Brazil's Black Conciousness Movement

September 25, 2007

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 liber-
ated. "One hundred years without abolition!" the crowd
chanted. "We are still enslaved! Racial democracy is a
Brazil's black consciousness movement, a loosely
linked collection of nearly 600 organizations, is now
active in almost every state in the country.' 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.' 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
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.' 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
e a
0 5
John Burdick teaches anthropology at Fordham Univer-
sity 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).
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.' 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 Conven-
tion 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 discrimina-
tion. 7
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 Sdo
24REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 24 REPORT ON THE AMERICASPaulo'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 pro-
gram of lectures, concerts, exhibits, and public debates
publicizing the historical importance of the leader of
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.'
Still, many negro activists continue to seek alliances
with progressive parties, such as the Worker's Party (PT),
led by Luis Ignfcio da Silva (Lula). The PT succeeded in
sending two negros to the Constituent Assembly, includ-
ing 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 pri-
marily as a device to maintain an army of cheap reserve
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 Tim6teo.
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 mus-
ter 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. 0 t 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." 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 under-
lying institutional racism."
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 Sdo Paulo elected in 1982 and 1986 did not run on
race-based platforms, but rather emphasized working-
class issues." 3
Typically, the audiences for the movement's
"culturalist" activities are students, professionals, jour-
nalists 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 avail-
able suggests that the working class is largely unaware of
VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 4 (FEBRUARY 1992) 25the movement. In one study of working-class black vot-
ers, a majority had no opinion about the black conscious-
ness movement, many had not even heard of its existence,
and 90% could not name a contemporary black political
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.'" 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).' 6
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." 7
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."
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."" 8 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 cul-
ture.' 9 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. 2 0 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 conscious-
ness. Umbanda is, along with pentecostalism, one of the
fastest-growing religions in Brazil today. 2 ' 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
The most well-known version of Umbanda situates the
slave at the bottom, beneath the Indian and white in the
hierarchy of spirits. 2 2 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 Brazil-
ian 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. 2 4 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 con-
tributing 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.
Brazil's Black Consciousness Movement
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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