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.

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.

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

Brazilians hardly agree on how and to what degree racism plays out in their country, home to the largest black population outside Nigeria. But they’re nearly unanimous on one point – that race relations can’t be read through the same lens as the US.

Brazil and the US often compare their populations, as both were formed by indigenous peoples that mixed with European colonizers and imported African slaves. But a key difference is that Brazil exploited far more slaves than even the US, accounting for more than 40 percent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade during the 17th century. While Brazil is famous for its apparent comfort with interracial couples and esteem for a “moreninho” beach tan, skeptical historians theorize that Brazil encouraged intermarriage in the colonial era to “whiten” a largely black population.

Gates claims in “Black in Latin America” that Brazil never saw a large-scale civil rights movement like the US, which he says could be a result of the “racial democracy” ideology, even if that ideology doesn't square with the facts on the ground.

Whites now a minority in Brazil

But Brazil is changing. A famous recent survey by Brazil’s Fundação Getúlio Vargas reported that about half of blacks and mestiços ("mixed" in Portuguese) now belong to the middle class. Brazil’s 2010 census showed that for the first time those identifying themselves as black or mixed-race outnumbered whites. Activists and analysts attributed the change to a growing comfort in not calling oneself white.

I agree with Gates that the idea of a Brazilian “racial democracy” is willfully blind. But I was encouraged by something similar yet more subtle seen at the Thursday’s wake: that is, the diversity of sectors of Brazilian society that come together to take hold of its rich and uniquely deep African heritage.

It reminded me of an interview months back with a musician from one of Rio’s famous samba schools (which produce Carnaval’s thousands-strong elaborate dance shows and are usually affiliated with a favela) about his school's selection to travel to Senegal to represent Brazil in the World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures. The largest gathering of its kind, the festival had selected Brazil as the country of focus last year.

“For us sambistas, it's very much, deeply, a return,'' Ricardo Duraes told me glowingly on the eve of his first trip to Africa. It made me smile, since he was as fair-skinned as any Brazilian I’ve seen.

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