Just a step from the centre of Rio de Janeiro, at the heart of the docks undergoing a massive facelift in preparation for the 2016 Olympics, two workers await the verdict of three archaeologists at the bottom of a trench. Municipal workers have once again stumbled on the remains of the Valongo wharf, where the largest number of slaves imported to the Americas disembarked. A place to remember, a place of suffering long buried under the paving stones of this dazzling city.
More than 600,000 slaves passed through in the early 19th century. The slave market stood nearby, much as the “cemetery of new blacks”: new because they had just arrived. Since work started in 2010, a huge variety of bracelets, precious stones and personal items has been unearthed, tens of thousands of objects, says Tania Andrade Lima, who heads the dig.
Work on the wharf has also revealed the scale of the slave trade in Brazil. Of the 9.5 million people captured in Africa and brought to the New World between the 16th and 19th century, nearly 4 million landed in Rio, 10 times more than all those sent to the United States.
Twenty-four-year-old Antonio Oliveira was born into a poor, mixed race family in the state of Maranhao in north-east Brazil.
As a teenager he had to balance his time between school and helping his parents harvest vegetables to sell at a farmer’s market, and doing other small jobs to scrape by.
Until recently, he says the only prospects for those growing up in his city, Colinas, were to work with crops or to get a post at the city hall – “a mediocre job that people think is heaven,” as he puts it.
Brazil’s highest court has long viewed itself as a bastion of manners and formality. Justices call one another “Your Excellency,” dress in billowing robes and wrap each utterance in grandiloquence, as if little had changed from the era when marquises and dukes held sway from their vast plantations.
But when the chief justice, Joaquim Barbosa, strides into the court, the other 10 excellencies brace themselves for whatever may come next.
The Brazilian Senate has approved an affirmative action bill that reserves half the spots in federal universities for high school graduates of public schools, and distributes them according to the racial makeup of each state.
The Senate’s news agency says the bill that was approved late Tuesday now goes to President Dilma Rousseff, who is expected to approve it.
The reserved spots will be distributed among black, mixed race and indigenous students proportionally to the racial composition of each state, the official agency said.
In today’s New York Times (March 30, 2012) there is an interesting discussion by eight experts of the question, “Would Brazil benefit from U.S.-style affirmative action to counter its history of slavery?” The overall piece, labeled, “Brazil’s Racial Identity Challenge,” was stimulated by the buildup to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, and the desire to understand the culture of the colossus of the southern hemisphere. (Brazil occupies more than half the landmass of South America, is larger than our 48 contiguous states, and at nearly 200,000,000 has half of its continent’s population.)
The responses of the participants were hampered by the brevity of the space allotted to them. A key issue that could not be explored—and which all participants clearly understand–is the very different conceptions of race held by Americans and Brazilians. Micol Seigel referred to these as, “the incommensurate ways we delimit social categories.” Nevertheless, the responses grappled with the question at a level that was rarely reached in the U. S. during President Clinton’s national dialog on race.
A key Brazilian cultural expression is dar um jeito, with a range of meanings that go from creativity to flexibility to finagling to bribery and corruption. Slavery was much more widespread in Brazil than in the United States, and ended significantly later, in 1888. However, Brazil deu um jeito and avoided a civil war by phasing it out over nearly four decades. First the slave trade was abolished, then anyone born to a slave was free, then slaves over the age of 60 were freed, and finally, when many fewer people were still enslaved and the economy had had time to adjust, the institution was finally ended.
In 2004, when state and federal universities began implementing affirmative action policies, Brazil closed one chapter of its history and began another.
Brazil’s once dominant “myth of racial democracy,” made the contemplation, let alone implementation, of such policies impossible for most of the 20th century. Unlike the United States, Brazil’s post-slavery experience had not included deeply entrenched legal and social barriers. Nor had it included rigid racial identifications. Affirmative action policies were not needed, or so the reasoning went.
But sustained black activism and scholarship lead to closer scrutiny of economic and education outcomes. Like the U.S., race and class significantly overlap, where “brown” and “black” Brazilians are far more likely to attend substandard and underfinanced public secondary schools. Entry into Brazil’s university system is highly competitive, based solely on standardized test scores. Students at secondary public schools are usually not competitive, making evident the compounded disadvantage of race and class. Brazil’s controversial quota system directly addresses this problem by setting aside a certain percentage of seats for designated beneficiaries, based on race, and often including class background.
The Economist – from the print edition, 01/28/2012
IN APRIL 2010, as part of a scheme to beautify the rundown port near the centre of Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic games, workers were replacing the drainage system in a shabby square when they found some old cans. The city called in archaeologists, whose excavations unearthed the ruins of Valongo, once Brazil’s main landing stage for African slaves.
From 1811 to 1843 around 500,000 slaves arrived there, according to Tânia Andrade Lima, the head archaeologist. Valongo was a complex, including warehouses where slaves were sold and a cemetery. Hundreds of plastic bags, stored in shipping containers parked on a corner of the site, hold personal objects lost or hidden by the slaves, or taken from them. They include delicate bracelets and rings woven from vegetable fibre; lumps of amethyst and stones used in African worship; and cowrie shells, a common currency in Africa.
It is a poignant reminder of the scale and duration of the slave trade to Brazil. Of the 10.7m African slaves shipped across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries, 4.9m landed there. Fewer than 400,000 went to the United States. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888.