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African Cultural Heritage in Brazil

A version of this article was originally published in Portuguese by Goethe-Institut São Paulo, Episodes of the South project.

By Thiago de Paula Souza

There are several examples about the image of the black population in Brazilian art history. During the past 500 years, black people have been often portrayed exotically, erasing all the conflict they went through, evoked in a context of either slavery or harmony.

In 1637, during the Dutch invasion of Brazil, Prince Mauricio de Nassau hired an artist, Albert Eckhout, to produce some paintings portraying the new world. Eckhout painted nature and the different people he met. In two of these paintings, black people are represented not as ordinary human beings or free people (there were free black men and women during slavery) or the enslaved black workers that one found easily in the colony, but exotically, as people arrived from Africa.

Almost 200 years later, in 1816, the French mission arrived in the country, settling European aesthetics and concepts that guided local art. The French painter Jean-Baptiste Debret, an exponent of this crew, registered scenes of daily life in the capital of the brand-new empire. In his works we can see the complexity of the relations between the masters and the enslaved. Debret was not alone—several other European painters in the 19th century also represented Brazilian slave society and black people, in most cases, in subservient roles.

Pseudo-scientific white supremacist theories, arrived from Europe, argued for  eliminating the black population from the country. The future was to be white. A painting titled “A Redenção de Caim” portrays very well some of the racial issues in the country. The painting shows four people in front of a very simple house. An elderly black-skinned woman, maybe the grandmother, seems to be praying. Next to her, there’s a lighter-skinned woman, perhaps her daughter, indicating that she probably had a relationship with a white man. Next to her daughter is a white Portuguese immigrant. In the daughter’s arms is a white baby. Perhaps this is why the black grandmother is saying thanks heaven—her family has no longer a black stain. After a few generations, the blackness of the family is supposedly gone.

A few weeks ago, at a party, I was asked “which part of Africa” my family was from. Once again this made me reflect on the annihilation of memory and history of the black Brazilian population, who were forcibly carried off to Brazil, and about our responsibility to preserve and restore these cultures in the country.

Brazil is the country where slavery continued for the longest period of time and over the largest geographical area. Forty percent of enslaved Africans sold between the 16th and 19th century landed there. The presence of black people influenced our customs, our language, and our culture. For almost four centuries, these men and women were marginalized within our history. Integrating them is of the upmost importance for our development—socially, economically, and spiritually.

It is estimated that in the days of slavery approximately 4.8 million Africans were captured and transported to Brazil, at the same time that 600,000 Portuguese  migrated willingly. That reveals much about the Brazilian population today. According to surveys conducted by the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 53 percent of Brazilians indicated being black or Brown/Pardo (a controversial term to indicate some African ancestry).

When slavery was abolished in 1888, there were no measures implemented by the state to integrate former slaves into society as full citizens. Even today, the vast majority of Brazilians of African origin remain at the bottom of Brazil’s social pyramid. The difference between whites and blacks are obvious when considering police violence, life expectancy, access to public services (such as health and education), earning capacity, and unemployment figures. At the beginning of 2014, IBGE also published figures that the average income of people who view themselves as either black or brown was barely more than half of that of a white worker.

Brazilian history is constructed by the negation of the Other, even though no institutional discrimination law ever existed officially, such as in the U.S. or South Africa. Perhaps that is why we deny the existence of racism in our country and tout the idea of a “racial democracy,” ignoring that miscegenation, so present in our bodies, is the result of a violent history.

Brazilian society has never overcome its culture of enslavement and its culture of physical and symbolic violence. The genocide of young black people and people of African origin in the periphery of large cities is a fact. In 2012, 56,000 people were murdered in Brazil, according to Amnesty International. Of these 30,000 were young, aged between 15 and 29, and 77 percent were black. As the historian and anthropologist Lília Moritz Schwarcz stated, "Black people are more frequently convicted, they die more often, and one cannot help admitting that in Brazil practically a whole generation of young black people is being killed.”

Racism and Education

There is a need in Brazil for awareness that there is inequality due to skin color, and that this inequality must be combated. Targeting the school system seems a logical path: The scholar Marcio Farias points out that “education can play a prominent role grappling with our day-to-day racism contemplating Brazil’s connection to Africa.”

In our current education system, the complexity of racism finds its clearest manifestation. Textbooks still depict black women and men in subservient postures, just like painters from those times did. For students of African origin, it is difficult to see their ancestors as protagonists in the history of Brazil, a perspective that would help them understand their role in history, and help construct a positive identity about themselves.

Construction of a Black Subject

Thais Avellar reminds us that identity is “a process, a construct which must be taken care of and which needs points of reference.” One wonders if there are opportunities within the framework of Brazilian society for a black person to feel represented.

School could, due to its prominent role, be the space to reflect on the identity and memory of the population with African origins, by creating access to knowledge about one of the most important avatars of our cultural heritage: the African. This is the goal of Law 10639 of January 2003, which made the inclusion of Afro-Brazilian history and culture compulsory in elementary and high schools throughout the country, encouraging reflection on a less colonized view beyond the Atlantic.

This law should only the beginning of education reform, to make it less ethnocentric and more pluralistic. Teachers should be trained to include a diverse perspective on Africa’s history, in order not to prevent conversations from degenerating into platitudes about a mythical, idealized continent. It is important to return to the awareness of Africa as a complex and human network of organization, life styles, world views, and religions. School, as a microcosm of our society, will neither be immune to racially motivated conflicts, nor will it be their full solution. However, it can and must be an instrument for deconstructing myths and generalizations. Differences should be acknowledged as opportunities for discussion. Recognizing the Afro-Brazilian core of our history reminds us how we came to be who we are.

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Thiago de Paula Souza lives in São Paulo, where he works as an educator at the Afro-Brazilian Museum (Museu Afro Brazil). His current research concerns race relations, African and Afro-Brazilian art, and the depiction of art from Africa and the diaspora in the German-speaking context. He is a member of Lanchonete.org

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

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