Wake for Brazil's 'greatest black activist' do Nascimento highlights racial progress
A diversity of Brazilians who turned out for the public wake of Abdias do Nascimento, who fought for black rights in a country that imported far more African slaves than America.
Rio de Janeiro
As scores gathered in downtown Rio for the public wake for Abdias do Nascimento, Brazil’s “greatest black activist," the crowd was a reminder that alongside Brazil’s stubborn legacy of racial inequality, there’s a diversity of actors fighting for change.Skip to next paragraph
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Among those gathered to pay their respects to Mr. do Nascimento, I spotted Brazilian families of all shades – a monk, men in prayer caps, representatives from quilomobos (historic runaway slave colonies), and women dressed in the breezy white dresses and turbans characteristic of afro-Brazilians in the country’s arid northeast. The crowd pressed in most excitedly for the two political guests, Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sérgio Cabral and iconic ex-President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, neither of whom are black. Do Nascimento’s widow, who led the procession and shouted “Axé!” – an exclamation in the afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé – is a white American.
The artist, professor, and former senator do Nascimento passed away Tuesday after leading black rights movements for three-quarters of a century. He was “Brazil’s greatest black activist and intellectual,” in the words of the recent PBS production “Black in Latin America” by Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates. (Watch the interview of do Nascimento here, beginning at 44 minutes.)
When Mr. Gates asked during the interview about the popular idea that Brazil is a “racial democracy” that does not experience discrimination based on color lines, do Nascimento dismissed the concept. “This is a joke that has been built up since Brazil was discovered. And Brazil likes to spread this around the world,” the activist said. “You just have to look at a black family. Where do they live? The black children, where are they educated?” do Nascimento added.
There are many reasons to agree with him. Look at Brazil’s day-to-day realities, at the gradual change in skin color when walking from posh Ipanema up to its hillside favela (shantytown) Cantagalo; at the near-homogeneity in the picture of current President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet during her January inauguration; at the absence of dark skinned actors in popular Brazilian novelas (evening soap operas). One study estimated that no novela in the half century of the genre had more than 10 percent of its cast black.
Far more slaves went to Brazil than US