Brazil is home to the largest Black population outside of the African Continent. The Africans brought to Brazil belonged to two major groups: the West African and the Bantu people. The West Africans mostly belong to the Yoruba people, who became known as the “nagô”.
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was responsible for the large African presence here in America, but was equally responsible for the presence of our people throughout the Caribbean, and in Brazil, Belize, and Colombia. History was made in these areas that significantly shaped the global destinies of our race, and their history is our history as well.
Black Slavery In Brazil
The struggles of the Black men and women in Brazil are as much a part of the collective African heritage as the Black History that we have made here in the United States. In fact, Brazil is the largest Black nation per capita outside of Africa. Between 1550 and 1888, 4.8 million slaves were brought from Africa. That’s 10 times more than the number of Africans taken to the United States.
The Black men and women taken to Brazil were substantially better educated than their slave masters. According to Brazilian author and sociologist Gilberto Freyre, many Muslim slaves were literate in Arabic, while many Portuguese Brazilian masters could not even read or write in Portuguese.
The treatment of slaves in North America was brutal. The treatment of slaves in South America was far worse. African slaves were cheaper for the Portuguese since they controlled most of the coastal ports, and because the travel time between Africa and Brazil was so much shorter than the travel time between Africa and the United States, slaves could be quickly replaced. While slaves in the United States were treated to shelter, food, and better working conditions, slaves in Brazil were considered disposable commodities.
Despite the fact that Brazilian slaves were starved to death, worked to death, and thrown away, they were not broken, nor was their will to resist diminished.
Quilombos, Capoeira, and Organized Resistance
Like their Black brothers and sisters in the United States, Blacks in Brazil challenged the system of slavery with physical, cultural, and social resistance using quilombos, capoeira, and Black Organizations.
But unlike Black men and women in the United States, there was no “North” to escape to, leading those who escaped to establish secret, isolated communes – small groups of people living together and sharing possessions and responsibilities.
These communes, called quilombos, were located in remote, hard to reach parts of Brazil, and offered escaped slaves cultural, physical, and social freedom.
The Portuguese book Quilombos; Stories and Sources offers us insight into communal life in quilombos;
“Everyday life in a quilombo offered freedom and the opportunity to revive traditional cultures away from colonial oppression. In this kind of multi-ethnic community, constantly threatened by Portuguese colonial troops, Capoeira evolved from a survival tool to a martial art focused on war.
The biggest of the quilombos, the Quilombo dos Palmares, consisted of many villages which lasted for more than a century, resisting many colonial attacks. This quilombo resisted at least 24 small attacks and 18 larger colonial invasions. Portuguese soldiers sometimes said that it took more than one dragoon to capture aquilombo warrior, since they would defend themselves with a strangely moving fighting technique. The governor from that province declared “it is harder to defeat aquilombo than the Dutch invaders.”
Quilombos was a means of cultural resistance that preserved the original African heritage of escaped slaves, thus allowing them to continue to evolve that culture on their own terms.
Capoeira is yet another expression of Black Brazil’s liberation struggle.
Originally, capoeira was developed in Africa, and knowledge of the martial art travelled with the slaves taken from the continent. Capoeira’s etymological roots can be traced back to either the Ki-Kongo word “kipura” which means “to flit from place to place; to struggle, to fight, to flog”, or the Bantu word “kapwera” which means “to fight”. The martial art was evolved by members of the quilombos, but was formalized and officiated by two Black Capoeira masters: Master Bimba (Manoel dos Reis Machado) and MasterVicente Ferreira Pastinha (both pictured below).
Mestre Bimba, who was taught Capoeira by an African from Angola named Bentinho, infused into the art many of the movements of batuque (a type of Afro-Brazilian martial dance) and emphasized the martial aspects of the art. Bimba, an undefeated master of Capoeira who took on other martial artists form various disciplines opened the first formal Capoeira academy in 1932. A 1947 issue of Ebony magazine had the following to say about Capoeira and Mestre Bimba:
“An amazing spectacle of agility, acrobatics and physical prowess is the African version of jiu-jitsu called Capoeira, which is a popular sport in the almost all-Negro port city of Bahia in Brazil. Brought across the atlantic from Angola centuries ago by Negro slaves, the strange jitterbug judo practiced in Brazil today is a dangerous, even murderous style of combat that gives a well-trained Capoeira fighter the ability to beat back an attack by eight men simultaneously, tossing them in all directions and crippling them one by one until all are incapacitated if not stone cold dead.
Originally a dance that smacked more of mayhem than choreography, Capoeira was developed into its present pulverizing technique ten years ago by Manuel dos Reis Machado, who took the professional name of Mestre Bimbi and worked out an astounding set of breath-taking handsprings, somersaults, cartwheels, high kicks, aerial leaps and hurdles designed to annihilate an attacker as speedily and efficiently as possible. … Because Capoeira is such a dangerous and vicious form of combat, Bimbi will teach it only to students known to have the highest moral character. “
Capoeira became a means of cultural resistance against the colonial brutality of the Portuguese.
Eugenics and Cultural Warfare
In May 13, 1888, slavery officially ended in Brazil with the signature of the Golden Law, making Brazil the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery. But like their brothers and sisters in the United States, newly freed slaves did not receive from society or the State the means that would grant them true emancipation.
While there was no Ku Klux Klan in Brazil, societal norms prevented Black Brazilians from entering mainstream society. Discussions began amongst the Portugese ruling elite about “the Black problem”. By granting “equality” to Blacks in the country, the whites would be politically and economically outnumbered.
For those of you who remember the 1995 movie Braveheart starring Mel Gibson, you may remember a scene where the king of England proclaims “The problem with Scotland is that its full of Scots….If we can’t get them out, we will breed them out!” This scene is reminiscent of the thinking behind what would become known as branqueamento or ‘whitening’
At the First Brazilian Eugenics Conference, held in 1929, the Portuguese decided that the first step to solving the “Black problem” was to breed them out. You see, in America, one drop of Black blood makes you Black. But according to the ideology of branqueamento, one drop of white blood “purifies” indigenous blood. The mixed person was then free to re-classify themselves as any one of over 100 racial categories that made them “non-Black”.
To make this happen, the Portuguese paid millions of single European males to immigrate to Brazil for one reason: to breed out the Black population.
This would ensure three things:
1. That whites would remain the political and economic majority, and
2. That white immigrants would “breed out” the Black population in a process known as branqueamento or ‘whitening’.
3. White culture would become the dominant culture of Brazil.
The plan worked: from 1940 to 2000, despite the fact that European immigration decreased, the percentage of the population that called themselves mulattos increased from 21 percent to 43 percent, and Blacks declined from 15 to 5 percent.
This practice sent the subconscious message to the Black woman that if they wanted better for themselves and their children, the best option was to marry a white man and give birth to mixed children. One of the most celebrated figures in Brazilian
is Chica da Silva. Chica da Silva was a Black slave woman who seduced a wealthy white Portuguese man, who then gave Chica her freedom and her power. She became a slave owner herself, and gave birth to 13 mixed children.
In 1770, João Fernandes – Chica’s wealthy white boyfriend took their four sons to Europe where they were given titles of nobility by the Portuguese court.
His biracial daughters would not get the same privilege that the boys enjoyed.
Instead, his daughters remained with Chica in Brazil and were sent to then renowned Convent of Macaúbas.
Even after the departure of João to Portugal, Chica retained her prestige. She was a member of the São Francisco do Carmo Brotherhood (exclusive to whites), Mercês Brotherhood (exclusive to mulattoes) and of Rosário Brotherhood (exclusive to Africans). Chica da Silva died in 1796. She was buried at the Church of São Francisco de Assis, a privilege that only wealthy whites enjoyed.
While genetic annihilation was in full swing, the Portuguese government simultaneously launched a campaign of “culture bombing”. In short, a culture bomb can be described as follows:
“The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.
It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own. It makes them identify with that which is decadent and reactionary, all those forces which would stop their own springs of life.
It even plants serious doubts about the moral rightness of struggle. Possibilities of triumph or victory are seen as remote, ridiculous dreams. The intended results are despair, despondency and a collective death-wish.”
The Portuguese believed that these newly freed Blacks had to be “civilized”, but rather than using social integration and principles of equality to achieve that, white Portuguese used cultural warfare to erase all signs of Blackness.
Practices like capoeira and African spiritual systems were seen as barbaric, and were even outlawed. The entire state was encouraged to forget its Black past, and embrace post-racialism (sound familiar?)
But the Black spirit is not one that gives up without a fight.The attempts of the white elite to erase our culture led to the rise of Black scholars and cultural warriors dedicated to the revival and discussion of the African presence and contribution to Brazil.
Men like Gilberto de Mello Freyre, author of The Masters and the Slaves, Manuel Querino, and author Abdias do Nascimento, author of Africans in Brazil: A Pan-African Perspective and Brazil, Mixture or Massacre?: Essays in the Genocide of a Black People took the vanguard of the intellectual and cultural struggle to preserve the history and heritage of Africans in America.
Feast and Famine: Black Brazil Today
Like here in the U.S., Black Brazilians face an uphill battle against the forces of white supremacy and legacy of colonialism. Blacks in Brazil were directly responsible for the rise of Brazil as the sixth largest economy on the planet via slave labor, and yet Afro-Brazilians have only half the income of whites in the country.
In 2005, 33 percent of Afro-Brazillians lived in households whose incomes were below 50 percent of the median income of the country, in contrast to 14 percent of whites.
Segregation may not be an official government policy in Brazil, as it once was here in America, but there is strong evidence of racial segregation by occupation and industry, with whites being overrepresented among executive, managerial, and professional positions.
Most of the employees, agricultural, and domestic workers in the country are Black. The discrepancies in earnings extend to whites working in the same fields as Blacks, with Blacks earning half the hourly wages of their white counterparts.
These facts underline the lie that Brazil is a racial democracy.
In 2014 and 2016, Brazil hosted both the World Cup and the Olympics. Giovanni Dubon, a writer for Prospect Journal of INternational Affairs at UCSD, has written that “Brazil has begun to teeter on the brink of human rights violations” as it begins to clear 1.5 million poor citizens from their neighborhoods in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Killings of favela residents far exceed police violence, even in the United States.
“Everyone knows the police here in Rio de Janeiro… nearly all of them abuse their authority…. The shooting cases you hear about, most of them are executions…It’s all premeditated—very cold-blooded and calculated.”
Hundreds of homes in Favela do Metrô have already been destroyed and hundreds of families have been forced to relocate to housing projects built miles away, with most of the displaced being men and women of color.
The article continues; “Human Rights Watch has conducted an extensive investigation on unlawful kills by police officers from 2006 to 2009 in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo using 74 cases and interviews with over 40 governmental officials as well as with victims and eyewitnesses.
Authorities use the term “resistance killing” to describe killings by policemen of individuals who had broken the law. Essentially, resistance killing means the killing of a suspect who resisted arrest.
Human Rights Watch concluded that, “In several cases, autopsy reports showed gunshot entry wounds to the back of the head or nape of the neck of the victim, injuries that would seem unlikely in most shootout situations but are consistent with executions”
But the above mentioned conditions are the fruits of the tree of cultural destruction. The most devastating effect of Brazil’s cultural and racial destruction of the Black race there can’t be counted or measured – it exists in the persistent beliefs that white is right, beautiful, and indicative of high culture, whereas Black skin, and the far-off African continent from whence it came is a badge of shame and a relic of a barbaric past.
Like here in the United States, the success of the Afro-Brazillian lies not in the denial of their race, but in the acceptance of it. The success of the Black race in Brazil and around the world lies not in our ability to integrate ourselves into white economies, academic institutions, work forces, media outlets, or legal systems.
Our success depends on our ability to unify, return to our original principles, and create a new high culture that will succeed where the white cultures of the world have failed.