Note from BBT: As we’ve often been told and in general is agreed upon, history is told from the perspective of the winners. This applies to just about period and incident in history that we can think of. In my view, history as we know it is simply the version of history that mainstream historians and academia agree to tell. To me, it seems that the telling of history goes through various stages for those of us who are interested in knowing at least some of it.
There’s the version of history that we get from parents, family the community and the media. Then, there’s the version of history told by academia. And then there’s the version of history told by what I’ll refer to as historical revisionists. It gets a bit confusing and often comes down to who can more adequately tell the story and offer evidence and sources that can prove their interpretation.
When all of that is done, it is up to the reader or researcher to decide which of these versions of history seem to make the most sense. At least this has been the case in my own pursuit of the truth. This can be applied to nearly every aspect of history. For example, ask yourself the following questions. Who was behind September 11th? Who killed president John F. Kennedy? Who killed Martin Luther King, Jr.? what did Ancient Egyptians really look like before foreign invasions? Then, ask yourself where you learned this version of these stories and if there are other versions of the same story.
These are just a few questions about history. When I was a child, I often referred to encyclopedias (remember those?) to find the answers to some of these questions. But years later I would come to the realization that even the encyclopedias couldn’t be trust for accurate information. In today’s times of fake news, conspiracy vs. conspiracy theory, it is often difficult to sort through all of the fog and misleading information to get to the truth. I’m just happy that there is so much good information coming out these days. Present me with the evidence and then I’ll decide what makes more sense to me.
Of all people portrayed in history, I would argue that black people have the greatest reason to be skeptical about the way history is told. The very fact that black history is usually told starting from after the European invasion of the African continent and the beginning of slave era tells us that most of us know very little about Africa before the coming of the white man. White historians often tell us that before the arrival of the European, there was no history in Africa worth discussing. A bold-faced lie.
That being the case, we should be very careful and interested in uncovering true history without the racist perspective of which most of history is told. As the film Higher Learning advised, before we can really start learning this history, we must first unlearn all of the BS we’ve been taught through the accepted narrative told by some of the most respected scholars.
Almost 60 years after Brazil’s last dictatorship began and 133 years after the end of slavery in the country, questions still remain about various aspects of these two events. In fact, in 2019, activists of the Movimento Negro (black rights movement) invaded a special session in Congress that intended to pay homage to Princess Isabel for signing the Golden Law on March 13, 1888, officially abolishing nearly four centuries of institutional slavery, making Brazil the last country in the Americas to do so.
The whole point of the interruption of the session was the discontent on the part of black activists and intellectuals with the manner in which Brazilian history continues to spread the idea that slavery ended simply because of the signature of Isabel, the eldest daughter of Brazilian Emperor Pedro II. Today, with more black Brazilians becoming professors, historians and intellectuals, the struggle to credit well known as well as unknown black people who played a role in the ending of slavery continues, as historian Wlamyra Albuquerque explains in the interview below.
“Abolition was not a gift given by whites”, says historian
By Paula Rodrigues
It was almost a year since slavery had officially ended when seven black men sent a letter to the politician Ruy Barbosa in April 1889. Of them, little is known beyond the names and that together they were part of the Paty de Alferes Freedmen Commission, of Vassouras, Rio de Janeiro. What they wrote gives great clues to the situation in which the black population lived in the post-abolition period.
“They are people who were enslaved in one of the richest regions and where slavery was hardest, which was the coffee plantations in Vassouras. Even so, in the letter, they appear to stand up, saying and advising other blacks not to fight for the monarchy, since this entire regime was supported by slavery, they speak in support of the Republic and they make demands, mainly for instruction, education for their children,” says Wlamyra Albuquerque, author of the book Jogo da Dissimulação: abolição e cidadania negra no Brasil (Game of Dissimulation: abolition and black citizenship in Brazil), historian and professor at UFBA (Federal University of Bahia) and Unicamp (State University of Campinas)
The men also made a proposal: the 5% charged as taxes for the Emancipation Fund for slaves, created with the Free Womb Law in 1871, should be destined to pay for the education of black men and women who had previously been enslaved.
Since it would no longer be necessary to buy freedom, which is why the fund existed, for those men, it would be fairer to reverse the money that was still charged to help build better conditions for ex-slaves and their descendants.
For Professor Wlamyra, this document – considered by her to be one of the most important ever found in her research – shows mainly the awareness that blacks had that the end of slavery was not a gift given by the white hands of Princess Isabel, but conquered by black hands.
“We fully understand that freedom came from the people who forced the Crown and Parliament to decree it,” they write. In addition to showing a new version of the story that presents black men and women as people who, in fact, had plans for their future and the country in the post-abolition period. Today, when 133 years have passed since the abolition of official slavery in Brazil, the Ecoa site talks to Wlamyra Albuquerque about the role of the black population at that historic moment.
It was always the population that organized and gave meaning to life in Brazilian cities. There is no way to think about abolition without thinking about the contribution of the people.
Ecoa – Why today, 133 years after the official end of slavery, is it still important to talk about that moment?
Wlamyra Albuquerque – Because we still have a certain forgetfulness or creation of stories that are often fanciful about slavery, such as the idea that it was a “necessary evil”, for example. Because in Brazil there is still a collective trauma that every slave society has. The country never stopped to seriously discuss this past, they try to leave behind and forget slavery, when, in fact, we need to revisit and rediscuss this history. So, it’s important for us to go back to the past to understand how this country was structured, what is down there at the root of it, you know? Slavery and the end of it are very important parts to understand our social structure here today, and to be able to move on to other paths in the future.
But what was our abolition made of? What caused the end of slavery?
There were many factors, but the abolition was mainly due to black insubordination. All the movement of the enslaved population since the arrival of the first slave ships, then all the strategies to be able to buy letters of freedom, the rebellion of those who created quilombos, those who led rebellions for freedom, the rebellion of those who knew how to negotiate with their masters.
But the effort that has been made to build a national memory that reads abolition as a result of the action of some young white academic men weighs heavily on Brazilian society and justifies much of the racism that exists today. The idea that a black population is incapable of deciding for itself, that it needs always to be tutored by the school, the police or the state, the idea that this population would be naturally given to failure if there is not some kind of control over it, all these ideas do not come from a specific government or moment, they have been built and maintained over centuries.
So, there is this idea that black freedom was not won, it was given by whites and, therefore, until today we are a society that carries this idea that black people always seem to owe something, that black people must always have a reaction of gratitude. Abolition was not a gift given by whites. It was conquered.
And even within the abolitionist movement, black people played a fundamental role, correct?
Yes! But they are people who have been little remembered over the years and when they appear, the feeling is that they are exceptional cases, right? As if only geniuses like Luiz Gama or José do Patrocínio had been involved in the struggle for abolition. This is not true! When we go researching, we find news from several black men and women until today unknown to the general public. You find a man who had a shoemaker’s tent, who learned to read and write on his own and who ventured to campaign for an end to slavery with everyone who passed him there. (…) we have several pieces of news today from women who engaged in the abolitionist struggle, such as Maria Firmina, for example. And when we go to the judicial documentation, they are always accused of hiding escaped slaves and of protecting people who were the subjects of captivity.
You have spoken here of some tactics that black people used to fight slavery. Can you name a few more?
Wow, there are several! It is classic to save money to buy one’s own or one’s family’s freedom. They formed religious brotherhoods, in Rio Grande do Sul, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Pernambuco, there are many records of these associations of black people, in which a kind of fund was created to be able to help mainly widows and the children of enslaved people, to help in the treatment of people who suffer an accident at work. You see that there is a collective intelligence. There is a way of organizing collectively, which will be passed on from generation to generation because they are ways found to survive and go through slavery to build a society of freedom.
Professor, the Brazilian State did not give any support to the black population in the post-abolition period, but were there any ideas from the population about what should happen after May 13?
The State, in fact, did not provide any support, so to speak. Among the population, each had a vision of the direction that the country needed to take in the post-abolition period. Blacks not only helped to abolish slavery, they also had future plans for them and the country. Unfortunately, the idea has been created in the national memory that Africans arrived here unprepared, illiterate, without education or schooling. This is not true, right? The story of blacks doesn’t begin in slavery. There is a past.
But the State, instead of creating favorable situations, only sophisticated the forms of exclusion, especially restructuring the entire police apparatus to promote more and more persecution of all forms of activity related to the black community in Brazil.
And, finally, what are the population’s plans that were not embraced in the post-abolition period, but which are still important for the future of the country?
It is the issue of education, health, housing and employment. There was a black abolitionist named André Rebouças, he argued that the end of slavery should come with the distribution of public lands of the state. Because he believed that the abolition process could not happen without any kind of guarantee so that these people could build themselves autonomously, without depending on the tutelage, the protection of these ex-masters.
It’s obvious that the project didn’t go ahead, right? What happened was a dozen projects asking for compensation from former masters, and the creation of legal mechanisms so that the population would have more difficulty in being able to access, for example, schools.
The poverty in which the majority of the black population lives in Brazil, is due to the State’s success in deepening inequalities. It was the Brazilian State that created this situation, and it is the Brazilian State that is responsible for resolving this situation. The most important of all is that we are, year after year, committed to collaborating with the end of racism, and hopefully one day what those freed from Vassouras wrote in 1889 will become true.
Hopefully we can build a country in which freedom, equality and fraternity are for all of us.