Additive Identity

Rio de Janeiro (2006):

Thirty years ago, studying music at college, I had the pleasure of having Philip Kelsey as a teaching assistant for my sophomore theory course (I learned much more from him, a grad student at the time, than from the nominal professor in charge). I, unlike the rest of the students (and the faculty) was very much interested in jazz (the electric Miles Davis of the early seventies), in addition to the early music (Josquin, Taverner, Palestrina) which I sang with the Glee Club, which would turn out to be a lifelong passion. Since jazz was very much outside the academy at the time, my interest was seen as something eccentric — my fellow students asked “how can you like both Miles Davis and Josquin Desprez?” When I told Phil about this he said, “Tell ’em ‘How can you not like both Miles Davis and Josquin Desprez?’”

To me this story illustrates something important about how we form identity. Identity can be based on subtraction or addition, what you might call “subtractive” or “additive” identity. Anyone who has seen a child grow up knows that one of the most powerful (and earliest) words in the child’s vocabulary is “no.” “No” is the word that enables the child to differentiate itself from its mother and father, to assert itself as an individual with unique needs and desires. “No, I not like it” is much more powerful than a simple “yes.”

Once the child gets to be older than one-and-half or two, and later becomes an adult, “no” is still a powerful word, embedded in what you might call an “either/or” mode of viewing the world. This sort of dualistic way of operating can be powerful, useful, but is ultimately simplistic and reductive. Either a person is black or they are white, heterosexual or homosexual, bad or good. They are damned or saved. They are French or Italian (but not both). A kind of food is healthy, good for you, or it is unhealthy, and should be avoided. A country is the model of democracy and human rights for the entire world, or it is the “Great Satan.”

This way of thinking can cause a lot of problems, and indeed doesn’t really reflect reality, but rather our mental model. People are not simply “black” or “white.” They have complex heritages which may bring together ancestors from many parts of the world (Tiger Woods had the guts to say that he was not black, but “Cablinasian” — Caucasian/Black/Indian/Asian). Men and women have both heterosexual and homosexual desires. Humans are full of contradictory impulses for good and evil. Some eminent French were born in Italy. Foods can be healthy in moderation, but problematic in excess.

“Either/or” thinking and “subtractive” identity, in which we assert who we are by denying that we are like someone else, seem to have connections with our dominant monotheistic and patriarchal ways of constructing the world. Becoming a Christian (or a Muslim) means rejecting other belief systems. You can’t continue to be a pagan and add on your Christian beliefs. You must reject the previous worldview. Monotheism means a firmly held belief that your god is the only god, and that any other beliefs are superstition or worse.

“Subtractive” identity is something Americans can readily recognize as being present in their culture, and it is perhaps even more pervasive than we think — despite our ideology of the “melting pot” and the image of the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants. When we identify people as belonging to a particular group (Italian-Americans, women, Hispanics) it is usually to single them out as being different from the idealized (and never explicit) norm.

“Additive” identity is something which we are becoming more familiar with (witness the example of Tiger Woods). Creating identity by taking on new aspects without giving up the old is characteristic of the culture of Brazil (and, if we would look at it honestly, is present in American culture as well).

In Brazil, someone who is black, or Afro-descended, which is the newly-accepted term, does not have to create an identity excluding other descent. Being Afro-descended does not mean that you may not be Euro-descended as well. Harold Bloom describes Machado de Assis

as the “supreme black literary artist to date” (Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds

, p. 674). This is how he describes a man who was the son of Francisco José de Assis, a mulato (bi-racial), descended from freed slaves, and Maria Leopoldina Machado, a Portuguese from the island of São Miguel in the Azores. Does the single word “black” describe this? Even those who self-identify as white in Brazil have been shown by a recent study of mitochondrial DNA (transmitted through the maternal line) to more frequently have a maternal lineage that is Amerindian (33%) or African (28%) than one that is European (39%).

Brazilians are not inhibited about celebrating this mixed heritage. The poet and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes (1913–1980), author of the play that would become the film Black Orpheus

, said he was “the blackest white in Brazil.”Lenine, composer and popular musician, sings “My name is Tupi, Guaykuru, my name is Ceci’s Peri, I am the grandson of Caramuru, I am Galdino, Juruna, and Raoni,” a stanza which brings together the names of two indigenous groups (Tupi, Guaykuru), the fictional Peri from José de Alencar’s novel The Guarani, the Portuguese (Diogo Alvares Correia) who married the daughter of the Tupinambá chief and went on to help found Salvador (known as Caramuru by the Tupinambá), and finally three contemporary Brazilian Indians. Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said, being interviewed, that he was also of African descent, using a colloquial expression — “também tenho um pé na cozinha.” If we choose one of these words, “black,” “white,” “Indian,” and assume that by using it we exclude the other two, we are far from describing daily reality.

Likewise, sexuality can be more fluid, more inclusive, less exclusive, more additive, and less subtractive. Such “homosocial” groups as gay choruses, lesbian choruses, gay concert bands, lesbian marching bands, and gay athletic competitions, which are characteristic of separatist tendencies in American culture are not to be found in Brazil. This does not mean that gay and lesbian sexuality is not accepted, but that gays and lesbians can express their sexuality within the larger social group, rather than creating isolated spaces where they can be safe. Gays and lesbians do not separate themselves by means of an identity politics. As the slogan goes, “I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it.” Brazilians are used to it.

This acceptance of “additive” identity, the practice of “both/and” rather than “either/or” may have to do with the fact that for centuries Brazilians have preserved identities which would have brought them into conflict with the reigning norms had they been expressed openly. Instead these identities continued to be expressed alongside, or along with, the openly accepted and socially approved of identities. An important part of the immigration to Brazil at its beginning was that of the “new Christians,” Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism. On the surface, they were Christians, but within their homes they continued to be Jews. One of these “new Christians” was Caramuru, mentioned above, and another was João Ramalho, the founder of São Paulo. That many of these new Christians continued to consider themselves Jews is shown by the fact that when the Dutch, Protestants believing in freedom of religion, took control of Pernambuco, the “new Christians” were able to build synagogues and practice their religion openly (a situation that would only last for a few decades).

The most well-known example, of course, is that of the continuing presence of African religious traditions existing syncretistically with what are ostensibly Catholic religious practices. African entities known as orixás are identified with particular saints, so that devotions to the saint become confused with devotions to the orixá, and vice versa. You may consider yourself to be a Catholic, but that does not mean that within this Catholicism there is no space for Africa, for macumbinhas. (The exception in Brazil in this respect is evangelical Protestant Christianity, an import from the United States, which banishes such practices. The composer and guitarist Baden Powell, who converted to evangelical Christianity towards the end of his life, continued to play his instrumental versions of his afro-sambas, full of references to orixás, but his religion would not allow him to continue to sing the lyrics.)

It may also be that the nature of Brazilian society is less monotheistic, and less patriarchal. Yes, on the surface, “for the English to see” there is a fiction of monotheism and patriarchy. But down deeper, the practice, if not the theory is polytheistic and matriarchal. You can always know who the mother is, but paternity is not so clear. As the Brazilian proverb goes, “filhos das minhas filhas, meus netos são. Filhos dos meus filhos, serão ou não?” The children of my daughters are my grandchildren. The children of my sons? Maybe yes, maybe no. This is, of course, also the basis of orthodox Jewish practice, in which the children of a Jewish mother are Jewish, regardless of the status of the father. You may not know all the children fathered by your father (e.g.: the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Rosinha Mateus, learned in 2005, at age 42, that she had a half-sister named Carla Oliveira), but you will probably know the children borne by your mother. In this situation, complex extended families linked by motherhood can be common. A hypothetical: Diogo fathers a daughter, Maria, with Beth. They separate. Diogo then marries Solange. They have a daughter, Raquel. Raquel and Maria are half-sisters. Beth then has a second child, Malu, this time fathered by Paulo. Malu and Maria are also half-sisters. There is clearly some sort of relation between Raquel and Malu. But does this relation have a name? This type of situation is certainly not uncommon in Brazil, no matter what the social class may be. And in these extended webs of relationship, given that we are talking about Brazil, the chances are that your half-sister or brother may look more (or less) Afro-descended or Amerindian-descended than you do (it was the case for Rosinha and her sister Carla).

All this means that the figure of the father in such a society is less important, and the relationships with uncles, aunts, godparents correspondingly more important. This is reflected in a religious system which values interventions by saints or their Afro-descended equivalents, the orixás. Yes, the statue of Christ is there on Corcovado, but you might want to think of him as the bachelor uncle, the son of great-aunt Maria, rather than as father. Having more half-sisters, half-brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, members of extended family does not diminish you — rather, it adds to you.

In a society based on “both/and” the individual need not be a monad, an atom, defined in isolation, but rather a force expressed through a web of relationships. These relationships need not be exclusive, but can synergistically reinforce each other, producing personalities fully expressed through multiple aspects. For example, a musician may be a performer, and a composer, and may work in classical music, early music, jazz, samba; he or she may be a writer and a poet as well. Identity is not based on “no, I don’t do that,” “that’s not what I am about,” but on “yes, I like that,” “I do that too.” As the North American poet, Walt Whitman sang, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”