United States and Brazil.” - Stanley R. Bailey, Bulletin of Latin American Research

Uneven Encounters is a very important contribution not only to the transnational study of racial formation but to the very definition of what transnational scholarship should be.”—María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, author of The Revolutionary Imagination in the Americas and the Age of Development

“In recent years, the comparative study of race in Brazil and the United States has reached an impasse. Uneven Encounters, rather than reviving the old debates, challenges their very premises. With style and substance, Micol Seigel offers us a searing critique of the comparative method and brilliantly demonstrates how a transnational and cultural approach to race and racial identities can open up genuinely new and productive lines of inquiry.”—Barbara Weinstein, author of For Social Peace in Brazil: Industrialists and the Remaking of the Working Class in São Paulo, 1920–1964

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822344407
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 3/18/2009
  • Series: American Encounters/Global Interactions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 408
  • Sales rank: 1,048,490
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Micol Seigel is Assistant Professor in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies and the Program in American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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Read an Excerpt

Uneven Encounters

Making Race and Nation in Brazil and the United States
By Micol Seigel

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4440-7

Chapter One

Producing Consumption Coffee and Consumer Citizenship

Readers of North American popular magazines in 1922 may have paused to admire an intriguing advertisement for Butter-Nut coffee. It featured a coffee grower-a dashing patrician with black mustache and beard, bow tie, cummerbund, large sombrero, pointy boots, and flowing pants with mariachi silver buttons. This cinematic figure stood in front of a field of leafy shrubs (presumably coffee plants), with a group of low buildings behind them (perhaps his plantation) and mountains (probably volcanic) rising in the far background. As befit such a mishmash of geography and culture, the specific place went unnamed. The gentleman grower simply called it "my country," though he made clear reference to the United States: "Coffee is as important an item to my country as wheat is in your United States," he explained. Lest this lack of specificity mar his authenticity, the ad's copywriter had him declare, "You can take my word for it-this is REAL Coffee!"

The ad drew its readers further into the transnational realm of the coffee trade by imagining not only the tropical producer but also his North American consumer. The planter handed a steaming cup across the page to a carefully groomed white man in a conservative suit, at table in a gracious dining room. Behind him, a chandelier, a finely worked wooden dining table, and a mantle with adornments; under his feet, an Oriental rug, and across from him, gazing adoringly at the offer, a lovely blonde, surely his wife. Coffee passed from Latin to Saxon; from raw, authentic nature to refined civilization; and from a place of suggestively virile barbarity into a well-contained domestic space of bourgeois heterosexuality. Its vision of mutual attraction set a textbook Hollywood Latin leading man feminized by his smoldering sensuality (volcanos, barbarous virility, dazzling sartorial display) alongside an Anglo-Saxon lightly emasculated by the taint of citified over-civilization, a favorite fear of metropolitan urban dwellers at the time. Less homoerotic than homologic, the two lean in toward each other as if in the thrall of a "natural" magnetism.

This arrestingly evocative schematization of connection between coffee producers and U.S. consumers is a perfect entrée into an exploration of the local and global interrelationships shaping key facets of twentieth-century U.S. nationalism. Its picture conveys more than a thousand words regarding the process of imagining national community. Its two panels, side by side, encouraged the viewer to contemplate self and Other. If the substance of their link was a cup of coffee, the ad suggested, the substance of their difference was not only race and place but their participation in the acts of production and consumption, respectively. Uninterested in reciprocity, the ad furnished its dining room with multiple items clearly coded as imports, implying that along with their whiteness and adherence to gender conventions, it was the couple's consumption of the world's products, rather than consumption in general, that made them appropriate objects for desire and identification. This was a vision in which undifferentiated Latin Americans produced and proffered, while "Americans" (in "their" United States) consumed.

Such representations of global relations dovetailed with discursive productions of U.S. imperialism but were not reducible to a simple framework of political domination. More directly and consequentially, this ad indexed and promoted the political-economic changes attendant to the rise of consumer capitalism. The Butter-Nut spot and its field of related advertisements helped to midwife the critical idea, emergent in this period, of consumer citizenship.

In this chapter I read 1920s coffee advertisements to argue that consumer citizenship is a racialized nationalism constructed in transnational context. I explore a tiny slice of economic history to introduce the book's overall contention that ideas of race and nation in the United States, as in Brazil, have been constructed in interrelation. To arrive at this contention requires several complicated steps, so let us pause a moment to consider what consumer citizenship is, why it is important, how it relates to U.S. nationalism, and why it ought to be apprehended within a transnational framework.

Notions of "consumer citizenship" emerged from the wedding of consumerism, "the belief that goods give meaning to individuals and their roles in society," to notions of national belonging. That wedding was a historical process-that is, it happened slowly, over time. In the nineteenth century, U.S. notions of national identity were more likely to hinge on production, in a loose reflection of its agricultural and industrial output. The economic transition of the United States from a producer to a consumer society was a long process; it began in the eighteenth century and remained less than fully realized until after the Second World War. But representation need not cleave faithfully to economic conditions, and what concerns us in this chapter are the webs of signification spun around ideas of consumption. People in the 1920s experienced consumerism with a palpable feeling of alarm. Critics expressed great discomfort at the thought of allowing self-indulgent (they charged) consumption practices to replace the producerist ethos that had long been a point of national pride. "Consumption" seemed to be spreading like its contagious homonym, and city dwellers worried about "neurasthenia" and "overcivilization," romanticizing the sweat of the farmer or the muscular labor of the manufacturer. Advertisers for all sorts of products, not just coffee, worked diligently to soothe this anxiety and coax audiences to think of themselves as "consumers" to promote the practices needed to drive commodity capitalism.

The short version of this story is that advertisers were successful. Over the course of the twentieth century, consumption has taken an increasingly important place in U.S. definitions of self and society, to the point of defining the parameters of citizenship. As its many critics have pointed out, consumerism has come to organize notions of who is a deserving member of society (those who consume wisely and responsibly), what freedom means (choice at the supermarket), and what constitutes political participation (buying green; the boycott). Consumerism functions accordingly as a form of U.S. nationalism, worth going to war to protect. Further, as race and class remain deeply correlated in the United States (and the world), consumerism is a racially discriminatory nationalism. Its assumptions regarding "good" choices in the market divert attention from the structural factors that keep poor people poor, including racism, and so reinforce those structures.

Many observers have discussed the development of consumer citizenship and criticized its effects, but few have placed it in the transnational context in which it belongs. As illustrative pieces of a broader cultural field, the Butter-Nut ad and its fellow coffee advertisements can help us see the transnational aspects of consumer citizenship, for the ideological work they did hinged on the ways they were transnational themselves.

As I explained in the preface, by "transnational" I mean phenomena unconfined to-both greater and lesser than-the nation-state. The term directs attention to cases in which national borders are not the pertinent containers for the phenomena at hand. It is not intended simply to replace either "international," which refers to the interactions of nation-states or representatives thereof, or "global," a gesture to the earth's largest scale. We might observe, to illustrate, that the global coffee trade was both inter-and transnational. It was global in its production and consumption on seven continents and its shipping across seven seas; it was international in that it brought together state representatives and market sectors acting in the interests of their states. It was transnational in the shifting loyalties of market and state representatives, sometimes at one with each other, sometimes at odds; the regionalisms that foil a single national interest; and the links laborers (for example, farmhands or stevedores) maintained to their sending communities, for they were often migrants or immigrants. Its transnationalism was also simply a function of the fluctuating formations of cooperation and conflict among the trade's multiple sectors: growers, shippers, importers, greenmen, roasters, advertisers, retailers, bankers and other financiers, politicians (both federal and regional), laborers, and the families and environs of all of these people.

Coffee meant enormously different things to different people. In terms of its social meaning, the coffee that left the Brazilian port at Santos was not the coffee unloaded in New Orleans. Yet there is continuity in some senses. Economic historians speak of "commodity chains"-all the labor and production processes entailed in a commodity's formation-and there is a social level to such linkages as well. As every piece contains traces of the whole, so the social relations entailed in coffee production are a part of its ads, just as they are present in every draft of the brew we sip. The transnational travels of the coffee trade were woven into its 1920s U.S. ads, sometimes via references to far-away places, sometimes in the form of non-state, non-nation concoctions such as "civilization," "the West," or "the Tropics." At times advertisers tried not to gesture to the broad geography of the commodity they pushed, and ads certainly often function to obscure, rewrite, and sanitize points along the chain of the commodity they hawk. Yet the effort required to suppress important details of coffee's provenance, as we shall see, often left its mark. Coffee ads inserted their foreign and transnational traces into circulation in the United States, planting them in the cultural fields in which the ads were at play. Those traces may have seemed buried, their impact attenuated and near impossible to specify, but their residue was critical. This chapter will show the ways in which their transnational aspects helped coffee advertisements effect a critical obfuscation: the portrayal of consumption as a national quality rather than the class-specific practice it is.

Such obfuscation is one clear reason to seek to understand the transnational dimensions of ideas of race and nation. Understanding consumer citizenship first as a nationalism, then as a racialized nationalism, and ultimately as a racialized nationalism reliant on transnational context sharpens the tools critics can devise to intervene in the toxic social relations ordered by consumer citizenship, internationally and within the United States. So while a transnational approach forces the critic to work broadly-learning other languages, absorbing multiple historiographies, traveling to distant archives-its advantage is not necessarily that it illuminates a "global picture," as many people construe its purpose. Rather, thinking transnationally reveals the specific mechanisms by which class, race, nation, and other social categories are constructed and the process of their construction occluded.

Few North Americans assume that Brazilian or transnational phenomena shaped U.S. life in any important way. Yet it is logical; everything from the foreign trade that generated profits for U.S. merchants to the nations or peoples against whose images North Americans defined themselves have been critical contributors to U.S. economic and ideological conditions. What historical cultural study can do is show how transnational phenomena matter. Where did they enter, and how did they work? Just as important, how was recognition of such contributions erased so that collective popular and scholarly memory meet them as exceptions rather than as rule?

This chapter, then, takes up one concrete instance of the transnational construction of ideas of race and nation: the development of the notion of consumer citizenship in coffee advertisements. After a scene-setting sketch of political-economic background, it narrates the unprecedented transnational collaboration of the Joint Coffee Trade Publicity Committee. It then explains the mid-decade breakdown of cooperative advertising in the wake of controversial attempts to price-protect coffee and finally ends by considering the reprise of the campaign in the late 1920s. Overall, since Brazilian coffee sectors successfully resisted political and market pressure not to "valorize" their country's chief export, this is much more than a story of the United States imposing its will upon a subject of economic colonialism. Yet ultimately, the chapter points out that although Brazil refused to knuckle under in that moment, North American capital may have gained something more valuable in the long run, for the brouhaha in U.S. newspapers and political arenas over valorization helped rally relevant publics to the discourse of consumerism.

This tale unfolds within a complex confluence of circumstances. What were the technological developments that allowed coffee to be consumed so far from its growing fields? Within what economic trends did widespread coffee consumption emerge, and how did it help to shape them? How did political relations in the Americas facilitate connections between growers and markets? Through what sorts of changes in social relations did all these developments occur? Addressing these questions, the following section sets the stage for this and subsequent chapters, whose actions also developed within these contexts.

Politics, Commerce, and the Coffee Campaign

It is no coincidence that coffee was the substance of the first Brazil-U.S. connection examined here, for it had long been a transnational traveler. Coffee was one of the "drug foods" that made up a significant portion of transcontinental trade even before the Industrial Revolution. For its first three hundred years as a commodity, as trade historians Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik put it, the bean was "an Arabian monopoly," grown in Yemen and consumed in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Over the seventeenth century, European elites acquired the taste. Transatlantic transport and slavery installed the crop in New World plantations during the eighteenth century, lowering the price while standards of living rose, allowing the drink to become the object of mass consumption we know today. Though Brazil was a relative latecomer to the shrub (introduced there only in the eighteenth century), by 1830 coffee dominated the country's export agenda and drove its economic growth. By 1880 Brazil harvested about half the world's coffee, and by the century's close regularly grew three-quarters of the global harvest.

Coffee's growth in Brazil was part of a set of interacting global trends. In the last third of the nineteenth century, scientific knowledge and technological innovation accelerated so much that some historians call the period the "Second Industrial Revolution." Advances in chemical use, electricity, transportation, and agricultural and food processing (among other things) profoundly altered possibilities for commerce and industry. Post-emancipation labor migration patterns within Latin America and transatlantically provided the workforce for these advances; coffee cultivation spread throughout the tropical highlands of Latin America, displacing Caribbean growers, and tropical products enjoyed a global boom, most pronounced in the thirty years before the First World War. Like many Latin American countries with economies based on the export of primary products, Brazil experienced unprecedented growth in the fifty years after 1880. Earlier export cycles, which had focused on sugar and minerals (mostly gold) and lesser quantities of cotton, cacao, and tobacco, gave way to coffee, Brazil's "principal point of linkage to an expanding world economy."


Excerpted from Uneven Encounters by Micol Seigel Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Preface xi

Note on Language xvii

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction 1

1 Producing Consumption: Coffee and Consumer Citizenship 13

2 Maxixe's Travels: Cultural Exchange and Erasure 67

3 Playing Politics: Making the Meanings of Jazz in Rio de Janeiro 95

4 Nation Drag: Uses of the Exotic 136

5 Another "Global Vision": (Trans) Nationalism in the São Paulo Black Press 179

6 Black Mothers, Citizen Sons 206

Conclusion 235

Abbreviations 241

Notes 243

Discography 321

Bibliography 323

Index 367

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