Some Day in 1999, people will look back on this as a historic event," David Williams of Indianapolis, Ind. was telling newfound friend Paulo Soares of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. "They will remember it as the first time black people from America and Brazil were able to talk with each other about who they are and where they've come from."
Soares's response, a warm and vigorous soul handshake, showed that he shared William's view of The First New World Festival of the African Diaspora. Yet for some other Brazilians, black as well as white, the two week cultural congress that ended here this past weekend has been a thing of controversy, under fire from varying quarters as either a radical or frivolous gathering.
Theoretically, nothing could be more innocent than a festival of dance, music, folklore, visual arts and seminars intended to show the richness of black culture in the New World. But in Brazil, which basks in its world-wide reputation as a sort of "racial paradise" and maintains officially that it has no problems of racial prejudice or discrimination, race can be a sensitive issue - as the 194 black Americans here for the festival have discovered.
Dr. Richard A. Long certainly didn't expect any difficulties when he originated the idea for the festival a year and a half ago. Previous experience, as a participant in the FESTAC conference in Dakar. Senegal in 1966 and later as head of the African-American studies program at Atlanta University, had taught him that black Americans were fascinated by all of theAfrican-derived cultures that have developed in the New World.
Brazil seemed to be the logical first choice for such an examination of common roots. The most African country in the world outside of Africa, with a black population estimated to be twice that of the United States, Brazil is the center of a proud and flourishing black culture - especially in the state of Bahia, where the first week of the conference was held.
Working through an Atlanta tourist agency, Long soon found that his guess was correct. Despite a hefty price tag that ranged from $1,000 to $1400 per person for the two-week package tour, response was strong, especially among black academics and professionals.
"The people who signed up to come along are from all over the United States," said Long. "The largest single group is from Los Angeles, but groups from everywhere from New York and Washington to San Francisco and Seattle are with us."
For most of the American visitors, Brazil has come as a revelation, living up to everything they hoped it would be.
"I immediately felt a quickening of color and rythm in Bahia, just as I did when I first went to Africa," said Malkia Roberts, a painter and member ofthe Howard University art faculty. "I know that what I've seen here will greatly affect my work and produce profound changes in my style."
"Walking around the city of Salvador in Bahia, we saw a lot of storefront churches, just like at home," said Dr. Fletcher Robinson, a Washington dermatologist. "There were churches for Candomble (a Brazilian religion that mixes Roman Catholicism with Africanspiritism), but I certainly had no trouble understanding the sisters all dressed in white getting so worked up that they went into trances.
One of the women we saw could have been the twin of a woman I remember from an old country church in Pennsylvania many years ago," said Dr.Helen Johnson, Professor of theater history at the City Universite of New York. "This trip has really deepened my understanding of where some of our Afro-American practices come from."
To supplement these firsthand impressions, the festival also organized a series of arts performances. Each program matched a Brazilian group with one of the American performers participating in the festival: the Marie Brooks Children's Dance Theatre of New York; the Voices of Black Persuasion Quartet from Boston; jazz drummer Billy Higgins and his trip; and classical Keyboard artists Robert Jordon and Wendell Whalun.
"We were not your average group of tourists," said Johnson. "We went places that tourists don't go, and we did it without guides. I doubt that Brazil has seen such a large group of blacks since the days of slavery."
Not all of the comparisons the group has noted have been favorable. "You look around and you see that the most menial jobs are done by those with the darkest skins, just like back home," said Robinson. "and you say to yourself "Oh, here we go with that again."
"We could also tell that the management at our hotel in Bahia wasn't too happy about all the Brazilian black folks coming in to see us," Robinson added. "They wanted to hassle them, but the problem was that it was impossible to tell us and the black Brazilians apart until we opened our mouths."
"Or take the brochure they hand out at the desk of my hotel here in Rio," added one woman. "They talk about the Portuguese and the Italian and the German contributions to Brazil, but they completely ignore the African input. I can't say that I'm surprised, but I still take great exception to it."
It has also been in Rio, described by Dr. John Henrik Clarke of Hunter College as "a South American imitation of the Riviera," that the festival participants have felt the chill of their strained relations with Brazilian officialdom. Several events have had to be delayed because of difficulties in finding places to stage them, or other bureaucratic woes.
Originally, the Black Diaspora Festival was to be supported by Embratur, the Brazilian national tourist authority, and other Brazilian government cultural agencies; but suddenly less than a month before the festival's scheduled August 7 opening, that official blessing vanished.
Officials at Embratur were not available for comment on the matter. But Brazilian press reports have attributed the government withdrawal to fears that the festival activities would include seminar discussions in which the Brazilian racial situation would be analyzed and criticized by Brazilian blacks and visiting Americans.
"We don't know what really happened," said Long, "but we have been told that they were afraid of our raising racial and human rights issues in the course of the festival. If their purpose was to intimidate the populace, I would say that the objective has been attained.
"I think we would have had official cooperation were it not for their fear of local consequences," Long added. "You can't avoid history, that's for certain, but really, our seminars were going cover a wide variety of subjects, many of them related to the Afro-American experience."
The final result has been that no Brazilian lecturers have been invited to speak at the festival. This, in turn, has sparked a militant Brazilian group called the Unified Black Movement Against Racial Discrimination to argue that "The festival cannot be considered a celebration between the Afro-Brazilian and Afro-American communities" and to label festival participants as "capitulationists."
"The Festival of Black Culture now taking place would merit our full support if it were a real exchange between black Brazilians and Americans," says a leaflet the protestors have been handing out at festival programs. "But we have seen that its main focus is commercial, based on support from black American businessmen and tourist enterprises."
But for those actually taking part in the festival activities, the spirit continues to be one of good will and eagerness to learn. "We can't always understand each other," said Robinson, "but the eye contact has been great."
Backstage at one performance last week in Rio, Samba dancers from Rio's leading samba group, the "Escola de Samba Beija Flor," showed trick samba dance steps to members of the Marie Brooks Children's Dance Theatre. And when the Americans went on stage, the Brazilian found the rhythm of the music so delightful that they couldn't resist adding another layer of percussion with their own instruments.
"I've got to take a cuica home with me," said Christopher Hart, 11-year-old son of jazz drummer Billy Hart and a member of the Marie Brooks group, referring to a squeaky sounding Brazilian percussion instrument. "They're really into some heavy things down here."
I've already made reservations to go back to Bahia so I can catch some of that Carnival and the Candomble Festival," said Dr. Charles Sanders of the Howard University Institute for Urbban and Research. "We'll be back, you can be sure of that."