Section 2

Part 2: The Vitapolitics of the African Diaspora

From enslavement to the mid-20th century, the peoples descended from enslaved Africans in the New World made a place for themselves through their music, dance, religion, and culture.  Transforming the terms of their subjection, their many-sided creative contributions reshaped societies founded on racist contempt and created a proud place for themselves that defines the very meaning of what it means to be a U.S. or Brazilian citizen. Contemporary movements defending Black lives are born out of this rich tradition of embodied expressions that include Black music, dance, religion, athletics, art, and organizing. They build on a long and inspiring history of multi-faceted collective action for liberation and to secure rights.


Black Religions


Excelling in Sports


Embodied Expressions


Politics of Resistance

Black Religions

Celebration of Life, Spiritual Refuge, and Connectedness

Black religion and spiritualities have always played crucial roles in Black communities in Brazil and the United States. They draw on an African imaginary to encourage social cohesion and nurture hope, offering a framework of resistance and resilience. U.S. and Brazilian Black spiritualities are not limited to a single set of religious practices. They include African-derived spirit possession religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda, Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, Spiritism and Islam, among other traditions. For many, Black religions and spiritualities serve as safe harbors, offering a sense of empowerment, shared identity and connectedness.

United States

“We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Black religion and spiritualities have always played crucial roles in Black communities in Brazil and the United States. They draw on an African imaginary to encourage social cohesion and nurture hope, offering a framework of resistance and resilience. U.S. and Brazilian Black spiritualities are not limited to a single set of religious practices.They include African-derived spirit possession religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda, Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, Spiritism and Islam, among other traditions. For many, Black religions and spiritualities serve as safe harbors, offering a sense of empowerment, shared identity and connectedness.

A young woman in the U.S. practices Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion that blends Catholicism and West African traditions through religious syncretism. (Credits by Johnny Hanson)

A young woman in the U.S. practices Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion that blends Catholicism and West African traditions through religious syncretism. Outsiders often misunderstand and mischaracterize Santería and many other African-derived religious practices in the U.S. and Brazil.

Black religious leaders (in the U.S.) have often led the struggle for racial justice and liberation.
Faith leaders in the U.S. have been on the front lines of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. (Credits by Bob Roller)
Malcolm X giving a speech at a black Muslim rally. 1961. Washington D.C. (Credits by Arnold Eve)

Leaders from many different religious traditions epitomize Black pride and resistance. Malcom X was a Black Muslim follower of Wallace Fard’s Nation of Islam that mixed Black pride and nationalism with tenets of Islam. Eventually Malcom X split from the Nation because he found it too sectarian and limiting. He left to organize a Black nationalist party and join in the fight for Civil Rights wherever fellow Black people asked for his help. Father Jerome LeDoux of New Orleans was a Roman Catholic pastor. Martin Luther King Jr. became a Baptist minister like his father, M.L.K. Sr., who was well-known for his ministry in Atlanta at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Father Jerome LeDoux of New Orleans (Credits by Alex Brandon)
Martin Luther King Jr. in a demonstration in Washington, DC (Credits by National Park Service)

 Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel album captures shared spiritual experience. This live performance evokes the energy of the Black church as a cornerstone for organizing, rejuvenating, and strengthening Black people.

Amazing Grace, Aretha Franklin (Credits by Atlantic Records)

The Charleston massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 exposes a deep history of violent and deadly persecution of  Black spirituality. In this case, nine Black church members were murdered by a white supremacist, neo-Nazi.

Church reverend Clementa Pinckney (1973 – 2015) was murdered in the attack. He was also a state legislator and well-respected community leader. (Credits by Grace Beahm)

St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, founded 1792, is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church. Its continued vibrancy is Afro-centric, but diversity and inclusion are also key. Liturgy, passionate music, and unique programs contribute to a welcoming environment two centuries in the making. Similar foundations and values organize other Black spaces of worship worship such as Church of God in Christ, the National Baptist Convention of America, and the Progressive National Baptist Association Inc.

St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, founded in 1792 (Author Unknown)
Church of Saint Thomas, today (Credits by Nathaniel Lee)

Brazil

“Longer than the slavery of Egypt, harsher than the captivity of Babylon was Black slavery in Brazil.”  

– Dom José Maria Pires 

Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People, in Salvador, Bahia (Credits by Bruno Girin)

Today, two-thirds of Brazilians identify as Catholic. The oldest Black church in Brazil, Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People (pictured right), is Catholic. The church was constructed by slaves and freed men who were members of the Irmandade de Nossa Senhora do Rósario dos Homens Pretos de Pelourinho Black confraternity. This organization raised sufficient funds and petitioned for permission to construct a proper church for their  members in 1704.  Historically, Black Catholics have promoted Black culture and leadership within Catholic church and in society at large. Afro-Brazilian Catholic liberation theologians, like Pires, and Black U.S. Protestants share ideology. Both center Moses as a central figure for religious connections to Black struggle.

The brotherhood accompanying the arrival of the body of Princess Isabel to the Church of the Rosário, Rio de Janeiro, 1971 (photo displayed at the Museu do Negro. Author unknown)
Black Consciouness March in São Paulo (2018) demanding freedom to afrobrazilian religions (Credits by Daniel Arroyo – Ponte Jornalismo)

In Brazil religious leaders have taken to
the streets to defend their rights to religious freedom and practice, as well
as to call attention to the genocide of Black youth in the country. 

“We are arriving from the black rosaries,

we are arriving from our terreiros,

from the cursed saints we are,

we came to pray…

…We are arriving from the old slave quarters,

we are arriving from the new slums,

from the margins of the world we are,

we came to dance.”

Milton Nascimento

Credits by Travis Knoll

African-descened spiritual practices figure prominently in Black Brazilian expressive cultures. Mães and pais-de-santo, mothers and fathers of saints, are religious leaders within spirit possession religions that guard sacred knowledge and perform central duties of worship, guiding and connecting their terreiro family to lineage.

Mãe Menininha do Gantois, one of the most important priestess of Candomblé in Brazil (Author unknown)

In Brazil, terreiros, Afro-Brazilian spaces of worship, have suffered violent attacks of religious racism. A major uptick in persecution of African-descended religions has followed the 2018 election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.

A demonstration of practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions (Credits by Edilson Rodrigues)

Afro-Brazilian spiritual practices are central to the continued struggle for Black liberation in Brazil. This spans from devotion to Black figures, such as Saint Benedict or the Immaculate Virgin Aparecida, to an emphasis on expanding Afro-Brazilian practices that center living Black Brazilians as religious and cultural repositories. 

Our Lady Aparecida, Patron Saint of Brazil – Catholic Church (author unknown)

Protestantism has been growing rapidly in the last 20 years in Brazil, especially in the favelas and poor neighborhoods of large cities, occupying the space left by the weakening of the Catholic church and liberation theology. Because of this, about 59% of evangelicals in Brazil are black (a percentage higher than that of the national population, 56%). Despite this, many of the attacks on Afro-Brazilian religions come from conservative sectors of evangelical churches, which are one of the main bases of support for President Bolsonaro. However, there are evangelical sectors that have been mobilizing out of respect for black religions and for a progressive political agenda for black people. An example of this was the creation of the Black Evangelical Movement and the Evangelical Front by the rule of law.

March to Jesus, in São Paulo, 2018, the biggest protestant event in Brazil, bringing togheter 2 million people (Credits by Rovena Rosa)

Until 1940 Afro-Brazilian religions were persecuted as criminals by the police and had their sacred objects seized. For decades black movements and religious leaders fought for the release of more than 200 sacred objects from the Civil Police Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Mãe Meninazinha d’Oxum, one of the main religious leaders of Candomblém said “Our sacred is imprisoned. We are imprisoned”. This story was told in the film “The Sacred Within Us”. The victory came recently, in August 2020, with the release of the sacred objects back to those who have always belonged and will be exhibited in the Museum of the Republic, in the city of Rio.

Sacred Objects of Candomblé and Umbanda were apprehended by Police in Rio (Credits by Marco Antônio Teobaldo)

Excelling in Sports

As the Politics of Life

In the 1900s, pioneering Black athletes used sports to inspire pride and dignity and to demand recognition and equal participation within racist societies. Capoeira was created by enslaved people as a form of resistance that is still a prominent cultural practice. Interpretation of sports as a way to force recognition for Black people within society. Capacity to struggle against and overcome the obstacle to win the space that Black people deserve to have in society.

Jack Johnson

In the early 20th century Black people were hardly ever the subject of news in the white press . The only time you’d see a Black person in the newspaper was if they were criminals or had been lynched. Black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson changed this narrative in 1908, becoming what is considered the first African-American pop culture icon. Winning the title of X instantly transformed him into a hero for people of color everywhere. Johnson was not just written about in Black newspapers, but made the front pages in white newspapers as well. In fact, after being proclaimed a heavyweight champion Johnson received more press coverage than several of the most notable Black men combined (Booker T. Washington, George Walker, W.E.B Du Bois, etc.)

Jack Johnson was one of the finest boxers in the world during his prim (Credits by Sean Sexton-Getty Images)
Jack Johnson (R) knocks out Jim Jeffries, who had come out of retirement. The battle, lasting 15 rounds, was staged on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada. (Credits by Getty Images)

“…Prejudices were being piled up against me, and certain unfair persons, piqued because I was champion, decided if they could not get me one way, they would another.” 

– Johnson

“The defiant heavyweight had, in many respects, changed how his colored fans saw themselves, laying the groundwork for an increasingly militant and global movement against white domination.” – Theresa Runstedtler, historian

Blacks’ limited participation in sporting events makes Johnson’s rise to stardom all the more remarkable. In an era marred by racial segregation and violence, white spectators were not interested in racial mixing at sporting events. In fact, in virtually all of the South mixed-race fighty were illegal. In the North, Black men were expected to deliberately lose a fight or risk being declared a draw.

Johnson’s celebrity was also fraught. He had open relationships with white women, drawing swift condemnation. At the turn of the century, interracial relationships were not only illegal but dangerous. In 1912, Johnson was actually arrested for having a relationship with a white woman. After exiling to Mexico and making his way back to the United States, he served his sentence of one year and one day. After his release he was welcomed with open arms by the Black community. Soon after his release, the Black American artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance would explode. The powerful symbol of Jack Johnson helped paved the way for a more militant Black culture of the 1920s. Johnson was at the center of an incipient Black counterculture embodied by the younger Harlem Renaissance artists. Johnson played an integral role in inspiring Black Americans to envision their racial struggles as part of a global problem that could only be solved by working collectively. 

Joe Louis, heavyweight champion of the world, July 1945 (Credits by Underwood Archives – Getty Images)

Ironically, Louis became a focal point for pride in the 1930s United States while Schmeling represented Nazi terror against the Jewish community. African Americans saw Louis as a way to undermine white supremacy in their country. American Jews wanted Louis to strike a blow against Schmeling, against anti-Semitism. White Americans, many of whom never wanted Black people to be successful in anything, were suddenly determined to see Louis, their American pride, knock down the Nazi. But the irony in this came from the fact that Louis, a Black man whose people were being systematically denied their civil and human rights, had become the symbol for the American people as a whole.

Louis was more than just a boxer. He was a symbol of pride, strength, and dignity in a world that oppressed his people. He had the weight of America on his shoulders, and he delivered. It was Louis’ victory that convinced whites that it was okay to root for a black man. After the bell rang to signal his victory, Louis did not just become the Black champion, he became America’s champion. Someone who helped unify whites and Blacks during a time where segregation was prevalent. Louis’ victory was a vehicle for advancing the cause of African Americans everywhere and he is considered the first true Black national hero.

Joe Louis: When white America enthusiastically rooted for a Black man

“White Americans, even while some of them were lynching black people in the south, were depending on me to defeat the German. The whole damned country was depending on me. – Joe Louis

This is how Joe Louis remembered his fight against Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938, which also embodied the broader political and social conflicts of the time. Spectators in the United States placed great hope on Louis to defeat Schmeling, a poster-boy for Nazism. A meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt left Louis no room for doubt around the importance of the outcome of the fight. It was democracy versus Nazism and losing was not an option.  Just 90 seconds into the fight, before spectators could even take their seats, Louis knocked Schmeling to the ground. A couple minutes after, the fight had to be stopped. The crowd erupted in euphoria. White and Black people embraced one another.

The American Boxer Joe Louis Fighting The German Boxer Max Schmeling During The Heavyweight Championship In New York In June 1938. At The Close Of The Match, Joe Louis Preserved His Title Of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion By Beating Max Schmeling By K.O. In The 1St Round In New York. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Mestre Pastinha And Mestre Bimba:
capoeira is ancestral resistAnce

Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha are two of the best known capoeira masters. Main diffusers of the most important capoeira styles, respectively, Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola. Bimba and Pastinha are symbols of the ancestral Afro-Brazilian expression transformed into Capoeira understood as body culture, dance, fight, and music, often appropriated by various sports events.

Scene of the film “Pastinha! Uma vida pela capoeira” (Credits by Antonio Carlos Muricy, Director)
Mestre Bimba with a berimbau and ganzá, musical instrumencts of capoeira (Author unkwown)

Vicente Ferreira, better known as Mestre Pastinha, was born in 1889 in Salvador. He was the greatest propagator of the Capoeira Angola modality, a traditional form, different from what the name indicates this modality synthesises body movements from different African cultures, not only from what is today the country Angola. Capoeira Angola is the style closest to how the slaves fought capoeira. With stealthy movements executed close to the ground or standing up depending on the situation to be faced, it emphasises the traditions of malice, naughtiness and unpredictability of the original Capoeira. According to Pastinha himself, he learned capoeira from an old African and got tired of seeing him catching it at the fair and passed on to him the knowledge brought from Africa. For decades he dedicated himself to teaching Capoeira, and even when blind he did not stop accompanying his students. Vicente Ferreira Pastinha died in 1981, but he is still alive in the rodas, in the songs, in the game.

Manoel dos Reis Machado, also known as Mestre Bimba, was born in 1899, also in Salvador and from the 1920’s organized what became known as Capoeira Regional, seeking to value older elements of capoeira together with the batuque (Afro-Brazilian ancestral fight/dance) giving agility and practicality to the movements of capoeira. Bimba was first of all an educator and contributed directly to combat the criminalization and prohibition of the practice of capoeira in the first half of the 20th century. Bimba based his way of teaching capoeira on some rules of discipline, body orientation and sagacity that served for life. Bimba said that capoeira is a way of life.

Bimba and Pastinha came Capoeira to life as a survival tool not only for self-defense, but also to preserve Black cultural identity. Over the years, it has become a teaching tool and a way of connecting Black people of all ages and backgrounds. It is more than just a dance or art. Capoeira tells a story about the history of Black people who endured      the horrors of slavery. It also serves as a reminder of Brazil’s past, linking Black communities to      their African descent. Capoeira was created as a form of Black physical resistance and is perhaps the most prominent preservation of Afro-Brazilian culture seen today.

Jackie Robinson – A man who changed sports forever

Jackie Robinson was born on January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia to a family of impoverished sharecroppers. In 1920 Robinson’s mother and her children moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in Pasadena, California. Jackie and his brother Mack were both gifted athletes. In fact, Mack became a world class track star, finishing second in the 200-yard dash to Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. But coming back to the US, Mack was hit with the harsh reality that Jim Crow rules prevailed and was only able to find limited janitorial work. 

In 1944 Jackie Robinson was nearly
court-martialed after he refused to sit in the back of a boarded bus in Fort
Hood, Texas. Ironically, his difficulties with white authorities made him an ideal candidate for breaking baseball’s color barrier. It wasn’t going to be
easy, as baseball’s defense for keeping the game segregated centered appealed to the fear that white fans wouldn’t pay to watch
Negro players and didn’t want to sit in the stands beside Black fans.

Jackie Robinson Day 2018 (Credits by John Bazemore – Associated Press)

“I’m grateful for all the breaks and honors and opportunities I’ve had, but I always believe I won’t have it made until the humblest black kid in the most remote backwoods of America has it made.”

 “Negroes aren’t seeking anything which is not good for the nation as well as ourselves. In order for America to be 100 percent strong — economically, defensively and morally — we cannot afford the waste of having second- and third-class citizens.”

 “A life isn’t significant except for its impact on others’ lives”

In this April 15, 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers baseball players, from left, third baseman John Jorgensen, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, second baseman Ed Stanky, and first baseman Jackie Robinson pose before the opener at Ebbets Field in New York. Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947, for the Brooklyn Dodgers and his No. 42 was retired throughout the major leagues in 1997 by then-Commissioner Bud Selig. (Credits by Associated Press, Photo/Harry Harris, File)

Yet on April 15th, 1947 when Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the 60+ year history of racial segregation in major league baseball finally came to an end. Robinson was chosen by Rickey not just because of his requisite talent, but because he was educated, and accustomed to competing with and against white athletes and promised to turn the other cheek when faced with racial threats. Even though Robinson received hate mail and death threats, he still abided by his promise not to retaliate. Following Robinson’s lead, the integration of major league baseball proceeded without much incident. 

After his retirement on January 22, 1957 Robinson became a relentless crusader for civil rights. He joined the NAACP as chair of its million-dollar Freedom Fund Drive, founded to provide loans and banking services for minority members who were largely being ignored by establishment banks. He also helped fund the Black-owned Freedom National Bank which likewise served minoritiess. Robinson should be considered one of the major actors  in the struggle against Jim Crow segregation. By stepping on the field in 1947, he not only signaled a change in professional sports, but a broader segregationist society. Just a year later, President Truman desegregated the army. Robinson’s courage has allowed for the multitude of Black athletes, and Black people in general, to be given the opportunity to make their mark in a world still plagued by systemic racism. 

When Pelé arrived to play in New York Cosmos in 1975 (Credits by Mirmax – Photofest)

After underwhelming finishes in the next few World Cups even with mixed race teams, many still believed that Afro-Brazilians were holding back Brazilian football. The 1954 World Cup upset loss to a weak Uruguayan team led    
 to significant blame being placed on Black players Moacir Barbosa and João Ferreira. For those who questioned the need to include Afro-Brazilians into football culture in the first place, these defeats reinforced their belief that an all-white team was best.

The 1958 World Cup marked a widespread change in racial dynamics within football. Led by Pelé, Brazil won the cup.  While some Brazilians opposed Black athletes a they understood that these players were crucial to the team. As a result, Afro-Brazilian players were increasingly recognized as important contributors to Brazilian football culture. Attitudes were changing; Brazilians wanted the best players, not just the whitest. The next decade was a “golden age” of Brazilian soccer, all spearheaded by Pelé. From then on, discussions about an all-white team were few and
far between due in large part to the stellar play of Pelé, who was dubbed the Black Diamond.    

While Pelé was criticized for not taking a stand on racial and social issues, his excellence in soccer as a Black man opened an important space in the game.

PELÉ

Edson Arantes do Nascimento known as “Pele” was born on October 23, 1940 in Tres Coracoes, Brazil. Pele, like most Black Brazilians, grew up in poverty. He could not afford an actual soccer ball, so he usually played with a rolled-up sock stuffed with rags. He always had the talent to play, but at a young age he was not of the social status to play a sport that was meant for the affluent. 

Football was first brought to Brazil by the British in the 1890s. In its early years, the game was only played amongst white Brazilian elites. With slavery only recently being abolished (1888), Brazilian elites were uncomfortable with including Black people in football.  Black people were routinely denied their rightful place in the soccer world. The 1930s were the first time that Brazilian racial divisions began to meaningfully break down. Getúlio Vargas, the Brazilian leader at the time, was heavily interested in football. In 1933 he professionalized the sport, which allowed for a greater influx of Black athletes to play.

Playing at New York Cosmos saved Pelé from bankruptcy and revolutionized soccer players’ wages worldwide (Credits by Robert Riger)

IRENICE RODRIGUES

Irenice Rodrigue was a Brazilian athlete, Brazilian record holder in the 400 and 800-metre race in 1967, the same year she represented Brazil at the Pan American games in Winnipeg, Canada. One of the first Black women to become athletes in Brazil, Irenice was a woman ahead of her time, poor, black, woman and with strong personality, led the strike against the Brazilian Olympic Committee (BOC) in 1967, was a radical criticism of the Brazilian sports structure. Irenice had to fight against prejudice and authoritarianism in the 1960s. At that time Brazilian Olympic sport was controlled by the military dictatorship, which established a series of restrictions on women, especially black women. 

She joined the Brazilian delegation at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. But, accused of alleged indiscipline and aggression for fighting with her colleague Maria da Conceição Cipriano, she was disconnected and had to return to Brazil without realizing her dream of competing in an Olympic race. She died in 1981 from an alleged motorcycle accident in the city of Rio de Janeiro. 

Irenice Rodrigues running for Flamengo Club (credits by Memória Viva/ESPN)

Irenice Rodrigues still has her story little told, but she is an icon in the fight for the valorization of black athletes in Brazil and the world. His story was told in the movie “Procura-se Irenice (Wanted Irenice)”, produced by Memória Viva/ESPN Brazil. 

Embodied Expressions that Take Your Breath Away

Black Music and Dance as a Great River with Distant Roots and Many Tributaries

From enslavement to the mid-20th century, the peoples descended from enslaved Africans in the New World made a place for themselves through their music, dance, and culture.  Transforming the terms of their subjection, their many-sided creative contributions reshaped societies founded on racist contempt to occupy a proud place defining the very meaning of what it means to be a U.S. or Brazilian citizen.

The slave trade operated a cruel force that dispersed African peoples, cultures, and religions throughout the New World.  It was a “scattering of seeds,” as with Jews living dispersed among the Gentiles after the captivity, whose long-lasting impact was felt in the countries where they lay down roots as they fought for survival, then rights, and finally the full recognition of their economic, cultural, social, religious and political contributions towards creating a world of democracy with equal rights for all and privileges for none.  Few have captured this better than the US Singer, Actor, and Activist Paul Robeson (1808-1976):

“The Blacks of the Americas are the direct descendants of various African tribes which–from the beginning of the seventeenth century–[Portuguese], English, Dutch, Spanish, and French merchant-plunderers began transporting en masse for sale to America. Torn from their native land and national culture, thrust into the most difficult conditions of slave existence amidst an alien and hostile population, Blacks had to adapt themselves to an alien life, language, culture, and religion . . . [while] subjected to the most brutal treatment in their backbreaking labor for their masters.  And yet this enslaved people, oppressed by the double yoke of cruel exploitation and racial discrimination, gave birth to splendid, inspired, life-affirming songs.  These songs reflected a spiritual force, a people’s faith in itself and a faith in its great calling; they reflected the wrath and protest against the enslavers and the aspiration to freedom and happiness.” 

                                                                                        Paul Robeson, “Songs of My People,” 1949

“The roots of this great outpouring we are talking about today in the cultural expression of my people, is a great culture from a vast continent.  If these origins are somewhat blurred in this [North] America of ours, they are clear in Brazil where Villa-Lobos joins Bach with African rhythms and melodies; in Cuba and Haiti a whole culture, musical and poetic, is very deep in the Africa of its origins. . . [We are all] a proud people, rich in tradition, a people torn from its ancient homeland but who in 300 years have built anew, have enriched this new continent with its physical power, with its intellect, with its deep inexhaustible spirit and courage.”

                                                                                          Paul Robeson, 1952

Brazil

Paintings dating as far back as the 1630s reveal that music and dance were part of the lives of enslaved peoples in the New World as they were involved in many kinds of celebrations, from religious gatherings to public festivities to white men’s private parties.  Black Catholic brotherhoods carried out processions and masses that also included African dancing, drumming and singing. Though historians have identified batuque as a cultural manifestation that reproduced the experiences of the African homeland, documents usually hide more specific information about their origins and also who participated in their ongoing practice and shaping. Not a fixed or flattened expression of African identity, batuque, like all cultural manifestations, changed and incorporated the experiences of those that engaged it, serving as a basic reference of Black and slave identity through the nineteenth century.  Though taking on many forms and meanings, celebrations like batuque have often expressed freedom, self-determination, alterity and resistance and as such have been a source of concern for those seeking to maintain control over Black people.

A 17th century divination ceremony and dance among enslaved people on a plantation in Pernambuco / Zacharias Wagener “When the slaves have carried out their arduous duties for weeks on end, they are allowed to celebrate one Sunday as they please; in large numbers in certain places and with all manner of leaps, drums, and flutes, they dance from morning to night […]” wrote a German mercenary of this illustration

 A “divide and rule” logic was prevalent among elites in Brazil who sought to maintain power over enslaved people and power among the free population, arguing that African-descended peoples should be able to practice their dances and religions because that would maintain animosity and aversion between different groups. This is most clearly expressed in the words of the Governor Count of Arcos of the early 19th century plantation colony of Bahia who said:

“Seen through the government’s eyes, [the institution of negro dances known as batuques] is one thing; seen through the eyes of individuals, it is something quite different. The latter [masters] believe that the batuques infringe their dominical rights, either because they want to employ their slaves in useful work even on Sundays, or because they want to station them before their doors on these days of rest as a way of showing off their wealth. The government, however, sees the institution of the batuques as something that obliges the blacks unconsciously and automatically to revive every week the feelings of mutual aversion instinctive to them since birth, which are nevertheless gradually extinguished in their common suffering. These feelings may be regarded as the best guarantee of the security of the great cities of Brazil.”

A 19th century party and dance (fandango) in Rio de Janeiro / Augustus Earl

Like all Afro-Brazilian expressive cultures, music is the result of a complex process of forming new Black trajectories based on the experience of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora. Enslaved Africans and their descendents adapted their cultural legacies, translating their spiritual and corporeal traditions for the new environment and maintaining the centrality of percussion, which has left an enduring mark on all Brazilian music. 

Through the lens of the Portuguese colonizers, the vast and plural universe of rhythmic expressions synthesized in Brazil was given the single name of batuque due to the constant presence of percussion.  It is important to note, however, that the diverse musical expressions of Afro-Brazilian culture spring from multiple places of origin. According to scholar and musician Nei Lopes, while Yoruba culture (Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea) predominated in religion, Banto culture (Angola, Congo) predominated in music. It is important to note that Africa’s influences on Brazil also do not follow a linear progression. In diaspora, Black Brazilians invent new expressions of ancestral heritage in the form of sounds and movements, which were also molded by dialogue and the material conditions imposed by colonizers.

A 19th century rural batuque / Johann Moritz Rugendas

We can see in the batuque music and dance events, as well as the umbigada, a partner movement present in many Brazilian dances that trace origins to Africa, ancestral forms of Brazilian expressive cultures. There is no doubt that these are not the only expressions of African heritage in Brazil, a legacy that is present in dozens of music and dance traditions, from samba to maracatu, afoxé to coco, forró to pagode, tambor de crioula to carimbó, marabaixo to reisado, frevo to cavalo marinho, and Carioca funk to Bahian axé.

An African-derived Instrumental Music born in 1870s Rio: Choro/Chorinho (Cry/Little Cry) as 19th Brazilian Analogue to “Ragtime” Music in the USA / by Sérgio Vidal (1945) “Chorinho”
“Chorinho”: A 1942 Painting by Brazilian Modernist Candido Portinari

Dance and Music Know No Borders: the seductive 19th century maxixe, a Brazilian version of tango, will reach even the US by World War I. 

St. Louis journalist Marguerite Martyn sketched Irene and Vernon Castle dancing the maxixe in 1914.

The Giants of Early 20th Century Brazilian Music: The Composers and Performers Pixinguiha and Donga

Pixinguinha: The Composer and Multi-Instrumentalist Alfredo da Rocha Viana Filho (1887-1973)
The Composer and Guitarist Donga: Ernesto Joaquim Maria dos Santos (1884-1974) recorded the first samba “Pelo Telefone” in 1916.
Music travels the world: Donga and Pixinguinha’s Group “Oito Batutas” debuted in Rio de Janeiro in 1919 and received international acclaim on tours to Paris and Buenos Aires, where they recorded the following song in 1922

Samba is a musical genre often associated with Brazil, and in fact, it has played a prominent role in efforts to consolidate and form a national identity. It draws influence from dozens of styles, from samba de roda to coco and lundu, umbigada, batuque, and maxixe.  Beginning with the voices of Black artists like Pixinguinha, Donga and Sinhô, samba gained prominence in the 1930s as white artists incorporated samba lyrics and melodies into their repertories. Contemporary urban samba was consecrated in Rio de Janeiro and has reverberated in diverse styles, from stronger and more agitated expressions to others that are more cadenced and syncopated.  The use of percussion, especially the pandeiro (tambourine) is key.  Clubs and Samba Schools were created to diffuse the style and its variants. The Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro carnival put on one of the most famous shows in Brazilian popular culture.  From urban samba and its influences, new genres were formed in the 20th century, including the internationally famous Bossa Nova, pagode and its samba circles around a table, and the partido-alto samba sung as a challenge.

Sambistas Clementina de Jesus, Paulinho da Viola and Elton Medeira in the 1965 show “Rosa de Ouro,” which presented classic sambas songs to audiences in Rio de Janeiro. The show also introduced Clementina, one of the genre’s most iconic voices, to wider audiences. She began her music career in her 60s, after decades working as a domestic employee.

Social organizations devoted to practicing and exhibiting the Afro-Brazilian dancing and drumming style of samba, samba schools date back to the late 1920s when they were founded by poor Black people who insisted on parading down the Rio de Janeiro main avenue at carnaval time just as white elites did. This new era of samba coincided with a transition away from the intense repression of Afro-Brazilian cultural expression that elites had carried out since the end of enslavement toward its incorporation into narratives of national identity beginning in the 1930s. 

Samba school Grêmio Recreativo Escola de Samba Estação Primeira de Mangueira was founded on April 28, 1928, by Cartola and Carlos Cachaça among others. It has been the champion of Rio carnaval 20 times, winning most recently in 2019 with “Histórias para ninar gente grande,” which tells the history of Brazil from the perspective of its Black, indigienous and working-class people.  Citing important resistance figures, its chorus goes “Brazil it’s time to listen to the Marias, Mahins, Marielles, Malês.” In 1988, Mangueira marked 100 years since the abolition of slvaery and honored Zumbi dos Palmares with the parade “100 years of Freedom, Reality or Illusion.” The lyrics of the samba-ballad and accompanying floats and costumes challenged ideas that 1888 brought an effective end to slavery, asking where freedom is, calling on people to remember that Black people built the richness of Brazil and declaring that Black people are kings in Mangueira.

Founded March 23, 1947, Império Serrano is another of the many samba schools in Rio de Janeiro. These Black cultural and social organizations not only produce Rio carnaval, they strengthen community and identity.

Dona Ivone Lara performs at Império Serrano, the first samba school to accept a woman composer
Mano Elói (Elói Antero Dias, 1888-1971) was one of the founders of Império Serrano, and one of the main leaders of the Sindicato da Resistência, a majority-Black dockworkers union active in the early 20th century. He was also a pai de santo, a leader in the Afro-Brazilian religious tradition Candomblé, revealing deep connections between religion and samba.

São Paulo also has samba schools, the most popular being Vai-Vai, whose history starts in the 1930s in the Bixiga neighborhood.  It became an official samba school in 1972 and has since won the most carnaval championships in São Paulo, with 15 outright and 10 shared titles.

Maracatu is a ritual of celebration of African ancestry in the form of a party with dancing an music. Present for centuries in Northeastern states such as Pernambuco and Ceará, today maracatu has spread through Brazil and around the world.  The origins reference the reisados do Congo from the Rosário churches, which Black brotherhoods organized to honor their African ancestors. In Pernambuco, Maracatu is divided between the Maracatu Nação (or Baque Virado) and the Maracatu Rural (or Baque Solto) with evidence dating from the end of the 17th century depicting the figures of the kings, queens, calungas, flag bearers and caboclos, among others. In Ceará, a defining element is the painting of faces with a black paste made of soot, oil, and talc. Maracatu is played with instruments including alfaias, abês, ganzás and agogôs which form an orchestra that can vary from slow and cadenced (predominant in Fortaleza) to stronger and more agitated (predominant in Recife and Olinda).

United States

 “…one can not fully understand the societies of the African diaspora in isolation, but only comparatively with respect to both their historical evolution and their contemporary dynamics. Learning more about the unmistakably African elements of other societies of the Americas throws light on certain, less immediately obvious elements of their presence in the United States. – Sheilah S. Walker in “The All-Americas/All-American African Diaspora,” 2001

Watercolor of a “Negro Dance” in Lynchburg, Virgina on 18 August 1853 with fiddle, banjo, and bones / Lewis Miller

Enslaved Africans brought a rich culture of music and dance to North America as well, where a parallel but process of modification and reconfiguration occurred in a distinct physical and social environment. Records from voyages across the Atlantic suggest that enslaved people sang on the ships in a call and response fashion as well as during work and Sunday worship.  These are the foundations of early slave songs known as spirituals, adaptations of hymns and later new spiritual songs with messages of freedom and salvation. Some songs are even thought to have included instructions for how to escape enslavement.

Cotton plantation laborers singing at the end of a days work in Virginia in 1840s / Mary Ashton Rice Livermore

Scholars identify the ring shout as the first African American dance, a counter-clockwise, sacred circle dance practiced widely among enslaved and free Black people in North America.

In “Hodoo Religion and American Dance Traditions; Rethinking the Ring Shout,” Katrina Hazzard-Donald describes that “‘the Shout,” as it was known, used subdued stepping and hopping footwork performed with a system of gesture, spirit possession, individualized sacred dancing and specific music, particularly vocal shouting. The music accompanying the Ring Shout was performed by the Shouters themselves. Singing, tapping sticks, hand claps and foot stomps provided the musical backdrop, while subtle jerking motions in the dancers’ bodies provided an additional rhythmic anchor to the Shout. Shouters would later add other instruments as the worship became modernized and adapted to demographic changes in the African American population.” 

‘Shouting’ at a prayer meeting in Georgia in 1872 / Charles Stearns “A ring of singers is formed in an open space in the room, and they, without holding on to each other’s hands, walk slowly around and around in a circle . . . . They then utter a kind of melodious chant, which gradually increases in strength, and in noise, until it fairly shakes the house, and it can be heard for a long distance […]”

A ban on drumming issued in response to the Stono rebellion in South Carolina in 1739 and lasting until 1866, along with the widespread practice of Protestantism among native-born African Americans, meant that Black music in the United States relied more on percussive elements played expressed on and through the body than on percussion instruments. This led to the development of the dance and music forms pattin’ juba, hambone, and tap. The Catholic state of Louisiana did not ban drums, however, and they were used in voodoo ceremonies and openly in Congo Square, a plaza where Afro-descended people gathered to play music and dance.

The Ragtime of Scott Joplin: Musical Genius Slowly Finds a Way even in a Racist Culture Hostile to Blacks

New Orleans is the Rio of the US: The Birth of Dixieland, Jazz, and composer, singer, and trumpeter Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971

“What We Play is Life”: Louis Armstrong
Bringing “Scat Singing” to the World in his 1926 Recording “Heebie-Jeebies”
The Age of Jazz as America’s Dance Music: Duke Ellington and his Band in 1919
“Dixieland” and the Birth of Jazz, Both America’s Dance and its Classical Music // Bennie Moten’s Radio Orchestra, 1922
Music Travels the World: Louis Armstrong in Brazil (1957)

The Blues Come “from the man farthest down,. From nothingness, from want, from desire” in the words of bluesman W.C. Handy.

Blues Singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937): “There was a misery in what she did. It was as though there was something she had to get out, something she just had to bring to the fore.”
The Lady Sings the Blues: Billie Holiday (Eleanora Fagan, 1915-2959)

“Strange Fruit” (1939)

by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Mahalia Jackson: The Queen of Gospel Music Inspires M.L.K Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington

The Power of Music

Music allows individuals to articulate a  politics of life – a political mindset that considers the ways an individual uses culture, music, dance and a positive outlook to subvert the dominant, white supremacist structures that oppress them. 

Black spiritual identity in both Brazil and the United States is integral to forms of resistance, and music an essential medium of expression. It creates an avenue to channel one’s creative talents and allows for an uncensored identity to reign supreme through free expressions of movement, rhythms, and words. 

Globally, cultures of resistance have informed Black identities.  Music  opens space for oppressed bodies across culture and time. This poster focuses on the ways in which African-descended peoples of Brazil and the United States have used music to strengthen identities in the face of oppression.

Performative and lyrical aspects of spiritual music represent the psychological damages of servitude. “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” (AGCGW) is one of many spirituals whose slow tempo communicates an  emotional yearning for freedom through pauses between the verses. The “eloquent omissions and silence”  represented the tensions and fears under slavery. AGCGW evokes enslaved peoples’ desire to discover freedom in places outside the United States, including in heaven. 

Similar pauses and  omissions can be heard in Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA,” suggesting an important overlap between rap and spirituals. The Black church is by its very nature a product of political oppression, and thus the music that has developed from it and that which exists within it, are inherently political in nature. 

Lyric Comparison

AGCGW:

I got a robe, you got a robe

All o’ God’s chillun got a robe When I get
to heab’n I’m goin’ to put on my robe

I’m goin’ to shout all ovah God’s Heab’n

DNA:

I got, I got, I got, I got

Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA

I was born like this, since one like this Immaculate conception

Though they have the same name and some shared influences, funk in Brazil does not refer to the same musical genre as in the United States. Developed out of soul and black music parties in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s and influenced by Miami bass, the rhythm spread and developed in Carioca favelas, receiving new interpretations and exploring themes and sounds emerging out of the dynamic of poor communities, ranging from police violence to love and sex, to politics and drug consumption and arms use. Funk parties (bailes funk) became a phenomenon in the city and were criminalized by the state for connections with violent drug trafficking factions. Funk carioca became a resistance movement of Black culture as well as penetrating the music industry and bringing financial success to some groups and expanding internationally.

No One is Free if Black Americans are Unfree

 

Donald Trump and his supporters are defending an un-American project of exclusion and hate based on the falsehood that the USA ever was, is, and should be thought of as a “white country.” Hence, the backward-looking slogan “Making American Great—that is ‘White’ Again”: a country where blacks and other non-whites including Latinos are asked to accept their place as “second class” and “unequal” citizens judged unworthy of respect and dignity from their President and their fellow countrymen. 

Like his idol Trump, the white Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro believes people of color—especially indigenous and Black Brazilians along with women, gays, the poor he disdains, and the country’s ‘communists’ and ‘anarchists’—should return to the back seat and defer to their social and racial superiors. It’s just not going to happen.

In a New World Where We Are All Guests in an Invaded Land… a final word from rhythm and blues singer Curtis Mayfield and sambista Paulinho da Viola.

The overwhelming majority of Black people in Brazil and the US are descended from Africans who arrived between 200 and 400 years ago and their uncompensated labor helped build their country. In the face of a violent denial of their equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” African-descended Americans have fought unceasingly to force the countries in which they are citizens to live up to their declared principles and ideals.

In 1968, the soul singer Curtis Mayfield wrote an eloquent song in which he defiantly declared “This is My Country”:

Some people think we don’t have the right

To say it’s my country

Before they give in, they’d rather fuss and fight

Than say it’s my country

I’ve paid three hundred years or more

Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back

This is my country

Too many have died in protecting my pride

For me to go second class

We’ve survived a hard blow and I want you to know

That you’ll face us at last

And I know you will give consideration


Around the same time, the young Brazilian sambista Paulinho da Viola wrote a song about the unknown history of Blacks in Brazil:

“I don’t have the words to say what he feels.

Everything that you have heard about what he did serves to hide the truth.

It is better to listen to his voice. . .

He was a courageous one in the past when he resisted slavery with bravery

in order to free himself from the suffering that captivity inflicted on him.

Yet despite all the oppression, he knew how to conserve his [African] values

giving his contribution to all sectors of our culture.”

Although they never met, these two inspiring artists composing, playing, and singing were well aware that the struggles of their Black people pointed a path to a better future for all their fellow citizens. In Mayfield’s words, what was needed was a new plot in which we all asked: “Shall we perish unjust or live equal as a nation.”

To Make a Better World: Fight Racism. It’s a Simple Matter of Justice.

The 20th Century Politics of Black Resistance in Brazil

Não sou eu que vivo no passado/

é o passado que vive em mim.

I am not living in the past /

the past is living in me.

— Paulinho da Viola

Revolta da Chibata / Revolt of the Whip (1910)

An uprising of Black sailors against the violent treatment they experienced in the Navy since the time of slavery. 

João Cândido (the man with paper), the most important leader of the revolt, reads a letter beside an unnamed sailor, 1910. (Credits by Augusto Malta, Rio de Janeiro, 1910, Acervo Fundação Biblioteca Nacional)
João Cândido and the Revolt of the Whip have great symbolic significance and have provided inspiration for Black people resisting oppression in Brazil. Cândido was granted posthumous amnesty along with the other sailors involved in the Revolt in 2008, and a monument was erected in his honor in Rio de Janeiro. (Credits by Rafael Andrade/Folha Imagem)
We don’t want the whip to return. We ask the President of the Republic and the Minister of the Navy. We want the answer right now. If we don’t have it, we will bomb the cities and the ships that don’t revolt.” – Letter from João Cândido, written by another sailor.- Letter from João Cândido, written by another sailor. (Credits by Augusto Malta / G. Ermakoff Casa Editorial, 2003)
Sailors also fought for better working conditions and salary increases. Image from the cover of the book “Revolta da Chibata” by Edmar Morel, Augusto Malta

“Salve o Almirante Negro

Que tem por monumento

As pedras pintadas do cais” – Aldir Blanc

Antônio Evaristo de Moraes (1871 – 1939)

People’s lawyer who defended Antônio Cândido, founder of Brazilian Socialist Party, and activist of the First Republic.

Caldeirão da Santa Cruz do Deserto (1926-1937)

Caldeirão was a messianic movement of poor farmers that organized and fought for access to land. Accused of being communists, the movement was massacred by the Getúlio Vargas government.

Beato José Lourenço between his secretary Isaías (left) and the reporter Luiz Maia.
Pictures of survivors in the book by Regis Lopes.

Abdias do Nascimento (1914 – 2011)

One of the greatest intellectuals of Brazilian Black culture, visual artist, legislator, author, creator of the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater), founder of the Instituto de Pesquisas e Estudos Afro-Brasileiros (Afro-Brazilian Research and Study Institute). Nascimento was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Speech in the Serra da Barriga, Alagoas on the anniversary of the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, Nov. 20, 1983.
Founded in 1931 as a Black organization, the Frente Negra Brasileira became the first Black political party in 1936. It is a symbol of the first phase of Brazil’s contemporary Black movement.
One of the founders of the FNB, Arlindo dos Santos (1902-1978) was an intellectual, politician, and poet.
Antoineta De Barros (1901 – 1952) was the first Black woman elected to a state legislature in Brazil. Santa Catarina, 1935.
Carlos Marighella (1911 – 1969) was a writer, legislator, and one of the leaders of armed resistance to the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985 in Brazil.
The Movimento Negro Unificado (1978) was created in 1978 that reignited the Black activism that had been repressed under the dictatorship. Today it is one of the most important references for Brazilian Black movements.

Marcha Zumbi dos Palmares (1995)

 

30,000 people marched in Brasilia on the 300 year anniversary of the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, calling for the legal recognition of quilombo lands and the implementation of racial quotas nationwide.

The Marcha das Mulheres Negras is a yearly protest that occurs in many Brazilian cities on the 25th of July, the International Day of the Black Latin American and Caribbean Woman.
Beatriz Nascimento (1942-1995) Historian, professor, and screenwriter. She was one of the most influential thinkers of the Brazilian Black movement, articulating Quilombo as a fundamental concept for the organization and identity of Brazilian Black people.
Leila Gonzalez (1935-1994) was a historian and anthropologist, founder of the Movimento Negro Unificado, and author of some of the most important texts of the Brazilian and Latin American feminist movements. She coined the term Amefricanidade, or “Amefricanity,” to explain how Blackness is forged in the relationships among peoples of the transatlantic Black diaspora and colonized indigenous peoples in Latin America.
Sueli Carneiro (1950- ) is a philosopher, founder of Geledés – The Black Women’s Institute, one of the most important organizations for Black Brazilian feminism. Carneiro has written hundreds of articles about the condition of Black women and fought for the creation of public policies for women’s health and to combat racism.

This website is an ongoing, student-led construction, and we are constantly adding content and references. 

Please stay tuned for updates to this and other sections!


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