African–Brazilian Cultural and Political Organizations

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African–Brazilian Cultural and Political Organizations

During the colonial era religious brotherhoods were created with the assistance of Catholic clergy. These brotherhoods, often open to slaves as well as free persons, provided more than simply religious education to members, offering a range of financial and medical services for people of color that were unavailable elsewhere. They also made loans, offered insurance, and guaranteed their members proper burials. One of their most important functions was providing assistance in buying the freedom (carta de alforria) of those members who were slaves. Religious brotherhoods flourished in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some, like Our Lady of the Rosary (Nossa Senhora do Rosário), had branches throughout the Portuguese territories in Africa, the Atlantic islands, the New World, and Portugal. Among the largest were the brotherhoods of the Rosary, Santa Ephigenia, and São Benedicto. These brotherhoods continue to be active in Brazil today.

The African population of Brazil was concentrated in the North and Northeast during most of the slave era, but in the nineteenth century the slave trade flourished in southeastern Brazil to provide labor for the coffee plantations. The prospect of abolition prompted plantation owners to search for replacements for their slave labor. By the time of abolition in 1888, a government-sponsored program of European immigration had flooded both the rural and urban labor markets with new workers. Many Afro-Brazilians sought opportunities in the growing industrial cities, only to confront housing, employment, and other forms of racial discrimination. In São Paulo, where blacks were a small minority of the population, Afro-Brazilians formed a number of social and recreational clubs out of which eventually emerged a national movement for racial equality.

The Afro-Brazilian social clubs of São Paulo created between 1900 and 1920 used membership dues to finance small newspapers for the dissemination of club news. By the early 1920s a black press was active in the capital of São Paulo. Newspapers such as Clarim da Alvorada and Progresso began to advocate racial equality and circulate political ideas, including information from the Chicago Defender and Marcus Garvey's Negro World.

In 1926 the Centro Civico Palmares in São Paulo became the first Afro-Brazilian organization to develop a platform of advocacy for integration and equality for Afro-Brazilians, beginning with its efforts to integrate the police force of São Paulo. Increased racial consciousness and activism in São Paulo eventually led to the creation of the Frente Negra Brasileira in 1931, the first national Afro-Brazilian advocacy organization. It identified and fought instances of racial discrimination in São Paulo and more than twenty branch cities across Brazil. The Frente combined its activism with vocational training, basic elementary education, voter registration, and artistic and recreational activities. It was forcibly closed by President Getú lio Vargas in 1937 when he banned all political parties under the Estado Novo regime.

Although Afro-Brazilian political activity was curtailed after 1937, cultural organizations continued to flourish. In southern Brazil, small Carnival associations known as cordões de samba soon evolved into the larger escolas de samba. These predominantly black social organizations quickly spread across the nation, eventually popularizing Carnival in mainstream Brazilian culture. In the Northeast, Filhos de Gandhi (Sons of Gandhi), founded in the 1940s, began a new era of Afro-Brazilian group participation in Bahia's Carnival after many decades of discrimination against African themes and musical forms. They utilized the afoxé rhythms of the Ijexá Afro-Brazilian religion in contrast to the European themes and music popular during the 1930s. These cultural pioneers led the way for previously marginalized Afro-Brazilian Carnival traditions to become an integral part of the national culture.

After World War II the black press of São Paulo began publishing a new generation of journals. Journals such as Senzala and Alvorada reflected a broader awareness of the conditions of other black communities around the world, particularly those in the United States. Also during the 1940s, Abdias do Nascimento introduced theater as a new forum for the discussion of racial issues with the creation of the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater).

The military coup of 1964 silenced many black journals, which were considered potential threats to national security. However, the liberation struggles in the Portuguese African colonies of Mozambique and Angola awakened a new international consciousness among Afro-Brazilian youth. Though radical blacks were persecuted by the government, an underground black consciousness movement grew throughout the 1970s and culminated in the creation of the Unified Black Movement (Movimento Negro Unificado—MNU). The MNU approved its charter on 20 November 1978, a date chosen to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of Zumbi, the last ruler of Palmares, a state founded by escaped slaves that flourished during the seventeenth century. Previously, most annual Afro-Brazilian celebrations had focused on 13 May, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery. The MNU argued that true abolition had not yet occurred, and established 20 November as the National Day of Black Consciousness. Zumbi became a symbol of the black consciousness movement, which for two years included every Afro-Brazilian organization in the country. Lélia Gonzalez, a Brazilian anthropologist and one of the founders of the MNU, also helped develop the Afro-Brazilian women's movement. In the 1980s Gonzalez criticized the feminist movement in Brazil for ignoring the ways in which race affected Afro-Brazilian females. Consequently, Gonzalez founded and worked with several groups focusing on black women's issues.

In the years following the creation of the MNU there was a resurgence in Afro-Brazilian cultural organizations. In the Northeast, Ile Aiye pioneered a new type of Carnival group known as the bloco afro. Each of these blocos chose themes in African and Afro-Brazilian history for their Carnival music and costumes, and some restricted membership to blacks only. Afro-Brazilian cultural traditions such as Capoeira, a martial arts form of Angolan origin, moved from obscurity to public awareness when schools were established in major cities.

Simultaneously, Afro-Brazilians formed organizations to address social and economic problems. Community leaders such as Benedita da Silva in Rio de Janeiro created a movement to improve conditions in the urban Favelas (slums), heavily populated by blacks. Other organizations emerged to promote awareness of racial discrimination, a problem often obscured by the government's promotion of Brazil as a racial democracy. Some, like the Institute for the Study of Black Culture (IPCN), publicized cases of overt discrimination, while others concentrated on the study of social and economic issues and their impact on the black community. Benedita da Silva became the first black woman to serve in the national Congress, and spearheaded efforts to ensure greater Afro-Brazilian participation in politics. Local women's groups in Salvador, Brazil, also increased their presence in the 1990s, pushing for affirmative action and campaigning for black women who were running for local offices. Today, the black consciousness movement incorporates social, cultural, political, and economic strategies to improve conditions for Afro-Brazilians.

See alsoAfrican-Latin American Religions: Brazil; Brazil, Revolutions: Revolution of 1964; Brotherhoods; Carnival; Palmares; Race and Ethnicity; Silva, Benedita da; Slavery: Brazil; Zumbi.


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Michael Mitchell, "Racial Consciousness and the Political Attitudes and Behavior of Blacks in São Paulo, Brazil" (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1977).

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Additional Bibliography

Caldwell, Kia Lilly. Negras in Brazil: Re-envisioning Black Women, Citizenship, and the Politics of Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Covin, David. "The Role of Culture in Brazil's Unified Black Movement, Bahia in 1992." Journal of Black Studies 27, no.1 (1996): 39-55.

Jones-De Oliveira, Kimberly F. "The Politics of Culture or the Politics of Race: Afro-Brazilian Mobilization, 1920–1964." Journal of Third World Studies 20, no. 1 (2003): 103-120.

Romo, Anadelia A. "Rethinking Race and Culture in Brazil's First Afro-Brazilian Congress of 1934." Journal of Latin America Studies 39, no. 1 (2007): 31-54.

Sheriff, Robin E. Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Soares, Carlos Eugênio Líbano. A negregada instituição: Os capoeiras na Corte Imperial, 1850–1890. Rio de Janeiro: Access Editora, 1999.

                                            Kim D. Butler

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African–Brazilian Cultural and Political Organizations

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