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Black Lives MatterPhoto Credit: Black Lives Matter


In honor of Black History Month in the United States, my Poetry Corner February 2015 features the poem “Vida Obscura” (Obscure Life) by Brazil’s greatest black poet João da Cruz e Sousa (1861-1898).

Born in the Southern State of Santa Catarina, Cruz e Sousa was the son of freed slaves. (Not until 1888 was slavery totally abolished in Brazil.) When their former slave owners adopted and gave João da Cruz their surname Sousa, it became both a blessing and a curse for the child named after Saint John of the Cross.

After he revealed great intellectual aptitude, they enrolled ten-year-old João de Cruz in the Liceu Provincial where he spent the next five years studying French, English, Latin, Greek, mathematics, and the Natural Sciences.

Exposed to higher education and Brazilian white society, Cruz e Sousa assumed he could enjoy the same dignity and rights of whites. But late nineteenth century Brazilian society was not yet ready for the learned, talented, and multilingual black man who did not know his place. His bold and independent manner was viewed as arrogant. Judging from his poem, “Acrobata da Dor” (Acrobat of Pain), he hid his humiliation from those around him.

He guffaws, laughs, in a tormented laughter,
Like a clown, unhinged, nervous,
He laughs, in an absurd laughter, inflated
With an irony and a violent pain.

Fleeing racial prejudice in his home state, Cruz e Sousa moved to Rio de Janeiro where he worked as the archivist of Rio’s Central Railway Station. At twenty-six years old, already married and father of three, he struggled with financial problems and poor health.

In “O Assinalado” (The Branded), Cruz e Sousa laments his affliction and misfortune but observes that they provide food for the soul.

But this same shackle of affliction,
But this same extreme Misfortune
Makes your pleading soul grow
And blossom into stars of tenderness.

In adopting the new French Symbolist poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and others, Cruz e Sousa countered the Parnassian poetic style, the dominant style among leading Brazilian poets at that time. Among Brazil’s literary circle, some branded him the “Black Swan;” others the “Black Dante.”

Lack of recognition by his peers drove Cruz e Sousa to strive harder for perfection in his art. In “Alma Solitária” (Solitary Soul), he dispels his melancholy which he likened to an adolescent archangel forgotten in the Valley of Hope.

O Soul sweet and sad and pulsating!
What kitharas weep solitaries
Across distant Regions, visionaries
Of your Dream secret and fascinating!

His battle with tuberculosis took his last profound breath. He was only thirty-six.

You can learn more about Cruz e Sousa’s contribution to Brazil’s poetic tradition and read his poem, “Vida Obscura” (Obscure Life), in its original Portuguese and English versions at my Poetry Corner February 2015.