“The Black President”: A 1926 Novel “Predicts” the Politics of 2008 with Some Eerily Similar Details

~~By InsightAnaltyical-GRL

On the morning of January 3rd, a Saturday, I lingered in bed listening to the BBC World Service on my shortwave radio.  I had tuned in in time to catch the weekly “roundup” edition of  the BBC World Service’s daily show on arts and entertainment called “The Strand.”

Suddenly, near the end of the program a woman, who was apparently a critic from Brazil, was talking about an author who wrote a book back in the 1920′s about a black man who became President of the United States.  The host commented on all the uncanny similarities between the events in the book and 2008′s Presidential campaign.

I scribbled a few notes, then later that day went back to the BBC World Service site to try to “re-listen” to the broadcast.  Couldn’t find it.  To this day, I still can’t find it. The site hasn’t been updated since January 3 and I’ve looked through all the full daily programs as well as the show I heard that Saturday morning. I’ve listened to the whole thing, but there is NO discussion of the book…and there is nothing mentioned about it in the show descriptions, either.

So, what’s up with the missing program segment on this story?

All this mystery prompted me to go searching. It took me quite awhile, but I came up with a few bits and pieces of information.  (What I’ve cited in this post is basically all I found.) Curiously, the very last thing I dredged up was a story from Slate dating from this past September.

Finally, I had found out more details on this book!  The author is apparently much better known as a children’s writer, but about half of his output was geared toward adult readers.  This book is one of his adult works, which is described as being on of Brazil’s earliest science-fiction novels. According to the critic I heard, the book was never published in the U.S. and only a few chapters have been translated into English.

Take a peek (my highlighting):

The Black President A 1926 Brazilian sci-fi novel predicts a U.S. election determined by race and gender.

O Presidente Negro (The Black President).Monteiro Lobato is a household name in his native Brazil, best-known for “Sítio do Picapau Amarelo” (“Yellow Woodpecker’s Ranch”), a series of children’s books that has been adapted for television on several occasions. He was an active businessman and libertarian and is considered the founder of Brazil’s publishing industry, but his 1926 science-fiction novel, O Presidente Negro (The Black President)—which foresaw technological, geopolitical, and environmental transformations—is attracting the most interest this year, since it anticipated a political landscape in which gender and race would determine the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.

O Presidente Negro envisions the 2228 U.S. presidential election. In that race, the white male incumbent, President Kerlog, finds himself running against Evelyn Astor, a white feminist, and James Roy Wilde, the cultivated and brilliant leader of the Black Association, “a man who is more than just a single man … what we call a leader of the masses.”

You may notice some similarities to the John McCain-Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama face-off; and so did Editora Globo, the publisher of O Presidente Negro, which reissued the novel during the Democratic primaries in a stroke of marketing genius…

Of course, there are several differences between Lobato’s story and the circumstances surrounding the 2008 election.

(MORE)

I’m not going to go into more detail.  The Slate article includes a FULL PLOT SUMMARY. Let’s just say that the critic I heard on that Saturday morning a couple of weeks back said that there were lessons to be learned and that Barack Obama, hopefully, would be attentive to situations that could be full of threatening tensions, some that could have a personal impact on his life.

Here’s some more background on Monteiro Lobato, his writings and his political views:

From the site, Vidas Lusófonas (translated)

In 1918, he successfully published his first volume of short stories, Urupês. He founded the publishing house Editora Monteiro Lobato & Cia., introducing new standards for printing quality, bringing out new authors and, finally, going bankrupt. In 1920, he published A menina do nariz arrebitado (The Little Girl with the Turned Up Nose), with cover design and illustrations by Voltolino, and managed to have it adopted as a school text, with a record first printing of 50,000 copies. - He set up the Companhia Editora Nacional, another publishing firm, in Rio de Janeiro. He was invited to be the commercial attaché in New York, where he served for four years (between 1927 and 1931). He was fascinated by Henry Ford, by metallurgy and by the oil industry. He lost all his money in the 1929 stock market crash. - He returned to Brazil and threw himself into the Campaign for the Protection of Brazilian Oil, delivering speeches, sending letters and making the whole country aware of the importance of oil to national development. It was then that he realized how popular and well-known he really was. He was arrested! His feelings about Brazil wavered between enthusiasm and depression. - He was active in Editora Brasiliense, a book publisher, lived in Buenos Aires, became a communist sympathizer…

From Brazzil magazine, March 2001 (translated from the Portuguese)

Lobato thought about development as translated into the image of the machine. In order to build those machines, you needed iron. To move the machinery, you needed oil. For him, the two fundamental pillars are these two things, and the third was bread, that is, food. These are the three elements of modern economic infrastructure.

Let’s talk now about Lobato the children’s author. How did he revolutionize the universe of children universe through literature?

If Monteiro Lobato had written in English, there’s no doubt that today he would be one of the great universal fabulists. First because he gathered all world fables together in his stories. Second, his stories include the fantastic element but it was not the oppressive fantastic, as in most imported fables, but the delirious fantastic. Lobato’s formula has one foot in reality but also has an opening for fiction and dreams. Observe that Lobato, when he produces his fables, he also subverts the relations between children and adults. Suddenly children are interlocutors capable of talking with adults and the adults have to be available and to look at the child as a little human being who is intelligent and thinks. He used to say that he was a children’s writer, not a writer of childish things. There is, in fact, a project behind all his children’s literature. At the end of his life, when he was tired, the oil didn’t work, the iron didn’t work, Getúlio Vargas’s dictatorship censured him, he said he was tired of writing for grown-ups. “What boring people!”, he used to say, “let’s see if I can help train better adults by writing for children”.

More details on his political views from Wikipedia:

Politically, Lobato was strongly in favor of a state monopoly for iron and oil exploration in Brazil and battled publicly for it between 1931 and 1939. For his libertarian views, he was arrested by the then dictatorial government of Getúlio Dornelles Vargas in 1941. This movement, called O Petróleo é Nosso (Oil Belongs to Us) was highly successful, and the same Getúlio Vargas, after being democratically elected president, created Petrobras in 1952.

He died in São Paulo in 1948.

Political ideas

Lobato was really a man ahead of his time, and paid dearly for this, being ridiculed by part of the public and even arrested by the government. His ideas included:

  • English should be taught at schools because it was more important[citation needed] than French or Latin (So he had the children characters learn English in one of its books)
  • Ores and Oil should be managed by the state to prevent their control by international corporations not interested in developing Brazil but in keeping it as consumer market (Viscount’s Oil)
  • The Brazilian folk traditions were the cornerstone of national identity, they should be preserved and more cherished
  • The world was changing fast and those who could not adapt to its pace would end up being “eaten” (The Size Switch)
  • That scientific research could eventually enable man to make deeper changes to nature, and that such changes, if not wisely directed, could result in disasters
  • That war exists only because of corporate greed, political alienation of the masses and racial prejudice (The Size Switch)

All these ideas were published between 1923 and 1944, which makes them even more notable.

Read the full,  detailed description of the book from the article in Slate. And wonder why the BBC seems to have “lost” the interview I heard two weeks ago.

***

Additional Information:

Encyclopedia Brittanica, José Bento Monteiro Lobato (very brief bio)


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