126 years of abolition: black women and the meaning of May 13th

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Note from BW of Brazil: Another May 13th has come and gone but even 126 years after this historic day when Princesa Isabel signed the so-called “Golden Law” freeing the remaining slaves throughout Brazil, the situation of black Brazilians, particularly black women remains in many ways the same. In the piece below, Larissa Santiago delves into the history and parallels it with modern day Brazil. And as you will no doubt see, the old saying still applies: “the more things change the more they stay the same.”

Abolition and black women: the significance of May 13th

By Larissa Santiago

Despite all efforts and centuries of struggle, as much by the rebellious slaves and abolitionists as abolitionists and anti-racism activists, we cannot talk about abolition in a conclusion way. And we still have to debate about the significance of May 13th, who were its main protagonists and the impact of implications for all Brazilian society of today. It’s still in the interests of whiteness to defend that a signature brought an end to all social inequalities fueled by racism, as if it were possible with a magical wand to account for centuries of captivity, kidnapping, lying, forced labor, sexual exploitation, rape, murder and violence of any nature whatsoever. All of this with serious consequences, especially for black women.

Trying to silence the popular uprisings, especially after the example of Saint Domingue (Haiti) (1), a false abolition was presented as the best way to render any discussion invisible. It is known that for decades the escape, insurgency and independence movements were almost uncontrollable. Women (wet nurses, maids and black vendors) played an important role in the transmission of knowledge in the care of the quilombos (maroons or runaway slave societies) and also in the armed struggle such as Luiza Mahin, Teresa de Benguela and Dandara.

Luísa Mahin and her son, abolitionist Luiz Gama
Luísa Mahin and her son, abolitionist Luiz Gama

Mother of the abolitionist Luiz Gama, Luísa Mahin was a free African woman, a pagan who rejected Christian baptism. She led the Revolta dos Malês (Malê Revolt) (1835) in Salvador where she was a quituteira (delicacies vendor). According to the story, if the revolt had succeeded, the warrior would have been named the Rainha da Bahia (Queen of Bahia). Besides the messages organizing the uprising being written in Arabic, the plans of freedom were thwarted. About 70 rebels were killed and another 500 were punished with whippings, death sentences and deportation.

Dandara lived in the seventeenth century and was a warrior of Quilombo of Palmares, which at its peak was populated by 50,000 people, counting all the mocambos (shacks) belonging to Palmares. She was Zumbi’s companion and the mother of his three children. She participated and developed tactics and war strategies, in addition to encouraging and harboring insurgent women and “fugitives” of large slave houses nearby. Unfortunately there are no records about her birth place, much less about what her appearance. But her example is still and will continue to be revered by us women, black women.

Queen of the Quilombo Quariterê in Guaporé in (the state of) Mato Grosso, Teresa de Benguela led a community of three thousand people, and after the death of her husband, organized the administration of the quilombo, the war strategies and forged her own work tools. She also created a political system similar to Parliamentarism, where she served as the queen of the quilombo and submitted herself to the decision of a board of representatives. There was a regular army of resistance that possessed firearms, obtained either in trade of surplus products of the quilombo or even obtained from defeated opponents who tried to invade the community.

These women, as well as others of whom we don’t have records contributed to the process of liberation that was imminent when the papers that institutionalized the false abolition were signed. Fake indeed, because freedom “granted” by governments relegated to the black population, especially black women, to a status of non-citizens and permanence in a state of non- humanity that persists until today.

“According to Fanon, the image of blacks in the colonized societies was associated with savagery, the animal kingdom, the fortress and exacerbated sexuality, and finally, to the biological plane. In this sense, patriarchy attempted to naturalize women’s oppression. If the white woman was considered sanctified in her role as wife and mother, the enslaved black could only serve the function of sex object, consolidated via institutionalized rape.” (Revista ABPN, “A mulher negra no pós-abolição”, translation The black woman in post- abolition. Ariella Silva Araújo).

“( … ) May 13 did not mean the immediate end of slaveholding practices of work social relations, with customs allied to it” (Domingues, 2004, pg. 245).

After “abolition” in the late nineteenth century, what we saw was the persistence of slave housework and racism that increasingly institutionalized itself, creating mechanisms so that nothing had in fact changed, in order to create a false illusion of racial democracy where everyone would have equal opportunities. Arguments such as the defense of the good order and good morals were used to coerce and control and freed black men and women that would be taken to the morros (hills, slums) in order to not “frustrate” the first urban plans of Rio de Janeiro, for example.

The role of enslaved black women and maids subjected to domestic work, now domestics, remained virtually unchanged. With abolition, nothing guaranteed was given in terms of any rights making it so that thousands of women, children and elderly were thrown to their own devices. Just over a century later the law would effectively cross over into the activities performed by domestic workers. Even so, paying little or no attention to the regulation of rights won over decades, centuries of battle.

The physical and symbolic violence, employed upon men and women also remained the same, the whip that cracked in the senzalas (slave houses) took the streets, the sexualization of black women through forced rape. Until today the echoes of the denial of basic rights (health, education, housing, the exercise of coming and going) are heard throughout the periphery and streets of our country that forged a “freedom” which is nothing more than a mirage that is very far from be achieved in its fullness.

The mechanisms responsible for the creation of relations between bosses and employees also responded to the idea of voluntary miscegenation, the mixing of races and therefore the myth of racial democracy. Now we know that since the arrival of the Portuguese, indigenous and black women were forced to maintain sexual relations with their slavers. However these stories have been erased, transformed into the second myth of voluntary miscegenation in which black women willingly laid with their enslavers, which was always far from being true. This justified racist experiences and theories (such as the studies of 19th/20th century psychiatrist/anthropologist Nina Rodrigues), provoked the exile of many of the mulatos – a word of completely racist use and origin – and maintained the status quo of the colonial system.

Miscegenation – a subject as controversial as its origin – brought with it marks that are practically difficult to erase, as much the identity as the collective construction of social being. Here, in particular, it also served to mask racism and elaborate racist practices and expressions that we all know well, such as racist compliments. In this case, to black women were assigned a purely sexual meaning, resulting also in the continuity of trafficking and the illegal trade in their bodies in absence of their own will. Carnaval – which came down from the hills and took to the streets – served to exalt and glorify this image of a country of bundas (booties), of the beautiful mulatas and contests based on the exotification of black women.

Only in 2004 did Brazilian society institutionally accept that it is a racist country, with the first quota law in universities. Only in 2013 was a constitutional amendment addressing housework created, a promise yet to be fulfilled on their right to have rights. Now in 2014 we still have women being killed for being mistaken for practitioners of “black magic”, black children killed because they were mistaken for criminals and missing husbands. Women being swept away like trash, killed on their way to the bakery.

After 126 years of a paper signed and saved, we are still exposed to the wounds of a racist and oppressive colonial enterprise. And we still fight for freedom, dignity and visibility. We still have to dwell on the task of exposing racism, saying how it affects our bodies and our everyday.  At no time was there taken any initiative that effectively transforms the everyday life of the black population. Make no mistake, this was always the plan.

Source: Blogueiras Negras, Domingues, Petrônio. Uma História Não Contada – Negro, Racismo e Branqueamento em São Paulo. Senac, São Paulo, 2004. Credit of first photo: Carlos Latuff (red illustration), Coletivo de Mulheres Mcs – MAHINS – photo By Fernanda Amaru.


1. As documented by Célia de Azevedo in the book Onda negra, medo branco, the revolution in Saint Dominguein the late 18th century provoked shock waves and fear among Brazilian elites as slave revolts were very common in Brazil. The slave revolt on the Caribbean island would lead to the establishment of the first black republic in the Americas, the Republic of Haiti.

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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