Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Poet, playwright, novelist


Machado de Assis, or simply, Machado, was the founder and first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. He was a novelist, poet, playwright and short story writer. Born the son of a mulatto wall painter and a Azorean Portuguese washer woman, Machado represents today, a complex and awkward issue for Brazilians and Afro-Brazilians. How do we refer to Machado? Was he a great Black writer? The greatest Brazilian writer? The greatest Black Brazilian writer? The greatest writer of the Portuguese language who was also Black and Brazilian?

Every marginalized, oppressed group wants to construct and enter its Pantheon of Greatness into the record of national treasures. Blacks and Afro-Brazilians are no different in this sense. However, when the country is considered to be 50-80% "black" (depending on who's counting and how), home to the largest Black population off of the African continent, and home to the second largest Black population in the world, how do we talk about Black greatness, ...or is it rather, great Blackness? In a country that is majority Black in numbers, greatness, then, would likely be Black! Does Nigeria (the only country on the planet with a larger Black population) have great Black writers, or just great writers?

But, of course, Brazil is not Nigeria. Brazil's history of denial, violence and abuse of its African and Afro-descendant population by a white European elite continues to this day and for that reason, we must call Machado a Black man, a Black Brazilian writer and understand the full implications of knowing that one of the greatest writers in the history of the Portuguese language was both Black and Brazilian.

*...imagine if Shakespeare had been a Black Jamaican.

Machado was born on Ladeira do Livramento and so the Valongo Warf itself and the surrounding slave markets were very much a part of his childhood landscape. His extensive knowledge of Antiquities, the Bible, and African traditional cultures and religions allowed him to weave a complex and pristine record of colonial Rio de Janeiro, while introducing new narrative styles and literary structures that continue to impact and inform Portuguese language literary production today.

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