Betraying Whiteness: On Lucas de Lima’s “Tropical Sacrifice”
By Renee HudsonApril 9, 2023
Tropical Sacrifice by Lucas de Lima
on the cross jesus emptied himself of anything that would prevent him from being in absolute solidarity with the crucified class of people of his own time. our response is to do that, to empty ourselves of all privilege that would prevent us in any time, in any place, from being on the side of the crucified classes of people in our own time.
The pictures throughout the collection punctuate this trajectory as we proceed from the sacrificial imagery in the first half of the collection that shows, among other examples, a picture of Juma—a jaguar who became a mascot for the 2016 Olympic games but was shot and killed shortly thereafter—and a chicken in the arms of a man. The second half of the collection shows a picture of “our lady ‘who appeared,’ the patroness of brazil” and a picture of a fig tree with a white ribbon tied around it, which is a depiction of “irokô,” an “orixá/spirit” embodied by the fig tree. In other words, rather than simply taking up Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and making it mean differently, de Lima offers a syncretic view of religion in which taking “the side of the crucified classes” means engaging spiritual knowledge and practices that have been devalued and repressed.
As de Lima notes in their afterword, the idea for Tropical Sacrifice emerged out of their breakup with pinto, the lover, guide, and mentor who appears throughout the poems. Yet, rather than focusing solely on a personal relationship, de Lima decided to use “a new scale & scope” to think about the rise of global fascism, particularly Brazil’s role in its rise. In adopting the figure of the chicken, de Lima writes against fascism by developing an “enlarged perspective,” as chickens see more than humans with a broader field of vision and “a transparent third lid” that acts as a third eye. In this way, Tropical Sacrifice offers a bird’s-eye view from below, a grounded vision of how global forces converge on Brazil, illuminating hemispheric complicity. This complicity is diligently historicized in the endnotes that accompany many of the poems while the chicken’s ability to see emerges in images and typography. As de Lima writes, “it was giuliani who trained brazilian police,” which is only one event in a longer history of US intervention in Brazil, from the Henry Ford’s Amazonian plantation, Fordlândia, to “amerikkka’s support of military dictatorships” in Latin America more broadly. Thus, when de Lima joins together “the supermax facility / & the factory farm,” they illuminate how the technologies used to cage humans and animals are strikingly similar. Taking on the perspective of the chicken, rather than the human, demonstrates how true liberation cannot be anthropocentric.
In their essay, “Poetry Betrays Whiteness,” de Lima cites two Afro-Brazilian authors, Adão Ventura and Miriam Alves, noting how both poets use bird imagery to signify freedom and captivity. “How do I not only fly in solidarity with them but also honor their visions of flight?” de Lima asks of these poets. Landing on the figure of the chicken, “[c]owardly, colonized, and colonizing,” de Lima “listen[s] for the militant call of Ventura” and “learn[s] from the cosmic song of Alves.” In noting the difference between their white and non-Black positionalities in Brazil and the United States in terms of hemispheric anti-Blackness, de Lima theorizes “a blueprint for solidarity and transformation” as one that betrays whiteness at every turn and refuses to succumb to the defanged notions of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
If “Poetry Betrays Whiteness” is a rumination on white skin and how to betray it, Tropical Sacrifice is a practice of Brownness. Such Brownness manifests in the skin of the children of the Americas who are the product of colonial rape and miscegenation. Indeed, subtending the collection is the theme of survival, particularly what it means to survive after the genocide that accompanied colonization of the Americas. As de Lima writes, “because my foremothers survived i open my eyes / to a spectrum of light, color & motion.” There’s a sense in these lines, as elsewhere in the collection, of being transformed, of being reborn as a chicken.
In speaking of their preference to theorize the chicken rather than latinidad, de Lima illuminates how examining the violence and rape that formed the basis of colonization is a way to meditate on miscegenation. For example, when they write, “first our grandmothers died / & then our mothers / & our eyes turned green / in an ensanguined mass of chicken breast,” the death of foremothers leads to the whitening of the speaker, as indicated by how their “eyes turned green.” The “ensanguined mass of chicken breast” speaks to the themes of sacrifice in the collection as well as to the way domestic chickens are bred to have a particular shape that limits their mobility. As de Lima reminds us, “the chicken wing / was never sovereign // because they engineered the chicken wing / to desperately flap” and thus ensure “that no black fist could rise like a perch.” While the latter line occurs in the poem that precedes the one where de Lima talks about the lack of sovereignty of the chicken wing, the image of an impotent wing flailing in despair resonates with the suppressed Black fist. De Lima’s discussion of Giuliani’s tactics of training Brazilian police occurs before the line about the Black fist, further linking together the suppression of revolutionary imagery—an upraised Black fist—with revolutionary action via the chicken’s desperate flapping in the face of subjection.
Yet, even as the chicken wing here is rendered impotent, fisting and fucking emerge as not only practices of pleasure but also practices of transformation: “what does it mean that i fisted pinto / & became a chicken.” More tellingly, “it was jchrist’s kiss on our anal lips / not his martyrdom / that browned our feathers/ / blessed our shit,” de Lima observes, theorizing a form of Brownness that emerges through tenderness and care despite the abjection and violence that colonization wrought. In creating a slash between the lines “browned our feathers” and “blessed our shit,” de Lima suggests that the phrases are interchangeable, that browning our feathers is the same as blessing our shit. Brownness as blessing, Brownness as freedom from whiteness, “the white feathers we pluck / inside & outside of us / are ligaments / of this world’s prison.”
Of Tropical Sacrifice, de Lima tweeted that they narrated the poems “as a chicken” to make “sense of race across borders” such that they “found a language that did not exist for [them] in theory or social media or latinidad.” Confined by the parameters of latinidad, which poets like Alan Pelaez Lopez see as fundamentally a white construct, de Lima writes as a chicken to explode the perceived borders of latinidad. Indeed, while factory-farmed chickens are debeaked to prevent them from pecking each other, de Lima’s chickens, with “the infinite pecking of our constellation / in the horizon” puncture the already existing horizons of latinidad—horizon as limit—to create a constellation with a new, limitless horizon, where “we rip the ancestral sky // in this dream […] we refuse to be / born inside // empire’s dreamlessness.”
Instead of empire’s dreamlessness, de Lima centers Blackness by constellating Blackness and Indigeneity through spirituality. Significantly, by the end of the collection, the “tropical sacrifice” refers to the Black and Indigenous people sacrificed to empire. In one of the most moving sections of the book, de Lima asks, “what were your dreams,” followed by the names of Black people that Brazilian police and private security guards have murdered: João Victor, Claudia Silva Ferreira, Luana Barbosa dos Reis, Amarildo dias de Souza, João Alberto Silveira Freitas, and Madame Satã. Following each invocation is an endnote that acts as an offering: João Victor’s bedroom has “a kite with the face of bob marley on it”; Amarildo dias de Souza “stepped out on the last day of his life to buy lemon & garlic // he wanted to season the fish he had caught for his family.” While the final pages of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) famously list the names of Black people murdered by American police (with new names added to each reprinting), the names fade from black to gray to the white space of the page in an act that shows the process of forgetting. Rather than replicate Rankine’s move, de Lima’s collection creates an altar to the dead, with offerings of blood.
Renee Hudson is an assistant professor of English at Chapman University, where she specializes in Latinx and multiethnic American literature.
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