Back in 2002, according to the Estado do S. Paulo newspaper, former U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly asked Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then-president of Brazil, "Does Brazil have blacks, too?"
For Brazilians, this statement showed a stunning ignorance of the country, which is the fifth largest in the world and is one of the seven-largest economies. But ignorance about Afro-Brazilians and their culture is nothing new. The history and the voices of Afro-Brazilians are often muted.
As eyes begin to wander from Rio de Janeiro as the Olympics end this weekend, here’s a parting shot of what I’ve learned about Afro-Brazilians from years of conversation with black activists in Brazil:
- Brazil has the dubious honor of being the last country in the Western Hemisphere to end slavery (in 1888) and the country to import the largest number of African slaves, more than any other country in the Americas, from the 1500s to 1850.
- People of African ancestry, according to the first national census of 1872 (pdf), represented more than 65 percent of the population; this includes blacks and people of mixed African heritage. Also, by 1872, more than half the people of Brazil were free people of African heritage. In the census of 1872, 15 percent of the population remained slaves.
- Afro-Brazilian slaves, in particular, left a disproportionate imprint on the culture of Brazil. Evident in almost every aspect of the culture and economy, Afro-Brazilians not only were responsible for producing sugar, as stereotyped, but also developed the early infrastructure and architecture; were cowboys; were responsible for the culinary traditions; and, in the colonial period and during the early national period, were over-represented as health care workers. Afro-Brazilians contributed to every aspect of the economy as workers.
- All the main cultural forms of Brazil have a base in Afro-Brazilian culture. Once thought of as barbaric or backward, these traditions are now part of Brazil's national identity. For example, samba, the national music of Brazil, was the focus of enormous police oppression throughout the 19th century until the 1930s. Playing samba music and dancing to it was illegal throughout Brazil. There are examples in the 19th century where African instruments were prohibited, and people engaging in samba music were arrested and punished.
- This was also the case with capoeira, the Brazilian martial art, and a beautiful dance form, which was created by Africans and was also outlawed and prosecuted by the police until the 1930s, when it became part of the national culture.
- People of African heritage in Brazil never had a reconstruction period as in the United States. There was no Freedmen's Bureau, and there were no major literacy programs as in the United States. Ex-slaves had very few options for social mobility. Also, new vagrancy laws were used to target ex-slave populations throughout the Americas to harass blacks who were not willing to continue the same exploitative labor practices from their slave past. And while there was no law prohibiting blacks from voting, most people of African ancestry were not eligible to vote because the 1891 constitution made literacy a requirement to vote.
- In the early 1930s emerged an organization called the Black Brazilian Front (Frente Negra Brasileira). This group was the first black body to run explicitly black candidates for political office and one of the first civil rights organizations to fight for and defend the Afro-Brazilian population. This group was started in Sao Paulo but had affiliates in several states in Brazil, including Bahia and Rio Grande Sul. The Black Brazilian Front would never elect a single black candidate. But it was able to start a school and advocate on behalf of many Afro-Brazilians for their civil rights. Although segregation was not de jure in Brazil, it was de facto. One of the examples was a black skating rink in Sao Paulo that the Black Brazilian Front was able to integrate. Also, the group was able to prepare Afro-Brazilians to obtain jobs in the public sector of Sao Paulo.
- Afro-Brazilians engaged in other protest organizations, like A União dos Homen do Cor (the Union of Men of Color) an organization that was formed in 1943 in Porto Alegre and would establish 10 chapters throughout Brazil. Another prominent black group was Teatro Experimental Negra (the Black Experimental Theater), which was formed in Rio de Janeiro in 1944 and was the first black theater in Brazil whose particular purpose was to raise consciousness about history, culture and the black experience in Brazil and throughout the Diaspora.
- During the military dictatorship in the 1970s, a new black movement emerged called Movimento Negro Unificado (the United Black Movement). Brazilian black activism was in some ways similar to today's Black Lives Matter movement in the United States in that it was and is a decentralized movement that is centered around social justice and fighting against anti-black attitudes. In 1978 one of the most important points was the organizing over the killing of Robson Silveira da Luz by the police.
- These black movements in Brazil have had many successes, such as the installation of affirmative action and the teaching in schools about Africa and people of African ancestry. Also, in recent years, many self-identified Afro-Brazilians have been elected to political office. There are agencies in Brazil at the local, state and national levels that are combating discrimination against blacks, Native Americans and LGBT communities. But the struggle for ending anti-black attitudes continues for people of African descent in Brazil.
Tshombe Miles is an assistant professor of black and Latino studies at Baruch College, City University of New York. He holds a Ph.D. from Brown University and lives part time in Brazil.