Frente Negra Brasileira
Frente Negra Brasileira
The Frente Negra Brasileira, or Brazilian Black Front, was founded in the city of São Paulo on September 28, 1931. Open to "all productive Black people," its aims were to "foster the political and social unification of the Black People of this Nation … and to demand their social and political rights in the Brazilian Community" (Diario Oficial de São Paulo, p. 12). To achieve this goal, the Frente Negra outlined three strategies: promoting education and training, providing assistance and legal defense, and operating as a formal political party. Under the leadership of its president and founder Arlindo Veiga dos Santos, the Frente Negra eventually grew to include chapters throughout Brazil, with concentrations in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and Rio Grande do Sul. Membership estimates range as high as several thousand, but the Frente Negra's impact radiated far beyond its card-bearing members. In the six years between its creation and its forced closure in 1937, the Frente Negra Brasileira became the most influential voice of Afro-Brazilian identity and civic aspiration.
The Frente Negra evolved from the experiences of the numerous Afro-Brazilian organizations active in the city of São Paulo since the turn of the twentieth century. The twin engines of coffee exports and industrialization fueled a rapid urban expansion that attracted unprecedented numbers of European immigrants. Also drawn to the city were the descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves from the surrounding countryside, displaced by European contract laborers as slavery ended. Living alongside the ethnic enclaves of Italians, Germans, Portuguese, Spaniards, and other Europeans, Afro-Brazilians came to constitute a community of their own, with social clubs sponsoring activities such as dances, athletics, excursions, and newsletters. Opportunities nonetheless remained limited for Afro-Brazilians. The newsletters became a political forum voicing their shared frustrations, and in 1926 a group of young men founded the Centro Cívico Palmares, the community's first advocacy group. Central to their concerns was the social ideology of race and its material and political concomitants. Veiga and the other founding members were active in all these efforts and brought lessons from their experience into the formation and operations of the Frente Negra.
From the start, the Frente Negra set itself apart from earlier organizations with its emphasis on activism. One of its first actions was to encourage members to integrate public places such as city parks and skating rinks, and the success of these actions garnered both attention and support. It also made the city fulfill its promise to hire black police officers by training candidates in advance to pass the test. It continued to attack the societal constraints of de facto segregation and discrimination by assisting members with housing and employment disputes. At the same time, the Frente dealt with other needs of the black community, such as financial management, job training, and literacy, that were obstacles to their full participation in the economic and political life of the nation. One of the greatest obstacles, however, was an Afro-Brazilian self-identity distorted by internalized racism. By adopting the word Negra, the Frente embraced an emerging identity of resistance as black people, as opposed to a host of what were considered more polite terms for African descendants. As the Frente Negra cultivated a sense of dignity and entitlement, it simultaneously sought to redefine what was considered a derogatory term associated closely with slavery. It also challenged the contemporary notion that Brazil was a racial democracy, free of racism, an ideology developed in explicit contrast to the blatant anti-black violence in the United States and colonial Africa. The masthead of the Frente Negra's official newspaper carried the reminder in each edition: "Color Prejudice in Brazil, Only We, the Blacks, Can Feel."
The leadership of the Frente Negra consisted of the president and a Grand Council with twenty members. The administration also included a council of branch leaders and departments for public relations and voter registration. The organization simultaneously put great effort into providing services and activities for its members, sponsoring music classes and groups, a theater company, elementary education and literacy training, employment advocacy and training, sewing classes, and numerous committees to organize festivities. Some of its services, like the hair salon and dental clinic, provided much needed on-the-job training. A credit union helped members manage their finances. Among the Frente Negra's most fondly remembered activities were the domingueiras, the Sunday meetings that began with stirring speeches about black history and current conditions by some of the city's best orators, segued into classes, lectures, and demonstrations, and continued on for hours with dance parties and performances featuring music, poetry, and theater.
In 1932, the Frente Negra began publishing its newspaper, A Voz da Raça (voice of the race). In addition to notices from the organization, the paper published hard news and commentary at the local, national, and even international level. It was widely circulated in the Frente Negra's areas of strongest influence, but copies made their way throughout Brazil. Many writers from earlier black newspapers joined the staff.
Despite its ambitions, the Frente's operations as a formal political entity were limited. It was founded shortly after the overthrow of the republic in 1930, which had brought to power Geúlio Vargas, an ambitious politician who cultivated direct relationships with interest groups. In mobilizing Afro-Brazilians as a political force, the Frente Negra attempted to position itself to win direct concessions from Vargas, a strategy other groups were also developing at the time, including the Catholic Church and new organizations such as the Brazilian Federation for the Advancement of Women.
Its first foray into electoral politics came in 1933. The Frente Negra had not yet registered as a political party, so its president, Arlindo Veiga dos Santos, ran as an independent candidate for delegate to the upcoming constitutional convention. Although unsuccessful, his campaign generated considerable visibility for the organization. Veiga articulated a political ideology which became associated with the Frente Negra, although it was in many ways highly controversial within the membership and the Afro-Brazilian community as a whole. Veiga endorsed the ethnonationalism espoused by Nazi and Fascist factions within São Paulo's German and Italian immigrant communities. He adapted their motto, "God, Homeland, and Family," for the Voz da Raça' s slogan, "God, Homeland, Race, and Family." Yet Veiga called for black rights in the face of perceived preferences given to immigrants and a suspension of immigration in his platform of "Brazil for the Brazilians." In this, Veiga reflected the Frente's strong focus on patriotism and integration, which Veiga articulated as a mandate to "assimilate nationally and racially" (Veiga, Voz da Raça ). The Frente Negra registered as a political party in 1936 in preparation for elections cancelled by Geúlio Vargas' political coup in 1937. On December 2, 1937, Vargas dissolved all political parties, including the Frente Negra (which had, ironically, supported Vargas). The group renamed itself the Brazilian Black Union under the leadership of board member Raul Joviano de Amaral, but only continued just long enough to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the abolition of slavery on May 13, 1938.
The Frente Negra was not the only political organization of Afro-Brazilians but it was the most influential voice of its day. Its members went on to participate in Afro-Brazilian advocacy groups throughout the twentieth century and left an enduring legacy that placed Afro-Brazilian rights and self-determination on the national political, economic, social, and moral agenda from that point forward.
Andrews, George Reid. Blacks and Whites in São Paulo, Brazil, 1888–1988. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Butler, Kim D. Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition São Paulo and Salvador. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
Diario Oficial de São Paulo (November 4, 1931): 12.
Leite, Jose Correia. E Disse o Velho Militante Jose Correia Leite. São Paulo: Secretaria Municipal de Cultura, 1992.
Mitchell, Michael. "Racial Consciousness and the Political Attitudes and Behavior of Blacks in São Paulo, Brazil." Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1977.
Veiga dos Santos, Arlindo. In Voz da Raça (April 29, 1933).
kim d. butler (2005)