Brazil's Black Conciousness Movement

February 25, 1992

This piece was published in the February 1992 issue of the NACLA Report.

ON MAY 11, 1988, TWO DAYS BEFORE THE hundredth anniversary of the abolition of Brazilian slavery, 5,000 people marched under a punishing sun through downtown Rio de Janeiro. At the head of the march, Frei Davi, the fiery leader of Rio de Janeiro's Commission of Black Religious, Seminarians, and Priests, bellowed through a megaphone: "They say the good white masters gave us our freedom! Nonsense!" The true importance of the anniversary, he thundered, was that it reminded Brazilian blacks that they had yet to be liberated. "One hundred years without abolition!" the crowd chanted. "We are still enslaved! Racial democracy is a lie!"

Brazil's black consciousness movement, a loosely linked collection of nearly 600 organizations, is now active in almost every state in the country.[1] Their goal: to teach the younger generation of negros that their history and the very terms they use to describe themselves have been distorted by whites.[2] These organizations include lay associations established by the Catholic Church, univer- sity-associated research centers, state-sponsored agen- cies, tightly run political bodies, and informal clusters of activists.

The Pastoral of the Negro in Duque de Caxias, a Rio suburb, was established by the progressive bishop Dom Mauro Morelli in 1986 and is now led by two priests and a dozen activists who organize workshops, disseminate literature, and run discussion groups.[3] The aim, as one organizer put it, is "to get negros to think differently about themselves." The first step is to teach that abolition was not a gift of the master; the second, to convince all those who call themselves "mulato" or "moreno" (brown) to call themselves "negro" instead. As another explained, "We see that for every 100 negros, 70 reject their identity. So we must convince the negro to reject the ideology of 'whitening.' And the way to start is for him to call himself a negro."

Some organizations present racism as primarily a cultural problem, to be solved through the development of black identity, based on the rediscovery of one's slave and African "roots." In Sgo Paulo, for instance, the Afro-Brazilian Research Dance Company offers training in samba music, an art form derivative of African rhythms. Similarly, Sdo Paulo's Center of Negro Culture and Art has tried to promote black consciousness through classes in capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art.[4]

Other black consciousness organizations, however, including the Sgo Paulo-based Group of Black Women, the Group Nzinga, and the Group of Unity and Black Consciousness, believe the struggle against racism must seek to change economic, social and political structures. By far the largest (and, as it happens, oldest) of the more explicitly political groups is the Sgo Paulo-based Unified Negro Movement (MNU), founded in 1978, with roughly 6,000 members today.[5] The MNU is currently the closest the black movement comes to having a national organiza- tion. MNU's platform embraces socialism, and states that blacks constitute an underclass whose labor maintains the wealth and power of the white elite.

MNU's activists do not deny the value of raising consciousness about "roots." Their priority, however, is contemporary racial politics. They have demonstrated against police violence and fought in the courts for the enforcement of existing laws against discrimination in the workplace. They also provide logistical support to struggles for better health care, and support the rights of prostitutes, battered women and street children. During the writing of Brazil's current constitution in 1986-1988, MNU activ- ists were instrumental in calling for a National Convention of Blacks for the Constitution, which promoted debates on the constitutional process in hundreds of towns and cities. 6 Along with the direct pressure of Carlos Alberto Oliveira and Benedita da Silva, two black congresspeople elected in 1986, the grassroots debates undoubtedly helped bring about the inclusion of a consti- tutional amendment which outlawed racial discrimination.[7]

THE VOCAL PRESENCE OF GROUPS LIKE THE MNU has persuaded a number of political parties, from left to center, to place anti-racist planks in their platforms and create commissions on racial issues, as well as to nominate blacks to run for office. In 1982 São Paulo's governor, Franco Montoro of the centrist Brazil- ian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), created the Council for the Participation and Development of the Black Community. His equally centrist successor, Orestes Quercia, appointed several negros to highly visible posts, and set up an office to eliminate racist hiring practices. Similarly, the desire to steal MNU's thunder prompted the federal government in 1986 to create "Palmares National Park" in Alagoas state, commemorating the great seven- teenth-century community of runaway slaves.

At first glance such gestures appear to be garden-variety co-optation; but they offer the first (admittedly limited and tentative) state-sanctioned acknowledgement that "racial democracy" is a myth. The new agencies also use their position inside the government to gain access to important resources. They have pressured the state census bureau in Sao Paulo to gather data on black employment, income and education, to publicize racial issues, and to disseminate information about blacks in newspapers, booklets and videotapes. In 1987 Sao Paulo' s Council for Black Participation ran Project Zumbi, an extensive program of lectures, concerts, exhibits, and public debates publicizing the historical importance of the leader of Palmares.

Despite the willingness of mainstream political parties to curry black favor, in 1982 only two out of the 54 black candidates who ran in Sao Paulo were elected, and cur- rently there are only a handful of blacks in Congress. Because of this, as well as to avoid dilution of their message, many black militants have called for distance from white-dominated parties; indeed, in 1982 the MNU adopted this position formally.[8]

Still, many negro activists continue to seek alliances with progressive parties, such as the Worker's Party (PT), led by Luis Ignácio da Silva (Lula). The PT succeeded in sending two negros to the Constituent Assembly, including the only black woman ever elected to national office, Benedita Silva. Black militants are, however, wary of the PT's tendency to regard racial discrimination as the result of class oppression. In 1982, for example, the party published a pamphlet in which it denounced racism primarily as a device to maintain an army of cheap reserve labor.

Put off by this kind of analysis (which they regard as denying the primacy and specificity of the race issue), many black leaders have been attracted instead to Leonel Brizola' s social democratic, populist Democratic Worker' s Party (PDT), which lacks the sectarianism of the Left and has one of the best-oiled patronage machines in the country. As governor of Rio de Janeiro, Brizola placed blacks in prominent positions and, in a gesture that earned him the undying affection of Rio's (mainly black) domes- tic workers, he prohibited employers from requiring maids to use separate stairwells and elevators. Soon thereafter, MNU firebrand Abdias do Nascimento went to Brasilia as a congressman on the PDT ticket, as did black singer Agnaldo Timóteo.

THE BLACK MOVEMENT IS CURRENTLY FAR from being the mass political phenomenon to which its militants aspire. "Ninety percent of all negros in Brazil," Frei Davi told me, "don't acknowledge their blackness, they want to forget their slave past. That is what we're up against." Even optimistic observers concede the move- ment has a fairly narrow social base. Recent estimates place the number of negro organizers throughout Brazil at no more than 3,000. These in turn are estimated to have only about 25,000 active followers, out of an Afro- Brazilian population that the movement estimates at over 70 million.[9] The large number of organizations is a bit misleading. In Goais state, for example, the movement musters no more than a few dozen activists. And the 5,000 marchers who protested the centennial of abolition are less impressive compared to the 20,000 Brizola can muster at a moment's notice, or the half million that gathered in Rio to call for direct presidential elections in 1984.

Black consciousness groups are composed primarily of professionals, intellectuals, and upwardly mobile stu- dents, a pattern that has characterized the movement from the start.[10] In the late 1960s, the dictatorship's policy of subsidizing private universities allowed an unprecedented number of young blacks and mulattos to enter college. By the early 1970s, they faced the bitter realization that even a college degree could not outweigh the color of their skin on the job market.[11] Among these students were many, such as well-known activist and journalist Hamilton Cardoso, who turned their frustration into an organized challenge to the myth of racial democracy and its underlying institutional racism.[12]

Middle-class blacks who see racial politics as their primary concern sometimes find themselves talking past black workers for whom race occupies a secondary (though important) place. "The guy came here all hot," one young black worker told me about the visit to his town of an MNU militant. "'You must assume your black identity,' he said. OK, fine. I assumed it, long ago. What does that get me? Does that help feed my family?" Undoubtedly such sentiments help explain why the few black candi- dates in São Paulo elected in 1982 and 1986 did not run on race-based platforms, but rather emphasized working-class issues.[13]

Typically, the audiences for the movement's "culturalist" activities are students, professionals, journalists and middle-class artists, rather than the art form's usual consumers—the inhabitants of the favelas or urban periphery. In Rio de Janeiro, the Institute of Research on Negro Culture produces video documentaries on Afro- Brazilian religion and recreates the musical instruments and songs of the slave quarters, then shows these at its downtown headquarters and at art galleries. The way the Instituto Senghor in Porto Alegre exhorts Afro-Brazilians not to forget their ancestry is by publishing "African" poetry read primarily by university students.

Not surprisingly, the little systematic evidence available suggests that the working class is largely unaware of the movement. In one study of working-class black voters, a majority had no opinion about the black consciousness movement, many had not even heard of its existence, and 90% could not name a contemporary black political figure.[14]

Not only is the leadership of the black movement primarily middle-class; it also appears to be dominated by Afro-Brazilians with comparatively light skin.[15] In the town of Duque de Caxias, among the 24 activists I knew, no fewer than 20 admitted that before becoming involved in the movement, they had identified themselves not as negro orpreto (black), but as mulato ormoreno (brown).[16] Confronted with this fact, they cheerfully accepted it, explaining that their about-face was simply proof of the movement's success in raising consciousness.

Both the causes of the mulatto monopoly on leadership and the tensions inherent in it are evident in the negro organization led by the progressive Catholic Church.[17] Mulattos, given greater opportunities than their darker-skinned brothers and sisters, achieve institutional posi- tions in the Church, but then often find themselves treated as second-class citizens. Mariana, a nun who used to call herself morena, explained, "I thought that by becoming a nun I could wipe away that blemish. But I found out that no one would let me forget it. Who do you think made coffee for visitors?...That disgusted me."

Translating this disgust into action, Mariana joined Frei Davi in his Commission. Already literate, educated and well-placed institutionally, Mariana "returned" to her "black identity" in the role of leader. Her return is typical of mulattos who, discriminated against in the white world, try to resolve the ambiguity of their status by embracing black identity while insisting on being compensated with a higher status in the black realm.

My own research showed that mulatto leadership was one reason that very few dark blacks participated in Catholic consciousness-raising programs near Rio. One dark-skinned black told me, "Look, mulattos have always tried to run away from us. How could they have our culture? They want to use what we have....They don't know what they are." Another commented, "They say they are negros, but they aren't. They haven't suffered.... Mulattos still think they are better than us. They think the black man still needs to look to them as masters."

POOR AND WORKING-CLASS BLACKS ARE NOT immune to the myth of racial democracy, reinforced as it is by schoolbooks, the media, and state-sponsored rituals. But the relative scarcity of working-class negros in the contemporary black consciousness movement does not mean such people have little "consciousness." An extraor- dinary variety of popular cultural practices among the black working class keep an alternative, subversive inter- pretation of Brazilian history and race relations alive.

In the early 1970s, large numbers of young, uneducated, underemployed youths living in Rio de Janeiro's favelas began crowding into all-night clubs to dance to the music of James Brown, Isaac Hayes, and Aretha Franklin. They filled movie houses to see films like "Wattstax," "Claudine," "Superfly," and "Shaft."[18] Within a few years, the phenomenon had developed its own lexicon of En- glish-language phrases such as "soul" and "black-power kids," as well as its own paraphernalia of colorful clothes and elaborate handshakes.

Though many dismissed this "soul" movement as simply cultural imperialism, it revealed acute disillusion- ment with elements of traditional Afro-Brazilian culture.[19] Young blacks felt keenly what scholars had ob- served for some time: that traditional practices of the black community such as samba and capoeira had been co-opted by white society.[20] Soul music, on the other hand, was perceived as the incontrovertible patrimony of North American blacks.

Anything that suggested blacks in Brazil, where racial harmony supposedly prevails, might have something in common with angry North American blacks could not fail to be a highly charged political phenomenon. The "soul" movement thus struck at the very heart of the myth of racial democracy, by proclaiming a transnational "pan- black" community of suffering, symbolized by the youths' clenched-fist black power salutes.

Religion is another rich vehicle for black consciousness. Umbanda is, along with pentecostalism, one of the fastest-growing religions in Brazil today.[21] In literally thousands of small ritual centers throughout the country, blacks, mulattos and whites come together to become possessed by, and seek advice from, a range of distinc- tively Brazilian spirits, including deceased slaves and Indians.

The most well-known version of Umbanda situates the slave at the bottom, beneath the Indian and white in the hierarchy of spirits.[22] But this version is adhered to mainly by whites and mulattos. Blacks in Umbanda worship a spirit unrecognized by either whites or mulattos: Zumbi, one of the chiefs of Palmares, the great maroon society that survived for almost a century in the backlands of Alagoas, until it was finally destroyed by the Portuguese in 1697.[23]

Catholicism, too, provides negros with martyrs and saints, including Anastasia, an eighteenth-century Brazilian slave, not yet canonized, who enjoys a large following among older black women. As recounted by these elderly negras, the jealous wife of a slave owner unjustly accused the virgin slave Anastasia of seducing her husband, and forced her to wear a face-iron for the rest of her life. Anastasia's legend embodies a sharp critique of the mas- ter class, and stands as a popular rebuttal to claims that Brazilian slave owners were kindly and paternal.

The music, dance and lyrics of samba are rich with the history and experience of Afro-Brazilians. In the shantytowns of large Brazilian cities, on Saturday after- noons and evenings, one often encounters small groups of young men under the awnings of corner bars, beating a drum, singing and dancing a sliding four-step. The music the men are singing is samba, and the small gathering is most likely a delegation from a far larger group, known as a samba "school," that organizes a major parade during carnival. Thousands of favela-dwellers are members of these schools, rehearsing and practicing year-round the sambas they perform during the last Tuesday before Lent.

The music and its accompanying dance originated in slaves' melodic calls to African gods, asking them to descend into spirit mediums.[24] In classic samba, a circle of people sing and clap their hands, while someone in the center improvises quatrains about everyday life. These improvisations provide the vehicle for subtle, ironic com- mentaries on race relations and society in general. 2 5 Even under the military dictatorship, the samba schools com- mented on hyper-inflation, police violence, corruption, low wages and the foreign debt. Most significantly, they have dealt head-on with the issue of race. In 1988 the Mangueira samba school sang:

Can it be...
The dawn of liberty,
Or was it all just illusion?
Can it be...
That the dreamed-of Golden Law
Signed so long ago,
Was not the end of slavery?
In the real world today,
Where is freedom?
Where is it? I don't see it.

I dreamed...
That Zumbi of Palmares returned.
The blacks' misery ended;
It was a new redemption.

The black consciousness movement is certainly contributing in important ways to the cause of racial justice in Brazil. Still, Frei Davi's claim that "we are casting light into all the dark corners of Brazil" seems overstated. The important question may not be the accuracy of the claim, but whether the casting of light should ever be one way. Many leaders of the black movement have already begun to realize that profound change in the racial status quo will occur only when they allow the masses to shed a little light on them.

John Burdick teaches anthropology at Fordham University and is the author of Looking for God in Brazil: The Progressive Catholic Church in Urban Brazil's Religious Arena (University of California Press, 1992).

1. For a tabulation, see Caetana Damaceno, Micenio Santos and Sonia Giacomini (comps.), Catologo de Entidades de Movimento Negro no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, 1988). 2. Whenever possible I have substituted the Brazilian term "negro" for "black" because of its special political connotation. In general, Brazilians distinguish three racial categories: branco (white), mulato, and negro (or preto). The black consciousness movement, however, has politicized "negro" by making it include both "mulatos" and those who have always called themselves negro (i.e., dark-skinned blacks). 3. "Pastorals" are educational or missionary programs carried out under the auspices of the Catholic Church. 4. In this remarkable art form opponents pair off inside a circle of singers and drummers, and throw themselves at each other in a tightly choreographed mock battle. Spinning,jumping, and using closelycontrolledkicks, capoeiristas score points and audience approval by demonstrating acrobatic agility, grace, and the ability to come within a hair's breadth of their opponent's face and mid- section, without touching either. Capoeira has usually been interpreted as rooted in the way slaves, deprived of weapons by their masters, would settle scores among themselves. 5. Lelia Gonzalez, "The Unified Black Movement: A New Stage in Black Mobilization," in Pierre-Michel Fontaine, Race, Class and Power in Brazil (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1985), pp. 120-134. 6. George Reid Andrews, Blacks and Whites in Sdo Paulo, Brazil, 1888- 1988 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), p. 185. 7 It should be noted, however, that Brazil still lacks a coherent body of legal precedent for dealing with race discrimination. The constitutional amendment is a symbolic gesture, part of an ongoing process of legitimating racial issues. 8. Andrews, Blacks and Whites, pp. 195, 323. 9. Joel Rufino, "IPCN e Cacique de Ramos: Dois exemplos de movimento negro na cidade do Rio de Janeiro," Comunicacoes do ISER, Vol. 7, No, 28 (1988), p. 6. 10. Jorge, a black militant in Rio, openly acknowledged to me that movement leaders throughout the city are "mainly educated people, teachers, lawyers and all." My own experience confirmed this: all the meetings I attended were led by people with at least some professional training or college education. Other observers report the same pattern in Rio, So Paulo and elsewhere. See Michael Mitchell, "Blacks and the Abertura Democratica," in Fontaine, Race, Class andPower; Gonzalez, "The Unified"; and ibid. See also I.K. Sundiata, "Late Twentieth-Century Patterns of Race Relations in Brazil and the United States," Phylon No. 47 (1987), pp. 62-76. 11. Pierre-Michel Fontaine, "Transnational Relations and Racial Mobiliza- tion: Emerging Black Movements in Brazil," in John F. Stack (ed.), Ethnic Minorities in a Transnational World (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 145. 12. See Hamilton Cardoso, "Limites do confronto racial e aspectos da experiencia negra do Brasil-reflexoes," in Hamilton Cardoso and Emir Sader (eds.) Movimentos sociais na transigfo democratica (S5o Paulo: Cortez, 1987), pp. 82-104. 13. Ana Lucia Valente, Politica e relacoes raciais: Os negros e as eleicoes paulistas de 1982 (Sao Paulo, 1986), p. 139. 14. Ibid., p. 139. As Andrews points out, "neither the black movement nor the party organizations responsible for turning out the black vote had succeeded in making contact with these individuals." Andrews, Blacks and Whites, p. 197. 15. This, too, is not new: black consciousness movements in Brazil have historically been led by mulattos. See, for example, Fernandes, The Negro in Brazilian Society, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 208; and Pierre-Michel Fontaine, "Research in the Political Economy of Afro-Latin America," Latin America Research Review No. 15 (1980). 16. This pattern was not limited to this area. Visits to meetings of various black organizations in Rio confirmed my impression that the majority of the leaders and militants were not dark-skinned blacks, but rather people who had once identified themselves as mulatto. 17. On the race issue in the Catholic Church, see Caetana Damaceno, "Cantando por Subir," (Ph.D. diss.), Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro, 1990; also Flavio Lenz, "Tres Versoes da Fraternidade," Comunicacoes do ISER (1988); and John Burdick, "Observacoes sobre a Campanha da Fratemidade de 1988 na Baixada Fluminense," Comunicacoes do ISER No. 40 (1991). 18. Lauro Cavalcanti, "Black-Breque. Estudo de um Grupo Soul em relacao a Adeptos do Samba," Comunicacoes do ISER No. 28 (1988). 19. Ibid.; Mitchell, "Blacks and the Abertura," 1985; Fontaine, "Transnational Relations," 1981; and James H. Kennedy, "Political Liberal- ization, Black Consciousness, and recent Afro-Brazilian Literature," Phylon Vol. 47, No. 3 (1986). 20. Thusfeijoada, originally slave food, has been emptied of its history and transformed into the national dish; carnaval, originally the popular expression of black street groups, has become a tourist showcase for beautiful mulatas, and a rite of national communion and unity. 21. On the growth of Umbanda, see Diana Brown, Umbanda: The Politics ofReligion in Urban Brazil (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986). 22. Many have denounced Umbanda as a form of racial assimilation. This view is systematically propounded in Renato Ortiz, A Morte Branca do Feiticeiro Negro (Petropolis: Vozes, 1978); Roger Bastide, The African Religions ofBrazil (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); Brown, Umbanda. 23. R. K. Kent, "Palmares: An Africa State in Brazil," in Richard Price (ed.), Maroon Societies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979). 24. Muniz Sodre, Samba, o Dono do Corpo (Codecri, 1979). 25. A good discussion of samba as a form of cultural resistance may be found in Muniz Sodre, O Terreiro e a Cidade (Petropolis: Vozes, 1988). See also Z. Moore, "Reflections on Blacks in Contemporary Brazilian Popular Culture in the 1980s," Studies in LatinAmerican Popular Culture No 7 (1988).

Tags: Brazil, race, slavery, black consciousness, racial politics

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