The other side of the story: Experts say that the process of the abolition of slavery in Brazil occurred thanks to the leading roles of blacks for years

Scene from 1984 film ‘Quilombo’

Note from BW of BrazilIn all of my years of schooling, from elementary school, to the university, the emptiness I often felt after sitting various History classes only began to add up when I discovered that history is always told from the perspective of victor, the colonizer. With this discovery I then understood why I rarely, if ever, saw people that looked like me in these history classes. Although it’s been a few decades, I still vividly remember sitting in my Catholic school and learning about Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, World War II, Mao Tse Tung, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek. Come to think of it, I don’t even recall my teachers even discussing the global trade of Africans. A bit surprising as so many schools restrict any mention of Africa and its people to slavery or something to do with the American Civil Rights Movement.

Later on, I would also learn that, not only were history teachers and text books hiding the history of Africans and their descendants, they also only told partial truths about history. After years of being confused about many events of history that I was taught in various schools, it was only after I began to study what could be called “alternative history” that I began to fill in some of the blanks that those history classes often left in my mind. I soon discovered that, not only are black children lied to about history, but so too are white children. With this in mind, it would appear that Napoleon Bonaparte may have been on to something when he said that “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” In my years of unlearning the BS I have been taught, I have to say that I most certainly agree with that statement.


My first exposure to anything that had anything to do with people who looked like me (and I’m sure it was for many other people) was the TV mini-series Roots, credited to African-American author Alex Haley, but in keeping with the theme of lies, it turns out that THAT too is also not true.

Regardless, the mini-series was the first time someone tried to explain to me how my family ended up in the Americas. After seeing all of the brutal beatings, the rapes, the forcing of the acceptance of European names, and the separation of families, I remember thinking, “Damn! That’s how we got here?!?!”

Funny, my history class didn’t tell me ANYTHING about that history! Although those same history classes were sure to let me know that my family and I were free because of the good deed of “good ole” Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

Of course, those classes didn’t mention the fact that Lincoln’s “goodness” had nothing to do with the Emancipation Proclamation, nor did it mention that “Honest Abe” also proclaimed that he “as much as any other man, (is) in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Hmmm. I wonder why the Catholic nuns never told me that (temple scratch).

No, there was much more to the story of the abolition of slavery that textbooks conveniently left out. And the same is also true of abolition in Brazil. And just as it was necessary for me to learn the truth by reading more black authors, it is also true of the situation in Brazil. And with more Afro-Brazilians entering institutions of higher learning, it is now possible to get a more balanced vision of the Eurocentric history that millions of black children receive every year.

As such, with the recent passing of the 130th year of the abolition of slavery in Brazil, scholars have been taking a fresh look into history and finding the Afro-Brazilian struggles, heroes and sheroes that the average person knows nothing about. This is just one article, but every little piece contributes to a fuller understanding of the lies that we didn’t even have the option of agreeing with.


Experts highlight black role in the ending of slavery

Well before the signing of the Lei Áurea, blacks already fought for abolition

By Débora Brito

On Sunday, May 13, 1888, Princesa Isabel sanctioned one of the most emblematic laws in Brazil’s history. The signing of the Áurea Law (Golden Law), exactly 130 years ago, was a milestone that formally abolished slavery in Brazil, but that didn’t determine a clear dividing line between slavery and freedom of blacks in the country.

Despite the Áurea Law having been approved by the Câmara (House) and Senate and sanctioned by the princess in just five days, according what was registered in the Jornal do Senado (Senate journal) in the edition of May 14, 1888, experts say that the process of abolition in Brazil occurred thanks to the leading roles the blacks for years, in a homeopathic way, and not by a single and definitive act of the regent princess.


Under the influence of the growing international abolitionist movement, Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery system. The final decades of the century 19, laws like the Eusebio de Queiroz, the Free Womb and the Sexagenário (Sexagenarian) gradually paved the way for the formalization of the end of slavery.

Far, however, from the cabinets of the Brazilian Empire, the climate of unsustainability of slavery system, which lasted for more than 300 years, was already felt since the 16th century.

Several slave rebellions in the quilombos, or in the urban areas, such as the Revolt of Malês, triggered in 1835, in Salvador, Bahia, among other acts of resistance led by slaves or freed blacks, demanded the end of slavery.

“Freed slaves”

The seed for the abolition was also planted through the mobilization of black families and fraternities, in addition to the intense work of lawyers, writers and journalists who have used the press and other means of expression in order to defend the freedom and the guarantee of the rights of the enslaved and later the recém-libertos (newly freed) by the Lei Áurea.

The rewriting of history: black abolitionism

The conquest of freedom was assigned to the course of history as a concession by the political elite of the time. Contrary to this narrative, contemporary historians highlight the trajectories of black men and women who participated actively in the abolition.

Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto
Historian Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto

A study conducted by historian Ana Flávia Magalhães, Ph.D in history from Unicamp and a professor at the University of Brasilia (UnB), describes how pensadores negros (black thinkers) jointly articulated strategies and actions for abolition.

“There were many black abolitionists and this official history basically reduced these various possibilities of actuation in the figure of [José do] Patrocínio and, even so, limiting, making a caricature of what his performance was, as the one who kissed the princess’s hand, the traitor,” says the professor.

Among the characters highlighted by the expert in the context of abolition in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are the lawyers and journalists José Ferreira de Menezes, José do Patrocínio and Luiz Gama, in addition to the writer Machado de Assis.

In her thesis, the historian also remembers other names, such as Ignácio de Araújo Lima, Arthur Carlos and Theophilo Dias de Castro, intellectuals who also led newspapers or artistic manifestations in defense of the libertação dos negros (liberation of blacks).

Gama, Machado, José
Luiz Gama, Machado de Assis and José do Patrocínio

“Now, we have more favorable conditions to return to this May 13th with other views and other questions that allow recognizing the black efforts in the fight against slavery. Because, even though the project of these people had not been victorious, we cannot ignore the struggle of these people. This is another theft of historicity of the experiência negra (black experience)”, argues the historian.

Relative freedom

The historian explains that the invisibility of the actions of influential blacks is due to a “process of embranquecimento (whitening) of freedom” and removal from the place of the black population from the place of subject of history.

In her work, she shows that, even before 1888, there was already a significant população negra livre (free black population) that didn’t have its condition of freedom recognized. In some places, the number of free blacks exceeded the number of slaves at the end of the century 19, even so, many were seen or treated as not freed.

According to the 1872 census, pretos e pardos (blacks and browns/mulattoes) accounted for 25% of the free population. In the Court, this participation was 26.65%, among the more than 27 thousand free people. In São Paulo, in the black population the ratio was 6.72 free for every ten blacks, as the research professor points out.

“When abolition happened in 1888, the majority of the black population was already free, but there was the weight of racism legitimizing the interdicting of citizenship. To the extent that it was very common to think that every black person was a slave until he proved himself free. And everyone has a very large deficiency to realize these trajetórias negras (black trajectories) in [the process] for freedom,” explains Ana Flávia.

False abolition

The new academic current also highlights how the abolition of slavery, despite being considered one of the central chapters in the history of Brazil, left for the black population a painful legacy.

Against the idea of celebration of the date of May 13th, the black movement has promoted, especially after the 1970s, a critical debate on abolition. “It’1s not a celebration, it’s a remembrance, a highlight, because they are 130 years of a violation of rights”, says the sociologist Vilma Reis, Ouvidora Geral da Defensoria Pública do Estado da Bahia (General Ombudswoman of the Public Defender of the State of Bahia).

“Why don’t we celebrate the abolition? Because it is a time of painful, critical reflection, in the sense that talking about abolition is talking about a citizenship that was never completed, which was never effectively for the black population in collective terms,” adds Ana Flávia.

The work of historian Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto (bottom left) has shed more light on the role of black Brazilians in the ending of slavery

Free on paper, the newly freed blacks faced the challenge of unemployment, lack of housing, access to health, education and other public policies. Unlike what happened with the ex-slave owners, who even before the sanction of the Lei Áurea, already had the guarantee that they would be compensated for the loss of possession of workers, when the Law of the Free Womb was signed.

The newly freed blacks came out of the senzalas (slave quarters) without any policy of compensation to receive. Some abolitionists, such as Joaquim Nabuco, defended changes in the so-called Lei de Terras (Land Law), which excluded the slaves from the distribution of properties in post-abolition. The struggle for land, however, persists until the present day with the titration process of areas belonging to the quilombola communities.

In 1890, the Brazilian Census indicated that the non-whites corresponded to 56% of the Brazilian population, estimated at 14.3 million people, according to data collected in the thesis of Ana Flávia. Even though the majority black population was marginalized and forced to live and work in precarious conditions, a framework that, 130 years later, still has not been altered in an effective way.

“It is important that we think of the abolitionists then of the 19th century and what we are facing here today. This situation today is regrettable, a timeless racism that organizes itself in Brazil and that a lot of people who are at the top of the political control have an aversion to even mention this debate, much less face what this situation of historic exclusion produced and impacted on the project of life of black collectivity of the country”, criticizes Vilma Reis.

Education and memory

For the experts, one of the main strategies for rethinking the meaning of slavery and the abolition is the implementation of Federal Law 10.639/2003, which provides for the compulsory teaching of Afro-Brazilian history in the school curriculum. In force for 15 years, the law is not yet applied in all the country’s schools and universities.

“The private schools do all type of maneuvers in order not to comply, and in public schools, much of what has happened, it is by initiative of the teachers who are activists. Sometimes, they are able to mobilize all the faculty of the schools,” contests Vilma Reis.

The Ombudswoman denounces that the application of the law is also low in higher education due to the omission of the State and the managers of the institutions. “We see there the violent demonstration of institutional racism, because any other protocol, with the power that Law 10.639 has, any legal framework would be respected and implemented at the university. And the managers do not implement it by exercise of institutional racism in the context of higher education”, she criticizes.

vilam reis
Ombudswoman Vilma Reis of Bahia

Vilma highlights in this process the actions of Professor Petronilha Beatriz, who was rapporteur of the national committee that prepared the National Curricular Guidelines for Education of Étnico-Raciais Relations and for the teaching of African and Afro-Brazilian History and Culture Afro-Brasileira.

She recalls initiatives taken by the blocos afros in Bahia and Maranhão, works of the Instituto de Pesquisa da Afrodescendência (Research Institute of the African-descendent), in Paraná, and black collectives and other programs from different states.

The memory of slavery and the abolitionist process and discussions about the freedom of blacks are among the topics that will be discussed throughout this week at the 2nd International Seminar – Histories of post-abolition in the Atlantic World. The event will take place from May 15 to 18, at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (Getúlio Vargas Foundation or FGV), in Rio de Janeiro, with the participation of national and international historians, leaders quilombola communities and cultural presentations, such as jongo.

Source: Brasil 247

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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