Posted on December 21, 2020

How Black Brazilians Are Looking to a Slavery-Era Form of Resistance to Fight Racial Injustice Today

Ciara Nugent, Time, December 16, 2020

A dozen people are dancing around a bonfire in a yard between two large warehouses in São Paulo. It’s early November and members of Quilombaque—a Black community hub in Perus, a poor neighborhood on the city’s northern fringes—are celebrating. They’ve raised 50% of the funds they need to buy the space they’ve occupied for the past decade and avoid eviction by the owner, who is selling up. As the fire spits embers up to a dark sky, and a steady drum beat marks out a rhythm, the group sings: “I will build my refuge, I will build my place, I will build my quilombo.”

The word quilombo–derived from languages brought to Brazil by enslaved Africans–was the name given to rural communities established by those who escaped slavery in the centuries before Brazil abolished it in 1888—the last country in the Americas to do so. At least 3,500 of those rural quilombos still exist. But today, quilombo is taking on a wider meaning. Young Black Brazilians say they need to form new communities of Black resistance to deal with a society still shaped at every level by the legacy of slavery.

Racial tensions in Brazil were inflamed by the 2018 election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who on the campaign trail compared Black quilombo members to cattle and said “they don’t even serve to procreate.” But the president is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Brazil’s systemic racism. Around 56% of Brazilians identify as Black—the largest population of African descent outside of Africa—yet Black people make up just 18% of congress, 4.7% of executives in Brazil’s 500 largest companies, 75% of murder victims and 75% of those killed by police. Things are getting worse. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Brazilians, who already earn just 57% of what white Brazilians do on average, have died and lost their jobs at a higher rate. Police killings rose to 5,804 in 2019—almost six times more than comparative figures for the U.S. Bolsonaro pushed forward an anti-crime bill last year that included a blanket “self-defense” justification for the use of force by police; the congress passed it with some limitations in December 2019, though critics still say it grants officers significant impunity. Activists and academics have accused the Brazilian state of employing a “death policy” against the Black population.

But on Nov. 20, Vice President Hamilton Mourão claimed that “racism doesn’t exist in Brazil.” He was responding to protests over the brutal beating and killing of João Freitas, an unarmed Black man, by security guards at a grocery store in the city of Porto Alegre, which was captured on security cameras. For his part, President Bolsonaro said social justice groups protesting over racism were “attempting to bring tensions into our country that are foreign to our history.”

In an era of overt racial injustice ignored by those in power, Black Brazilians are creating spaces that explicitly celebrate Black identity and power their resistance to racism. Black people in cities are forming urban quilombos, while others are pushing to aquilombar—the word’s verb form – on social media and in art and literature. Black political activists have discussed forming a quilombo in congress. “Our main goal is to fight the genocide of the Black population,” says Clébio Ferreira, 36, who founded Quilombaque with his brother in 2005 in response to poverty and violence faced by Black youth in Perus, where he has lived most of his life. “When we build a quilombo, we are coming together to build a new world.”

The Bolsonaro Administration’s denial of racism in Brazil has historical roots. As Brazil emerged from the slavery era in the 1900s, elites in the country promoted an idea of the country as a “racial democracy”—a supposedly harmonious mixing of Indigenous, white European, and Black African cultures. But at the same time, politicians, the media and academics also encouraged the descendants of enslaved Africans and indigenous communities to marry and have children with the descendants of white colonizers, as well as an influx of European immigrants, in order to produce increasingly lighter-skinned generations and “whiten” the country. Some conservative Brazilians still idealize their country as a racial democracy, where racial discrimination or conflict cannot exist.

Now, Black Brazilians are increasingly looking to another aspect of history for lessons on how to deal with a racist country. Of the 5 million enslaved Africans brought to Brazil, tens of thousands managed to flee plantations. They settled in rural areas, forming communities outside of white society. To describe these new settlements, they borrowed the word “quilombo” (often loosely translated as “war camp”) from Bantu languages spoken by some communities in sub-Saharan africa, says Stéfane Souto, a cultural researcher in Salvador, northern Brazil. “The word has many meanings, but basically it’s a social practice carried out by nomadic warriors; it can refer to both the warriors themselves and the territories where they meet.”

The largest quilombo in Brazil was Palmares, which existed for much of the 1600s. At its largest Palmares covered 10,000 square miles on Brazil’s northeastern coast and counted 20,000 members. Today it lends its name to the Palmares Cultural Foundation, the state-funded institution set up in 1988 to protect and support quilombo rights.


Bianca Santana, a São Paulo-based writer and activist , says the “intensification of the racial conflict” in Brazil has spurred the growth of that movement. “We’re seeing a proliferation of aquilombamentos—in favelas, in universities, in literary movements, in hip hop—because the Black community needs to reorganize,” she says.


Urban quilombos, physical spaces for the Black communities to gather for cultural, educational and political activities, have also sprung up around Brazil, primarily in Black-majority favela neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Ferreira says creating São Paulo’s Quilombaque was a way to fight back against the negative image of Blackness that Brazilian society’s historic preference for “whitening” has fostered. {snip}“The questions we’re working on here are: How can we make a person see themself as Black and have pride in being Black? How can we build that self esteem so a Black person doesn’t lower their head when they pass police officers?”


Quilombos may help to power an anti-racist political response to the current moment. At Brazil’s municipal elections, political activist group Quilombo Periferico (“quilombo from the outskirts”) ran a collective candidacy of several members for São Paulo’s city council, securing a seat for local campaigner Elaine Mineiro. “Aquilombamento in politics means coming together to defend the rights of Black people, poor people, LGBTQ people—to demand new policy, and affirmative actions that are necessary if you’re going to be anti-racist,” Mineiro says.