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Re-Discovering Brazil's Historical Roots

Construction in Rio find slave artifacts and bones
Construction in Rio find slave artifacts and bones
Associated Press

One can stand near the shore in Salvador, Bahia and count three womanly statues peering out into the horizon. One statue is said to be representative of the indigenous because it faces south, looking down at the glorious land of Brazil. Another faces northwest towards Europe, and the last looks longingly east toward Africa. While one could say the statues are meant to symbolize the three races that harmoniously formed Brazil, the triangular shape their locations form is also identical to the shape of the transatlantic slave trade.
In 1808, America banned its import of African slaves. However, this did not mean that America completely relinquished itself from any involvement in the slave trade. America continued to both aid and profit from the slave trade by allowing its ships to load up on slaves in southern Africa in order to sell them in Rio. Because they feared British abolitionists intercepting them, these vessels often flaunted the Brazilian flag while traveling east and the red white and blue while sailing west. Over 1.8 million African slaves were brought to Rio. In total, Brazil received 4.9 million Africans. In Sâo Paulo, thousands of American southerners settled on cheap property that came with slaves. The mass emigration was a way for southerners to keep life as it was before the civil war. It wasn’t until 1885, 2 years before the abolition of slavery that Brazil passed a law allowing slaves age 60-65 to be free after 3 years of final service. Most slaves ran away and were violently pursued by landowners. However, the government did little to stop the violence. Finally, in 1888, Brazil became the last state in the west to officially end slavery.
But unlike its neighbor to the north, or friends in Europe, Brazil has had a difficult time publicly acknowledging its slave trade past. Although today Afro-Brazilian heritage is celebrated at the Afro-Brazilian museum in São Paulo, in cultural cuisine and music, and at events such as Carnaval, there still exists relatively little representation in public space about the historical event that brought more Africans to Brazil than to any other participant in the Atlantic slave trade. Only recently has Brazil began to come to terms with its slave past.

How has a country with more than 50% of its population having African descent been able to go so long without recognizing such large parts of its history? The question has recently come up due to media coverage of Rio’s preparations for the 2016 Olympics. As construction workers prepare worksites, shocking archeological sites and slave graves are being found. But instead of further studies taking place, the city is racing ahead to complete multibillion dollar projects such as skyscrapers and housing villas to accommodate olympic judges. Activists and archeologists alike believe the discoveries merit a more institutionalized recognition. The city of Liverpool, for example, is home to the International Slavery Museum. Such a museum shows the public that the city has come to terms with its role in the slave trade. Many other places in the world have also institutionalized public spaces to recognize their historical pasts, even if painful. Both Holocaust and Slavery Museums can be found in various parts of the world, along with monuments dedicated to those who have been oppressed or victimized. Why aren’t such things being created in Rio, or on a larger scale in Brazil? Despite the fact that many homes in Rio have actually been built on top of mass grave sites, it surely doesn’t take the discovery of buried bones to remind the city and the world that Brazil played a historical role in colonial slavery. Other cultures have been recognized very visibly in the nation. In São Paulo for instance, the existence of a Japanese museum pays tribute to the fact that more Japanese outside of Japan occupy the city. Although Brazil has the largest population of Africans outside of Africa, the history of slavery is almost a “taboo” subject in the nation.

In a way, Brazil has been able to “sweep under the rug” its slave past by promoting the idea that Brazil was formed by three human groups: the Indigenous, Europeans, and Africans. By promoting this idea through the term “racial democracy,” Brazil was able to masquerade as a nation with harmonious racial balances and deny any history of racial inequality. While the United States and South Africa were experiencing tremendous amounts of racial discrimination, UNESCO put forth an initiative to study race relations and fight racism. The UNESCO study showed that Brazil was in fact a nation with racial and social inequalities despite the appearance of a harmonious existence among all races. Still, Brazil was able to adopt the idea of a racial democracy as a state ideology during the military regime that began in 1965. Florestan Fernandes was the first Brazilian scholar to counter argue the idea of Brazil as a racial democracy in the 1960’s. Today, despite many studies and communities advocating against racism, the myth of the founding “3 races” still exists today; as seen in Bahia’s famous 3 statues.

During the 1st half of the 20th century, both narratively and visually, black Brazilians were excluded in favor of portrayals of men and women of “mixed” identity-the ideological symbol of the nation. With the exception of the Máe Preta (“black mother”) in São Paulo and the Museu do Negro (“black museum), slavery in Brazil was largely ignored by public art. History textbooks in schools also failed to highlight the struggle of the abolitionists and provide little detail of the slave trade itself. Instead, slavery took on the framework of “labor” in these textbooks, and detailed attention went to Queen Isabel who signed the treaty abolishing slavery in 1888.

It wasn’t until the 2nd half of the 20th century that the voices of Africans and Afro-Brazilians began to be heard. In Rio, Carnaval was turned into a competition where samba schools portrayed historical Afro-Brazilians and sang songs with lyrics that had slavery as a central theme. In the 1970’s the recognition of slavery in public space became even more widespread once the parade began being televised. By the end of the 1900’s, before the full transition to democracy, black movements and samba schools began using lyrics that questioned the effectiveness of the abolition, as most Afro-Brazilians still lived in poverty.
Although several museums exist that curate African and Afro-Brazilian culture, art, religion, and traditions; to date, no museum exclusively focused on African slavery exists. Though many museums may offer one or two rooms dedicated to slavery, they usually depict slaves as nothing more than victimized individuals and exclude both their contribution to Brazilian society as well as several decades of abolitionist efforts. Many community museums who support Brazilian black history and make an effort to explain Brazilian slavery in its international context lack the resources to survive without focusing on activities that include Afro-Brazilian dance, music and traditions.

But Brazil cannot hide its slave past forever. The burial sites recently discovered in Rio are not the first of their kind. In 1996, a personal property excavated near the Valongo wharf and slave market found another large burial site. However, the actually location of the wharf is still slightly questionable due to another effort by Brazil to cover its slave past. The Valongo wharf was renamed “Empress Wharf” in 1893 after undergoing heavy reconstruction to receive Empress Teresa Cristina. The site has been both an embankment and a street avenue until 2011 when Brazil discovered the wharf’s ruins in preparations for 2014 World Cup.

Although Afro-Brazilians and black movements in Brazil have pushed for demand for greater acknowledgement for the connections between Brazil and Africa, attempts to appease these groups have mostly focused on celebrating Afro-Brazilian heritage and culture rather than how Africans actually came to Brazil. Only recently has Brazil began to acknowledge its past by telling the story of Brazil’s African roots in Carnaval and very few monuments. With the 2016 Olympics quickly approaching, Brazil should take take advantage of the opportunity to create new monuments and sites for cultural tourists who are interested in the deep roots of Brazil.


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