The legacy of slavery and today's empowerment
Journal Entry #7: Jan 23th 2023, Ouro Preto Brazil
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We have been on the road from Rio for about a week, starting with hip Buzios - not my thing - then imposing Pedra Azul and peaceful Caparao - very much my thing - followed by capital city Belo Horizonte and colonial beauty Ouro Preto, where we are at right now. Only two more stops on our roadtrip - Tiradentes and Sao Paulo - before we catch a flight to Colombia for the month of February.
It’s been a wonderfully diverse road trip through Brazil so far, and being close to the end of it has made me reflect on what has it all meant.
I could tell you many thing about this kind and exuberant country, but truthfully, I don't think we can talk about Brazil and not talk about its long and consequential history with slavery and colonialism. So, let’s start with some facts.
Brazil took more African slaves than any other nation on earth, around 5 million people. Yes, 5 MILLION. This is 40% of all slaves sent to the Americas. In contrast, only about 4% were taken to North America.
Brazil was also the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888, 23 years later than in the United States. Side note: the last country in the world to do so was Mauritania, which officially abolished it in 1980 but in reality didn't abolished at all.
It's important to acknowledge that slavery in the Americas didn't start when colonizers brought people from Africa to the continent, but instead with the enslavement of the original inhabitants of the land: the indigenous population. The Portuguese who captured them were called Bandeirantes - from the word bandera/flag - because they carried the Portuguese flag as they roamed the land claiming it their own. Eventually, this “local labor" wasn't sufficient for their needs, so they started bringing slaves from Africa as well.
Slavery was the backbone of the Portuguese colony for hundreds of years. Slaves drove the growth of the economy by working on sugar and coffee plantations, gold and diamond mines, cattle ranches, and essentially any other work that needed to be done.
Ouro Preto, where we are at today, was constructed on the backs of Black slaves when gold was discovered. In the gold rush in mid-18th century, there were more people living here - around 100,000 - than in New York or Rio de Janeiro. Most of them were slaves. During that time the gold from Ouro Preto was the main source of money for the Portuguese crown.
Revolts occurred and quilombos - the communities of slaves that escaped - were formed, but still, for three centuries slavery was the norm in Brazil. The country achieved independence from Portugal in 1822, but still, slavery continued until 1888 when it was finally abolished.
Nowadays, Brazil holds the largest Black population in the Americas - and outside of Africa - with over half of the nation’s 200+ million being Afro-Brazilian. It’s impossible to visit Brazil and not notice the African legacy. This is not only the case because Black people represent a very large percentage of the population - 50% in Brazil versus 14% in the USA - but because you can hear Africa in their drums, admire it in their colorful clothing, identify it in their mystical worshiping, recognize it in their dancing hips.
Even after more than 100 years without slavery - even being half of the population of the country - Afro-Brazilians still face systematic racial discrimination today, both subtle and fortright. Black people still make up a small percentage of congress, executives, and generally people in power; and they make up a very large percentage of murder victims and those killed by police. Sound familiar?
As it has always been throughout history, Black Brazilians continue to fight discrimination in many ways, including by creating spaces to celebrate Black identity and power. Museums are now packed with expositions showcasing the history of slavery, honoring the Black experience, and celebrating Black love, Black resistance, Black ingenuity, and Black lives.
It has been beautiful, educational, and enriching to witness.
When in Brazil, don’t miss visiting:
Museu do Arte do Rio (Rio de Janeiro)
Etnias Street Art Mural (Rio de Janeiro)
Pedra do Sal Samba Show (Rio de Janeiro)
Museu Historico Nacional (Rio de Janeiro)
Memorial Minas Gerais Vale (Belo Horizonte)
Inhotim Museum (Belo Horizonte)
Centro de Arte Popular (Belo Horizonte)
Mina Chico Rei (Ouro Preto)
In São Paulo:
Museum of Art of São Paulo
Museu Afro Brasil
Memorial Resistance of São Paulo
Museu da Lingua Portuguesa