Life of the Mind: Brazil takes a flexible attitude on identity

By Leslie King | Emory Report | Feb. 4, 2014

"Identities and Their Flexibilities: Brazil in the Americas," this year's Life of the Mind event, will be a conversation about a nation with increasing ties to Emory.  It will be held Wednesday, Feb. 5, at 4 p.m. in the Jones Room of the Woodruff Library and is free and open to the public.

Jeffrey Lesser, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of History and chair of the history department, will discuss his new book, "Immigration, Ethnicity and National Identity in Brazil," with Emory Provost Claire Sterk.

Gary Laderman, professor of American religious history and cultures at Emory and chair of the Department of Religion, will introduce the conversation.

Lesser and Sterk's conversation looks at the different ways many Brazilians often change their ethnic group or self-presentation, depending on the situation. This contrasts to the way Americans present themselves as members of a single religious, ethnic or other form of identity characteristic.

Lesser spoke with Emory Report about his study of Brazil and Emory's partnerships that are resulting from creating ties to the South American nation.

What does the topic "Identities and Their Flexibilities: Brazil in the Americas"  mean?

In the United States, we tend to think of people's identities as fixed — for example we ask people "what is your religion or your race" and expect single, defined answers — but in Brazil many people are more comfortable having multiple identities. For example, they participate in different religions simultaneously.   

What the importance of Brazil in relation to North America? To South America?

Brazil is the largest country in the Americas. It has a powerful economy, a highly educated and creative work force, and is a leader in cultural life from arts to sports.

Emory has been exploring new education, research and partnership opportunities with Brazil in recent years. What has been the outcome?

 Vice-Provost [for International Affairs Philip] Wainwright went to Brazil earlier this year and the outcomes were immediate – Emory is going to start receiving students with the Science without Border fellowships, collaborative grant projects have been produced, and the very strong Brazilian studies focus at Emory, which has long been recognized off-campus, is now starting to receive increased recognition on campus.

You were in Brazil this past summer during the transportation (and other) protests. What is the state of the country now? The mindset of the people regarding government and its efforts, or not, to improve their lives? 

The lives of many people have improved over the last 15 years. And with that improvement has come increased expectations. Many Brazilians continue to hope that the government will better focus its efforts on education and health care.

I will be back there in June, coinciding with the World Cup.

The Life of the Mind is sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Faculty Council to celebrate Emory's outstanding faculty and dynamic intellectual community.

For more information, contact Thomas Jenkins.