Fifty years ago, the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was signed. However, the recent rise of populism and supremacist ideology in the halls of power are again deepening the racial breach, from Donald Trump’s United States to Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. As an antidote to the virus of collective amnesia, Marcelo D’Salete has created an artistic pill, administering it at a moment that seems to have forgotten historical precedent. Created in the artist’s home in Sao Paulo, and winner of the Eisner Prize in 2018, D’Salete’s graphic novel, “Angola Janga,” has now been published in Spanish. The book tells the story of slave resistance in the Brazilian republic. Based on a true story, it is narrated as the story of the fight of less privileged classes, especially Afro-Brazilians, against institutionalized injustice.
The graphic novel tells the story of Quilombo de los Palmares, beginning with a journey made in the 17th century. Its protagonists are 20,000 descendants of African slaves who were forcibly moved by Europeans from the ancient kingdoms of Angola and Congo. These African Brazilians rose up against the Portuguese colonial powers in the old captaincy of Pernambuco, in Northeast Brazil.
“Palmares was an enormously autonomous area, and a lot of opposition to the colonial society – based on extreme violence and the subjugation of the indigenous, black, and lower classes – happened there. In addition to 100 years of resistance against the barbaric treatment of the Portuguese soldiers in the Serra da Barriga, Palmares developed a unique way of interacting with the earth, work, and community,” D’Salete writes in an email. “Recognizing this story is revisiting our relationships in the past as well as with the present. It means recognizing that diverse groups actively opposed the colonial project of centralization of power, exploitation, death, and destruction,” explains the author, who is optimistic about the historical resilience of African Brazilians, descendants of this history.
Events that show black Brazilians as victims of the state are irrefutable. Recently, inhabitants of the favelas in Rio protested against political actions taken against black youth after discovering that, during the first four months of 2019, 434 people were executed. A year after the death of activist Marielle Franco, today a beacon of human rights respected by Bolsonaro’s opposition in Brazil, D’Salate defends the need to dig deeper into the roots of institutional racism, that seems to exist lazily and comfortably in the country.
“The current president, with his electoral campaign based on hate, fear, and lies, financed by wealthy business people, does not represent a large part of the society or their desire for social equality. His goal is to decimate any resistance – from organized labor, black Brazilians, indigenous Brazilians, and women – and then impose an economic agenda that favors the elite. That’s why one of his first measures as president was to facilitate access to weapons – something that benefits the militias, the armed groups that he and his family were already paying homage to and defending. Knowing more stories is necessary for creating discussion, for strengthening oppressed groups and in order to find options to counter projects of inequality.”
Slavery was abolished in the land of caipiriñas and Bossa Nova 130 years ago. It was not done out of a sense of justice, but for economic reasons, since the lucrative slave trade had collapsed after England outlawed the trans-Atlantic trade of humans. The slave trade had trafficked approximately 12 million souls between the 16th and 19th centuries, of whom around 6 million went to Brazil.
“Brazil maintains a structure that largely excludes black, indigenous, and poor people. These groups rarely participate in formal politics in the form of voting, and they also rarely act in the spheres where political and economic decisions are made and where there is access to social wealth. This inequality has its roots in slavery and it continues to be fomented as a strategy by dominant groups. That is why addressing slavery and racism in Brazil continues to be taboo,” says D’Salate. And he warns, “One of the pillars of racism is silencing the histories of oppressed groups, as well as conversations about the consequences of those histories.”
“Angola Janga,” recently published in Spanish by Flow Press Media, is not the only isolated work about black history in Brazil. During the last presidential electoral campaign, a group of intellectuals, artists and activists, including Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque, signed the Democracia Sim manifesto, which declared their opposition to the ex-military candidate who is now the president. The signatories were courageous to do so in the political climate in which they find themselves. The majority of the signatories for part of the 54% of Brazilian society – a majority – whose ancestors came from Africa. “Racism seeks to obliterate any attempt to affirm this story,” the illustrator laments, again defending the importance of constructive dissidence. “Anyway, there is a black militancy ready to question the structures of power and exclusion.”
Racism outside of Brazil
”My work is inspired by the creations of black artists, thinkers, and groups in Brazil and in the African diaspora in America. The stories of this resistance – the black newspapers before and after abolition, the Black Brazilian Front, the Teatro Experimental do Negro, and the stories of many people and groups who have resisted racism – have also contributed to the fact that the majority of contemporary Brazilian society identifies as black or mixed,” says D’Salate. And he scoffs at the predictions made by Brazilian politicians and scientists at the end of the 19th century, inspired by racist European theories, that Brazil would be “totally white in 100 years.”
With “Angola Janga,” published in 2017 in Brazil by Veneta press, which also published his work “Cumbe” in 2014, D’Salate has received high praise from critics as well as from progressive sectors of the country. “The current president and his fellow believers represent the most conservative part of the elite in terms of their views of history. They likely have no use for these works, and I don’t think that an attempt at censuring them would work today. On the other hand, though, either through the courts or by means of virtual attacks, there is an increasing conservative and fundamentalist movement towards limiting the arts, culture, press, education, and any other expression that critiques the status quo,” explains the artist.
Brazil is not unique. The rise of xenophobia and racism has occurred in many parts of the planet. For D’Salate, a huge reason for this is that historical injustice has not been seen for its reality, nor even explored, and so have hardened into the hidden bowels of political structures.
“When I presented my earlier book (“Cumbe”) to European audiences at events for comics and literature, I noticed that in some cases, people considered this to be an issue disconnected from European history. But slavery is a critical part of the beginning of modern European history. The trafficking of men and women from Africa was the basis of capitalism, and this trafficking contributed to the development of societies divided by racial concepts. In Brazil, slavery engendered unspoken future consequences, and we still need to identify and combat the patterns established in the past. The current government shows no interest in changing structures of exclusion; rather, its actions are resulting in widening inequality, the legitimatization of ideologies of whitening and of whiteness, of hetero-normativity, of religious fundamentalism, and of chauvinism.”