The Black President
A 1926 Brazilian sci-fi novel predicts a U.S. election determined by race and gender.
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. Prior to Obama's rise, O Presidente Negro was best-known as an odd sci-fi work, predicting the U.S. government's use of eugenics, a racist ideology that had attracted a following in Brazil at the time Lobato was writing (and, later, in Germany). As a result of this association, more often than not, bookstores hid the novel at the bottom of a stack of titles in the Brazilian-literature section. (Today's Brazil is increasingly concerned with civil rights, as indicated by recent experiments with affirmative action in education and government.)
Of course, there are several differences between Lobato's story and the circumstances surrounding the 2008 election. In Lobato's fictional world, the United States prohibited the mixing of races—believing it would lead to "disintegration" or "denaturalization"—and thereby conserved white and black races in "a state of relative purity." Lobato also failed to predict the civil rights movement, which undid his predictions of an extreme version of "separate but equal." Unlike Roy, born in a supposed age of "pure races," Obama, born of a white mother and black father, witnessed America's social revolution.
In the 2228 of the novel, the white women's party, the Sabinas (a reference to the Roman legend of the rape of the Sabine women), has apparently reached feminism's pinnacle: Women are no longer considered equal to men—they are simply different and entirely independent. Homo, the ruling white men's party, and the Sabinas each command 51 million voters.
In previous elections, voters sided with their gender, with no regard to race. But with the creation of the Black Association, black men and women unite to create the largest political party, giving Roy 54 million supporters. Kerlog is forced to broker an alliance with Roy: black votes in exchange for easing the "Código da Raça" ("Race Code"), which set limits on the growth of the black population through selective breeding and genetic manipulation. To Kerlog's frustration, when the time comes to cast ballots, citizens loyally vote with their identity group, and the black man wins the presidency.
In response, Kerlog threatens race war. He persuades Astor to protect the interests of the white race and encourages an alliance. Lobato, at his most sexist, writes that Astor accepts this proposal on the grounds that man "is woman's husband for thousands of reasons ... long live man!" With hardly a second thought, she shepherds the 51 million female voters to the cause of the Homo Party. Kerlog demonstrates to a despairing Roy that his race will never assume control, and on the morning Roy is set to assume the presidency, he is found dead in his office. (Lobato hints at murder.) Kerlog calls for a re-election and emerges victorious. White leaders then mastermind the end of the black race in America, using a senseless and tragic sterilization technique, and Roy's dream of serving as the first black man in the nation's most powerful post is left by the wayside.
Long considered a historical relic, O Presidente Negro's popularity had dwindled so much that Editora Globo let it fall out of print, but 6,000 copies have been sold since a March 2008 rerelease. Brazil's intellectuals, bookworms, and bloggers are now madly debating Lobato's racist proposition and gasping at the prescience of one of their country's most quixotic personalities.
Now that McCain has selected Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate—hoping, some critics say, that women will vote as a gender bloc, transferring loyalties to whichever party has a woman on the ticket—perhaps the publishing house can expect yet another sales bump. Only if Obama makes it to the White House would Lobato's prescience fall short. If that happens, maybe Editora Globo's sales streak will come to an end.
Manuela Zoninsein reports for Newsweek's Beijing bureau and is Food Editor at Time Out Beijing.