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date: 20 September 2018

Black Associational Politics in 20th-Century Brazil

Summary and Keywords

The population of African descent in Brazil has always maintained vibrant associative communities, whether in the form of mutual aid societies, confraternities, and religious brotherhoods that existed since the time of slavery or in the form of other voluntary associations that appeared later, such as recreational societies, civic centers, literary guilds, musical groups, carnival blocos, and the black press. For Afro-Brazilians, the associative experience throughout the 20th century contributed to a sense of group belonging and a consciousness of a shared identity and experience of racial discrimination. Furthermore, these relationships enabled Afro-Brazilians to begin claiming rights as citizens, protesting against what afflicted them as a community. These joint efforts fueled collective acts of resistance and self-determination that, while evident for centuries, acquired new meanings and manifestations following the abolition of slavery in 1888. Black associations did not limit themselves to denouncing problems or detecting their causes and consequences. They tried to point out ways to overcome them by proposing several solutions: the moral elevation of Afro-Brazilians, which implied a preoccupation with their image in the various sectors where they acted; improving their educational and instructional level; valorizing their race and, by extension, black identity; and emphasizing the need to react to injustices, and even to act politically. However, the main solution was the union of black Brazilians, a sine qua non for this segment of the population to strengthen and thus be able to claim and gain space in society, improve living conditions, and even overcome persistent challenges. Understanding the history of black associative life in Brazil during the 20th century is necessary in order to grasp the struggles and challenges Afro-Brazilians have faced around common interests, particularly since these collective actions are an integral part of the black experience and, in some respects, overlap with it.

Keywords: Brazil, black population, race, associative life, postabolition

Since the colonial period, blacks in Brazil have developed an intense associative life. Even when enslaved, they found various ways to gather in association with their peers. Some organizational frameworks—such as capoeira maltas and candomblé houses—were persecuted; others, such as religious brotherhoods under the aegis of the Catholic Church and mutual aid associations, were tolerated by civil society. All were aimed at satisfying the social, economic, cultural, religious, and human needs of a population living in adverse conditions. The abolition of slavery on May 13, 1888 did not solve many of these needs. It did, however, allow for Afro-Brazilians to organize under conditions different from those of the captive regime, with a greater degree of freedom.

Black Associative Life in Postabolition Brazil: First Phase

Immediately after abolition, Afro-Brazilians began forming their own civic associations (such as the Sociedade Beneficente Estrela da Redempção in Rio de Janeiro; the Sociedade Beneficente Luiz Gama in Campinas/SP; and Club Beneficente 13 de Maio in Curitiba). Some played a prominent role in the local community, reflected in the number of events in which they were involved or promoted or judging from the mentions and space devoted to them in the press. This was the case for the Guarda Negra da Redentora, an organization of freedmen, many of them trained in capoeira, instituted in the Court in the second half of 1888. Its purpose was to protect the monarchy, especially the figure of Princess Isabel, from attacks by the growing republican movement. In view of these freedmen, defending the monarchy and the princess in an unstable and polarized political context meant defending abolition. The Guarda Negra came to be called a “party,” since it aimed to grant the “man of color” the right to intervene in “public affairs.” At its height, it expanded to São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Bahia, Sergipe, Pernambuco, Natal, Maranhão, Belém, and other provinces of the Empire. It is believed that the Guarda Negra was the first institution to use the term negro in a positive and political sense of the word. It was also presumably the first to self-define in that way, something that should be seen by contemporary scholars as a diacritical sign of a new, comprehensive, racial political language that was quickly silenced.

While many Afro-Brazilians saw the monarchy as the only form of government capable of solving the dilemmas and impasses of the “race stigmatized by slavery” by providing economic opportunities and social recognition, others, like members of the Republican Men of Color Club (Club Republicano dos Homens de Cor), believed the best solution rested in the republican project, which promised democracy, “redemption of the motherland,” and an end to unjust personal privileges. The Republican Men of Color Club was founded in a meeting held at the Court in June 1889, attended by “55 citizens of color.” The group’s aim was to promote republican ideas, especially “among the black race and to make that same race understand that it was being victimized by the Throne.” Informed by notions of race, liberty, and citizenship, subjects—whether described as “freedmen” or “men of color”—articulated different associations through which they actively participated in national life, sometimes united, sometimes in opposing camps. The associations exercised, or at least tried to exercise, a fundamental role within the black segment of the population, affirming their identity, discussing their problems, encouraging them to take positions, and, above all, to make them aware of their rights.

The Republic, installed on November 15, 1889 and formalized by the Constitution of 1891, guaranteed citizenship through the universalization of civil rights, which also raised expectations that political and social rights would be expanded as well. Afro-Brazilians took advantage of the Republican dawn to create new associations through which they could broaden their collective actions. These associations varied considerably in their character and organization, depending on the aspirations of their members. Some sought to provide protective services ranging from medical, pharmaceutical, and legal assistance, to pensions for family members or dependents in case of death or injury, and funeral assistance. There were also charitable and mutual aid associations, such as the Sociedade Cooperativa Filhos do Trabalho (1890) in Rio Grande/RS; Sociedade Progresso da Raça Africana (1891) in Pelotas/RS; and the Sociedade Cooperativa dos Homens Pretos (1902), Sociedade Beneficente dos Homens de Cor (1906), and the Associação Beneficente Amigos da Pátria (1908) in São Paulo.

Other associations concentrated their activities on the cultural and educational fields, investing in the formation of literary guilds, performing bodies, musical groups, and schools. These included the Club 13 de Maio dos Homens Pretos (1902), the Centro Literário dos Homens de Cor (1903), and the Grêmio Dramático e Recreativo Kosmos (1908) in São Paulo; the Sociedade Musical Lyra Oriental (1907) and Sociedade Dramática Euterpe Club (1917) in Porto Alegre; the Centro Cívico e Recreativo José Boiteux (1920) in Florianópolis; and the Centro Patriótico Treze de Maio (1929) in Rio de Janeiro.

Some associations were religious in nature, like the confraternities and lay brotherhoods that originated even during slavery. These included Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte (created in the city of Salvador, Bahia and later transferred to Cachoeira); Nossa Senhora da Soledade Amparo dos Desvalidos (later renamed Sociedade Protetora dos Desvalidos) in Salvador; Rosário dos Homens Pretos (Recife, Pernambuco); and São Benedito (Cuiabá, Mato Grosso). Other groups aimed to offer leisure and entertainment. These included recreational and dance societies such as the Clube Beneficente, Cultural e Recreativo 28 de setembro (1897) in Jundiaí, São Paulo; Clube 15 de Novembro (1907) in São Paulo; Centro Recreativo (1900) and Associação Satélite (1902) in Porto Alegre; and Clube Recreativo 28 de Setembro (1904) in Pouso Alegre, Minas Gerais. Some focused specifically on Carnival, like Embaixada Africana (1894) and Pândegos d’África (1895) in Salvador; Clube Carnavalesco Bahianas (1908) in Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sul; Sociedade Carnavalesca Prontidão (1925) in Porto Alegre; and Grupo Carnavalesco Barra Funda (1914) and Campos Elíseos (1919) in São Paulo.

Some Afro-Brazilian associations were primarily athletic, with their own soccer teams or sporting facilities, such as the Sport Club Sete de Setembro (1904) in Salvador; Clube Cravos Vermelhos (1916) and Associação Atlética São Geraldo (1917) in São Paulo; and the Sport Club Cruzeiro do Sul (1922) in Novo Hamburgo, Rio Grande do Sul.

There were also associations with grander and more ambitious goals, many of which sought to become involved in political and institutional events. These groups sponsored public demonstrations and sought to influence their sister organizations with speeches and conferences on important civic dates. Its speakers emphasized the need to continue the work of abolition, which they saw as unfinished, considering the living conditions of Afro-Brazilians. Groups in this category included Centro Cívico Monteiro Lopes (1910) and Associação dos Homens de Cor (1921) in Rio de Janeiro; Federação Paulista dos Homens de Cor (1902) in Campinas, São Paulo; and Centro da Federação dos Homens de Cor (1914) and Centro Cívico Palmares (1926) in São Paulo.

Black civic associations multiplied during the First Republic (1889–1930), especially in the southern and southeastern regions of the country. For example, it is estimated that in the city of Porto Alegre, seventy-two such groups emerged between 1889 and 1920; in São Paulo, 123 between 1907 and 1937. In general, they were governed by statutes and had regularly elected administrative staff, comprising a number of positions such as president, secretary, treasurer, auditor, and director. Some associations had a registered office while others hired halls for their operations and events. Their main source of funding was monthly dues from members. To develop ties of identity, groups created symbols such as anthems, banners, and identification cards. Their activities were varied, including assemblies; lectures; literary, theatrical, and musical presentations; dances; excursions; contests (during Carnival, most notably); ceremonies celebrating Afro-Brazilian icons like Luiz Gama and José do Patrocínio); athletic competitions; picnics; and literacy courses. Furthermore, a series of civic dates, especially those pertaining to black Brazilians—May 13 in particular—were recognized and solemnly celebrated. All associations sought to maintain autonomous spaces of sociability, politics, culture, and leisure, and as a common denominator, they were concerned with the moral, intellectual, cultural, and social progress of Afro-Brazilians.

Another example of solidarity and unity around a collective purpose was the black press, the designation for newspapers created and maintained by Afro-Brazilians and geared toward their issues. As pointed out, the abolition of slavery gave the black population new horizons of freedom. For the first time in the nation’s history, all Brazilians were considered equal before the law. It was in this context that publications like Treze de Maio emerged in Rio de Janeiro in 1888 and A Pátria: órgão dos homes de cor in São Paulo in July 1889, both newspapers being marked by the expectations of recognition, social insertion, and participation of the black population in national life. With the proclamation of the Republic, hope for better days was renewed, inspiring new titles like O Exemplo, a newspaper published in Porto Alegre from 1892 onward, “small in size” but “grand in intent.” In the city of São Paulo, O Progresso was established in 1899, embracing in its pages the sole purpose of “giving unselfish assistance to the race to which we belong.”

Throughout the First Republic, there are records of other periodicals of the black press: A Verdade (1904) in Pouso Alegre, Minas Gerais; Cruz e Souza (1919) in Lages, Santa Catarina; A Federação (1926) in Rio de Janeiro; O Baluarte (1903) and O Getulino (1923) in Campinas, São Paulo: O Menelick (1915), O Xauter (1916), O Alfinete (1918), A Liberdade (1919), A Sentinela (1920), O Kosmos (1922), O Clarim da Alvorada (1924), Elite (1924), and Progresso (1928) in the city of São Paulo; A Tesoura (1924) in Porto Alegre; A Alvorada (1907) in Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sul; A Revolta (1925) in Bagé, Rio Grande do Sul; and O Tagarela (1929) in Rio Grande, Rio Grande do Sul. In São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul alone, there were at least forty-three newspapers of the black press between 1889 and 1930, but there are indications that even more such newspapers were produced in these and other states.

In 1931, the so-called associative movement of men of color gained more visibility on the national scene with the founding of the Frente Negra Brasileira (FNB) in São Paulo. The FNB stood out among the associations that reached a degree of organization and complex structure for its achievements, for the time in which it remained active, but especially for the sociopolitical activities it developed. The club provided a beauty salon, a bar, a place for games and amusements, a dentist’s office, and a voting registration station. It also maintained a school, a library, a musical group, a theater group, a soccer team, as well as offering a pension plan, medical services, legal assistance, arts and crafts courses, and published a newspaper, A Voz da Raça.

These activities—and the FNB’s general message of moral ascent and material progress for “black people”—attracted a large number of members. It is estimated that the association numbered in the thousands. At its apogee, it opened more than sixty branches in the capital and in the interior of São Paulo and in other states, such as Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and Espírito Santo, and also influenced the appearance of homonymous organizations in the cities of Salvador, Recife, and Pelotas, in Rio Grande do Sul. The FNB won some victories in the area of civil rights. It managed to eliminate prohibitions preventing the entry of Afro-Brazilians in some public places of leisure and in the Civil Guard of São Paulo. Reflecting its growth as an institutional force, in 1936 the association obtained permission to register as a political party, but it did not have the opportunity to pass the voting test, since the establishment of the Estado Novo dictatorship in 1937 prohibited all political organizations.

In addition to the FNB, other groups emerged in the 1930s, including União Recreativa 25 de Dezembro (1933) in Florianópolis; Clube das Margaridas (1933) in Caxias do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul; Centro de Cultura Afro-Brasileira (1936) in Recife; Legião Negra (1934) in Uberlândia, Minas Gerais; and Clube Negro de Cultural Social (1932), Sindicato do Operariado Negro (1932), Federação dos Negros do Brasil (1935), and Aliança Cooperativa dos Homens Pretos do Brasil (1937) in São Paulo. New newspapers were established as well such as A Frente Negra (1933) in Salvador; Raça (1935) in Uberlândia, Minas Gerais; O Estímulo (1935) and Tribuna Negra (1935) in the state of São Paulo in addition to the magazines Evolução (1933)—the first aimed at Afro-Brazilians—and Cultura: Revista da Mocidade Negra (1934).

Second Phase

While the dictatorial Estado Novo regime (1937–1945) was unable to completely muzzle black associations, the political climate it engendered placed these groups on the defensive and reduced their mobilizing potential. The groups that endured, mostly clubs and samba schools, were recreational in character or related directly to Carnival. One organization, Sociedade Henrique Dias, was accused of being Communist on account of its willingness to openly confront racial prejudice. Established in 1937, Sociedade Henrique Dias sought to develop a program of social action in favor of “people of color.” In its statute, it provided education, especially to members and their families; social security; entertainment; athletic competition; and civic commemorations. With the overthrow of the Estado Novo in 1945, the country reestablished democracy and civil society regrouped, including the “associative movement” of Afro-Brazilians, forged by political and cultural solidarity campaigns.

During the Second Republic (1946–1964), the União dos Homens de Cor (UHC), a group formed in the city of Porto Alegre in 1943, stood out from its peers due to the efforts of João Cabral Alves. In the first article of its statute, UHC announced that its central purpose was “to raise the economic and intellectual level of people of color throughout the national territory, to make them fit to enter the social and administrative life of the country.” The entity had a complex organizational structure, with the national board composed of the founders and divided into the positions of president, secretary general, inspector general, treasurer, head of departments (health and education), legal adviser, and advisers (or directors).

The UHC attained broad reach throughout the 1940s. It opened a branch or had representatives in at least ten states (Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Bahia, Ceará, and Maranhão), with a presence in over fifty municipalities. In the state of Paraná alone, it was in twenty-three cities in 1948. The group promoted lectures, literacy courses, legal and medical assistance services, charitable actions, newspapers, and electoral campaign work.

In the early 1950s, President Getúlio Vargas received representatives of UHC, who presented him with a series of demands in favor of the “population of color.” In Rio de Janeiro, the leaders of the association excelled in public life, including, for example, José Bernardo Silva, elected state senator in 1954 and reelected for two consecutive terms.

Another important group in this period was the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN), created by Abdias Nascimento in Rio de Janeiro in 1944. The original aim was to form a theatrical group composed only of Afro-Brazilian actors, but TEN gradually evolved into a pressure group. Even though it operated informally, the group published the newspaper Quilombo, offered a literacy course, organized the First Black Brazilian Congress, held elections for the role of Mulata Queen and Pixe Doll, and later organized a visual arts contest with the theme Black Christ. Conceiving the civil rights of Afro-Brazilians as human rights, TEN advocated for the creation of national antidiscrimination legislation. The group was one of the first to bring to Brazil the proposals of the political and cultural movement of negritude, which attained a central role in the network of Afro-diasporic connections and which later served as an ideological basis for the national liberation struggle of African countries.

In São Paulo, the Associação dos Negros Brasileiros (ANB) was the most visible group advocating for a “Second Abolition.” It was created in 1945 from an organizing committee charged with plotting the structure for the establishment of a new social movement. From its headquarters in the center of the city of São Paulo, the group promoted various assistance activities. In 1945, the ANB launched the “Manifesto in Defense of Democracy,” the only document to present a racial analysis of the Brazilian political scene during the period of redemocratization; placed itself in the column of democratic forces; unleashed the “1,000 members campaign”; and led the effort for the “moral, intellectual and social elevation of men of color.”

The Associação Cultural do Negro (ACN), founded in São Paulo in 1954, was another prominent group. Also based in the center of the city, at its peak it numbered more than seven hundred members, both men and women, from varied professions. The ACN developed several projects, always promoting its central goal: the “social recovery of the Afro-Brazilian element.” It organized spaces for meetings, sociability, culture and leisure, conferences, tributes to black icons, civic sessions, poetry recitals, and theatrical performances. The ACN also held parties (or dances) and beauty contests, created recreational programs (such as picnics and scavenger hunts), and organized sports (with practice and competitions in soccer, basketball, volleyball, games, and table tennis). Finally, they offered courses linked to the Department of Education, set up a library, hosted dynamic events like the “Meeting of Black Culture,” and published Cadernos de Cultura. The ACN also created a “Women’s Department,” initially headed by Sebastiana Vieira. Despite this initiative, the ACN did not produce any meaningful efforts aimed specifically at addressing the issues of black women. Women were an important but minority political force in the association. Few of them held positions in the main decision-making bodies.

In terms of recreational associations, Clube Renascença, established in Rio de Janeiro in 1951, was the most visible group at the time. From its beginning, the group maintained a respectable female presence, setting the organization apart from its peers on the matter of gender relations and representation. Women were both on the board and in the anonymous mass of regular members and played an important role in the institution’s operations: of the twenty-nine founding members, eighteen were women. Over the course of its existence, Clube Renascença sponsored forums, literary festivals, athletic competitions, seminars, beauty pageants, and dances for members and their families. In the early 1970s, a group of young members, influenced by the success of soul music, began to organize a party called “Shaft Night,” inspired by the American detective from blaxploitation films. These were the earliest manifestations of what would become known as the Black Rio movement.

In addition to the UHC, TEN, ANB, ACN, and Clube Renascença, several other Afro-Brazilian groups flourished during this period, including Associação Cultural, Beneficente e Recreativa José do Patrocínio (1952) in Belo Horizonte; Chico Rei Clube (1963) in Poços de Caldas, Minas Gerais; Clube Náutico Marcílio Dias (1949) and Sociedade Cultural Beneficente Satélite Prontidão (1956) in Porto Alegre; União Catarinense dos Homens de Cor (1962) in Blumenau, Santa Catarina; Associação Recreativa Operária de Londrina (1957) in Londrina, Paraná; Centro Cultural José do Patrocínio (1949) in Caxias, Rio de Janeiro; União Cultural dos Homens de Cor (1950) and Conselho Nacional das Mulheres Negras (1950) in Rio de Janeiro; and Associação José do Patrocínio (1941), Ala Negra Progressista (1948), Cruzada Social e Cultural do Preto Brasileiro (1950), and Casa da Cultura Afro-Brasileira (1963) in São Paulo.

The black press also grew during the Second Republic, with several new periodicals like União (1947) in Curitiba, Paraná; Em Dia (1955) in Porto Alegre; O Colored (1962) in Blumenau, Santa Catarina; Quilombo (1948), Redenção (1950), and A Voz da Negritude (1952) in Rio de Janeiro; Alvorada (1945), O Novo Horizonte (1946), Mundo Novo (1950), Cruzada Cultural (1950), and O Mutirão (1958) in the city of São Paulo; Notícias de Ébano (1957) Santos, São Paulo; Nosso Jornal (1961) in Piracicaba, São Paulo; and Hífen (1960) in Campinas, São Paulo, in addition to magazines like Senzala (1946) and Niger (1960).

Although the newspapers of the black press did not adhere to a shared editorial line or monolithic discourse, they did share certain similarities in graphical aspects and content. In general, they reported on social, cultural, sporting, and leisure events, but they also were leading voices calling for racial equality. Their captions were suggestive, sometimes indicating the specificity of the group for which they were intended. For example, A Voz da Negritude (1952) proclaimed to be an “accessory for the unity of men of color”; O Correio de D’Ébano (1963) defined itself as “a newspaper in the service of the black collectivity of Brazil”; Senzala (1946), for its part, was a self-proclaimed “monthly magazine for the negro.”

The circulation of these periodicals was generally modest, with rare exceptions. Alvorada, founded in São Paulo by black activist intellectuals José Correia Leite, Fernando Goés, and Raul Joviano Amaral in 1945, reached a monthly circulation ranging from one thousand to two thousand copies. For its part, Quilombo, founded in Rio de Janeiro in 1948 and headed by Abdias Nascimento and Maria de Lourdes Vale Nascimento, reached about two thousand to three thousand copies. A Voz da Raça—the official outlet of the Frente Negra Brasileira—launched in the city of São Paulo in 1933 and eventually had a monthly circulation of roughly four thousand copies. These were not insignificant numbers for the time.

These newspapers were distributed primarily to recreational, civic, beneficent, and cultural associations of the black community and were also acquired through subscriptions or sold by publishers in their own homes. Many copies were offered for free, since the ideal prevailed over profit, which was practically nonexistent. Some were published weekly, others fortnightly, but most came out on a monthly basis. The number of pages varied too. There were editions ranging from four to eighteen pages. Generally, their circulation occurred at the local or regional level. However, O Clarim da Alvorada was read in Salvador and Recife, Quilombo reached the United States, and A Voz da Raça became known in both the United States and in other countries of South America and the Caribbean, not to mention Maputo (known at the time as Lourenço Marques, the capital and largest city of Mozambique) in Africa.

Many of these publications were short-lived, but a few managed to endure for quite some time. For instance, O Exemplo, from Porto Alegre, which launched in 1892 with the purpose of defending the “class of men of color,” ceased its activities only in 1930. The longest-running newspaper of the black press in the 20th century was A Alvorada, from the city of Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sul, which circulated from 1907 to 1965, although with some small interruptions. With correspondents in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Portugal, the publication received letters from all over the country.

Many of the newspapers originated from the work of the Afro-Brazilian community. In São Paulo, Alvorada (1945) was connected to the Associação dos Negros Brasileiros (ANB); Notícias de Ébano (1957) was tied to Ébano Atlético Clube; and O Mutirão (1958) was put out by the Associação Cultural do Negro (ACN). For this reason, scholars have underscored the role these publications played in disseminating news about developments within these associations and the social activities of their members.

While black associations were one of the main sources of funding for Afro-Brazilian newspapers, they were also maintained with financial support from subscribers, modest advertisements, and the promotion of parties, raffles, and charity auctions. The presses that printed the periodicals were sometimes improvised, installed in precarious conditions, sometimes even in the publishers’ home. The graphic quality, the layout, and the copyediting demonstrate this artisanal style of production.

Another characteristic of this press was that it was eminently male-dominated. Until the middle of the 20th century, women did not reach 10 percent of the total number of employees. Women were also largely absent from leadership positions. Only one woman, for example, was a member of the governing body of the newspaper O Clarim in 1935, and was working as a copywriter.

From an editorial perspective, these newspapers mainly explored issues related to Afro-Brazilian life, always approaching this part of the population as an active agent in the construction of the nation. These publications also discussed the historical and cultural experience of Africans and Afro-descendants in other parts of the diaspora. The images and representations of Africa, although sometimes ambiguous, served as a reference for the redefinition of identity borders. For example, Niger (1960) featured a column dedicated to covering facts and important personalities of the international Afro-diasporic scene. The periodicals also followed and debated the Pan-Africanist movement and, later, the current of negritude. The self-determination of blacks in different regions and the struggle for decolonization of African nations were taken as lessons for the action of Afro-Brazilians.

Third Phase

The civil-military coup that installed a dictatorship in 1964 suppressed democratic freedoms. The new regime censored the press, persecuted civil society organizations, and cracked down on individuals and entities that posed an ideological challenge. These efforts hindered but did not prevent public discussion of racial issues in Brazilian society. The authoritarian regime did, however, cause the Afro-Brazilian “associative movement” to retreat. Institutions, even those of a recreational nature (such as Clube Renascença in Rio de Janeiro and Aristocrata Clube in São Paulo) or associated with Carnival (like the Associação Cultural Ilê Aiyê in Salvador), were targeted by repressive agencies. When they did not reinvent themselves by embracing different courses of action, many groups simply suspended their activities. This adverse situation also stifled the black press until, at the first signs of institutional normalcy in the 1970s, new periodicals dedicated to a black audience began to appear, including Árvore das Palavras (1974) and O Quadro (1974) in the city of São Paulo; Biluga (1974) in São Caetano, São Paulo; Nagô (1975) in São Carlos, São Paulo; and Boletim IPCN (1976) in Rio de Janeiro.

By the end of that decade, the winds of democratic opening, referred to as abertura, began to blow. Civil society gradually reorganized itself and new actors demanding rights (workers, Indians, women, gays, and blacks) began to present their agendas and specific issues. It was in this context that the Afro-Brazilian associative movement reached new heights. Although there were links between members of past associations and new activists, there was a change in the way that the new entities operated and what they understood the role of black social groups to be. Significantly, for example, the new activists embraced the label of a “black movement” (“movimento negro”) tied to the themes of the identity-focused social movements of the 1970s as opposed to the older nomenclature of “black associations.”

In any case, a new generation of Afro-Brazilians, some of them with college educations, entered the fray, leading a movement that culminated in the formation of the Unified Black Movement Against Racial Discrimination (Movimento Negro Unificado Contra a Discriminação Racial, later shortened to Movimento Negro Unificado, or MNU) in São Paulo in 1978. Meetings in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Bahia, and other places helped to structure the new organization. The MNU challenged the current order and openly denounced racism in all its forms, highlighting the inequality and violence affecting the Afro-Brazilian population. The organization also rejected the celebrations of May 13, calling the abolition of slavery a “false freedom.” Instead, the group embraced November 20 as National Black Consciousness Day, the presumed date of the death of Zumbi, the leader of the runaway slave community (quilombo) Palmares, who was claimed as a symbol of resistance.

The process of redemocratization fueled new publications of the black press, including Tição (1977) in Porto Alegre; Objetivo (1977) in Uberaba, Minas Gerais; Voz do Negro (1984) in Belo Horizonte; Nêgo (1981), Afro-Brasil (1984), and Elêmi (1985) in Salvador; Angola (1981) in Recife; Zumbido (1982) in São Luís; Sinba (1977), Africus (1982), Frente Negra (1982), and Nizinga (1984) in Rio de Janeiro; and Afro-Latino-América (1977), a section of the newspaper Versus, Brasil-África (1977), Negrice (1977), Abertura (1978), Jornegro (1978), O Saci (1978), Vissungo (1979), and Jornal da Comunidade Negra (1985) in São Paulo, not to mention the magazine Ébano (1980) and Revista do MNU (1980). Several other titles not mentioned here appeared in these and other states.

This phase of the black press was characterized by the vocal and relentless denunciation of racism. The ideology of racial democracy became a target of constant attack, dismissed as a “farce” and a “myth.” Several outlets offered a rereading of the country’s miscegenation as a violent process of sexual exploitation of black women by white men. Another characteristic of this phase was a discursive celebration of an identity with “African roots.” An avowedly afro aesthetic came to the fore involving clothing, hairstyles, and accessories. The affirmation of this black identity also included the elevation and adoption of elements of African culture, such as music, dance, religiosity, and even culinary habits, translated in the newspapers into recipes attributed to the descendants of slaves. Parents were encouraged to give their children African names, with suggestions appearing in publications and always accompanied by their translation into Portuguese.

The MNU ushered in the contemporary phase of the Brazilian black movement. Despite the challenges of mobilization and dialogue with sectors of civil society and government, the social movements of Afro-Brazilians have had a clear impact on national life in recent decades, securing important achievements like the formal criminalization of racism, recognition of the remaining quilombos, affirmative action policies, and Law 10.639, which made it mandatory to teach Afro-Brazilian and African history and culture in schools. This sustained activism has elicited more positive responses from the State on matters of race than at any other time since 1888 in Brazilian history.


Movements of solidarity and unity toward a shared purpose are part of the historical experience of Afro-Brazilians, accompanying the struggle for rights and citizenship throughout the 20th century. Afro-Brazilians realized that various forms of collective organization would be necessary to reach their more general demands and to strengthen their strategies of self-protection and organization. It is not a coincidence that black associations emerged in the social landscape of several different states, promoting bonds of unity, networks of solidarity, and the exchange of ideas between activists and intellectuals.

Understanding the history of black associations is important in order to grasp, at least partially, the conditions in which Afro-Brazilians have carried out their struggles and the challenges they have encountered, especially since these associations are an intrinsic and often overlapping part of this ongoing effort.

These various associations instilled among their members a feeling of belonging, serving as focal points for the construction and preservation of racial identities. Furthermore, they helped Afro-Brazilians perceive their situation in society, identify the discrimination that affected them, and especially to assert their rights and affirm themselves as citizens. Overall, these groups sustained a tradition of resistance and collective action that can be traced back to the time of slavery.

Rather than limiting themselves to denouncing problems, black associations also sought to identify ways to overcome them. Several solutions were proposed for the Afro-Brazilian population: moral uplift, improving educational and cultural achievement, valuing differing subjectivities and the construction of identity, protesting against injustice, and even taking political action. However, the main recourse advocated by these movements was a broad union of forces, considered a prerequisite for Afro-Brazilians to make demands, prosper, and gain space in society, thus overcoming the problems afflicting their communities.

Discussion of the Literature

The essay O espírito associativo do negro brasileiro, written by Arthur Ramos in 1938, can be considered a starting point for this discussion. The author understood black associations to be a product of slavery. According to this argument, despite their diverse cultural origins, Africans brought to Brazil united in the face of shared subjugation, beginning inside slave ships during the middle passage. For Ramos, this experience explains the formation of different quilombos as of the 16th century; brotherhoods and religious confraternities in the 17th century; Carnival groups in the 19th century; and the black associations and the Frente Negra Brasileira in the 20th century. All of these organizations were the heirs of previous processes of collective action. The author characterized black associative life as a “spirit,” viewing this practice as something innate to the subjugated group.1 Ramos’ assessment can be placed in dialogue with subsequent work on the subject.

The books Relações raciais entre negros e brancos em São Paulo (1955), by Roger Bastide and Florestan Fernandes, and A integração do negro na sociedade de classes (1964), by Florestan Fernandes, written at different moments, analyze the meanings of “social movements in the black community.” In the former, two social scientists argued that the progressive awareness of prejudice and racial discrimination toward the descendants of slaves served as the catalyst needed to spur groups of black men and women to organize associations, clubs, and newspapers.2 The collective action of these individuals is not seen as something innate, a “spirit,” but a result of lived social conditions. In the latter, Fernandes built on this analysis, incisively deconstructing the “myth of racial democracy” while also pointing to the limits of black social movements. The efforts of these organizations, according to the author, were hampered by several factors, especially the resistance of whites to a society premised on equal rights for all.3

Fernandes focused on the black associations active in São Paulo from the 1920s through the mid-1960s and their membership: men and women, some self-educated, others with little or no formal education, civil servants or employees in the services sector, rarely with a higher education diploma, people who in their daily social struggle could organize themselves, try to live in a racial democracy, and endeavor to make it a reality.

In the 1980s, a new set of studies took up the theme of black associative life. Worthy of note is the research of Regina Pahim Pinto, entitled “O movimento negro em São Paulo: luta e identidade.” The author criticized Florestan Fernandes for characterizing the Frente Negra Brasileira as a conservative organization, guided by the monarchist and authoritarian values of its main leader, Arlindo Veiga dos Santos. Pahim Pinto suggested another reading, using the group’s newspaper, A Voz da Raça, as the basis for a discussion of alternative meanings constructed in the daily life of organized Afro-Brazilians in São Paulo. The author even suggested a connection between the proposals of the black associative movement of the 1930s and the one that emerged in 1978 with the establishment of the Movimento Negro Unificado.4

In 1994, Michael Hanchard published a book on Brazilian racial politics in which he examined the black associative movement in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo between 1945 and 1988. His argument was that white Brazilians developed a policy of racial hegemony that perpetuated inequality between blacks and whites. If, on one hand, white elites were effective in preventing black groups from forming a mass insurgent campaign comparable to the civil rights movement in the United States after World War II, Hanchard argues, on the other, that the social movements of Afro-Brazilians adopted a mistaken strategy against racial domination. The author calls their approach a “culturalist” approach as it sees the group’s cultural practices (religion, music, dance, and other forms of expression) as the principal means of challenging the current racial order, to the detriment of struggles in the political sphere. Culture, according to this assessment, was seen as an end in itself and not as a means of mobilization and political action in the service of civil rights.5

Another important book written in the 1990s was Kim Butler’s Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition São Paulo and Salvador, which discussed the trajectory of segments of the black population in two key cities in the fifty years after abolition. According to Butler, there was a quest for black identity in São Paulo, a “racial politics,” while a “cultural politics” predominated in the northeastern city of Salvador, defined by ethnic differences between descendants of the various African nations. In São Paulo, newspapers, associations, and even a political party in defense of Afro-Brazilian civil rights emerged, while in Salvador efforts centered on the affirmation of cultural and religious manifestations, such as candomblé and carnival, with divergent activities from groups with connections to different parts of Africa, like Angola, Jeje, and Congo.

In 2006, David Covin released a book that retraced the history of the MNU. Established in São Paulo in 1978 during the period of the military dictatorship, the MNU expanded to other states, becoming the most important association in defense of Afro-Brazilian rights in the history of contemporary Brazil. Covin sought to understand the MNU’s trajectory in light of the national and international context, demonstrating how this organization, despite its ambiguities, ushered in new conceptions and narratives about black history, culture, and identity, as well as new strategies of collective action and forms of fighting against racism in Brazilian society.

Five years after Covin’s work, Paulina Alberto released a book on the mobilization of black identity in three Brazilian cities (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Salvador) between the 1920s and 1980s. Alberto argues that activists and Afro-Brazilian intellectuals played active and contradictory roles in building, sustaining, and challenging the ideology of racial democracy. Even though they legitimized this ideology in some moments, they refuted it in others, publicly decrying the existence of racism in Brazil. The book thus sought to chart the different moments of Afro-Brazilian activists’ thinking and political–cultural actions on their own terms—using their narratives, associations, and newspapers that served as propaganda vehicles for their ideals—by contextualizing such moments within the long struggle waged by these activists in favor of citizenship rights for Afro-Brazilians.6

The topic of grassroots Afro-Brazilian associations took on a central place in the research agenda of historians and social scientists in the 2000s. This emergence signaled an important transformation in Brazilian social thought: studies of race went from being a marginal research area from the 1960s through the 1990s, to becoming one of the fields of greatest academic interest. This is reflected in the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated studies on recreational associations, civic centers, charitable and mutual relief societies, lay brotherhoods, and the black press from the most diverse regions and time periods.7 What is usually at stake in these recent works is the black experience, especially the multifaceted practices of associative life from the perspective of its protagonists, its organizations, collective actions, identity politics, and racial rhetoric at key moments of the republican period. Nevertheless, there remains a vast analytical field to be explored on the subject.

Primary Sources

To investigate the trajectory of Afro-Brazilian organizations in Brazil, there are a variety of historical sources that can be consulted. One set of sources is composed of newspapers and the broader black press. These publications, produced during the entire 20th century, discussed issues that concerned the Afro-Brazilian population and, in particular, provided them with a space that it certainly would not have had in other press outlets, in addition to establishing a means of communication among blacks and their associations, contributing to maintaining a vibrant social life. In fact, a large part of the black press was born of the Afro-Brazilian associations, hence the interest in such newspapers regarding what happened within these groups and the social activities of the people who attended them.

The newspapers of the black press were an important vehicle through which Afro-Brazilian leaders carried out the work of raising awareness and mobilizing the black population, valuing their identity, and struggling for their full insertion into the national community. For the way that they articulated the demands of the movement and covered the causes for which they were fighting, as well as their position in the face of events concerning Afro-Brazilians and society in general, these publications constitute an important documentary collection for those who intend to understand black associative life.

Even the regular and commercial press should not be neglected, since it is possible to find in their pages stories about black associations, their narratives, demands, and actions, as well as the effects of this collective struggle on society more broadly.

Another valuable resource is the testimony of former Afro-Brazilian militants and members of organizations. Such accounts, usually recorded through oral history projects, allow us to retrace the ways in which individuals or groups experienced everyday life in particular historical moments, forged identities, and embraced particular modes of action within a range of possibilities. Memoirs and other texts produced by Afro-Brazilian activists also contain important data and information on this theme.

Official sources, which also might be consulted for studies of Afro-Brazilian groups, are those held in the archives of political repression agencies, especially the Departamento de Ordem Política e Social (DOPS). Many black organizations were monitored by the political police. While this type of surveillance injured Brazilian democracy, it produced a wealth of fruitful material for historical research. The files produced by agencies of repression are generally made up of records drawn up or incorporated from daily police action (personal files, testimonies, medical records, dossiers, reports, information, search and arrest warrants, etc.), from confiscated documents (books, journals, newsletters, pamphlets, correspondence, etc.), and statements taken during interrogations.

Whether one opts for a thorough approach or a more focused case study on black associative life, it is worth consulting the documents produced by the groups themselves, at least those that have preserved an institutional heritage. In such collections it is possible to find pamphlets, bulletins, minutes, annual reports, offices, journalistic notes, administrative correspondence, and registration records, among other documents, that make it possible to understand the institutional life of the organizations, including its administrative structure, operating dynamics, and projects.

Further Reading

Alberti, Verena, and Amilcar Pereira, eds. Histórias do movimento negro no Brasil: depoimentos ao CPDOC. Rio de Janeiro: Pallas/CPDOC-FGV, 2007.Find this resource:

Alberto, Paulina L. Terms of Inclusion: Black Intellectuals in Twentieth-Century Brazil. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Andrews, George R. Negros e brancos em São Paulo (1888–1988). Bauru, SP: EDUSC, 1998.Find this resource:

Andrews, George R. Afro-Latin America, 1800–2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Barbosa, Márcio, ed. Frente Negra Brasileira: depoimentos. São Paulo: Quilombhoje, 1998.Find this resource:

Barcelos, Luiz C. “Mobilização racial no Brasil: uma revisão crítica.” Afro-Ásia 17 (1996): 187–210.Find this resource:

Bastide, Roger. “A imprensa negra do estado de São Paulo.” In Estudos afro-brasileiros. Edited by Roger Bastide, 129–156. São Paulo: Ed. Perspectiva, 1983.Find this resource:

Butler, Kim D. “Up from Slavery: Afro-Brazilian Activism in São Paulo, 1888–1938.” The Americas 49, no. 2 (1992): 179–206.Find this resource:

Butler, Kim D. Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition São Paulo and Salvador. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Covin, David. The Unified Black Movement in Brazil (1978–2002). Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.Find this resource:

Domingues, Petrônio. “Movimento negro brasileiro: alguns apontamentos históricos.” Tempo 12, no. 23 (2007): 100–122.Find this resource:

Domingues, Petrônio. “Cidadania por um fio: o associativismo negro no Rio de Janeiro (1888–1930).” Revista Brasileira de História 34, no. 67 (2014): 251–281.Find this resource:

Ferrara, Miriam N. A imprensa negra paulista (1915–1963). São Paulo: FFLCH/USP, 1986.Find this resource:

Flores, Elio C. “Jacobinismo negro: lutas políticas e práticas emancipatórias (1930–1964).” In As esquerdas no Brasil, vol. 1. Edited by Daniel Aarão Reis, and Jorge Ferreira, 493–537. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2007.Find this resource:

Giacomini, Sonia M. A alma da festa: família, etnicidade e projetos num clube social da Zona Norte do Rio de Janeiro—o Renascença Clube. Belo Horizonte: Ed. UFMG; Rio de Janeiro: IUPERJ, 2006.Find this resource:

Gomes, Flávio. Negros e política (1888–1937). Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2005.Find this resource:

Gomes, Flávio, and Petrônio Domingues, eds. Experiências da emancipação: biografias, instituições e movimentos sociais no pós-abolição (1890–1980). São Paulo: Selo Negro, 2011.Find this resource:

Gomes, Flávio, and Petrônio Domingues, eds. Políticas da raça: experiências e legados da abolição e da pós-emancipação no Brasil. São Paulo: Selo Negro, 2014.Find this resource:

Hanchard, Michael G. Orpheus and Power: The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, 1945–1988. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Leite, José C. E disse o velho militante José Correia Leite: depoimentos e artigos. São Paulo: Secretaria Municipal da Cultura, 1992.Find this resource:

Loner, Beatriz. “A rede associativa negra em Pelotas e Rio Grande.” In RS Negro: cartografias sobre a produção do conhecimento. Edited by Gilberto Ferreira da Silva, José Antônio dos Santos, and Luiz Carlos da Cunha Carneiro, 246–261. Porto Alegre: EdiPUCRS, 2008.Find this resource:

Maués, Maria Angélica M. “Da ‘branca senhora’ ao ‘negro herói’: a trajetória de um discurso racial.” Estudos Afro-Asiáticos 21 (1991): 119–129.Find this resource:

Pereira, Amilcar A. O “mundo negro”: relações raciais e a constituição do movimento negro contemporâneo no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Pallas/Faperj, 2013.Find this resource:

Pinto, Regina P. “O movimento negro em São Paulo: luta e identidade.” PhD diss., Universidade de São Paulo, 1993.Find this resource:

Semog, Éle. Abdias Nascimento: o griot e as muralhas. Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 2006.Find this resource:

Silva, Joselina da. “A União dos Homens de Cor: aspectos do movimento negro dos anos 40 e 50.” Estudos Afro-Asiáticos 25, no. 2 (2003): 215–236.Find this resource:

Silva, Mário Augusto M. “Fazer a história, fazer sentido: Associação Cultural do Negro (1954–1964).” Lua Nova 85 (2012): 227–273.Find this resource:


(1.) Arthur Ramos, “O espírito associativo do negro brasileiro,” Revista do Arquivo Municipal 47 (1938): 105–126.

(2.) Roger Bastide and Florestan Fernandes, Relações raciais entre negros e brancos em São Paulo (São Paulo: Anhembi, 1955).

(3.) Florestan Fernandes, A integração do negro na sociedade de classes, 2 vols. (São Paulo: FFLCH/USP, 1964).

(4.) Regina P. Pinto, “O movimento negro em São Paulo: luta e identidade” (PhD diss., Universidade de São Paulo, 1993).

(5.) Michael G. Hanchard, Orpheus and Power: The Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, 1945–1988 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

(6.) Paulina L. Alberto, Terms of Inclusion: Black Intellectuals in Twentieth-Century Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

(7.) See, among others, George R. Andrews, Afro-Latin America, 1800–2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Petrônio Domingues, “Movimento negro brasileiro: alguns apontamentos históricos,” Tempo 12, no. 23 (2007): 100–122; Petrônio Domingues, “Cidadania por um fio: o associativismo negro no Rio de Janeiro (1888–1930),” Revista Brasileira de História 34, no. 67 (2014): 251–281; Elio C. Flores, “Jacobinismo negro: lutas políticas e práticas emancipatórias (1930–1964),” in As esquerdas no Brasil, vol. 1, ed. Daniel Aarão Reis and Jorge Ferreira (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2007): 493–537; Sonia M. Giacomini, A alma da festa: família, etnicidade e projetos num clube social da Zona Norte do Rio de Janeiro—o Renascença Clube (Belo Horizonte: Ed. UFMG; Rio de Janeiro: IUPERJ, 2006); Flávio Gomes, Negros e política (1888–1937) (Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2005); Flávio Gomes and Petrônio Domingues, eds., Políticas da raça: experiências e legados da abolição e da pós-emancipação no Brasil (São Paulo: Selo Negro, 2014); Flávio Gomes and Petrônio Domingues, eds., Experiências da emancipação: biografias, instituições e movimentos sociais no pós-abolição (1890–1980) (São Paulo: Selo Negro, 2011); Beatriz Loner, “A rede associativa negra em Pelotas e Rio Grande,” in RS Negro: cartografias sobre a produção do conhecimento, eds. Gilberto Ferreira da Silva, José Antônio dos Santos, and Luiz Carlos da Cunha Carneiro (Porto Alegre: EdiPUCRS, 2008), 246–261; Amilcar A. Pereira, O “mundo negro”: relações raciais e a constituição do movimento negro contemporâneo no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Pallas/Faperj, 2013); Joselina da Silva, “A União dos Homens de Cor: aspectos do movimento negro dos anos 40 e 50,” Estudos Afro-Asiáticos 25, no. 2 (2003): 215–236; and Mário Augusto M. Silva, “Fazer a história, fazer sentido: Associação Cultural do Negro (1954–1964),” Lua Nova 85 (2012): 227–273.