Each spring, descendants of the Confederates who defected to Brazil at the close of the U.S. Civil War host a picnic in a graveyard of their forefathers in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, São Paulo with a motley crew of local dance moms, Freemasons and biker gangs. The Festa Confederada’s beating heart, its real crowd-pleaser, is an enactment of antebellum-era “folkloric” dances by men and boys in rebel uniforms and women and girls, some just babies, in frothy dresses that take months to sew. Increasingly, curious journalists, too, drive into the cane fields to query the festa’s Brazilian belles and local hawkers of Lynyrd Skynyrd covers, fried chicken and biscuits, and Confederate flag miscellany (keychains, flip-flops) available for purchase only with faux Confederate dollars.
It was the spring of 2019; Jair Bolsonaro, “Trump of the Tropics,” had recently been elected, and I was living in Rio. I’d flown to São Paulo the day before and spent the afternoon foxing around Vila Madalena in a black and white checkered top and kitten heels, feeling very mod concrete poetry meets lugubrious banana plants. At night I drank caipirinhas on the sidewalk, where the dancing spills into the road and stops traffic: in the corner bar I’d stopped in, quaint but urban, a man played a violin while women waltzed. My anxiety spiked the next morning on the two-hour drive toward rural Americana. As we pulled off the highway and down a dirt road, I wondered if the horse and buggy kicking up red dust were part of the festa’s aesthetics, but my Uber driver said no—likely the local mode of transport. I tried to explain to her what I was getting us into, but she seemed unfazed, explaining there were many folkloric celebrations in Brazil. She planned to attend.
Journalists from the U.S. often stress the multiracial nature of the festa and express concern over Black Brazilians dancing to “Love on the Mason-Dixon Line” across a stage painted with a giant Confederate flag. But the Festa Confederada is not a cultural oddity or a Brazilian mistranslation of American culture: the story of the festa goes much deeper to the heart of Brazil’s own planter-settler history. The party is an example of how family reunions—pretty little girls photographed for family albums—can reveal networks of racial capitalism that stretch across the Americas.
I’d moved to Rio with my child, Ami, to study other photographs: artist Hélio Oiticica’s 1960s lusty, lush images of samba dancers in Mangueira, a favela under siege by developers and military police. Oiticica was white, wealthy and heir to a different part of the city, but he lived in Mangueira and, in his words, had “eaten the whole fruit.” I first learned of the festa while reading the famous Rio newspaper O Globo, sitting across from the media syndicate’s headquarters in a little French bistro in verdant Jardim Botânico, where Oiticica was raised. The article covered the white-supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which had ended in murder the week before.
The carioca journalist had sought out a local source, asking João Leopoldo Padoveze, the president of the Fraternidade Descendência Americana (Brotherhood of American Descendants) to comment on the subsequent removal of Virginia’s Confederate monuments. Padoveze repudiated the violence in Charlottesville and, in the same breath, said the Ku Klux Klan had misappropriated the Confederate flag. The flag, for the Confederados, means “family and history.” I’d called my sister, then in library school at Chapel Hill, to ask if she knew of these Confederados. “I don’t. But our ancestors moved to Brazil at the end of the Civil War,” she said. “It was in that heritage binder at the family foundation meeting.” All I remembered about that event was that my cousin, a sheriff in Mississippi, had called me an n-word-lover.
Family philanthropy wasn’t my medium. But in Brazil, far enough from Birmingham, I could stretch a spyglass back toward my family tree. My great-great-great-grandfather, Colonel Charles Grandison Gunter, is notable in Alabama history for overturning the state’s law of coverture, which made a woman’s property her husband’s upon marriage. While this sounds romantic, I suspect “Gunter’s law,” which passed in 1847, was not a feminist gesture. Rather, the law was an identification with young women slave-owners, daughters and sisters, at a time when “the peculiar domestick institution” was being roundly questioned. After the Civil War, Gunter left Alabama and moved to Brazil, where he purchased 38 persons in bondage to work the colony he founded in Minas Gerais on the Rio Doce.
Afflicted by tropical diseases and paranoid hallucinations about “Booga Indians,” the colony failed, and his descendants blended into Brazilian cities or returned to Alabama. Other colonists chose to relocate to São Paulo, near Santa Bárbara, to the thriving Confederate colony founded by Colonel William Norris, which became the municipality of Americana. My family’s move was not solitary. Many Confederates, some say as many as 20,000, moved to Brazil hoping to recreate their way of life in a society on the verge of a cotton boom, where they could still legally purchase slaves.
Are some Brazilians outraged by the festa’s celebration of slave-owning history? Of course. When my Uber driver parked in the shade, there was a group of activists dancing capoeira at the gates of the festa. I approached a pretty woman wearing indigenous-esque face paint and holding a banner that read “Abaixo a Bandeira Confederada” (“Down with the Confederate Flag”). I asked her why she thought the Confederados were celebrating this legacy. “That’s our question,” she replied, “why continue celebrating that?” The young woman said the event was isolated, but Sílvia Motta, who young activists call mãe, said the flag is a fixture in town—people hang it in their homes, on cars, in bars. Motta said seeing the flag in Santa Bárbara and Americana causes her physical pain. “Are you planning on going in?” Motta asked, gesturing to the denim bustiers and Stetsons waiting for the white vans to drive them downhill to the festa. “I am,” I replied. “I hate to give money to this”—(the festa funds the upkeep of its grounds, a former plantation: the ancestors’ graves and an obelisk to the founding families, a tiny but well-scrubbed Washington monument)—“but I’m trying to understand why women want their daughters to dance these dances.” If I was interested in cultural dances, she suggested, there were plenty of others, gesturing toward the capoeira roda.
I paid my fare with trepidation. The festa’s guards are trained to check for stickers and badges that indicate racist affiliations; supremacist groups have caused problems in the past. But as Confederate flag after flag passed through the turnstiles on every conceivable piece of clothing, I wondered which symbols were on their list. I was nervous and smiley while they patted me down like guards at a rock concert. Inside, I changed my Brazilian reais into Confederate play money and bought an espresso with the local tender at a tent run by Freemasons. Then I headed for the graveyard.
Strolling among the tombstones, I met Tim, from Tennessee. Tim wasn’t a relation of the Confederados but an American Southern ambassador of sorts, the one to lift the Confederate flag in the opening ceremony, and frankly a wealth of historical knowledge on the migration: “Look at that landscape, doesn’t it look just like Alabama? You know, they brought the Alabama pine. They petitioned to fight for the U.S. in World War I—even veterans as old as 93.” He was right, the earth in Santa Bárbara did remind me of Alabama’s—red and dry, probably thanks to the planter-settler strategy of deplete-and-move.
Some descendants like to think their ancestors were wooed to Brazil for their farming expertise. More likely, the Brazilian imperial crown’s courtship of the Confederates served the same purpose as the subsidies the country would provide to European immigrants over the next half century: a state “solution” to the looming “problem” of a free Black populace. With slavery on the wane, white colonists would lighten the population and block Black Brazilians from wage labor, a solution Black feminist writer Lélia Gonzalez has likened to attempted genocide. During the 2018 presidential campaign, when Bolsonaro’s vice president called his grandchild a beautiful example of “branqueamento da raça,” he was resurrecting this specter of “racial whitening.”
Tim explained the difference between U.S. and Brazilian race relations, drawing his arm around me in a conspiratorial “we”: in Brazil “they” don’t look up when a Black person enters a restaurant like “we” would. His armpit was swampy, and his smell putrid. As we wandered back toward the stage, Tim pointed to the girls’ dresses printed with crops they were famous for introducing. “The Confederates brought the watermelon?” I asked. “The Georgia rattlesnake watermelon,” he said, clicking his cheek like a gun. Watching a little white girl in a watermelon dress hug a little Black girl in a lace dress, Tim smiled at me. “The South was about more than slavery, my dear.”
His words sounded as musty as my granddaddy’s in Birmingham. I was eleven years old, wearing my mother’s 1970s buttercream robe, my face hot with confusion, while my granddaddy tried to make me understand that the War of Northern Aggression was not fought over slavery. I felt myself lose the desire to eat—the Lucky Charms in my cereal bowl bleeding the milk pink. I wasn’t raised in the South or habituated to such declarations; as a child I didn’t know that “states’ rights” was a poster slogan for segregationists. But I knew about the Civil War. I listened because he was my mother’s father and Alabama was my mother’s home.
My mother died when I was five. Her middle name was Gunter (a strange and bitter name like something gone sour.) If Alabama was magical and scary and potent, it was because it connected me to her. Its magnetism didn’t hold me late into my teens: then, if I’d take a trip to “The South,” it was to New Orleans to play house when things got serious with a lover. Still, it is interesting that the scene in Brazil conjured Alabama, and Birmingham specifically—birth city of Angela Davis and Condoleezza Rice—foremost example of American segregation, supposedly in starkest contrast to the racial harmony of the warm and felicitous tropics.
In Rio, we lived in Jardim Botânico, where a fancy cocktail bar designed by Vik Muñiz now overlooks the former jockey club. Although the neighborhood seems diverse at first, it’s because people from the favelas work there cleaning children or guarding the doors of those fancy cocktail bars and cafés. Jardim Botânico has no metro stop, which makes the commute difficult for workers. At his private school Ami was the darkest student in his class. But it would be wrong to say that he was the darkest person at the school: the many security guards, the hall monitors, the kitchen staff and one of the nurses were Black. At my child’s going-away party, one of his best friends asked me, in front of a group of children, if Ami’s skin was the result of a tan or if it was part of his DNA. At the parent-teacher conference his otherwise lovely teacher said he excelled academically but was dirty. “I don’t care,” she said, smiling at me in solidarity. “It’s just all the other children have maids, and I’m worried they’ll make fun of him. I keep telling him to clean under his nails.” It reminded me of the moment his teacher in Brooklyn told me his behavior had improved since I’d cut his dreds.
I found my Uber driver beneath the Confederate obelisk. She was enjoying herself and wanted to try the fried chicken. The crowd had swollen, filling the pavilion tent. To my eyes, most people were white-presenting. By afternoon’s swelter, the pageant hair and rippling satin mingling with the cigarette smoke of gruff Hell’s Angels types resembled a Lana del Rey video. I started talking with a teen in a jacaranda-blue antebellum dress wearing lots of foundation and a little barbecue sauce on her cheek. She’d grown up dancing in the festa since she was little. She said the more modern elements were a recent development: the girls learn line dances now in addition to the “traditional” dances to accommodate the changing preferences of the attendees.
Today, the festival isn’t a reenactment of any one historical period so much as a boisterous congregation of Americana’s iterations of “rebel” culture. General Lee—the car from Dukes of Hazzard, souped-up, bright orange and decaled on the roof with a giant Confederate flag—was on display in a corner of the graveyard. A young woman was peering in the car’s rear window: with her Bettie Page bangs, stretched earlobes and cat-eye sunglasses, she would’ve fit in at any Williamsburg bar. I asked if I could photograph her next to the car. Her boyfriend wore a tidy Western shirt in a Confederate print, an Iron Cross ring and a bottlecap opener at his belt with its steer belt-buckle. I guess the guards must have missed the Iron Cross at the gate. What was a gesture to the unreconstructed South and what was performative shock or damn-the-Man counterculture? I photographed the couple. Her tattoo read “Sorry” on her right shoulder, “God” on her left.
The band played the intro riff to “Sweet Home Alabama,” and I made my way to the stage, where I met a Black teenager with his hair dyed purple and an eyebrow slit. He’d changed out of the Confederate uniform he’d worn during a presentation of all the South’s flags and into a Beatles t-shirt. He’d held the Arkansas flag. We giggled because neither of us could point to Arkansas on a map, but as the good ol’ boy songs poured down on us like sun, he said he loved rock music and America. He wasn’t a Confederado, just a local who’d come to support his friends. I wondered if the Arkansas flag he’d carried was the one Bill Clinton had sent while he was governor. There is an old romance between the Confederados and Southern Democrats. Eugene Harter, a descendant, writes of Jimmy Carter crying at the foot of the obelisk to the founding families when he visited the graveyard in Santa Bárbara—his wife Rosalynn is a relation.
The Confederate immigrants didn’t impose their way of life in São Paulo’s rural interior. On neighboring plantations, enslaved women were raising the white artists who would become the country’s major modernists. Brazil’s most famous modernist painter, Tarsila do Amaral, muse of Antropofagia, grew up on her family’s coffee plantation, a half hour’s drive from the American colony. Antropofagia was a movement of “cultural cannibalism” based on a caricature of the Tupi indigenous people as cannibals; elite white Brazilians would “cannibalize” French styles in the production of Brazilian subject matter: Black people. A year before her death, do Amaral explained that the subject for her first anthropophagic painting, A Negra (1923), was a “female slave” she remembered from her youth, and described in vivid detail I won’t repeat how the woman had stretched her breasts so that she might breastfeed while working. Chattel slavery legally ended in Brazil on May 13, 1888, when do Amaral was one year old, so her explanation was technically anachronistic. Either emancipation passed without notice, or her family’s plantation hummed along under a new economic arrangement so closely resembling slavery that she still referred to wage workers as “slaves.”
Brazil’s next major art movement, Tropicália—not modernism but postmodernism—was envisioned by Hélio Oiticica as a distinctly Brazilian response to North American forms. Like do Amaral before him, he depicted “Brazil” by capturing the image of Black workers—this time those who poured into the cities in the early 1960s after the dictatorship’s “miracle” opened the country to multinational corporations. His ambition was to shatter the country’s bourgeois mores. But Oiticica’s photo-events in Mangueira also encoded the dancers’ bodies with a vitalism which romanticized the government’s efforts to criminalize and contain people in the favelas (his writings describe Black intelligence as “corporal”—violent, colorful, physical).
Still, the work struck a chord with a rebellious explosion of young artists resisting the stuffy chauvinism of the dictatorship and confronting or exploiting, take your pick, Brazil’s position within elided colonialisms. Tropicália is most famous as a musical phenomenon. The movement’s irreverent rockers, Os Mutantes, resembled the Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper’s baroque costumes and moppy hair. They produced a charming mélange of cymbals, electric fuzz guitar, unrelenting drumming, whistle slides, plastic recorders and tambourines—topped with doo-wop sweet harmonies and Rita Lee’s whispery bossa nova. Redheaded Rita Lee seemed effortlessly cool alongside Gilberto Gil, with his perfect afro, and the rest of the young troubadour men. Tan and freckled, fresh-faced except for eyeliner and 1970s bangs, she was, in the words of Caetano Veloso, the perfect translation of São Paulo.
Imagine my surprise to learn Lee—a central figure in Brazilian music history—was a confederada who grew up attending the festa in Santa Bárbara. Her memoir articulates, rather cavalierly, how the confederados have always been a multiracial crew. She writes that as a girl she watched her father joke with the family’s ex-slave, Olímpia, who accompanied her great-grandfather from Alabama to Brazil, where she served as the “dama de companhia” for her grandmother until she died. Lee remembers Olímpia’s American Creole—indeed, the entire arrangement—as “fofa,” or “cute.” Brazilian law, while kind to white immigrants, prohibited the immigration of free Black people, so formerly enslaved people who immigrated with their former traffickers were thus re-conscripted into slavery. I’m not sure, but perhaps this historical perversion explains Olímpia’s lifelong “companionship” to Lee’s grandmother.
In much of this research I have felt a queasy revulsion—and I don’t think it’s appropriate necessarily that I felt more sharply outraged by Lee’s attitude toward her—our—forebears. Ami and his babysitter Mateus had found me unhappily eating pão de queijo; I handed the remaining snacks and Lee’s book to Mateus, pointing to the passage. His whole body made an exclamation point when he realized I’d correctly understood the Portuguese. Most Brazilians don’t know that it’s “Lee” in honor of General Lee. I’d confessed that I was planning on going to the festa to write about it, but that I wasn’t sure if I should bring Ami. “Hell no,” shouted Ami from the next room, where he’d nestled down with a book. Hell no, my biracial, gender-fluid child would not go to a Confederate party with a bunch of bikers and men dressed as Confederate soldiers in the middle of São Paulo’s interior.
It was nearing time for the dances, and the little girls were striking poses for attendees and for their families. I photographed them, too, and fell into easy conversation with Vivian, who’d married into the Confederados family and the role of dance mom. This was the first year her daughter was participating, she said, pointing to a cherubic little girl standing a bit off to the side in a maroon off-the-shoulder dress. My eyes flitted to a white woman in a fire-engine-red dress towering above a pair of Black twins, one on either side. “They’re adopted,” Vivian said, placing her hand on her heart. I flinched and was glad when she waved her daughter over. Vivian was happy her daughter was participating: “It’s good exercise,” she said. The girl didn’t speak. She nodded to my questions and smiled and swayed a bit when I said I liked her dress. The dresses, I should say, are a big deal. Alcides Fernando Gussi’s ethnography of the Confederados tells of a stylist from Santa Bárbara who watched E o Vento Levou more than twenty times to copy the style of the green dress that Scarlett has Mammy make from the curtains of Tara Plantation—commissioned by a dance mom.
Vivian introduced me to another mom in a fedora who had two daughters, small and white, who had escaped my notice. “Is that a coffee bean on her dress?” I asked. “No, cotton.” Following the usual litany of crops brought by the Confederates, talk turned to Brazilian foods. When I explained that I didn’t like the region’s signature rubbery tapioca cakes, Vivian replied, “Slim girls never eat cakes or things like that,” smiling and touching my arm. This was a compliment, and the mom in the fedora repeated it to make sure the Portuguese had registered.
I recalled another “meal” with my grandfather. Bar snacks, really, fried calamari. I’m not sure if I was 21 quite yet, but he took me to a cocktail bar in New York. “Your mother was never more than 117 pounds,” he said, penetrating me with his blue eyes, swirling a beer, poking a finger at me for emphasis. Such a precise number! “You have a very good figure, but your mama would never have let you get so fat. No man will ever date you while you’re fat.” That I had a boyfriend was no matter. “Maybe he’s the wrong kind of man,” he said, his eyes kind of crazed. Why the obsession with carrying on my mother’s measurements? I have a theory: his preoccupation with whiteness demanded a particular girth as well as a particular color. I suppose this too has the shimmer of the silver screen, Hattie McDaniel lacing Vivien Leigh’s corset into the perfect, punishing belle circumference.
Avatars of Scarlett skip through the Brazilian countryside and across Latin America not only because of the cultural dominance of U.S. media but because the Americas, taken together, are plantation societies. In her memoir, Rita Lee writes that as a child she imagined a new ending to E o Vento Levou, with her grandmother in the role of Scarlett O’Hara, and her grandfather, Cícero, in the role of Rhett Butler—in Lee family lore, he was known as a seducer and part-Cherokee. In Lee’s version, Scarlett and Rhett would move to Brazil where they lived happily ever after—missing the fact that this is more or less what happened. She is, herself, evidence of the “happy” ending. What’s improbable about Margaret Mitchell’s narrative isn’t transplanting the story further South.
The “folkloric” music started, and an elegant Black mom sitting in the front row under a sun visor quickly finished fixing her daughter’s hair and began tapping her hand on her lap to the corny Confederate battle ditty. Watching her daughter in a swirl of purple satin, I felt it wasn’t my place to question the little girl’s right to frippery. Dixa Ramírez, a Caribbean Studies scholar, writes that as a young Black woman in the Dominican Republic, her own mom identified so strongly with the heroine of Lo que el viento se llevó that she’d given her daughter the middle name “Scarlett.” While “‘genteel, white Southern femininity—or any femininity,” as Ramirez writes, was in fact, dependent on the “subjugation of black women and men,” she understood her mother’s fascination with the self-possessed heroine, given the options. “She neither saw herself in nor looked up to the many caricatures of black subjectivity that populate the novel.” Who would?
Mitchell’s ideological sisters in North and South America drafted similarly denigrating caricatures of Black womanhood, often disguising these as expressions of gratitude. In 1923, for example, the United Daughters of the Confederacy proposed building a monument to the “faithful colored mammies of the South” in Washington, D.C. A bill was drafted and passed the Senate; however, activists criticized the monument, and the proposal was shot down in the House. Proponents in Brazil drafted a similar statute a few years later, and it took three decades of campaigning, but Brazil eventually erected monuments to the “Mãe Preta”—in São Paulo, Campinas and other cities. The impulse was the same, as one white carioca journalist proclaimed, weeping for his white sons, now the wards of frauleins, “Let there be, then, engraved in bronze, the immortal physiognomy of the goodness and sweetness of the ‘Black Mothers’ of the past, of other, happier times.”
I haven’t found a stone monument to the Southern Belle—giving her a statue would imply she’d done something, had been complicit. Some argue she was a Hollywood invention used to mask the role of white women in slave culture: by presenting women as silly nits only obsessed with ribbons and romance, the real power they wielded and the violence they perpetrated is obscured. Yet I think the dresses evoke enslavement’s power dynamics as much as they hide them. As George White, a man who had been enslaved as a child in Virginia, told collectors from the Federal Writers’ Project, his former mistress was “a dressy woman”; if “she wanted a dress, she would sell a slave.” The dresses celebrate and deny enslavement simultaneously—it’s the same genre of treachery that would offer “gratitude” for someone’s violently stolen reproductive labor.
North America, like South America, is home to multiracial, satin-snatched elisions (and visions) of plantation nostalgia. Witness the Azalea Trail Maids as they sway like pastel mushroom clouds in Disney’s annual Easter Parade and other high-profile functions. The Maids are cultural ambassadors for Mobile, Alabama, straight-A high school students in a meritocracy where the prize is full belle regalia: an NPR headline proclaims, “the dress hasn’t changed, but the girls have,” calling attention to the Black and Asian women among the once lily-white court. A fleet of Maids marched in Obama’s “Lincoln”-themed 2009 inauguration, and it seemed odd (even if Mary Todd Lincoln’s modiste, a formerly enslaved woman, Elizabeth Keckley, made ginormous skirts and off-the-shoulder bodices for the money-fingered and powerful on both sides of the Mason-Dixon). However, in 2016, when the Azalea Trail Maids joined Jeff Sessions in greeting Trump on his victory lap, you could almost smell the anxiety: the belle’s eyeful of femininity was there as a prosthetic to white masculinity in crisis.
I can’t say I’ve ever given this much thought to the belle brand before—not my fantasy. But I think I can understand the appeal of a lost agrarian society where race didn’t matter and where feminine energy at its most vulnerable—dare I say submissive—was cherished, ahistorical as the vision may be. I can accept the idea that young girls might like to be placed on such a pedestal—to wear a pretty dress, be looked at and admired. The Southern belle aesthetic isn’t appreciably different from many other pretty princesses—and in a way that’s reminiscent of the monuments. The Confederados, to nobody’s surprise, are fans of Bolsonaro. Like their white nationalist brethren in the North, the Confederados argue that if you start tearing down statues to General Lee, it’s a slippery slope to the Washington Monument. Get rid of the belles, and who knows what might be next (the reign of the monumental white penis)?
I asked Vivian what she thought about the presence of the protestors outside. “Oh well,” she said, “they don’t like the flag—but the president of the Fraternidade is a descendant of slaves.” I wasn’t sure if I’d misunderstood her Portuguese, so I asked Vivian to point out the Brotherhood’s president. João Leopoldo Padoveze was white-presenting, probably in his late forties, and had danced every dance with a petite young teen with long brown hair and a golden dress reminiscent of Disney’s Belle in Beauty and the Beast.
“Be a monument to the culture,” Padoveze recently posted on his Facebook page. He is in deep and bitter mourning over the desecration and planned removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. He hadn’t written the injunction expressly to the young women at the festa but to a culture that perceives itself as continually under threat: “First, they come for your flag, then they come for your monuments.” Yet, if women’s bodies are the bearers of culture, the belle is a walking, dancing monument to the tradition. It’s a trap, I wanted to shout. Take down the flag, save your lovely souls. Don’t let it decorate your perfect body, don’t clean its history with your pretty face. But I didn’t shout. I smiled at Vivian and hugged her goodbye.
A young woman in a buttercup antebellum dress with a nose ring and stick-on jewels on her tear ducts gave me a rose after her “Yellow Rose of Texas” number, which I pressed into Gussi’s ethnography of the Confederados. It felt like closure. The bikers were getting a bit rowdy, and I texted my driver to ask if we could skip the line dancing, to avoid traffic. Outside, clumps of festa-goers in cowboy hats and denim bustiers waited for the white vans to drive them the few minutes up the dusty hill toward parking. The activists had gone home or elsewhere. My jaw hurt from smiling, and I fell hard asleep on the drive back to São Paulo. In São Paulo, most of the favelas are outside of the city center—like the suburbs of gentrified U.S. cities—and I only vaguely roused myself to ask the driver their names.