RIO DE JANEIRO and SALVADOR, Brazil — In Rio’s Madureira neighborhood, a capoeira group performs the Afro-Brazilian dance of jongo while the crowd claps and sings in unison. It’s a rainy Nov. 20, Brazil’s Black Consciousness Day. In weeks, the country will inaugurate President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing retired army general whose campaign was an exercise in demonizing marginalized groups, including black Brazilians.
But despite the dreary weather, the mood in Madureira is exuberant, even defiant. The dancers’ floral-patterned skirts billow as they spin, laugh and chant, repeating the lead singer’s choruses. Throughout history, these dances and drum rhythms have survived ordinances and rules that sought to legislate them out of existence, and now they seem suited not just to Black Consciousness Day but to the larger political movement against the far right as well. It’s a good time for a choreography of resistance.
November in Brazil is informally known as Black Consciousness Month, a parallel of sorts to Black History Month in the United States. It’s accompanied by a calendar full of events: festivals, panel discussions on diversity and racism, concerts, contests, pop-up shops and book fairs centered around blackness and what it means in a country where over half the population identified as either “preto” (black) or “pardo” (multiracial) in the last census.
Black Consciousness Day is an official annual observance. The date is symbolic. Nov. 20 is said to be the day when the Afro-Brazilian national hero Zumbi dos Palmares died. The military strategist is heralded for freeing enslaved people and protecting quilombos, settlements founded by runaways during the colonial period. After a long series of failed military campaigns against him, Portuguese and Brazilian raiders are said to have finally killed Zumbi on Nov. 20, 1695.
“The story of Zumbi and the quilombo of Palmares has, over many decades, gone from myths and legends, to historical fiction, to fact-based constructed narratives,” Sadakne Baroudi, an African-American labor historian who has lived in Rio de Janeiro for 15 years, told HuffPost.
During the 1950s to the 1970s, the quilombo became a symbolic stronghold of resistance against oppression, she said, and scholarly interest in the topic has only intensified in recent years.
She’s quick to note that the independent kingdom that Zumbi commanded, Palmares, was known for its “100 Years of Resistance,” a profound achievement in an era marked by extreme colonial repression and slavery. Researchers estimated that the population of the settlement in northeastern Brazil was between 6,000 and 20,000 people.
The quilombo is an important theme in Baroudi’s work as an alternative tour guide in Rio de Janeiro. She founded the Afro-Rio Walking Tour, which offers tourists and Brazilians a critical look at the city’s landscape, a mix of colonial-era and modern architecture, uncovering a history that is seemingly hidden in plain view. She ends her tour in the birthplace of Carioca samba, Pedra do Sal, where a large graffiti painting displays an artist’s rendering of Zumbi’s visage.
The quilombo has endured as a symbol for the country’s black movement, a collection of disparate Afro-Brazilian social and civil organizations and individuals. For many Brazilians, particularly black Brazilians, Palmares is a reminder that they have faced cycles of increased repression before, and they have won.
In The Crosshairs Of State Violence
Such reassurance is necessary these days. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric throughout the years has been reliably racist, sexist, homophobic, authoritarian, Christian fundamentalist and violent. He’s gone as far as to praise the country’s fascist, U.S.-backed military regime, which “disappeared” more than 400 Brazilians and tortured many between 1964 and 1985. Those comments, along with his admiration for the current U.S. president, have led international news outlets to dub him “Brazil’s Donald Trump.”
Journalist Kiratiana Freelon, who has reported extensively on the country’s black communities, notes that even some Afro-Brazilians have backed Bolsonaro. Under the previous governments led by the leftist Workers’ Party, or PT, Afro-Brazilians were among the many people who benefited from broad social policies created to reduce inequality ― programs that Bolsonaro has pledged to cut back.
Some Afro-descendant Brazilians who support Bolsonaro, like their white counterparts, say they were simply fed up with the previous administration’s corruption and with violent crime in general. Bolsonaro campaigned on having the solution to these problems and has vowed to fight crime by empowering the police to kill people. “We’ll dig graves” for them, he said.
Violence isn’t unfamiliar to black, brown and poor Brazilians, especially those living in favelas, neighborhoods neglected by the government. They grapple not only with the country’s high crime rate but also with the routine state violence enacted by the military police that activists in the black movement have, in no uncertain terms, labeled a genocide. They also face workplace and religious discrimination, despite the fact that Afro-Brazilian–based spirituality continues to be used by officials to draw tourists to the country.
The fear now is that Bolsonaro will make this dire situation even worse. Among the incoming president’s infamous comments are statements comparing Afro-Brazilians living on modern-day quilombos to livestock and saying they are too lazy to procreate.
Observers who spoke to HuffPost said the racist rhetoric isn’t just for shock value and division. It’s about something more tangible: land grabs.
“He’s talking about money. With this perspective, they are actually talking about money for corporations and for business,” said Richarlls Martins, a coordinator with the Brazilian Network of Population and Development.
“In general, the Brazilian population thinks about quilombos and indigenous territories are spaces that are not useful for business,” he said. “This is the popular representation of the quilombo. It’s not a space that’s necessary to protect.”
Martins, who is also a representative for Brazil in the Latin American Network of Equality and Social Justice, added that Black Consciousness Month is an important vehicle for challenging dominant perceptions of quilombos.
“When Bolsonaro says quilombos aren’t important, or [the people in them] are ‘preguiçoso’ or ‘lazy,’ it is from a perspective of the quilombo that says it does not contribute to the economic development of Brazil ― so, it’s necessary to eliminate the quilombo and lend its land to agribusinesses,” he said.
While the Brazilian Constitution guarantees land rights to people living in contemporary quilombos, their communities are still vulnerable. People living in quilombos, often based in the countryside or the Amazon region, are caught in ongoing legal disputes with wealthy ruralists and suffer deadly violence and displacement, which many believe is tied to agribusiness and mining interests.
Quilombo residents, indigenous activists and environmentalists have long warned about the dangers that unfettered extraction projects pose to communities and the environment, and they are advocating for sustainable development. But their calls for change, like many coming from the black movement, continue to be ignored or silenced.
Changing The Future With Black History
In Salvador, Bahia, often described as the country’s Afro-Brazilian heartland, an outdoor tourist market near the historic Pelourinho square is bustling and peppered with the smells of the region’s trademark dishes. Tucked in a nondescript corner underneath a large tent is a book fair.
Mauricio Pestana is signing copies of his more than a dozen children’s books, which feature Afro-Brazilian orishas and historical black movements against the slavery system. Among the large collection of Portuguese-language books at the fair, the ones on Pestana’s table stood out for prominently featuring black protagonists on their covers. He greeted and shook hands warmly with both black and white Brazilians who waited in line for autographed copies. One woman stopped to tell him how his work had affected her.
Pestana is the executive director of Raça, a Brazilian magazine often compared to Ebony and Jet. His rich list of works indicates he’s long written about the black experience in Brazil, but his newest book launch is geared toward future generations.
Drawing from history, his comics highlight subjects like the Revolt of the Tailors and the Malê Revolt, organized Afro-Brazilian-led movements against colonialism and slavery. His books also teach about religious diversity in the country, introducing children to Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé and Umbanda at a time when radical Christian evangelists, many of whom bolstered Bolsonaro, continue to demonize and persecute minority religions.
“As a journalist, I write and draw, I tried to use my profession as a weapon to retell black Brazilian history,” he told HuffPost.
The simple act of telling that history is a kind of resistance. In 1890, Minister of Finance Ruy Barbosa ordered that all ministry documents related to slavery be burned, a national forgetting that included information “about enslaved people, their names, surnames, how many there were and where they came from,” Pestana said. “It’s important for Brazilian black people to learn their own history because after slavery, they tried to erase this history.”
There is a conservative wave not only in Brazil but in the world trying to say that all we talk about is not true. Mauricio Pestana, Brazilian author
In the coming years, Pestana said, the government and human rights groups will be tested anew. “The government cannot say that racism does not exist. The government has to help lessen and maybe one day end racial hate. They should not encourage and intensify it,” he said.
He sees this as part of a global effort. “There is a conservative wave not only in Brazil but in the world trying to say that all we talk about is not true. We have to be very united against this conservative era, which is sweeping over the entire planet.”
Consciousness Beyond Aesthetics
Despite the political climate, blackness is still very much in vogue in Brazil. In Rio’s historic center next to the pier, one can’t help but spot the prominence of black Brazilian culture in advertisements and decorations on the side of the Rio Art Museum. The area, which has been rapidly gentrifying since the Olympics, features colorful graffiti of black and indigenous Brazilian faces. A fair in the area recently featured African-inspired jewelry and patterned head scarves along with tote bags printed with the image of Angela Davis.
Public displays of black aesthetics are welcome in Brazil, even if black people themselves aren’t. This is not a recent phenomenon. In the 1970s, amid the military dictatorship and the end of the U.S. civil rights movement, mainstream Brazilian culture embraced popular singers of all shades like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Elis Regina and Jorge Ben Jor, who sang songs appreciating blackness. It can be easy to mistake this popularity and acceptance for progress.
Leop Duarte is a 33-year-old doctoral student living in Rio de Janeiro, studying the history of medical practices and policies regarding the black population in Brazil from the 1800s to the present. He wanted discussions during Black Consciousness Month to help people understand that there is still a campaign to dehumanize black people in Brazil, despite the popularity of black music and social media figures.
“My parents met in a ‘Baile Black’ – a Black Ball that is a part of the Carioca soul and black power movement in the late seventies,” he told HuffPost. “Both of them ... went to these celebrations but only incorporated the aesthetics,” he said. He hopes the younger black generation, known as the “Tombamento,” goes farther than the previous generation, which labored under a military dictatorship.
For Duarte and other younger activists, the concern is that discourse about diversity in predominantly white spaces doesn’t do much to improve the deadly conditions affecting most of Brazil’s black and poor population.
We “certainly are more informed [than the older generation], but at the same time, the media is filtering the kind of political discourse that is desirable and lucrative,” Duarte said.
It’s a narrative that reinforces the deeply entrenched myth of racial democracy and an integrated country, he added, and not the kind of black empowerment promoted by Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), the U.S. civil rights activist who popularized the slogan “Black Power.”
“Surrounding ourselves with and internalizing non-Western points of view, and specifically African philosophy and spirituality, is fundamental in re-engineering ourselves” and creating positive change, Duarte emphasized.
There has been a push among Afro-descendants to actively engage in electoral politics, despite the many barriers, with notable gains coming in hyper-marginalized communities, particularly the black LGBTQ community.
The killing of Marielle Franco, a black Rio councilwoman, in what many say was a political assassination, led to international mourning and a sort of political awakening throughout the country. Franco’s tireless campaigning on behalf of the poor and against police brutality, along with her identity as a leftist and a black queer woman from the favela, rallied people from all backgrounds to protest political violence. The recent electoral victories of black women, especially black trans women, with progressive platforms ― including Erica Malunguinho, Erika Hilton and Robeyoncé Lima ― are also giving people hope.
Amid these local electoral victories for Afro-descendants in both the U.S. and Brazil is a growing interest in reaching out to each other, one part of the African diaspora to another. This was evident even in the U.S. Congress when Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) specifically called on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to focus on human rights in Brazil.
“We need to listen to each other without judgment or comparison. That’s hard to do. We always want to look for things that are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than what we know,” said Baroudi, the African-American labor historian, referring to the different diaspora communities. “We do share a lot, but we also have a lot to learn from each other. ... The hope on the horizon for both of our nations is the unprecedented election of black women to a variety of political offices. We share that!”
Martins, who campaigned for Franco in 2016, added that international human rights observers and progressives should keep watching Brazil in the coming years, especially if the space for dissent shrinks. Said Martins: “It’s important that people keep questioning with other views on what’s happening here.”