Culture, Land and Resistance: Brazilians Celebrate Black Consciousness Day

Over this past weekend Brazilians celebrated the annual Black Consciousness day, commemorating the anniversary of the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, Brazil’s most important black hero. Brazil is South America’s largest country and home to the largest black population outside of Africa.

Commemorations began early, just after dawn.  Afro-Brazilian community and religious leaders climbed up the pyramid at the base of the statue and ceremoniously washed the bust of Zumbi dos Palmares.

“It’s really important for us to receive this strength from our eternal fighter, Zumbi, and you can feel his presence in the moment,” said Mestre Kotoquinho, who helped to lead a group of Afro-Brazilian Afoxe musicians and performers.

“Today, Zumbi dos Palmares is a national hero. He is in the national heroes pantheon.  This was an accomplishment of the Black Movement, and it makes us very proud,” said Nayt Junior, a member of the black movement and Brazil’s National Program on Africa.  “So today, the day of black consciousness, is a day for reflection about inequality and our fight for social equality.”

Zumbi was the leader of the historic Palmares Quilombo, the largest and most famous of the autonomous villages formed by runaway slaves throughout Brazil.  At its height as many as 20,000 people may have lived in the Palmares Quilombo before it was destroyed in 1695 by the military.

According to Junior, there are still 2400 identified quilombos across Brazil.  But only a couple hundred have been officially recognized by the Brazilian government.  The rest are still fighting for their land titles.

“The process of granting land titles is very slow.  We even think that there isn’t that much of an interest on the part of the government to hand over these land titles,” said Yvone de Mattos Bernardo, a resident of the Maria Conga de Mage Quilombo in Rio de Janeiro, which is among those yet to be recognized.

The Zumbi statue
The Zumbi statue
Mattos Bernardo points some of the blame on the powerful lobby of large landowners in the Brazilian Congress, which she says “are doing everything they can to turn over decree 4887 which President Lula made in 2003, which created the process which gives the right to quilombos to receive the legal titles to their land.”

Outgoing Brazilian President Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva paid more attention to racial equality than his predecessors.  Less than two weeks after taking office, he signed law 10.639, mandated the teaching of Afro-Brazilian history in schools and established November 20th as Black Consciousness Day in the school calendar.  While Black Consciousness Day is not yet officially a national holiday, it is celebrated across the nation and recognized as a holiday in several states, including Rio de Janeiro.

“I think very significant progress has been made, with the signing of this law and the creation of the SEPPIR, the Secretary for the Promotion of Racial Equality.  It’s a secretary with the status of ministry, and this is the first time a secretary was created to specifically think about these issues,” said Fernanda Felisberto the co-owner of Kitabu, one of what she says is only four bookstores in Brazil focusing exclusively on black issues, and the only one in Rio de Janeiro.

In Rio, celebrations continued throughout the day.  A seemingly endless line of Samba groups performed on the main stage while members of Afro-Brazilian Umbanda and Candoble religions danced nearby, their long white dresses billowing to the ground.  In a nearby circle, jogadores (players) practiced the Afro-Brazilian martial art, Capoeira, to the rhythm of the berimbau, pandeiro, and singing.

“Capoeira is a martial art, disguised as a dance, which the slaves did to confuse their owners.  It was a dance, but they were actually practicing their martial art.  That’s really important,” said Joåo Enrique Junior, of the Ouro Preto Capoeira group, and one of those in the circle. “It’s not just an art, it’s a way of expressing your feelings.  It’s not just a fight, it’s everything.”

The festivities were held at the foot of the Zumbi statue in Praça Onze, at the heart of what was once one of Rio de Janeiro’s most emblematic Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods, the region that coined the name “favela” and the birthplace of the first samba groups.  Ironically, the community was bulldozed in 1941 to make way for the massive fourteen-lane President Vargas Avenue.  Rio’s samba stadium a few blocks away, and the bust of Zumbi are a few remaining links to the past.  As is another statue, this in Praça Quinze de Novembro, Rio’s historic center, where the figure of João Candido Felisberto stands watch over Rio’s Guanabara Bay.

It was here that the black leader led the Chibata Revolt exactly one hundred years ago.  On November 22nd, 1910, after a fellow sailor was whipped 250 times, João Candido and hundreds of black sailors took control of their ship.  Sailors on three other vessels followed the lead, directing their canons towards the city of Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil’s capital. They demanded an end to the practice of whipping in the Brazilian navy, and within five days the President Hermes da Fonseca succumbed. But the Brazilian government quickly rescinded on their promise to grant amnesty to the rebelling soldiers.  Hundreds were discharged from the navy, rounded up, imprisoned, and killed.  João Candido was only released two years later.

This year’s festivities in Rio paid special homage to João Candido.  Across town, the grassroots group, Union and Eyes Alive Popular Theater performed their play on the Chibata Revolt.

“This is so important because João Candido along with Zumbi dos Palmares, as well as many other great leaders, is unfortunately not recognized by the official history and literature,” said Oswaldo Ribeiro, who acted the part of João Candido in the performance. “So presenting this play, João Candido of Brazil: The Chibata Revolt, is bringing to society the recognition and value of blacks, and the historic and social participation of blacks in this country.”

Brazil is the country with the largest black population outside of Africa.  According to the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute (IBGE), in 2008, people who self-identify as brown or black made up over half the Brazilian population of 183 million people.  Throughout the country, however, racism and discrimination is still widespread and institutional.

According to a 2009 IBGE study, over the last decade racial equality has improved slightly, but it is still drastically skewed.  Whites in Brazil have on average nearly two years more education than blacks.  Nearly 15% of whites in Brazil have a college education, compared with only 5% of blacks. Over 70% of the poorest sector of society are black and brown, while 80% of the richest one percent is white.  The same study in 2007 stated that more than two-thirds of the illiterate population in Brazil are black and brown. Whites make roughly 40% more than blacks with the same education.

“They say this country was founded on racial democracy,” says bookstore owner, Felisberto. “That’s the biggest lie here. It was through Black Movement struggle that we even achieved a date that had to do with our identity.”

Samba group at celebrations
Samba group at celebrations
In 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to officially abolish slavery.  For many years, blacks celebrated May 13th, the day of abolition.

“But it was absolutely cruel for us to commemorate that date, because we know the state of the black population in this country.  For us it is fundamental for this day to reference a national black hero like Zumbi instead of May 13 – that was the date that Princess Isabel, the white Portuguese Princess, signed the law to free the slaves.

Members of the Black Movement in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul first began to celebrate November 20th as Black Consciousness in the early 1970s.

“Today is a day to celebrate, it is a day for play, but tomorrow reality comes once again.  We are going to find blacks in line for the bus, in line for the hospital, being assassinated by the authorities, often without even being asked who they are,” says Baptist Preacher João Carlos Araujo, a member of the Black Movement and Vice President of the Brazilian Ecumenical Commission Against Racism, who attended the Black Consciousness Day festivities.

Araujo says reparations are needed, as is more profound affirmative action.  He, like many at the celebration are optimistic that President-elect, Dilma Rousseff, will continue Lula’s policies, and further confront the disparate inequalities in Brazilian society.  But they are quick to affirm that there is a long way to go for true equality.

Michael Fox is a freelance journalist, reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Brazil. He is co-author of Venezuela Speaks: Voices from the Grassroots, and co-director of Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas. His work can be found at