The surprising news that there was a place where I wasn't, necessarily, or at least didn't have to be, was imparted to me one hot summer's afternoon in Rio de Janeiro on the beach at Ipanema.

It was a special moment in my life, a time when suddenly I felt free as a bird and open to all sorts of new possibilities. I'd survived a tough, grinding dozen years as a newspaper reporter and editor in San Francisco and Washington, covering corruption and decay and despair and all the other cheery aspects of modern urban America, and was now embarked on a completely different path: I'd just been assigned as a foreign correspondent covering South America, based in Buenos Aires.

Now I was making my first real working visit to Brazil, and I'd looked up an American colleague who was living there temporarily. He'd invited me to spend a day of brilliant sun and gentle breeze with him and some of his friends, all Brazilians, at their usual spot on the beach.

The sun shone hot that afternoon, the breeze blew balmy, and there I lay, amid a loose group of about a dozen young professionals -- lawyers, journalists, a young woman who was trying to design and market her own line of string bikinis -- all of us nearly nude, amply oiled, feeling the gritty warmth of the sand between our toes, languidly but earnestly discussing current events and the meaning of life. All around us was the wonderful Brazilian racial landscape, a melange of blacks and browns and tans and taupes, of coppers and cinnamons and at least a dozen shades of beige.

Eventually, we got onto the subject of race. I was the one who raised it, trying to better understand the novel and amazing panorama I was seeing in Brazil. The conversation flowed into questions of what might be called racial taxonomy. Classification, in other words. Who, exactly, is considered black here? Who's white? Who's something else?

These weren't trivial questions. I could see that there were black people in Brazil, just as in the United States, and white people, although the proportions were obviously different; I knew that there had been a history of slavery and eventual emancipation. And yet I had the sense that the way people here thought of race was not at all the same way I thought of it. Even among my group at the beach, with the range of skin tones and hair types pretty much covering the whole spectrum, there was none of the obvious discomfort I had often felt when race came up in a mixed group in the States, none of the paralyzing fear of saying the wrong thing. Still, I wasn't making much sense of the inconsistent and contradictory things I was hearing. Race was important; race was trivial. There were tons of black people in Brazil; no, there really weren't that many. I wasn't getting it.

I decided to give up on theoretical classification and focus instead on the concept of race relations, which I figured would translate more easily. I turned to my colleague's Brazilian girlfriend, whose name I recall as Velma, and asked what it was really like being black in Brazil.

She answered with a look of genuine surprise.

"But I'm not," she said. "I'm not black."

She smiled at me as one smiles at a child who just doesn't understand, an isn't-he-precious kind of smile. But then I saw her quickly glance around at the others, making eye contact, and I had the sense she was somehow seeking to validate the declaration she had just made.

Velma had been born more than a thousand miles away, in the poor northeastern part of Brazil, the equivalent of our Deep South -- a place where a plantation economy once flourished, where slavery had persisted a full generation past the end of the American Civil War. It was obvious to me at first glance that Velma was primarily a descendant of those slaves. She was a small woman with long, jet-black hair, flaring nostrils, high cheekbones, and brown skin at least a couple of shades darker than mine. It wasn't even a close call, in my book. But she was telling me she wasn't black.

I blurted out, "But you must be, Velma. I'm black, and you're as dark as I am."

She put her arm next to mine, to compare: Yes, she was darker. Positively, definitively darker.

"But this color isn't black," she said. "This isn't black at all."

Trapped on what she clearly saw as the wrong side of the color line I was trying to draw, Velma maintained flatly that as far as she was concerned, I wasn't really "black" either. I explained that in the United States I certainly was and always would be, and so, in fact, would she. Velma found this hard to understand, and certainly wasn't about to accept it. She allowed that I might not be "white," but insisted that at the very least I fit well within the ill-defined parameters of pardo, which roughly means light-brown-skinned. "Black" was for her more of a description than a group designation, and it meant people with skin much darker than mine.

Or, of course, hers.

Others in our group, however, weren't quite so quick to settle on this classification. There were other factors. My hair, for example: It's kinky, clearly African, unarguably non-Caucasian. For some, kinky hair, in combination with skin as brown as mine, automatically equaled "black." Some thought that my physique -- tall, slim, high-waisted -- should somehow be factored in, that it was somehow an "African" physique. But foremost was the issue of my precise color, my own personal hue, which I'd never really thought about in this way -- which I'd never really thought of as a color at all.

It's a kind of oakwood-brown, with undertones more yellow than red. I seemed relatively lighter to some members of my informal college of taxonomists on the beach, relatively darker to others. Try as I might, I couldn't get this group of Brazilians to agree on what, racially speaking, I was. The conversation seemed to go in circles, and there was no way to get to the center.

Finally, exasperated, I turned again to Velma.

"If you're not black, what are you?" I asked. "You said I'm `at least' pardo. Is that how you'd describe yourself?"

But I got no satisfaction. Rather than answer, she smiled, shrugged and changed the subject. A while later, she and my American friend left.

After they'd gone, someone pointed out to me that Velma had long, straight hair, and that she also enjoyed the considerable status and income that came from her job as a lawyer. So naturally -- and this was said as if it were the most natural thing in the world, though it made no sense at all to me -- she called herself white.

White? A woman darker than me considering herself white? Not in my world. But of course I wasn't in my world anymore. I was in a world where race seemed to be indefinite, unfixed, imprecise -- a world where, at least to some extent, race was what you made it.

Instead of what it made you.

I was a bit confused by what I'd seen in Brazil, a bit unmoored, but mostly I felt unencumbered -- even liberated, to press an overused word into service. It was as if I had lived all my life next to an insurmountable wall, resigned to the fact that no one could ever hope to get over it, and then one day I'd gone up in an airplane and discovered that others, not far away, dealt with the same wall by simply walking around it.

When we speak of race in America, we speak in the terminology of color -- we say black and white and yellow and red and brown -- but we don't really mean color at all, not the way they mean color in Brazil. What we really mean is racial identification, in the sense of group identification. We mean people who share a history, a culture, a status in the society, even by and large a political point of view -- people who are assumed to share these things even if reality doesn't bear these generalizations out. We associate the word "black" with speech patterns, taste in clothing, sense of humor -- attributes that would seem to have little to do with skin color. We see race as something absolute and immutable, and we recognize no in-between; we've traditionally considered being "a little bit black" as impossible as being "a little bit pregnant."

Only in the past few years have Americans in any significant numbers begun to see this whole construct as wrong. From the affirmative-action wars to the clamor for a new mixed-race category in the census, there have been calls -- some disingenuous, to be sure, but others sincere and heartfelt -- to jettison all the baggage we attach to race and see people as the individuals they are, nothing more and nothing less. To me, those calls amounted to an attempt to reshape the world into something new, something better.

In Brazil, I found that new world already built, furnished and fully operational. Here was a place where people didn't just talk about an idealized rainbow society, they lived it. All around me, all the time, were people of every hue, every color of eye and texture of hair, every variant of cheekbone and hipbone, every width of nose and shape of chin, every curvature of breast and butt, mixed up in all possible combinations. Here was a place where someone like me, accustomed to a frame of reference where black was black and white was white, didn't even know where to begin drawing racial lines, let alone enforcing them. Here was a place where a kind of benign racial anarchy seemed to rule, a lubricious, frictionless chaos into which one could simply disappear.

I loved it, I reveled in it, I wallowed in it. It was just what I'd envisioned in my dreams, just the kind of freedom I'd always wanted. It wasn't until much later that I learned an old truth. In these matters of racial identity, as in so much else, the adage holds: We should be careful what we wish for, lest our wishes be granted.

While I was growing up in Orangeburg, S.C., during the '50s and the '60s, the rule there and throughout the rest of the South was racial segregation. It was more than a rule: It was the way things were.

Orangeburg had a black side of town and a white side; there were black schools and white; there were of course black churches and white churches, as there are to this day. Separation was far from complete, since some blacks worked in the households of whites, or in their stores or their factories or their fields, as had been the case for hundreds of years. Commerce also brought blacks and whites together, since blacks represented about half the city's population and almost half its purchasing power. White merchants -- with a few diehard, Johnny Reb exceptions -- were happy to welcome paying black customers, though sometimes through a separate entrance.

Although I saw white people every day, I didn't really know any. I'd had contact with white doctors -- one delivered me, one took my tonsils out, one treated my colds and flus and bronchitis, one prescribed my first pair of eyeglasses when I was 6 -- but it's fair to say that until I went to high school, my direct interpersonal experience with white people was practically nil.

This was partly due to the fact that the black half of Orangeburg was unusual, although I had no inkling of this at the time. The city is the home of two historically black schools, South Carolina State University and Claflin College. My mother was head librarian at Claflin; my father, who has a law degree, taught political science there for a time. Almost all my parents' friends had some connection with one or the other of the two schools, as professors, administrators, librarians, coaches, chaplains, former teachers, graduate students. Everyone, it seemed, had an advanced degree. The boast, perhaps apocryphal, was that Orangeburg had more black PhDs per capita than any other city in the United States.

The accident of my upbringing led me to do to whites what they have done to blacks for so many years -- develop stereotypes, based on evidence that was both anecdotal and arbitrary. White people, in my childhood experience, were farmers and merchants, with a few professionals thrown in. They were wealthier than black people, they lived in bigger houses, they drove nicer cars; they had power, and in many circumstances they were to be feared -- in the sense that if you saw four white youths coming down the sidewalk toward you, the prudent thing to do was cross over. But in general, white people weren't very well educated -- they drove pickup trucks and drank beer and spent a lot of time hunting and fishing, but didn't seem to have any intellectual ambition. Colored people wanted their children to grow and learn and leave Orangeburg and go to New York or Washington or Atlanta and make something of their lives. White people seemed to want their children to stay home and work in the family drugstore or sell auto parts. There were a few exceptions, of course, but most of the white people I saw as a child had extremely rough edges, showed little appreciation for culture and seemed years behind the times in almost all regards.

I never was tempted to confuse race with achievement, at least not in the way those two things are most commonly confused in this country. Nor did I confuse it with intelligence, or capacity, or drive. But I could hardly have missed the clear relationship between race and power: One's racial identity meant either having it or not.

It was a lesson that every black boy or girl quickly learned in the segregated South. I was bucktoothed and needed braces, so we found a white orthodontist upstate in Florence, a city an hour and a half away. He always had us wait in his private office, rather than the waiting room, where we might have offended the bucktoothed white boys and girls and their parents. He was more than willing to take our money, though. So were the gas stations along the way, although more often than not they had three bathrooms -- men, women and colored. This was patently illegal by then, but who was going to do anything about it? There were many times when a truck full of beer-swilling white men would drive past our house, and they'd stare with a very specific kind of malevolence, one that seemed to stop just short of violence. It was all about power: They had it and we didn't.

But what I don't remember feeling is any constant, day-to-day sense of our family's being personally oppressed. The resentment and the sense of injustice were always present, but the actual rage, the kind that debilitates and corrodes, appeared only in flashes.

In black Orangeburg we separated ourselves according to income and religion. Looking back, I can see now that at least to some extent we also sorted ourselves according to color.

This was particularly difficult for me to see at the time because of my own family's makeup, descended as we were from coal and cream. My immediate family consists of four distinctly different colors -- my sister, Ellen, is darkest, a rich cocoa brown; then my mother, a kind of milk chocolate; then my father, maple-toned; and then me. My maternal grandmother, who lived with us in the house her father built, was darker than Ellen. My great-aunt, who also lived with us in her childhood home, was about the same shade as me. There was no reason for me to think of this variety as other than the natural order of things, so that within the context of "colored," I never gave color a serious thought.

But now, if I do think about color in those days, I can see a clear pattern. My friends and their families generally ranged from milk chocolate to cafe au lait in complexion -- a wide range, but generally on one side of some dividing line. The poor people who lived in Sunnyside and out in the country and at the end of Oak Street tended to be darker. In Brazil, they would have been called the almost midnights and the after midnights and the navy blues. This was far from an absolute rule, but when I think of the girls at my middle school who were thought to be beautiful -- Maria Dawson and Penny Dawkins with their long, wavy hair, Toni Whaley with her hazel eyes, Melissa Evans with her pretty smile -- I realize that they were all light-skinned. Black hadn't become beautiful just yet.

This is embarrassing to recall, because it wasn't supposed to be that way. Orangeburg was basically a community of old-school intellectuals. We were smart enough and politically conscious enough to realize that the black-white divide was the only one that mattered, that racial identity had to be accompanied by solidarity if we were ever to fight our way out from under Jim Crow and Johnny Reb. And we did have solidarity, tons of it.

Yet at the end of the day, there was a correlation that any statistician would probably have found significant. Our socioeconomic ladder was a stubby one, with few rungs. But clustered near the top were a mixed bag of generally lighter tones, and clustered near the bottom were the darkest tones of all. Looking back over the decades, I have to conclude there was some dynamic at work that I didn't recognize at the time, that I only began to see after I'd spent time in Brazil.

In February 1968 -- the year when so many assassinations and riots and upheavals happened in America -- students at South Carolina State and Claflin tried to integrate a pitiful, scummy little whites-only bowling alley called the All-Star Lanes in downtown Orangeburg.

The owner resisted, and what had begun as a protest over the right to enter one insignificant little segregated business turned into a more general airing of pent-up grievances. The protests grew angrier and angrier over several nights, and the city's white authorities grew increasingly nervous.

The protests reached their climax with a nighttime standoff on the wide strip of railroad tracks and sidings that ran between the two side-by-side campuses and the street where I lived. The police would later claim that someone in the crowd had fired first, but this was never proved. Whatever the spark, the police and state troopers began firing, and within minutes three students lay dying.

The students were black, the men who shot them white. This took place within a hundred yards of my house, with a clear line of sight.

Suddenly race mattered to me, and mattered a great deal. There was no outward change -- I doubt that any of my friends or even my family noticed. But I felt it nonetheless. I had learned a lesson: that when tempers rise and bullets fly, black men's bodies somehow always seem to get in the way. For all the emphasis that society claimed to place on attitude or education or affluence, it was still, in the end, a matter of biology. I learned that since I was black, I could never, ever be white.

Brazil really made me think again about color. I had thought, all my life, that I knew what skin color meant -- which was, specifically, that it didn't mean anything at all except as a broad indicator of the more important category called race. In Brazil, though, it was race that seemed to mean very little and color that seemed to mean everything.

To my eyes, at least initially, the most striking thing about skin color in Brazil was how many colors there were. Granted, at first I was looking through an American filter that essentially polarized every shade into either black or white. By triangulating features, hair texture and skin tone, I was able to put most of the people I saw on the streets of Salvador or Rio or even Sao Paulo into the broad American category "people of color," with most of that segment managing to fit into the American racial group called "black." But I soon came to see that this was an oversimplification, if only because the variety of skin tones was so rich and so subtle -- and so evenly distributed.

What I saw in Brazil was a continuum in which some people were clearly white, some were clearly black, and everyone else was either blacker or whiter -- but only blacker or whiter in relation to everyone else. Many individuals fit into that nether region where there was no absolute racial identity, just broad categories -- light-skinned, mulatto, brownish -- that had no boundaries that were fully agreed upon. In other words, you had fairly wide latitude to be whatever you wanted to be.

Once I understood this, I saw that it went a long way toward explaining why there was so little overt racial fear and loathing in Brazil among individuals. Just whom are you supposed to fear and loathe? Whom do you include in the "us" of the scenario "us vs. them"? Where do you draw the line?

In a sense, it was like a glimpse into a possible -- and possibly glorious -- American future. Isn't America becoming more like Brazil? Aren't there more interracial marriages? Isn't there a wave of immigrants from the rest of the Americas, the immigrants themselves already of mixed race, now further mixing with white Americans and black Americans? Aren't we filling the kindergartens with beige and tan children who will grow up with a very different, and perhaps more enlightened, idea of what race is and can be and should be?

The thing that so excited me about the future I saw in Brazil was the absence of solid walls. The categories I'd grown up with that were so much a part of my being -- the categories of black and white -- just tended to melt away in Brazil. I felt liberated from them, liberated to the point of exhilaration. But if race was less distinct and less categorical than in America, and color was more important, then I felt I needed to try to understand what color meant in Brazil. So I looked around, trying to dampen my emotional response, my naked enthusiasm. And I kept coming back to a piece of doggerel I'd learned as a child in Orangeburg, half a world away:

"If you're white, all right. If you're brown, stick around. But if you're black, get back."

My friend Mac Margolis wanted me to see another side of Rio -- a side of the city that had nothing to do with the perfect beaches and the stunning views -- so he took me to a place called Rocinha, which is generally considered the biggest slum in the Americas.

It is a vast, improvised city-within-a-city slung in the broad saddle between two dramatic peaks overlooking Rio's southern beaches. I noticed, of course, that the place was dirt-poor, with its houses of cinder block and plywood and corrugated tin; I sensed immediately, from having spent some time in American ghettos, that it was fairly dangerous. We were extremely careful where we went and whom we talked to.

In my earlier trips to the favelas, I'd been struck by the fact that they weren't exclusively black, the way inner-city ghettos

tend to be in the United States. Now, though, in Rocinha I saw something else. I saw clearly how few whites there were. This may have escaped the notice of many of the 200,000 or so people who lived there, and certainly didn't seem to mean much to the larger society, but Rocinha was indeed almost entirely black.

In fact, from certain places on the hillside, you could look out and see the entire racial structure of the metropolis. The beaches, all public, were racially mixed -- whites pulling up for an afternoon of sun and sand in their cars, blacks arriving by bus or on foot, some having walked down from Rocinha and the other slums or taken the bus in their swimsuits and rubber sandals. The apartment buildings along the beaches and the expensive flatland neighborhoods were all white, except for the doormen and the maids and the gardeners. The slums, which ironically enjoyed the most spectacular views, were where the black people lived. Going uphill was like going to another world.

There was of course an economic component to all of this. Rich people lived in the fancy areas, poor people in the slums. But it was no longer possible for me to chalk it all up to economics, all the de facto segregation I saw. Just as it had in the neighborhoods I'd lived in, race mattered.

I'd made a promise to myself soon after my first trip to Brazil, a solemn pledge that I would not be the first South America correspondent so stupid that he never went to Carnaval in Rio. February was nearing, so I dreamed up an excuse to satisfy my editors, wangled myself a hotel room, and then called Mac and announced that I was coming. I'd been looking forward to what everyone said was one of the world's greatest spectacles, and I was looking forward to having Mac as my guide.

"That's great," he said, with the dripping ennui of a world-weary German intellectual in the 1920s. "I'll tell you everything you need to know. You're welcome to the office, anything you need. I won't be here, though. I'll be out of town. The truth is that I always try to leave town during Carnaval. But you'll have a great time, really you will."

I should have taken that as a warning, I suppose, or at least a clue. But there wasn't time to stop to think about it. If Mac had his own reasons for avoiding Carnaval, then that was his business. I was not about to skip it myself.

If I had, I would have missed the most amazing event I've ever seen, but that's almost incidental. More important, I'd have missed the day when the last of my illusions about Brazil finally died. But I'd also have missed the day when I first began to realize how rich, how full, how valuable the old possibilities of the United States could be.

What happens during Carnaval is that the whole city -- the whole country, really -- essentially stops functioning for the five days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. It's basically the same pre-Lenten blowout that's held in Venice, Trinidad, New Orleans and other places around the world, but in Brazil it's incomparably bigger, bolder, badder. On Friday in Rio comes the official kickoff with the introduction of Rei Momo, the king of Carnaval. On Friday night and Saturday night there are big annual Carnaval balls held in various auditoriums, affairs that compete to outdo one another in glitz, celebrity, heat and raunch. On Sunday and Monday, the big samba school competition is held in the Sambadrome downtown. On Tuesday, the winning school performs an encore parade. And on Wednesday morning, everyone wakes up with a punishing hangover; a few souls even make it to church.

The generic pre-Lenten carnival is a function of the Christian calendar, and so in that sense it's European, but the Brazilian Carnaval -- the drumming, dancing, delirious celebration in the streets -- has its roots in the black neighborhoods of Salvador, the blackest of Brazil's major cities. Many Brazilians and old-hand expatriates, like Mac, complain that Rio's Carnaval has become too Las Vegas and too white. That may be true, but it's also true that there's nothing bigger or more mind-blowing than Carnaval in Rio. It's the Super Bowl, the Mount Everest, the World War II of parties, the standard against which all others are measured.

All businesses, except those servicing revelers and tourists, are closed. Streets are blocked off. The quantities of beer and liquor consumed are unimaginable. In the age of AIDS, condom sales go through the roof. Everyday norms of behavior are suspended -- you don't ask, and you certainly don't tell. If it happened during Carnaval, it didn't really happen at all. You open yourself to people in a way that would be unthinkable and highly unwise at any other time of the year. Barriers come down: Bankers hold hands with their maids and samba down the street, while tipsy housewives are spun and twirled by their gardeners. You party desperately until you run out of steam, then regroup and party some more.

It took me a couple of days, but I got into the mood. I didn't have a costume, but I did have an African-patterned shirt and pants that I'd thrown into the suitcase, and so I put that outfit on like a new persona and went out to a couple of the Carnaval balls.

The first, at a place called Scala, was an upper-crusty affair at an auditorium in the fanciest, most expensive part of town. It was a celebrity ball, a place where starlets and soccer stars and other members of the glitterati came to see and be seen. People wore outrageous costumes -- there were cat women, Roman centurions, androgynous beings so weighted down with their towering headdresses and their golden robes that they could barely move. Bare breasts were common, and they were perfect bare breasts, shaped by Rio's best plastic surgeons. The samba band was professional, one of the best in town; the decoration was slick and flashy. I stayed until 1 or 2 in the morning, and the party was just heating up, but there was something missing; everyone seemed to be playing to the cameras -- the Brazilian television networks cover the major balls like American TV covers the Oscars -- and the chemistry just didn't ignite for me.

The next night, I went to another ball, at a place called Monte Libano -- a ball that, despite also taking place in the upscale part of town, had a reputation as a much more working-class celebration. This was more like it.

Admission was just a few bucks, a quarter of what I'd paid at Scala. The crowd pushing to get through the doors was livelier, more active, less concerned about appearances -- not as many people were in costume, and hardly anyone looked to have dressed for the cameras. Not that there were any cameras.

I went inside and immediately found myself in the middle of the dance floor, and the only way to cross it -- the bar, and the beer, were on the other side -- was to dance my way across. Bodies were packed indecently tight. The band played nonstop, running through all the year's samba theme songs without so much as a pause between numbers. Couples were dancing, triples, individuals, groups. Everyone seemed drunk or otherwise stoned. It was hot and humid, sticky and oppressive, and the air was sweet-and-sour with sweat and cologne.

It was a blast and I stayed until 4. It wasn't until much later in the day, after breakfast and a lot of Tylenol, that this distinction registered: The party at Scala had been mostly white, while the one at Monte Libano had been mostly black.

On Sunday night came the main event: I went to the Sambadrome.

The way it works is that all year, the top 16 samba schools prepare their Carnaval presentations, and over two nights they compete: to win the championship -- and a year's bragging rights for the school's neighborhood and its supporters. They are judged on the quality of the samba song they've commissioned, the depth of the theme they've chosen to explore, the craftsmanship and inventiveness of the floats, the caliber of the celebrities they've recruited to ride along, the beauty and outrageousness of the costumes, the musicianship of the drumming, the skill of the dancing, the overall choreography, the overall enthusiasm, the overall spectacle.

Until a few years ago, the parade competition was held on a major avenue in the city center. But Carnaval got bigger and went upscale, and now the venue for the contest is the Sambadrome -- several blocks of a downtown street that are lined with a giant permanent grandstand.

The schools slowly parade through, with their towering allegorical floats and their brilliantly costumed multitudes, the marchers singing and dancing until they pass the end of the grandstand and spill out into a giant plaza called the Apotheosis. Up to 5,000 people parade for each school; it takes an hour and a half, more or less, for each school to run the gantlet.

A cab dropped me as close to the Sambadrome as possible, which was about five blocks away. The neighborhood was dicey, and I wouldn't have relished walking there alone any other time of the year, but tonight it was thronged. It was the most surreal twilight stroll I've ever taken. Spectators and participants were all streaming in the same direction, so that for a while I'd walk amid a normal-looking crowd, and then suddenly I'd be among a group of cave people wearing glitter-encrusted loincloths, or a bunch of bright red devils with horns and tails. Eventually, the two crowds diverged -- those marching in the parades went to the staging areas, and the rest of us made our way to the grandstand.

I was alone, but in Rio during Carnaval you're never really alone -- my reserved seat, practically in the front row, was in a box along with an obviously wealthy young white couple and two middle-aged mulatto women. Within seconds, as is customary at Carnaval time, we were all best friends even though there was so much noise that I couldn't hear what anyone was saying anyway.

It was an incredible night. The assault of color and rhythm begins around 7 in the evening and lasts until 7 the next morning. Themes vary -- one school might be doing a historical pageant on slavery, while another might be riffing on the wonders of drunkenness. Costumes vary according to the theme in question and the school's official colors -- and, of course, the imagination of the impresario in charge.

But some elements are standard. Each school's parade begins with a group of older men from the neighborhood, dressed in sparkling finery, suspenders and bow ties and the like. Each school has A-list celebrities lending cachet to the parade, the select and the famous often perched stories-high atop elaborate floats -- volcanoes, gardens of Eden, city skylines -- all trundling down the route at a stately pace. Each school has as its starring performers a special couple, a woman who carries the school flag and her consort; and they do a whirling dance distinct from the samba that most everyone else is doing. Each school has hordes of organizers and helpers who hover around the parade like worker bees, keeping the lines straight and the formations tight and exhorting the nonchalant to greater enthusiasm, perhaps even winning enthusiasm.

And each school has a group, or "wing," of Bahianas -- women from the neighborhood, older women, grandmothers. Their costumes consist of voluminous white dresses of Salvador lace, traditional Bahian costume, over vast crinoline petticoats. There are hundreds of them, coming down through the Sambadrome in a bloc, and they whirl in unison as they march, making the dresses billow like the skirts of dervishes. Their appearance is one of the signature moments of each school's parade, a returning to roots. It is a beautiful contrast, white lace and dark skin -- most of these women are dark.

When the first school came dancing through, I didn't quite know how to react. With the second, I got into the whole thing a little more; and by the time the third came past, its theme song a witty little ditty about drunkenness, I was singing along like the rest of the vast crowd.

Sitting almost in the front row, I was spellbound as the Bahianas from the famed Salgueiro samba school came past. But then, suddenly and without intending to, I stopped looking at the costumes, and began looking at the people as individuals.

I saw their bodies, imperfect bodies that told their own histories, some too thin, many too fat, all with the sags and bulges that come from a combination of frequent childbearing and constant manual labor. Looking past the joy and glory of the moment, I saw hard lives.

These women looked frightfully old, but poverty adds phantom years; a few might have been as young as their fifties, but most seemed certainly to be in their sixties and a few in their seventies. On this hot, humid evening they were dancing to a fast samba, prodded by the worker bees to dance harder and faster, whirling their dresses and smiling their crooked smiles and singing the Salgueiro samba as if their lives depended on it.

"One of these women is going to drop dead of a heart attack," I blurted out in English.

"Don't worry about them," said the male half of the young white couple to my right -- I hadn't realized he spoke English. "They're used to working hard. They're tough old ladies."

The instant those words were out of his mouth, my whole view of the spectacle changed.

I didn't say anything aloud. To myself, I said: Those are black women.

Black women.

Of course, that was self-evident. And yet in a sense it wasn't, at least not until that very moment. I realized that I couldn't see them clearly, couldn't see their situation clearly, their lives, their dreams, their pasts and futures, without that adjective: black. I couldn't know them just as old women, or poor women, or Salgueiro women. They were black, and black was more than just a color. It was a condition. It was an identity about which some of them might have been ambivalent, that some of them might even have rejected, but that suddenly, for me, had a clarity and a pertinence that changed everything.

Those women marching in the heat in those beautiful frilly white dresses, like so many others in the parades for all the samba schools, were black. The people way back at the other end of the Sambadrome, looking down on the festivities from a highway overpass because they couldn't afford a ticket -- they tended to be black, too. The people in the steep, open grandstand were mostly light-skinned or white. The people in the box seats, where I was sitting, were mostly white.

From then on, when I thought about race in Brazil and tried to make sense of it in relation to race in America, I thought of those Bahianas from Salgueiro. I'd seen a clear pattern of racial stratification. I'd seen economic and political disparities; I'd heard the empowered dismiss the unempowered with unthinking disdain. I'd seen a situation that, in a lawyer's terminology, was actionable.

And yet most of the people there with me that night hadn't seen those things at all. They'd seen blacks and whites and browns coming together in the world's most spectacular street party. They'd seen the color and the pageantry, the nudity, the celebrity, the glitz. They had enjoyed themselves; I had, too. I wouldn't have missed that evening for the world.

But that was the beginning of the end of my infatuation with the idea that if you refuse to acknowledge race, somehow you can make it just go away. The process of realization had been going on for some time, but that night was when I began to put it together -- when I came to understand that structuring a society so that black people didn't "have to be" black didn't seem to do much good for black people at all. That, in fact, it seemed to do them harm, to hold them down -- worse, to deny them even the awareness that they were being held down, to deny them the language to talk about it and the anger to do something about it. Amid all the beauty and excitement and joy of that evening, I saw something that was backward and ugly and wrong.

And I still see those women whirling like dervishes, white lace billowing around sturdy black legs, a study in contrast.

After four years in South America, my tour of duty was ending. It was time to think about returning home. I knew that the country my family and I would be returning to was a different place than the one we had left, and that I would be reentering it on a different basis: older, more experienced, even a bit wiser, and certainly with a different perspective on the whole issue of race thanks, in no small part, to my Brazilian experiences.

Thanks also to Orangeburg. I had traveled a long arc, one that began with a scene of gunfire and hatred, just down the street from the house my great-grandfather built, and that ended half a world away at a place called the Sambadrome, amid swirls of color and the stark tableau of black against white. Two chaotic scenes that fit together like two pieces of a puzzle.

In Brazil, most people with some measure of African blood demand not to be thought of as black. In Brazil, most black people don't seem to feel themselves at all in conflict with white society. In Brazil, when a national news magazine did a celebratory cover on black success stories, the 17 exemplars on the cover included one judge and a bunch of athletes and entertainers -- not a single politician, businessman, writer or scholar.

These things are connected.

After years of traveling around Brazil, I could see those connections clearly now. I could also see that the things about the race issue in America that had bothered me so much and helped drive me away -- the obsessiveness about it, the choosing of sides, the discomfort, the paranoia, the anger -- at worst had to be thought of as necessary evils, and perhaps even deserved to be called godsends. I still loved this fabulous new country I'd discovered and explored, but I was no longer under any illusion that it offered the answers that I once thought I'd found on the beach at Ipanema -- no longer certain, in fact, that Brazil was even asking the properly framed question. I knew that both question and answer, at least for me, lay somewhere amid the tension and heartache and angst of the American struggle with race.

I also knew that many Brazilians, both black and white, would disagree violently with me; that they would say their way -- without friction, without heat -- was the better way to make the machine run. But I'd seen both approaches, and I'd seen the results. I saw that ignoring race didn't work any better than being obsessed about it -- and I knew that in America, despite all our problems, I could put together a dozen magazine covers of black role models that included more than basketball players and soap opera stars.

Note that I said "our" problems. I was still half a world away, sleeping beneath the Southern Cross instead of the Big Dipper, but part of me was already home.

Eugene Robinson is assistant managing editor of The Post's Style section. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book Coal to Cream, to be published by the Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Copyright 1999 by Eugene Robinson.