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Black theories matter in achieving a real democracy in Brazil: reflections celebrating the National Black Consciousness Day

Manuellita Hermes, PhD. Candidate at Università degli Studi di Roma II, Tor Vergata; Rômulo Bittencourt, Master Student of the Graduate-Level Program in Literature and Culture of the Universidade Federal da Bahia.

Next November 20th is the National Black Consciousness Day (Dia da Consciência Negra) in Brazil. Specially in 2020, the resurgence of a racial debate in Brazil and in the world, fallowing the cases of João Pedro and George Floyd, following suit with the “black lives matter” campaign, revealed the need to bring space and visibility to black intellectuals. Their theories also matter.

It is important to abandon the state of denial of our colonial history, the slavery heritage and its current lasting consequences, with effective actions and discourse for another inclusion, a truly transformative one.

Understanding the genesis of discourse

The understanding of what we are as a nation is predicated on the search of our past for lines of reasoning that will provide for a reflection about current demands. That includes the understanding of political projection of those who propose to bring schematic definitions about Brazil. The interpretation of our historical formation is much more a matter of reflexive balance about the future than a review of the past.

Historiography on this subject traditionally recalls the triad formed by Gilberto Freyre, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda and Caio Prado Júnior as a theoretical reference about the synthetic thought of Brazil. However, none of those authors had the racial issues as their central topic, even in the face of the slavery system as a structural element of the economy and the society.

With those brief considerations, we are not saying that this topic has never been discussed; on the contrary, black intellectuals are immersed in this debate, even though they are invisible from a historiographic point of view. To some extent, that is due to social and racial divides that mark the country. Throughout the 20th century, black thinkers such as André Rebouças and Milton Santos – just to mention two key figures from that long period – have already sought ways to overcome the slavery that plagued the Brazilian State for more than three centuries.

Rebouças devised a national project based on a rural democracy, aiming to overcome the history of large landownership and slavery, as root causes of inequality in Brazil, through institutional arrangements for maintaining black individuals in the economic system. He identified the need for adjustment of Brazil in the face of this new economic and political scenario that was established at the end of the 19th Century, with stronger industrial capitalist nations. On the one hand, his intentions were to reframe black individuals within the possibilities of wealth production; on the other hand, his own life experiences demonstrated that the liberal-based reformist promises in the newly-established Republic had not introduced a new “era”, but obscured the black population instead.

Milton Santos, in turn, tries to take Brazil to the world stage, in the 21st century. According to his view, globalization would bridge differences, camouflaging the inequalities, which are still latent. By unveiling this so called integrative global phenomenon, such author also thinks about racism as a related issue in this process, although he identifies it in a larger spectrum, i.e. as integral and intrinsic to the very globalization.

 Even during the constant crisis that the Brazilian Republic has faced – either due to the tensions in the 1930s, or the establishment of a dictatorial regime in 1964 – black intellectuals were tensioning this debate in several fronts, such as revisiting historical topics and praising the African culture.

College campus

On campus, the inclusion of black people and studies on black, anti-racist and decolonial epistemologies and methodologies symbolize the desire to break the hegemony of universities as a center for the preparation of elites. Just remember that the universities, as conceived today, derive from organizations established in the Middle Ages. At the time, the so-called university study – studium solemne, studium privilegiatum, among other expressions – traces back to the city of Bologna, Italy, the headquarters of the Alma Mater Studiorum (the University of Bologna), and the Notre Dame Cathedral School, which would later become the University of Paris (Universitas magistrorum et scholarium Parisiensium). With a design rooted in medieval times, and students from different parts of Europe – seeking differentiated and systematized training -, it was responsible for disseminating mainly the Western cultural model.

In Brazil, education was privileged, solemn, elitist, restricted to only part of the society. Centuries later, the country’s public arena witnessed an insistence of a racial aspect projection. There are instances of great impact, such as the implementation of the racial quota regime in Universities (Law N. 12711/12) the adoption of African-Brazilian Culture and History as a mandatory subject at schools (Law N. 11645/08). Those changes in the law represent a conquest of spaces, a transformation to the Brazilian landscape.

They honor the principles of equality and social mobility provided by higher education. The Federal Supreme Court, while judging the ADPF 186/DF, decided on the constitutionality of the reservation of spaces based on ethnic-racial criteria for admission to a public universities, based on the principle of material equality and the reversal of history inequality in Brazilian society, also reflected in the academy.

The debate comprises the implementation and maintenance of social rights, as well as, specifically: the guarantee of national development (art. 3, of the Brazilian Federal Constitution – BFC); the free expression of thought (art. 5.IV, BFC); the right to education (arts. 6 and 205, BFC); the freedom to learn, teach, research and disseminate thought, art and knowledge (art. 206.II, BFC); a plurality of ideas and educational concepts, and the coexistence of public and private educational institutions (art. 206.III, BFC); and university autonomy (art. 207, BFC).

From another perspective, the promotion of the principle of equality; with the stimulus for social mobility provided by a university degree; and the rescue of black culture through its own anti-racist epistemologies and methodologies.

Valorization of black intellectuals

The present is comparable to the academic environment post-1980s (which coincides with the re-democratization of Brazil and the expansion of Graduate-Level Programs throughout the country), which contributed to show the racial asymmetries that still exist in the Brazilian society.

It is necessary to emphasize university initiatives that fulfill the important role of integrating social and racial demands. In addition to that, they must be disseminated, sprawled, valued.

For instance, in terms of scientific production in Bahia (which has a tradition of historical studies on the Brazilian colonial period), some research groups act as point of intersection between social demands and investigations conducted by Universities, such as the Slavery and the Myth of Liberty Group, connected with UFBA’s Department of Graduate Studies in History. Their results show the experiences of black individuals as the main characters during the historical construction of the country, in opposition to an idyllic or even schematic view presented by explanatory models of slavery.

Due to its intrinsic limitations, this study cannot expand the topic, but brings a list of collective studies produced by that group, which are based these new epistemological approaches. There are several other groups, in different areas, available at the CNPq’s database of research groups.

Real democracy

Evidences from the past are available not only through historical reconstruction. History says much more about the present than exactly about what happened. After all, there are always disputes of memories. In a sense that all the tensions that are in evidence in the present deserve to be consistent with the entire history. For that reasons, bringing up theories and subjects is extremely important for the present.

The construction of an effective democracy is based on the assumption of equity. It is urgent to announce and, therefore, to allow the circulation of the thought of black intellectuals, considering its dimensions related to the domain of content, authorship and production. In the same line, it is necessary to reframe a social context that silences and makes black words invisible. Such measures seek to overcome a century-old view that is no longer supported.

It seeks to foster and highlight the intellectual production of anti-racist content, including in the legal field, from black individuals. Without a doubt, that is a fundamental part of the process of achieving a real democracy.

Suggested citation: Manuellita Hermes, Rômulo Bittencourt,  Black theories matter in achieving a real democracy in Brazil: reflections celebrating the National Black Consciousness Day, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Nov. 19, 2020, at:

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Published on November 19, 2020
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