By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“Being Black is facing a history of almost five hundred years of resistance to pain, physical and moral suffering, the feeling of not existing, the practice of still not belonging to a society in which he consecrated everything that he possessed, offering still today the rest of himself/herself. Being Black cannot be reduced to a “state of spirit”, “White or Black soul,”* the aspects of behaviour that certain Whites choose as being Black and so adopt them as their own.”
Beatriz Nascimento, 1974.
Beatriz Nascimento was born in Aracaju, Brazil on July 12, 1942. As an African Brazilian woman, a descendant of enslaved Africans in Brazil, she bore a Portuguese name and spoke Portuguese. Nascimento was one of the few African Brazilians who managed to access post-secondary education since most African Brazilians live in poverty and make up the majority of “street children” who are regularly killed by police.
Nascimento was an academic activist and researcher. While studying for her undergraduate degree in history at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, she also worked at the Brazilian National Archives with White Brazilian historian, José Honório Rodrigues. Rodrigues, who is the author of Brazil and Africa, which was published in 1965, is considered one of Brazil’s most noted historians. Rodrigues was director of the Brazilian National Archives and is credited with the organization and periodization of history for Brazilian historical research.
In Brazil and Africa, Rodrigues acknowledged: “The African role in the evolution of Brazilian society was such that Brazil is like Cuba, more Africanized than any of the American states except Haiti, which is the most purely African.”
Rodrigues also wrote: “We forget our ties with Africa, what we owe to our Negroes, who waited for their release from slavery until 1888, and are still waiting the great majority of them, for their release from educational and economic deprivation. Our elitist policy seems to resemble that defended by Mr. Louw of the Union of South Africa, who attributes that nation’s development exclusively to the White minority.”
After graduating from university and armed with the knowledge she gained from working with Rodrigues, who had researched “The African role in the evolution of Brazilian society”, Nascimento worked as a history teacher in Rio de Janeiro schools, combining teaching and research. She is a co-founder of the Grupo de Trabalho André Rebouças/André Rebouças Working Group (named after African Brazilian abolitionist André Rebouças) in 1974 at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio.
Nascimento worked at raising awareness of the issue of race in academia and general education among African Brazilian university students in Rio and São Paulo. As part of her awareness raising, Nascimento was a speaker at the Quinzena do Negro/Black Fortnight held at the University of São Paulo in 1977, an event that was organized as a conference for African Brazilian intellectual researchers. From that gathering emerged the group, the Federacao das Entidades Afro-Brasileiras do Estado de Sao Paulo/Federation of Afro-Brazilian Entities of the State of Sao Paulo and the creation of the publication Jornegro in September 1977.
Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish the practice of enslaving Africans (Arabs in Mauritania continue to enslave Africans) in 1888. Brazilians recognize May 13, 1888 as Emancipation Day, when the Portuguese finally abolished the enslavement of Africans in Brazil following the Danish (1803), British (1834-1838), French (1848), Spanish (1886) and the Dutch (1865-1875).
Following the abolition of slavery in 1888 the Portuguese did not compensate the enslaved Africans for the lifetime of coerced work which enriched White slaveholders. White Brazilians continued to exploit Africans in Brazil, who were relegated to the margins of society as Brazil sought to “whiten” the country.
In her 1997 book, Benedita Da Silva: An Afro-Brazilian Woman’s Story of Politics and Love, African Brazilian activist politician, Benedita Da Silva, wrote: “Even after the abolition of slavery, Blacks continued to live in miserable conditions. The majority had no access to education. The few who were lucky enough to get a piece of land had no resources to work the land. The landless were unable to find decent jobs because they couldn’t compete with the more educated workers coming from Europe.”
Da Silva also writes about the absence of African images in the deliberate “whitening” of Brazilian culture: “A foreign visitor coming to Brazil for the first time might ask herself: Where are all the Black people? Starting with the plane, it would be difficult for our visitor to find Black passengers or even crew members. In the airport she’ll see few Blacks, perhaps some porters and taxi drivers. Arriving at the hotel, she’ll have a hard time finding Blacks eating in the restaurant or relaxing by the pool. If she starts flipping through a magazine in her room she won’t see any Black models in the ads. If she switches on the television, she probably won’t see a single Black performer. It’s even more unlikely that she’ll see Blacks in the commercials. But as soon as she steps outside and starts to walk around, she’s certain to see more Blacks. Her first encounter will probably be with Black street children, who will ask her for spare change, or for the leftovers on her plate.”
Da Silva’s book chronicles the life of an intelligent child who because of racism almost became lost into a life of poverty in one of the favelas, where mostly African Brazilians are subjected to living in inhumane conditions at the mercy of police who kill African Brazilians with impunity. Da Silva is one of very few African Brazilians who have managed to climb out of the cycle of poverty to which the vast majority of African Brazilians are relegated.
African Brazilian women are on the lowest rung of the Brazilian economic ladder as Da Silva writes that: “While Blacks make up the poorest sector of the population, Black women are at the bottom of the ladder. Ninety per cent of Black women have only completed elementary school and their presence in the university is negligible. While Black women have always been in the workforce, we are seen as ignorant and only capable of the most menial jobs. Our role is to clean the houses of White people and take care of their children.”
White British historian, Charles Ralph Boxer, weighed in on the African contribution to the development of Brazil in his 1962 book, The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695-1750: Growing Pains of a Colonial Society, where he explained that: “Negro slave labour produced the sugar and tobacco which then formed the basis of the Brazilian economy. Slavery, whether in house, field, or mine, affected life in colonial Brazil more deeply and widely than did any other single factor. Planters and priests, officers and officials, in short all categories of educated men were alike agreed that without an assured supply of slave labour from Negro Africa, Portuguese America was not viable.”
In spite of the fact that White Brazilians (and Portuguese in Portugal) benefitted and continue to benefit from the coerced unpaid labour of enslaved Africans, the descendants of enslaved Africans experience extreme poverty in Brazil. Along with living in poverty, African Brazilians suffer extreme levels of police violence and extrajudicial executions by police.
A study by the Department of Sociology at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) presented in March 2014, showed that from 2009 to 2011, the Brazilian Military Police killed 823 people of whom 61 per cent were African Brazilians who are about 32 per cent of the population of São Paulo. Most of the victims were African Brazilian males between 20 and 24 years old.
On December 18, 2014 under the banner “Ferguson is Here! #fergusonéaqui” Brazilians took to the streets in Sao Paulo, Brazil in solidarity with “Black Lives Matter” protests in the U.S. and to bring attention to the killing of African Brazilians by White Brazilian police.
A group of African Brazilians went international with their concerns: “On March 20, 2015, Petitioners before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) sought to bring further attention the staggering homicide, harassment, and murder rates of Brazilian youth that falls disproportionately on Brazilians of African descent. Petitioners voiced their concerns over the institutionalized violence and homicide of Black youth perpetrated by state security forces, and the number of youth incarcerated in Brazilian prisons. Petitioners urged Brazil to fulfill its international human rights obligations by taking steps to protect the Afro-Brazilian youth’s right to life and by addressing racial discrimination. Petitioners, not the police and state security forces, have resorted to the use of lethal force in an effort to curb the violence. Petitioners accused police of making young Afro-Brazilian men their principal targets, noting that of the 56,000 murders in 2012, 30,000 of those killed were children, seventy-seven per cent of whom were Black. Despite the racial particularity of the homicides, Petitioners argued that the situation has not been part of the national agenda.”
Slavery in Brazil was abolished 127 years ago on May 13, 1888 but African Brazilians continue to experience social conditions reminiscent of the enslavement of their ancestors. Like their ancestors against seemingly insurmountable odds, the descendants of those Africans who escaped to establish quilombos and resisted in various ways are resisting the brutality of police occupying forces of their communities in various ways. African Brazilians continue to strive to improve their lives against seemingly insurmountable odds and are experiencing some victorious moments.