Afro-Brazilians - Sociopolitical Organization

Afro-Brazilian forms of religion, music, and dance have all been summoned in the service of resisting the hegemonic tentacles of the Brazilian state and society, both in the past and in the present. If in the period before abolition (both colonial and postcolonial), Afro-Brazilian religious brotherhoods ( cofradĂ­as ) affiliated with the Catholic church and religio-civic organizations devoted themselves to helping manumit slaves, providing a form of social-welfare service to widows and dependents, and organizing religious and cultural celebrations showing elements of both Brazil and Africa, in the postabolition period they organized civic groupings and even a political party.

Yet there has not been and there does not now exist an autonomous Afro-Brazilian universe within which Afro-Brazilians have the luxury of conducting their affairs. In fact, it is clear that, since the early 1900s, whatever sociocultural and political movements have been organized and patronized by Afro-Brazilians have been reflections of the general socioeconomic and political developments within Brazil at large. Syndicalists and frustrated young army officers were among those who engaged in intense political activity in the first half of the 1910s and the second half of the 1920s. The Frente Negra Brasileira, which some saw as having fascist tendencies, registered as a political party on 16 September 1931. The immediate inference to be drawn is that to the extent that the national political climate is relatively open and that a politically and culturally entitled citizenry is able to participate in issues affecting state and society, there is greater likelihood that Afro-Brazilians can act visibly than in periods when the political system becomes closed to such participation, as was most recently demonstrated by the period of authoritarian governance of a civilian-military nature between 1964 and 1985. What is illustrative about such exclusionary periods is the breaches that develop, providing examples of the contradictions in Brazilian political life. An earlier version of such exclusion from participation was the period between 1937 and 1945 under GetĂşlio Vargas. The "new state" (i.e., the authoritarian-corporativist regime) prohibited all political activity it did not sponsor.

In 1944 Abdias do Nascimento founded the Black Experimental Theatre in Rio de Janeiro, which was then Brazil's capital. It was an effort to bring those who attended to political consciousness and show the importance of Afro-Brazilian life. (For the theater's first production, do Nascimento sought a potent Afro-Brazilian playwright; failing in his search, he instead staged Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones. By 1968 the theater was more or less defunct, although friends of do Nascimento went through the motions of keeping it going. Do Nascimento, after teaching for eleven years at the State University of New York at Buffalo, became a congressman in Rio and, subsequently, Secretary of State in charge of Black issues.

By the mid-1970s it was obvious that the regime could not continue as it had been. In 1974 President Ernesto Geisel introduced the concept of political decompression, whereby tentative attempts were made to create avenues for political expression, and the climate began to shift. In 1978, during the period of military governance with civilian collaboration, the Movimento Negro Unificado contra Discriminacao Racial (MNU; Unified Movement against Racial Discrimination) was launched in Sao Paulo at the same time other groups, such as automobile-factory workers, were forming community-based units within the Catholic church.

Afro-Brazilian women sociocultural and political activists have argued in no uncertain terms that, just because Afro-Brazilians as a group have been and continue to be victims of racial discrimination does not necessarily mean that Afro-Brazilian men are any less predisposed to discriminate against Afro-Brazilian women. The latter are thus doubly disadvantaged in a society that has historically given precedence to males and continues to do so.

By the same token, Afro-Brazilians are not impressed by any discourse that argues that the realities of a machista society and the commonality of accumulated disadvantages visited on all women because of their gender automatically occasions a sisterly solidarity. The women's movement in Brazil, on account of its origins, membership, and the fact that it does not exist in a universe separate from Brazilian society, has reproduced some of the same racially discriminatory practices against Afro-Brazilian women. Following this line of discussion, it has also been argued that to assume that the labor movement or progressive movements per se have resolved basic contradictions and confusions about race and the position of Afro-Brazilians within Brazilian society is at best naive.

Beginning in the 1980s, Afro-Brazilians made certain symbolic gains on the national political scene. In the state government of Rio de Janeiro there were, between 1982 and 1986, three Afro-Brazilian secretaries of state, including the first Afro-Brazilian woman to hold such a position. The head of the military police and his deputy are also Afro-Brazilians. In 1991 three state governors, two of whom readily identified themselves as Afro-Brazilian and a third who could be characterized as having reached self-definition as Afro-Brazilian reluctantly or by default, were elected. Another noteworthy political event was Benedita ("Bené") da Silva's 1992 electoral campaign for the mayoralty of Rio, which failed by a narrow margin. She combines the activism born of living in a favela (slum) and being a member of the Pentecostal church with membership in the Workers party, under the banner of which she serves as a deputy in the Federal Chamber of Deputies. It bears emphasizing that some of these political gains have been made in places with minuscule Afro-Brazilian populations, as in the election of Governor Alceu Collares in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul.

The contrast with Salvador, Bahia, could not be more dramatic. The one Afro-Brazilian mayor of the city,' Edivaldo Brito, was appointed to the post in 1980, during the period of authoritarian rule. The fact that Afro-Brazilians are the majority in Bahia has not resulted in the election of Afro-Brazilian mayors or representatives to the Federal Chamber of Deputies. The salient point is that impressive institutions derived from Africa and developed by Afro-Brazilians in areas where Afro-Brazilians are the majority have not automatically produced Afro-Brazilian elected officials or access to political power in a clientelistic polity that has not veered from traditional patronage distribution. Until the mid-1970s Salvador could not be ranked with Sao Paulo or Rio, where Afro-Brazilian political activities have been more prominent.

To the extent that it has become more legitimate (which is not to be confused with fully legitimate) to discuss Brazilian race relations as part of global race relations—and that inserting Brazil into this framework provides no guarantee of a privileged position for Brazil as the one place in the world where racial discrimination and racism have not been state policy, coded in the law, rendering inappropriate the contemplation of concrete measures to ameliorate or abolish its consequences—there is some hope for a greater appreciation of the Afro-Brazilian predicament. Racial discrimination and racism do not have to be legally codified or systematic, formal, and frequent to be effective or to prevent those who see themselves as its intermittent or perennial victims from articulating the need for redress. Despite this, Afro-Brazilians have resisted customary and conventionalized forms of individual and institutional racism through straightforward political, as well as more subtle cultural and religious, activities. The state of race relations within Brazil is the real test of idealized notions of nationality; daily realities subvert such notions.

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