Learning Afro-Brazilian history through its carnival parades

OPINION: It's carnival week in Rio de Janeiro, where vibrant parades feature music, dancers and a huge dose of history. Here's some Afro-Brazilian history from some of the most legendary Afro-carnival parades of the past.

Members of Grande Rio samba school during the Special Group Parade on day four of the Rio de Janeiro 2022 Carnival at Marques de Sapucai Sambodrome on April 24, 2022 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Wagner Meier/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

When Leandro Santanna’s mother wanted to teach him about their Afro-Brazilian culture and history, she didn’t seek out books, films or documentaries. Although more than 50 percent of Brazil’s 215 million people self-identify as Black, the amount of media on their history and culture is limited. This is changing today, but it was significantly worse in the 1980s and ’90s when Leandro was a child and adolescent.

So his mother turned to Rio de Janeiro’s carnival parade.

“My mother, who was a school teacher, was different when it came to teaching us about our history,” said Santanna, the executive director of Rio de Janeiro’s Afro-Brazilian History and Culture Museum (MUHCAB). “She would have us read the lyrics of the samba music for the samba school parades. That’s how I learned about people like Zumbi and Chico Rei.”

Every year, Rio de Janeiro’s samba schools put on the “world’s greatest spectacle,” with music, drum corps, floats, dancers and costumed paraders. Don’t be fooled by the “school’s” name. Samba schools are really Black community organizations that work 10 months out of the year toward one goal — to create a parade that will win Rio de Janeiro’s carnival, which this year is Friday, Feb. 17 to Tuesday, Feb. 22. And since the 1960s, samba schools have mounted carnival parades with research-backed themes that address Afro-Brazilian culture and history — samba enredos, as they are called in Portuguese. These parades are broadcast to the entire country, so the capacity to teach and influence people is uncontested. Since it’s Black History Month and carnival week, let’s learn some Afro-Brazilian history through some of the most legendary Afro-carnival parades.

Acadêmicos do Salgueiro Samba School, 1960: A Black Brazilian hero comes to light

Many of the most esteemed samba schools formed in the early decades of the 20th century. By the 1930s, the Brazilian government took the opportunity to co-opt the allegory themes to promote Brazilian nationalism, causing the Black samba schools to pay homage to white heroes of history. But that all changed with Salgueiro’s 1960 tribute to Zumbi dos Palmares, who, at that point, was an unknown figure in Brazilian history. Zumbi dos Palmares, a leader of a Quilombo (a maroon society), died defending his community from Portuguese invaders on Nov. 20, 1695. The Palmares Quilombo, located in current-day Alagoas, Brazil, was a self-sufficient community composed of tens of thousands of escaped enslaved people from nearby plantations. Nov. 20 is now recognized as Black Awareness Day in Brazil. Today, the word “quilombo” has significant meaning for Afro-Brazilians; it not only refers to a self-sustaining community of formerly enslaved Afro-Brazilians, but it also carries the symbolism of “resistance” and “survival” of Black people and culture.

Salgueiro Samba School (1961 and 1963): The unearthing of Brazil’s Black icons

Although Salgueiro didn’t win 1960’s carnival (a crime), it continued with the formula that helped the school gain honor: choose an obscure Black person in Brazilian history and tell their story. Aleijadinho (Antônio Francisco Lisboa) was born into slavery to a white father and Black mother. He became a sculptor, carver and architect noted for his works on and in various churches of Brazil. Even with a rare disease that crippled his hands, he continued to create art in Minas Gerais. Chica da Silva (sometimes written as Xica da Silva) was a formerly enslaved mixed-race woman who achieved wealth and power in the 18th century through her marriage to a white, wealthy diamond miner. The relationship yielded 13 children. After the 1963 parade, her story (and the myths surrounding it) became so popular that a soap opera and movie were produced, launching two Black women to stardom. 

Mocidade de Padre Miguel Samba School, 1976: An Afro-Brazilian religion priestess gets her due 

Unlike Salgueiro, the Mocidade de Padre Miguel samba school rarely takes on an Afro theme for carnival. But when it has, it honors influential Black women. In 1976 it decided to revere Mãe Menininha do Gantois, a candomblé priestess who, from 1922 until 1986, led Salvador’s most prestigious Candomblé worship house — Gantois. Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion with roots in the Yoruba traditions. According to reports, before the beginning of the parade, the Mocidade drum corps beat rhythms that paid homage to each Afro Brazilian Orisha: Ogum, Exu, Omulu, Nanã, Oxumarê, Ossain, Xangô, Iansã, Iemanjá e Oxum. All the drum corps shaved their heads, similar to iniciantes in the religion. But technical problems plagued the parade, preventing the school from winning that year.

Forty-five years later, in 2020, the school paid homage to Elza Soares, the legendary samba singer who passed away in 2022.

Vila Isabel Samba School, 1988: A celebration of the Black race 

When Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, it was the last country in the Americas to do so. So 1988 marked 100 years of what many call the “fake” abolition of slavery in Brazil. Without jobs, education or land, Black Brazilians continued in a state analogous to slavery. And, of course, Samba schools couldn’t resist taking on this theme. But samba school Vila Isabel did it differently — it celebrated the African roots of Afro-Brazilian people with Kizombo, Festa da Raça. Kizomba is a Kimbundu word (one of the dialects spoken in Angola). It symbolizes the gathering of people to celebrate the fraternization of the Black race with the musical rhythms of the country. In Rio de Janeiro, Afro-Brazilian heritage is firmly rooted in Center-West Africa, primarily Angola. Lacking money, the school had to do with low-budget materials, like raffia, straw, sisal, and fabrics with African prints. But it worked, and the school won. Martinho da Vila, a legendary samba singer and native of Rio de Janeiro’s Vila Isabel community, wrote the accompanying samba.

Paraíso do Tuiuti  Samba School,  2018: Does slavery still exist? Yes.

For the 130th anniversary of the end of slavery in Brazil, Tuiuti took on a social stance to help Brazil understand why elements of slavery still exist. The school retold the history of slavery in Brazil and criticized racism and the difficulties the Brazilian working class face today. Even before 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, it highlighted how Black lives are under constant attack, especially in favela communities.

Once again, the school with the Afro theme didn’t win, but everyone still remembers that parade. The comissão da frente — a school’s opening act — is considered one of the best of all time. Enslaved men run away to a quilombo and reemerge as preto velhos, the guardian spirits of old Black men who carry with them the memory of slavery.

Acadêmicos Do Grande Rio, 2022: Exu is not the devil 

Members of Grande Rio samba school during the Special Group Parade on day four of the Rio de Janeiro 2022 Carnival at Marques de Sapucai Sambodrome on April 24, 2022 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Wagner Meier/Getty Images)

After a two-year hiatus because of COVID, Rio’s Samba schools returned in 2022 with carnival themes Blacker than ever. The impact of the 2020 worldwide Black Lives Matter movement reached Rio’s carnival. Additionally, the quantity of top samba schools with afro themes was atypical — six out of 12. With a theme honoring the Afro-Brazilian Orixá Exu, the Grande Rio samba school took on the religious intolerance spreading throughout Brazil. In Brazil, Exu, whose colors are red and black and is often depicted holding a trident staff, is the orixá most associated with the devil in the Christian imagination. In Candomblé, Exu rules the crossroads, opens people’s paths, brings prosperity, abundance and joy. With one of the greatest openings in Carnival, Grande Rio showed that Exu opens the path to the entire world. It also won.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it’s a good start to understanding Afro-Brazilian history. 

Kiratiana Freelon is an independent journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her reporting focuses on social injustice, Afro-Brazilian communities, and Brazil’s dynamic economic and political landscape. The Harvard and Cuny Graduate School of Journalism graduate has worked for the New York Times and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Essence Magazine, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and other publications. She will publish an Afro Rio Travel and Culture Guide in 2023.

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