Note from BW of Brazil: It is often said that history is written by the winners. As such, people or groups who were deemed the losers in the annals of history will often suffer from decades, centuries or more of having their plight told in a manner that is, at best, mostly true with a few misunderstandings, exagerrations or exclusions, or at worst, a completely ficitionalized version of what actually went down in history. Whatever the case, I have always been a believer that it is the oppressed peoples themselves who need tell their own stories or we will continue to read only partially true portrayals of history.
But even in these situations, it is also necessary to have these histories told by people who not only look like us, but that also have the same desire to tell the truth rather than to sugarcoat it or tell it from the perspectives of the masters they serve. I’ve seen a few examples of these historical fakers over the years and the existence of such people substantiate the idea that all skin folk ain’t necessarily kin folk. It’s just more proof that folks that look like you ain’t necessarily on your team. Can you think of any people that fit this description?
In the case of Brazil, one of the longest running myths of history is that the institution of slavery just suddenly ended by the good heart and signature of Princesa Isabela, who signing of the Golden Law on May 13, 1888, officially ended about 350 years of human bondage on Brazilian land. In general, this is the version of the story that most kids in the Brazilian education system will learn, but how slavery came to be abolished and the role of black Brazilians in this process was much more important than most textbooks will reveal. We know that former slaves often escaped their bondage, settled in quilombo communities and planned organized uprisings.
But there was also an intellectual black class that played a seminal role in the eventual demise of the slave system. Historian Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto has been documenting the roles of intellectuals, writers, journalists and lawyers for several years and some of her findings have been released in a book, which means we can begin to understand the full story much better.
Book reveals the role of black intellectuals against racism and for citizenship in nineteenth-century Brazil
Considered for the Prêmio Capes de Tese (award), research originates book that highlights networks created by literati and journalists
By Patrícia Lauretti
The first demographic census carried out in Brazil in the 19th century pointed to an important fact: six of every ten preto/pardo (black and brown) people were already living in free and in liberated conditions, 16 years before the end of slavery. This majority of black women and men constructed experiences of freedom in the enslaved society, constituting even transnational networks of writers, journalists and artists fighting for abolitionism and citizenship projects. The history of members of these networks was only not completely neglected due to virtue of exceptionality. Trajectories such as that of Luiz Gama or José do Patrocínio, Machado de Assis or Chiquinha Gonzaga, are recognized in suspension, as described by historian Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto, author of the book Escritos da Liberdade: Literatos negros, racismo e cidadania no Brasil oitocentista (Writings of Freedom: Black literati, racism and citizenship in nineteenth-century Brazil) (Editora da Unicamp), from the collection Várias Histórias, organized by Cecult (Centro de Pesquisa em História Social da Cultura da Unicamp).
“Our tendency is not to recognize these subjects on the grounds of history where the dichotomy is based senhores brancos (white masters) and escravizados negros (enslaved blacks). But in freedom, the exercise of citizenship was denied daily to black people because of racism,” says the author. Ana Flávia holds a post-doctorate in History from Unicamp and a professor at the Department of History at the Universidade de Brasília (UnB). The doctoral thesis “Fortes laços em linhas rotas: literatos negros, racismo e cidadania na segunda metade do século XIX” (Strong ties in broken lines: black writers, racism and citizenship in the second half of the nineteenth century), which gave rise to the book, received an honorable mention of the 2015 Prêmio Capes de Tese Award.
According to the book, racism has hijacked another story about abolitionism or about abolitionism in Brazil. There were a series of projects of freedom and the end of slavery led by black subjects and, in the words of the author, more radical and popular expressions that articulated organizations of workers of low prestige. These projects dealt with expectations not only of liberation of the enslaved, but with the consequent dismantling of the obstacles placed to the full exercise of the citizenship of those people who already lived in freedom.
The connections between the literati, or writers of the time, were given in an unusual way. Ana Flávia went to search for the most diverse documents to try to understand the relations described in the book, as well as the prohibitions imposed on the citizenship of the população negra (black population). The search for electoral records, for example, revealed that, although they had been able to vote since 1880, editors of the first newspapers of the black São Paulo press, such as Arthur Carlos or Ignácio de Araújo Lima, of the newspaper A Pátria (1889), or Theophilo Dias de Castro, editor of O Progresso (1899), could only exercise the political right, in fact, in the following decade. “After the electoral reform of 1880 it was established that the voter, in addition to being literate, should prove a certain income. Although they were people with transit in the world of letters, these publishers were unable to prove this income. That is, they were people who were in the political debate, but they could not vote for subjective aspects.”
A central figure for the mapping of networks of abolitionist literati was the lawyer and journalist José Ferreira de Menezes, editor of the publication Gazeta da Tarde (1880) in Rio de Janeiro. Born in the 1840s and son of a freed man, Menezes is part of a network of educated people and in 1860 will attend law school in the Largo de São Francisco Law School. “Upon arriving in São Paulo, Menezes establishes ties with Luiz Gama. It is a network that also has the circulation of Machado de Assis.”
Ana Flavia points out that, in the province of São Paulo, it is Luiz Gama that inspires the generation that produces the first newspapers of the black press such as A Pátria and O Progresso. There are relationships that go beyond national boundaries. The author tells that at the foundation of O Progresso, in 1899, Theophilo Dias de Castro puts on the cover the figure of Luiz Gama. He has a son, Theophilo Booker Washington, in honor of Booker T. Washington, the black leader in the United States who instituted a school for men and women, the current Tuskegee University.
“Some time later, one of the great newspapers of the São Paulo black press of the 20th century, Clarim da Alvorada, will publish a series of texts by a law student named Booker. Those who worked with this documentation thought it was a pseudonym, but in fact it was the son of Theophilo Dias de Castro.” For the author, the episode connects three linked generations or by blood ties or by reference to a luta negra (black struggle) that does not end in the city of São Paulo or in the country itself.
Also organizations such as the Sociedade Cooperativa da Raça Negra (Cooperative Society of the Black Race), founded in 1888 to register freed workers and recognize skills to combat unemployment, as well as school projects and professional training, are experiences of black autonomy in freedom recuperated in the work.
“My work deals with the possibility of recognition of experiências negras (black experiences) beyond slavery and how these people, in different ways, occupied cities established networks, political, intellectual and cultural ties that were not experienced in the underground of the society. These people were in the public spaces, in abolitionist meetings, in newsrooms, in literary circles, in the schools, in the theater, and in the environments of music.” For the author, the simplifications of the historical narrative undermine all the effort that black men and women have made for slavery to effectively end.
At the same time, the effort to exclude these subjects was combined with the reinforcement of the exceptionality. In the 20th century a few were transformed into heroes of the black struggle such as José do Patrocínio or Zumbi dos Palmares. Ana Flávia believes that the current moment is one of unfolding the dialogue established between academia and anti-racist activism. The centennial of Abolition has already demanded a revision of the idea of “abolition as a gift” to the detriment of the recognition of black struggles. The institution of November 20 was a first gesture of questioning and affirmation of a black protagonism in the struggles for freedom.
As of 2003, there was the promulgation of the law that established the obligation to teach African and Afro-Brazilian history and culture throughout the country’s education network. “This law is a call for Brazil to rethink itself. It is not something that is restricted to the school environment, but it impacts the public debate. We have seen an increase in interest in the recognition of these other histórias negras (black stories) beyond slavery, beyond May 13th. We are contributing to this mental reorganization that needs to be done,” says the author.