Note from BW of Brazil: The struggle for equal rights and representation in various areas of society is one of the principal topics covered on this blog. Afro-Brazilians remain so vastly under-represented in so many areas that it would take several books to adequately explore all of these areas. Even so, there have some gains and victories over the years, many of which are a direct result of the demands of a conglomerate of organizations throughout the country known as the Movimento Negro Unificado, or simply the Movimento Negro or MNU. There are many posts on this blog that mention Brazil´s modern civil/human rights movement directed toward the black population and even some of its key movers and shakers, but as of yet, we haven´t dedicated a post that offers a background into the origins of this organization.
Below, although clearly not meant to be an exhaustive study of the MNU, we present a brief summary and overview of the organization from an historical perspective that connects it to the 1930s organization the Frente Negra Brasiliera and offers insight into some of the goals, challenges and key players and groups involved in the movement. There have been a number of books in English on this organization if one wishes to explore the topic further. Although there is quite a list to cite (and vastly more for those who understand Portuguese), a good start would be these titles: The Afro-Brazilian Organization Directory: A Reference Guide to Black Organizations in Brazil by Shawn Lindsey, Orpheus and Power: The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1945-1988 by Michael George Hanchard and Unified Black Movement in Brazil, 1978-2002 by David Covin.
For now, here is an introduction that will get you started and bring you up to take on the movement up to today.
Pride of color
In dialogue with other countries, the black Brazilian movement grew in the 1970s under the vigilance of the dictatorship, to affirm itself in the democracy.
By Verena Alberti and Amilcar Pereira Araújo
The Serviço Nacional de Informações (SNI or National Intelligence Service) (1), created on June 13, 1964 with the purpose of coordinating the activities of information and counter-information across the country, produced numerous reports about matters considered as pertaining to national security during the military regime. In one, from July 14, 1978, we find an account of the demonstration on the steps of the Municipal Theatre of São Paulo, what would become later the Movimento Negro Unificado (MNU or Unified Black Movement), one of the entities of the black movement that arose in Brazil in the 1970s.
It was held in São Paulo on July 7, 1978, in the front of the Municipal Theater, near Viaduto do Chá, organized by the self-denominated “Movimento Unificado Contra a Discriminação Racial (Unified Movement Against Racial Discrimination)”, consisting of several groups, whose main objectives announced were: denounce, permanently , every kind of racism and organize the black community. Although, still, not being a “mass movement”, the available data indicate the existence of a campaign to encourage racial antagonisms in the country and, in parallel, reveals ideological tendencies of the left. It should be noted that the presence in Brazil of Abdias do Nascimento, a professor from New York, a known black racist, connected to liberation movements in Africa, contributed, with certainty, to the installation of the aforementioned “Movimento Unificado”.
This document, which is on file at the Arquivo Ernesto Geisel, deposited at the Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil (CPDOC) da Fundação Getulio Vargas (Getulio Vargas Foundation Center for Research and Documentation of Contemporary History of Brazil), is not the only one produced by organs of information at the time about the activity of activists and organizations of the Movimento Negro. But it helps us to situate the performance of this social movement in the history of Brazil, more specifically in the context of political liberalization, initiated in 1974. Since the early 1970s, it is possible to record the formation of entities that, as the SNI report says, sought to denounce racism and organize the black community.
For example, the Grupo Palmares (Palmares Group), created in 1971 in Porto Alegre; the Centro de Estudos e Arte Negra (Cecan or Center of Black Arts and Studies), opened in São Paulo in 1972; Sociedade de Intercâmbio Brasil-África (Sinba or Society of Brazil-Africa Exchange), inaugurated in Rio de Janeiro in 1974, and Bloco Afro Ilê Aiyê, founded in Salvador, Bahia, also in 1974. Militants of some of these and other entities articulated themselves in 1978 for the realization of a public event to which the SNI document refers. Its motivation stemmed from the murder of the young black man Robson Silveira da Luz, in the police district of Guaianazes, where he had been taken into custody, accused of stealing fruit at a fair, and in the discrimination suffered by four black boys impeded from playing volleyball training on a children’s team of Clube de Regatas Tietê.
The demonstration was attended by Abdias do Nascimento, a longtime militant, who in 1968 went into exile in the United States, where he taught at several universities. Being touted as a “known black racist” by the SNI report is an interesting piece of data and can be explained by the strong actions of the Movimento Negro, then, towards the termination of the so-called “myth of racial democracy,” that is, the idea that there was no racism in Brazil. As Abdias do Nascimento, according to SNI, denounced a “non-existent” racism, he himself would be racist. Another document in January of the same year of 1978, warned: “These movements, if they continue to grow and radicalize, are likely to lead to racial conflict.”
Organizations formed in the 1970s were not the first in the history of the country. Immediately after the abolition, in the late nineteenth century, newspapers targeting black populations, such as Treze de Maio of Rio de Janeiro (1888), and O Exemplo, Porto Alegre (1892) were already being circulated. In São Paulo the “imprensa negra paulista”, or São Paulo Negro press”, denounced in the 1920s racial discrimination. From it emerged some of the founders of the Frente Negra Brasiliera (Brazilian Black Front), in 1931, that came to become a political party in 1936, but was soon extinguished, like other parties, by the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorship the following year. In the 1940s several organizations such as the União dos Homens de Cor (Union of Men of Color) and Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theatre) were founded.
Many of the documents of this period show that the circulation of references and information from outside of Brazil, mainly from Africa and the United States, was not rare. The newspaper O Clarim d’Alvorada, published from 1924 to 1932 in São Paulo, contained a section entitled “O Mundo Negro” (The Black World), in which were published translations of articles from the Jamaican Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), an advocate of Pan-Africanism. The Quilombo newspaper, founded by Abdias do Nascimento in 1948, frequently reproduced items of the Présence Africaine magazine published in Paris and Dakar starting in 1947 under the direction of the Senegalese Alioune Diop. In the 1960s, this exchange intensified due to the liberation struggles of African colonies and mobilization for civil rights in the United States. As seen in the document reproduced above, Abdias do Nascimento presented danger, according to investigators of the SNI, because he was “connected to the liberation movements in Africa.”
The ideas that circulated among militants in the 1970s and 1980s and their modes of action – such as the public ceremony held in São Paulo in 1978 – were the object of the study História do movimento negro no Brasil: constituição de acervo de entrevistas de história oral (History of the black movement in Brazil: Constitution of archive of interviews of oral history) that developed in the CPDOC between 2003 and 2007. The methodology of oral history, which consists of recorded interviews with witnesses of the past, permit the recording of narratives of personal experience and knowledge of forms of articulation and worldviews of individuals and groups.
These interviews enabled us to realize that, in addition to the poets of the French language, which continued to be read and discussed, and the fight against the apartheid system of racial segregation that prevailed in South Africa between 1948 and 1992, another issue that mobilized attention was the independence of African countries of Portuguese colonization – Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe – that occurred between 1974 and 1975, a few years before the public ceremony on the steps of the Municipal Theatre of São Paulo. It is recurring, for example, the mention of the “Poemas de Angola” (Poems of Angola), Agostinho Neto, founder of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and the country’s first president in 1975.
Often these readings are remembered as crucial to raising the consciousness of the respondent and his/her choice of militancy. The discovery of one’s self as black mixed itself with a political statement, leading to attitudes that, nowadays, already no longer carry the same weight. The simple act of buying a magazine, for example, was decisive. This is what Carlos Alberto Medeiros, a militant of the Movimento Negro in Rio de Janeiro since the 1970s, told us:
“I used to work at the Journal do Brasil (newspaper), which was at Avenida Rio Branco 110. I went there and saw foreign magazines on newsstands. And there was a magazine of which I had already heard of in Rio Grande do Sul, Ebony magazine. I passed by, saw the magazine, already having had some curiosity. But to buy the magazine for the first time I had to overcome something. Because buying a magazine of blacks had a meaning of identification. I already had a command of English that allowed me to read. Until one day I bought it. And it was the end of the second half of 1969, at the time in which there was that thing of “black thing is beautiful”, the cabelo black (afro hair). And that was almost love at first sight. It struck my eye and said, ‘This is what’s missing.'”
Publications of the genre influenced the formation and dissemination of a consciousness of negritude (blackness). Magno Cruz, an important reference of the movement in Maranhão (northern Brazil) since the early 1980s, tells how this was achieved by this initial strategy. In 1979, he came to sign the registration of the creation of the local Centro de Cultura Negra (CCN or Center for Black Culture) at the invitation of its founder, Mundinha Araújo. But it took some time to even act as a militant:
“I am the assumed founder, because I was not the organic founder who was there at the beginning, in the first meetings. What was my resistance to engage myself in the work of the CCN? I didn’t consider myself negro. Even my nickname in college was Moreno. And I was a believer I was a moreno. I thought: how would I participate in an entity’s motion if I did not consider myself negro? But, with the seminars and lectures, there was a lot, I was changing. Mundinha gave the referral that I think it was the best possible, because it was training. The first meetings were study meetings. It was a room, perhaps a bit larger than this one; when there were more than 30 people, we had to remain outside. And there were texts for us to read, newspapers for us to read, to discuss, books … Nobody knew anything about the history of the negro. So, with these courses, these seminars that I was attending, I realized that I was negro.” (2)
At this mobilization strategy – were added several other things, such as the adoption of the afro hairstyle, audio-visual production, newspapers and pamphlets, disseminating information at fairs and public places, mounting plays and organizing dance groups and blocos afros. State and regional meetings stimulated the growth of the Movimento Negro. In August 1980, occurred the I Encontro Memorial Zumbi (Zumbi Memorial Meeting I), in Alagoas, took place with the presence of national leaders like Abdias do Nascimento and anthropologist Lélia Gonzalez (1935-1994). The event propelled the realization of Encontros de Negros do Norte e Nordeste (Black Encounters of North and Northeast), initiated in the following year. From the mid-1980s, other encounters in different states, besides the Encontros de Negros do Sul-Sudeste (Black Encounters of the South-Southeast) and the Encontros Estaduais e Nacionais de Mulheres Negras (State and National Encounters of Black Women) were registered. The I Encontro Nacional de Comunidades Negras Rurais Quilombolas (1st National Meeting of Rural Black Quilombo Communities), held in 1995, gave rise to the Comissão Nacional de Articulação das Comunidades Rurais Quilombolas (National Joint Committee of the Rural Quilombo Communities), established in 1996.
The methodology of oral history permits us to know not only how these initiatives occurred in practice, but also how, starting from them, the demands of the Movimento Negro ended up being brought into the public sphere by the militants. It is therefore an important tool for the study of political history. There are several secretariats focused on the promotion of racial equality, in the federal , state and local governments, and news articles in the Law of Guidelines and Bases of National Education, LDB of 1996, which make the teaching of Afro-Brazilian History and Culture obligatory in the country’s schools and the inclusion of November 20 on the school calendar as the “Dia Nacional da Consciência Negra (National Day of Black Consciousness).”
Indeed, the first evocative act of celebration of November 20, the day of the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, in 1695, was conducted by the Grupo Palmares, of Porto Alegre in 1971. Seven years later, the second national assembly of the MNU, held in Salvador in November 1978, declared the date the “National Day of Black Consciousness,” which today is a holiday in over two hundred municipalities. This is quite an evident example of the work in the dispute for the national memory, which culminated with the inscription of the name of the Zumbi in the book of heroes of the fatherland, on November 20, 1996.
Another open possibility for conducting oral history research is access to experiences and interpretations of the past that are not necessarily those consecrated by a “national history”. This pluralism is easily understood when we realize that the interviews show us new periodizations. From the point of view of our respondents, the national impact of the public act on the steps of the Municipal Theatre of São Paulo in 1978 enabled the creation of many organizations in different states of the country and was ultimately responsible for the spreading of the concept of “Movimento Negro” as a generic term for the various entities and actions starting from that moment.
The next milestone was the year 1988 for two reasons: celebrating the centenary of abolition (of slavery), which led to a series of protest actions denouncing the living conditions of blacks in the country and elaborating a new constitution. Two important demands of the movement became constitution text – the criminalization of racism (Article 5) and the recognition of land ownership of Quilombos (Article 68 of the Temporary Constitutional Provisions Act). The years 1995 and 2001 are the following two moments. In 1995 a march in honor of the three hundred years of the death of Zumbi dos Palmares was held in Brasilia. It was the first year of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government, which then created a Grupo de Trabalho Interministerial para a Valorização da População Negra (Interministerial Working Group for the Promotion of the Black Population), launching the first initiatives of affirmative action in the federal public administration. And 2001 was the year of the Third World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, that mobilized government entities and the Movimento Negro in its preparation and resulted in new developments, such as the reservation of vacancies for blacks in some universities in the country and new commitments by the State internationally.
The study of history is enriched when we meet new periodization, performances and experiences, but that does not mean we can forget national milestones. The story of the Movimento Negro in Brazil should not be understood as “detached” contemporary history, as much for Brazil as the world. The milestones recorded here make sense for the Movimento Negro and also for national history as they relate to situations such as the abertura política (political opening) (3), the centenary of Abolition and the Constituent and government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, among others. They make sense of these contexts and lend them new meanings. This is the wealth of oral history.
And let us not forget that, in the studied universe itself, the trajectories and opinions are not unanimous. In our research, we heard people from different regions and often times divergent positions, which permit the realization of the plurality of experiences and evaluations between the militants themselves. But there is no doubt that all were aimed at combating racism and fighting for better living conditions of the black population.
Verena Alberti is a researcher at the Programa de História Oral do CPDOC da Fundação Getulio Vargas (Oral History Program of the CPDOC of the the Getulio Vargas Foundation) and Professor of History at the Escola Alemã Corcovado, in Rio de Janeiro.
Amilcar Pereira Araújo is a doctoral candidate in History at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF) and sponsored by CNPq. Both are editors of the book Histórias do movimento negro no Brasil (Histories of the Black Movement in Brazil) (Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2007).
Source: Revista de História
1. The Serviço Nacional de Informações, or SNI (National Information Service) of Brazil was an intelligence agency formed by the Castelo Branco government in 1964. SNI was disbanded for a time and later resumed operations under the name Agência Brasileira de Inteligência.
2. It is important to note here in the comments of both Medeiros and Cruz the question of the development of black identity. As several posts on black identity have shown, Brazil’s particular brand of racism was and continues to be very sophisticated as its ideologies simultaneously deny the practice of racism while allowing it to continue all the while convincing persons of visible African ancestry that they are not negros but rather morenos, pardos and mulatos or simply Brazilians. For more on commonly racial/color terminology, see here. Magno Cruz passed away in August of 2010 at the age of 59.
3. The abertura política, or political opening, is the name given to the process of liberalization of the Military Dictatorship that governed Brazil. This process began in 1974 and ended in 1988 with the creation of the new Constitution. Source