Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid

Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid

Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid
Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid

Note: Every year on May 13th, there are discussions about the situation of the Afro-Brazilians. Of course, this discussion happens every day for the most part, but the discussion on May 13th is due to the historical importance of that date. On May 13th, 1888, Princess Isabel signed what is called the Lei Áurea, which is translated as the Golden Law.

In the 19th century, discussions over when slavery would end had been going on for several years, and in fact, the majority of slaves were already free by the time slavery was officially abolished. But the conditions of which black people were liberated were nothing advantageous. Although slaves had been liberated, they received no sort of compensation for their services, were basically left to their own resources, and as millions of European immigrants were being subsidized by the government and given the best jobs in the post-abolition job market, it was almost as if they had never been freed.  

In less than one month, the signing of the Golden Law will pass the 131 year mark and as contemplated every year, representatives and leaders of the black community will consider the current situation of black Brazilians and ask, was the official abolishing of the institution of slavery really an abolition or just a piece a paper that in essence changed little in the lives of Africa’s descendants in Brazil? Well, year after year, after analysis of numerous socioeconomic and quality of life stats, plus the thousands of murders that take the lives of black Brazilians, particularly those of young males, the conclusion of an unfinished abolition remains the same. 

In other words, after all black Brazilians have given for the development of the country and having received very little in return, Brazil has run up an enormous debt with its black Brazilians that are descendants of slaves. All of the data backs this up, and in an interview below, Professor Robson Câmara breaks it down even further. 

Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid
Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid

Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid

By Marcos Aurélio Ruy

In today’s article, we present an interview with Professor Robson Câmara on the 130 years of Abolition of the slaves. Câmara holds a Ph.D in Sociology from the University of Brasília (UnB), with research in the area of Sociology of Labor and Education and Secretary of Formation of CTB-DF. He highlights the marginalization in the 21st century by the descendants of enslaved humans, who came from Africa in inhumane conditions in the basements of navios negreiros (slave ships).

“Is being put in the hold of a ship and crossing the Atlantic in unhealthy conditions a passive act? Volunteer?” he asks, recalling that during his presidential campaign, Jair Bolsonaro has said that Africans themselves handed themselves over into slavery.

Câmara also has a PhD in the Centro de Estudos Interdisciplinares em Educação e Desenvolvimento (Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Education and Development) (CeiED) from the University of Humanities and Technology (ULHT), Lisbon/Portugal and a Master’s in Education (UnB). In addition to being a member of the Group of Studies and Research on Labor (GEPT) of the Department of Sociology of UnB, linked to the Institute of Social Sciences (ICS). He is also a teacher at the School for the Improvement of Education Professionals (EAPE).

In the interview he also says that Abolition was inconclusive in order to soften the fury of the slave-like elite and slow down the advance of the most advanced sectors against slavery, and therefore left something to be desired from the human and social justice point of view. “Abolition came to undo this tension, this pressure cooker, but it did not solve the problem of the black. Objectively, there was no counterpart of the Brazilian State. They released us to our own resources.”

Check out the full interview with Robson Câmara:

Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid
Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid

Portal CTB: In the 130 years of Abolition, does the black population feel repaired by the State and by society?

Robson Câmara: First, we must understand the process of Abolition of slavery from the socio-historical and economic perspective. As Clóvis Moura teaches us in his work Dialética Radical do Brasil Negro (Radical Dialectic of Black Brazil), slavery was within the logic of the process of wealth accumulation, first for the metropolis and then for the country’s economic elite, from the 16th century to the 1888 (on May 13, 1888, Princess Isabel signed the Lei Áurea, or Golden Law, ending slavery in Brazil, which was the last country in the West to do so).

The enslaved were the fixed capital (Marxianly speaking) of the gears of Brazilian political economy. Another author, Jacob Gorender states that we have to see that the Lei Áurea itself did not guarantee indemnity for the enslaved, but for those who had benefited by the process of enslaving human beings by guaranteeing them compensation.

They are the economic elements expressing themselves in political act. This was what Ruy Barbosa did (On December 14, 1890, he determined that we should burn books of registration, customs control, and collection of taxes involving enslaved persons. Documents that were in the Ministry of Finance). As an article published in the conservative newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, December 19, 1890, states that “The Diário Oficial  published yesterday a resolution of the government to remove the last vestiges of slavery represented by the various documents in the offices of the Ministry of Finance.” What existed behind this was to make it impossible to document the indemnification of the State to the masters of the enslaved.

Does this mean that the former slaves were abandoned by the state?

The truth is that the enslaved, with Abolition, had no right to compensation, neither the land nor the education or any other social benefit of the supposed liberty. I say supposedly, because I understand freedom as an exercise of citizenship. And not the freedom to die of hunger, to have no health and education, to have no place to live. This is what happened to the enslaved.

Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid
Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid

Anyway, Abolition was not a simple concession of the system, was it?

Yes. Already there was a pressure in the senzalas (slave quarters) and great quilombos formed throughout Brazil. The slaveholders had already heard of what had happened in Haiti. And they feared that the same thing would happen here. The black population was already larger than the white population. Abolition came to undo this tension, this pressure cooker, but it did not solve the problem of the black. Objectively, there was no counterpart of the Brazilian State. Certainly the struggle of the slaves was intense for the overcoming of slavery, but there was conciliation of the national and international elites to prevent further progress.

Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid
Robson Câmara: Historical debt with black people has not been paid

What are the consequences of this abolition on the lives of the black population today?

The social inequality that subjugated the povo negro (black people) after Abolition is the greatest proof that that historical debt has not been paid. Just look at social indicators and where the black is in the social pyramid; in the statistical data on education, health, housing and the quality of employment, which it is worthily exercising, they are always at the bottom.

The marks of slavery are still present. The consequences are, for example, the largest number of the prison population, those who earn less on the salary scale and the lower number of university professors, to name a few. We were excluded and replaced by European workers when free labor became dominant.

This had a great impetus with Abolition. All this has been reinforcing historical inequality and there is still resistance to this reparation. The Lula government was fundamental in launching a differentiated look to pay off this historical debt and had continuity in the Dilma government.

So, Abolition removed the slaves from the senzalas and threw them into the street?

As I said earlier, this freedom was relative. Freedom to suffer social exclusion and become a second-rate subject in a country that insists on not paying its historical debt. We have made progress but are constantly threatened by conservatism that uses rhetorical devices to deny the historical debt to the população negra (black population).

Is it correct to say that nothing has changed?

No. The biggest change I’ve seen is the growing self-denomination of the population by identifying themselves as black. This has gained momentum with quota policies. I don’t see it as opportunism, as has been accused by some sectors that oppose affirmative action policies.

Does the action of the Movimento Negro (black movement) place value in the anti-racist struggle?

Social movements in defense of equality, such as Unegro (União de Negros e Negras pela Igualdade or Union of Black men and Black women for Equality), have made important struggles and problematizations. We had Seppir (Secretary of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality) with ministry status in democratic and popular governments, which led the model to be copied by several governments to undertake public policies focused on the issue with councils and secretaries of state.

The quota policy is the most forceful aspect of this process. It has taken blacks to universities and public jobs. This will allow the formation of a classe média negra (black middle class) and, perhaps, politicized. As this is perceived by the advocates of meritocracy (which has nothing to do with merit), they react to perpetuate themselves in the social and economic spaces under privileged conditions to the detriment of the blacks who have their point of departure in the social scale far behind.

Are there people arguing that blacks passively accepted slavery, is that true? What are the levels of resistance?

In the last elections, there was a candidate who said that he had no historical debt to the black people, because he never enslaved anyone. And he suggested that the negroes entered the slave ships almost voluntarily, absurd. This demonstrates how conservatism understands the process of abolishing slavery. That there is no historical debt, that there is no need for quotas. It is on this path that conservative discourse attempts to justify its counterpoint to affirmative policies. That is, they are, against the policies that seek to repair that debt. Slavery has not yet been overcome by the elites.

Slavery was not a passive situation, quite to the contrary. It was violent. Is being put in the basement of a ship and crossing the Atlantic in unhealthy conditions a passive act? Voluntary?

navio negreiro
Africans being transported on a “navio negreiro”, a slave ship

Is this rhetoric meant to justify racism?

This discourse aims to justify the non-commitment to fundamental human rights and to reverse the advances that have occurred. It is the struggle for the conservation of spaces and impose their hegemony in the spaces historically occupied by the economic and political elite that had universities and public jobs of greater economic projection as theirs.

Is it important to understand the diáspora negra (black diaspora) to advance the anti-racist struggle?

Yes, without a doubt. The black diaspora represents the violent apartment of an entire collectivity and a whole culture to the other side of the Atlantic, of free men and women, to the condition of slaves. Even those who were prisoners of intertribal wars, of African nations, could not have such a vile fate. This was greatly encouraged and made possible by the imperial powers that saw the slave market as a great source of profit.

One cannot forget the context of the black diaspora. The anti-racist struggle is the search for rights so that social equality is actually exercised and practiced. Brazil is an unequal country, but the most blatant inequality occurs with blacks and all those who do not fit into the perspective of the biótipo branco de cor de pele (white biotype of skin color). Asians, for example, seem to have better luck than we do. Blacks are stigmatized to this day by their color. The anti-racist struggle is to dig the social space we deserve.

Why do the elite despise African influence in the formation of the nation?

We have to remember that since colonization, the proposal was to catechize the Indian and to separate him from his original beliefs. It already starts in the religions to impose the culture of the dominator. The Christian God was the only true one and subjugated all others. It was this same Christian God who was used to define that African religions were pagan and needed to be Christianized. Slavery was a form of purification of this demonic paganism under this church ethic.

But the resistance became strong and intelligent.

Religious syncretism was the form encountered by blacks in keeping their religion encapsulated by Catholic saints. Candomblé and umbanda resisted in this context of hegemony of Christianity. The religions of African origins survived all possible persecutions and survived. Only with the amendment in the Constitution of 1946, the then Representative Jorge Amado, managed to insert religious freedom in our legal framework.

This did not necessarily mean that the discrimination against African-born religions would cease.

With the coup of 2016, the religions of African origin began to be persecuted with more aggressiveness. Is this part of the implementation of an authoritarian project?

There is a dispute over this religious space as a project of power. A good part of the people place their faith in the orixás (African deities) and caboclos (see note one), among other variations I wouldn’t know how to enumerate here. But the market of faith, currently, has as its preferred target religions of African origin trying to impose a single God within the Judeo-Christian traditions.

Cultural resistance continues. It is present in the social formation of the people. Today, not only do blacks devote their faith to the deities of the African origin, but a broad social spectrum. This is beyond control. These people have more autonomy over their political positions because they form a nucleus of cultural resistance that spreads in the music, dance, food and social relations of our people.

What prospects do you see with access to the power of the extreme right?

The most reactionary sectors cling to the thesis of meritocracy to deceive our black people. They say this as if our historical starting point is the same as theirs. In order to combat this thesis and institutional racism, we have much to advance. Because without social and economic development, the current historical contradictions tend to deepen and the life of the underprivileged can worsen and much with increased concentration of income and no counterpart to provide equal chances in the labor market and in life.

Source: Vermelho


  1. The origin usage of the term caboclo referred to mestiços of indigenous/European ancestry, the term in religious circles refer to a line of work of Umbanda entities that present themselves as indigenous. They also incorporate in the candomblé of caboclo, where they possibly originate.
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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