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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Ethnicity in Wounded Spaces: Instrumentalism and the Making of Africa in Brazil


The shaping of ethnic citizenry is embedded in complicated processes of engagement with ancestry, self and group formation, metaphors for belonging and cultural shift. I argue that at the core of all ethnic citizenry is a complicated relationship with social memory. This manifests in an artful encounter with aspects of one’s ancestry in order to facilitate the ongoing construction of self, moving forward into an aspirational future. Socially defined kinship is a powerful referent for belonging in moments where ethnic identities are claimed, challenged, or reconfigured for present day political, social and economic purposes. Ethnic loyalties are formed amidst complicated conditions for remembering and forgetting, thus they often manifest most creatively and powerfully in those instances where they affect the personal and the political dimensions of difficult lives. In this discussion I engage with primordialist, constructionist and instrumentalist approaches to ethnicity in an effort to find the most suitable methodology for engaging with ethnicity in wounded spaces. These spaces represent instances where ethnic identity is a political project prefaced on collective and social memory that attests to difficult or traumatic histories and contemporary inequities. I turn my attention to memory, kinship and ethnicity amongst Afro-descendants in Brazil, where the reinvention of Blackness and a cultural resonance with Africa represent powerful steps to assert ethnicity as an instrument to combat social injustice and racial disparity.

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