The impact of Slavery on Brazil: Discussion of Two Authors on TV
Discarding slaves at sea changed habit of sharks, reveals author of book on slavery
‘Racism in Brazil didn’t need to create formal segregation laws. It’s in fact segregated,’ says Laurentino Gomes
By Marques Travae
“The problem was not May 13th, it was 14th and every day thereafter. The consequences of almost four centuries of slavery didn’t disappear after a day of celebration. This is why this is the most serious national issue to date,” said host Pedro Bial of the Globo TV program Conversa Com Bial. On a program from November of last year, the host invited journalists Laurentino Gomes and Eliana Alves Cruz to his talk show platform to discuss the topic of slavery. Both are writers and researchers on the topic.
Bial began the discussion by sharing the impact Laurentino’s book, Escravidão (meaning slavery) had on him. Although the work is an easy read, it’s powerful and provokes a deeper reflection on the topic.
“I only recommend avoiding reading it before bed. It’ll be hard to fall asleep and easy to have nightmares,” said Bial. Gomes revealed that the book was in fact a deeper look into a topic that had been mentioned in his previous trilogy of books, 1808, 1822 and 1889. 1808 was the year in which the Portuguese Court and Monarchy was transferred to Brazil. 1822 was the year Brazil declared its Independence from Portugal, and 1889 was when the Republic was declared.
“Brazil was the largest slave territory in the western hemisphere. It received almost 5 million enslaved Africans. It took the longest to end the slave trade, with the Eusébio de Queirós Law in 1850. The last to end slavery, with the Lei Áurea (Golden Law) of 1888, and I would say that slavery is not just a matter of a museum, of a history book. It’s present in our reality today. There is a legacy of slavery that has never been properly addressed. So, not only to understand past and present Brazil, but to understand future Brazil, you need to study slavery,” said Laurentino Gomes.
The host of the program then asked a question that I often wonder when someone of the Caucasian persuasion chooses to investigate the horrors of slavery: how is it being white and studying this subject knowing the brutality, barbarity and exploitation inflicted upon black bodies by white people? Gomes responded:
“Slavery is not only about black people. It should be of interest to all of us Brazilians. Especially because if you say that slavery, racism and the legacy of slavery is only a black matter, you are doing a process of omission: ‘It’s their problem, I have nothing to do with it.’ So we should all worry about this issue.”
Eliana agreed with Laurentino’s perspective explaining why it is important that white people take interest, educate themselves and get involved in defeating the disease of racism that affects so many societies.
“Racism, in the way we live, is an invention of whites and is a matter of all, because it is the mortar of our formation. It’s at the root of all Brazilian social issues,” Eliana opined.
“Appropriating this theme and removing this place of the mimimi (whining), in fact, this expression is hateful, which Brazil invented, that is, disqualifying the pain of others, disqualifying everything that people suffer, is a language of social networks, but it throws the whole issue on land, all studies on land, all rationality on land, and it is good that all people take ownership of this discussion,” said Cruz.
Mortality of tráfico negreiro (slave trade):
Reading the book and letting it sink, Bial went further into how reading the details of how slavery was carried out Brazil affected him.
“I cried several times,” said the host.
Gomes went on to explain the reasons for why so many Africans died on the passage from the African continent to the Americas. It also brought how the shipment and eventual death of Africans even provoked an environmental change:
“12.5 million human beings left África. 10 million and 700 thousand arrived. One million and 800 thousand people died during the crossing. Dividing this by the number of days gives 14 corpses, on average, thrown overboard every day over 350 years. So high that, according to testimony of the time, this changed the behavior of the schools of shark in the Atlantic Ocean, which followed the navios negreiros (slave ships).”
The interview also delved into Eliane Alves Cruz’s book, Água de Barrela:
“For those who don’t know, barrela is a homemade bleach. I made this word game with the question of erasing of our de-Africanization. Brazil has systematically tried to erase its African past, the belonging of blackness that we have,” said the author.
As we have seen in numerous examples, Brazil has effectively tried to diminish and/or erase the African influence on the country’s history. From the cultural appropriation of black cultural elements, to the avoidance of the contributions of black people to Brazil’s history and formation, to the promotion of interracial unions as a means to eventually whiten the black phenotype, this attempt to whitewash Brazil’s black roots is quite obvious.
Adding support to Eliana’s comments, Gomes said:
“At the end of the seventeenth century, Padre (Father) António Vieira wrote a very famous phrase: ‘Brazil has its body in America and its soul in Africa’. Then I ask myself: have we forgotten our soul?” asked the journalist.
“It’s also interesting because in the nineteenth century there was this embranquecimento (whitening) project of Brazil, that slavery and black blood had corrupted Brazil, the way that European Brazil should (have) been,” Laurentino noted.
Cruz also spoke on the current movement of identity politics and how Brazilians of visible African ancestry are now fighting to reclaim an African identity that Brazil has sol ong denied them or manipulated them out of. Demonstrating how this process has been carried out, Cruz pulled out a white doll with blond hair that had once belonged to her grandmother. The issue of identification and the lack of black dolls continues to be an issue still today for Afro-Brazilian children in the 21st century.
“How we still try to be this little doll today. How we mutilate ourselves, right? Because if we are going to think solely about aesthetics, how women sacrifice themselves to dive into the water of the barrel, to whiten themselves. Here comes a movement, which I find very beautiful, which is the resumption of this identity, this Africanness. There is today an incredible movement throughout Brazil to take back its roots,” said Eliana.
Using another personal item from her family’s past, Eliana referenced another African cultural practice that Brazil has demonized for centuries, a repression that continues to this day. In recent years, we’ve seen an upsurge in the number of attacks on African-oriented religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda that have resulted in injuries to its follwers and destruction of artifacts connected to the religions and the religious temples. Showing a guia necklace of the Xango orixá (African deity) that once belonged to her great-great-grandmother, Eliana said:
“Regardless of our personal belief, appreciating where we came from espects these religions, because they are at the core of what we are.”
May 13th and November 20th
Another importante question brought up by host Pedro Bial was the question of the commemoration of the dates May 13th and November 20th. May 13th is remembered as the day that slavery was officially abolished in Brazil in 1888. November 20th is the day in which Zumbi dos Palmares, arguably Brazil’s most important symbol of black resistance, was killed in 1695. Afro-Brazilian leaders began to reject the celebration of the May 13th in the 1970s arguing that abolition was never a completed process as black Brazilians continue to be treated as second class citizens in the country their ancestors built. November 20th is now celebrated as the Day of Black Consciousness throughout Brazil.
As a symbol of an ongoing resistance, Afro-Brazilian leaders suggested celebrating the day of Zumbi’s death as a symbol of the ongoing struggle for emancipation in Brazilian society. Today, the debate over the dates continues with one side wanting to continue giving credit for the end of slavery to Princesa Isabel who simply signed the Golden Law vs. Afro-Brazilian activists who want the nation to recognize the acts of black resistance that eventually led to the abolition of the slavery. (The impact of Slavery on Brazil: Discussion of Two Authors on TV)
Responding to whether it was necessary to replace one importante date with another, Gomes responded:
“What worries me sometimes is the idea that the Golden Law solved the problem of slavery in Brazil. So it’s in the past, we’re a free country, it’s in the museum, we don’t need to discuss it anymore. November 20 reminds us that this story is one of confrontation, of overcoming, of pain, of blood, and that it’s still alive among us.”
“All that is uncomfortable with May 13th comes from the question of the overvaluation that Brazil has given for a long time to the figure of Princess Isabel as the only redeemer. Obviously she has her role in the story. So we keep thinking, once again, about the question of erasure. And who fought for so long to make this moment happen? This hassle has caused another date to be sought,” Eliana explained.
Segregation in today’s times
The host then asked the two what called their attention the most in terms of the current racial situation, in the context of the country’s slave origins. Laurentino responded.
“If you look at the Brazilian landscape, you will see that we are one of the most segregated countries in the world. Look at the landscape, the geography, look at Rio de Janeiro: who lives on the hills, in neighborhoods abandoned by the state, without adequate housing, without education, without public security, dominated by organized crime? Who lives in neighborhoods with a good quality of life, good infrastructure and such? There are two Brazils: a majority, left to fend for itself, and a Brazil that has all the privileges.”
Gomes then said something that I’ve been saying for years. In the late ’90s and first few years of the 21st century, there were many studies and comparisons of three multi-racial societies, Brazil, the United States and South Africa. In accordance with the decades long belief in the myth of racial democracy, Brazilians have been taught that Brazilian society treated blacks well and that racism was a thing of the United States and South Africa. Three of the principal reasons Brazilians learned to use to portray Brazil in a positive manner in comparison to the other countries were:
- The non-existence of legalized segregation
- The high rates of interracial unions
- The apparent absence of open racial animosity between whites, black and Indians.
When scrutinized against the facts and the data showing the enormous, decades-long racial inequalities between whites and non-whites these excuses blow away like the wind. All three of these points are generally accepted as true, even though there are decrepancies within each.
For example, in terms of the first point, Brazil may have never passed laws to impose segregation, but there are endless examples throughout the entire countries in which blacks were effectively barred from frequenting certain areas or participating in certain activities. In the second, interracial marriages have steadily grown since 1960 showing that these unions were rather rare once upon a time. In 1960, 88% of marriages were between people of the same race. In 1980, it was about 80% and in the year 2000, about 69%.
In terms of the third point, for many years, black Brazilians preferred to simply ignore racism rather than confront it head on. But in recent years, we have seen the rise of more black Brazilians adapting more militant stances in the face of open racism and white Brazilians not only continuing racist behavior, but actually admitted whereas in the past it was normal to deny racist sentiments even when clearly harboring such feelings. The social etiquette taught in Brazil, in a sense, taught groups their proper “places” in society, and as long as people didn’t try to disrupt the order, Brazil continue to promote itself as a place of racial harmony. In other words, as Gomes put it: “Unlike the United States and even South Africa, Brazil is a segregated country that hasn’t had to create formal segregation laws, it is in fact segregated.”
For Eliana, the effectiveness of Brazil’s racism without segregation laws can be seen by simply looking at the situation and data concerning black women:
“The numbers that slide by about black women: any statistic puts us at the bottom of everything. We don’t want to be holding the whole country anymore. We have the worst possible rates of access to education, health, salaries,” she added.
There are so many areas of Brazilian society that have effectively excluded the black population from participation that books could be and have been written on each individual topic. It is only in recent years with the implementation of affirmative action policies that black Brazilians have begun to enter some of these fields that were up until a few decades ago almost exclusively populated by whites. Literature is one one of those many areas. Go to any large chain bookstore in Brazil and you can spend an entire day browsing and only come across a handful of Afro-Brazilian writers.
“Only 10% of books published in Brazil are by black authors. The other day I praised an Eliana book on my network, recommended reading it, and referred to her as a black writer. Then a white man complained: ‘This is reverse racism. Why don’t you define yourself as a white writer? I said just look at the numbers. The mere fact that a black author can publish a book in Brazil deserves to be celebrated and spelled with all the letters. A white author is the most normal thing in the world statistically,” Laurentino reported.
With information from GShow