Slavery Redux in Brazil: A Speech Given in Appreciation of the Machado de Assis Prize

João José Reis | Translation by Jack A. Draper III, March 2018

João José Reis, a leading historian of slavery and African culture and an honorary foreign member of the AHA, gave the following acceptance speech upon receiving the Machado de Assis Prize from the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Given the gravity of recent political developments in Brazil, and the concerted efforts by the new (unelected) governing group to roll back basic rights for workers at every level of Brazilian society, Professor Reis’s thoughts on Brazil’s past and the parallels with its long history of slavery are especially timely.

Brazilian author Machado de Assis (1839–1908). Wikimedia CommonsI want to thank the members of this academy for considering my work worthy of the Machado de Assis Prize. As I am a historian of slavery (among other things), I hope you will permit me to imagine the granting of this prize, at a moment when the academy is celebrating 120 years of its existence, as an homage to those among its founders who . . . were anti-slavery activists—I am thinking of Rui Barbosa, Joaquim Nabuco, José do Patrocínio, and, most especially, Machado de Assis, who lends his name to this distinction. Grandson of slaves, Machado, in addition to being a shrewd, radical, though discreet abolitionist, was in his own way a historian of slavery, and on this matter I fully agree with one of his most distinguished interpreters, Sidney Chalhoub, also a historian of slavery.

[The] historian and member of this academy . . . Alberto da Costa e Silva . . . perfectly and concisely calculated the weight of [slavery as a] labor system and way of life for Brazil: “Slavery was the most important and profound process in our history.” It could not have been otherwise: it lasted close to 400 years, as opposed to only 129 years of freedom; the Luso-Brazilian transatlantic slave trade imported almost half of the 11 million victims trafficked to the Americas; and Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888. Slavery left indelible marks upon the society born from its foundations and still haunts us with a variety of ghosts—social and racial inequalities, systemic racism, episodic racism, now all the more rabid thanks to the anonymity of the Internet . . . the principal vehicle nowadays for preaching hate of all kinds, including racial hatred.

Brazil will require herculean strength to free itself from a past that refuses to pass. The primary path is perhaps an interlocking approach of more information, more education, and more affirmative action. In this regard, some measures demanded by the black consciousness movements were adopted in recent decades. Among these, I would highlight three: educational quotas, instruction in Afro-Brazilian history, and the creation of the University of International Integration of Afro-Brazilian Lusophony (UNILAB).

Socio-racial quotas for admission to public universities have already changed the color of these institutions, correcting in many cases the almost exclusive white presence in the academic fields of greatest prestige—medicine, law, engineering. Despite problems here and there, quotas are working.

The introduction, in elementary and middle-school education, of a discipline focused on Afro-Brazilian history and culture, emphasizing the history of Africa, promised to put the subject on an equal footing with material on the history of Europe. Regrettably, the discipline has disappeared from the new National Fundamental Common Curriculum. And Africa is again being reduced to the idea, denounced by black poet [João da] Cruz e Souza, of a “grotesque and sad, melancholy Africa, the haunted origin of cries of lamentation, Africa of supplications and eternal curses.” This is the Africa that predominates in the major media, hostage to what Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie aptly terms a “single story.” I am rooting for the return of Africa to our schools.

A history of other voices is represented in UNILAB, established in 2011 as a gesture, even if a rather timid one, of solidarity with a continent pillaged by the Luso-Brazilian slave trade. That institution brings together in its classrooms almost 1,000 African students (out of 5,000 UNILAB students), well-qualified mediators between Brazil and their many Africas[.] Yet the community of UNILAB, a minuscule item in the federal budget, is threatened with having its funding cut. We must defend UNILAB!

Policies of racial inclusion as well as educating all Brazilians about the immense contribution of Africans and their descendants to the historical and cultural formation of the country are . . . necessary measures in the fight against the nefarious legacy of slavery, though I cannot say if they are sufficient. I prefer to believe that gestures of symbolic racism, such as naming a chic restaurant Senzala [Slave Quarters], are a product of ignorance rather than effrontery. I wish—we all wish—for a country in which it would not be necessary for a young black woman in a recent street demonstration to raise a sign reading: “The big house explodes when the slave quarters learn to read.”

Invoking slavery has become the order of the day. Prisoners in Brazil, a majority of whom (around 60 percent) are black, are crammed into tiny spaces, leading to comparisons between our prisons—where the good food of the Senzala restaurant is not served—and slave quarters. Perhaps this is an unjust comparison: slaves’ lives were worth more to their masters than today’s prisoners’ seem to be worth to the Brazilian government and to a society that remains in complicit silence. A prisoner does not count as a citizen: he is black or, if white, is also black for being so poor, as singer-writer Caetano Veloso affirmed. The precariousness of citizenship, a result of social and racial inequality, has been insistently tied to the history of slavery. Just last week, the novelist Milton Hatoum wrote in his column in [the newspaper] O Globo: “Almost four centuries of slavery, followed by a century or so of a deeply flawed democracy, interrupted by various dictatorships, could only produce a society of extreme inequality.”

There is, meanwhile, another even more disturbing dimension to this general matter, which is when slavery, instead of operating as an allegory, actually insinuates itself as concrete or potential reality.

As in the past, the cycle begins with trafficking—of sex workers, or of domestic, industrial, or rural workers. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, are routinely rescued from insalubrious cellars in the big cities, where they work, live, and die. In rural areas there has been a flood of denunciations about people being subjected to forms of labor (forced, exhausting, degrading) analogous to slavery. Today the matter gains international attention by mobilizing scholars, representatives of the Labor Courts,1 and the International Labor Organization to investigate and combat this disgrace.

<span style="font-style: normal;">Ganhadores</span> (“earning slaves”) in Bahia. This watercolor has been attributed to Maria Graham, who spent 1823–25 in Brazil. Courtesy João ReisThe very recent labor “reforms”2 are cause for grave concern for experts in contemporary slavery. According to the labor inspector Luís Alexandre Farias, “the changes create new legal conditions and allow legislation that routinizes conditions which we identify as labor analogous to slavery.” And with respect to the new legal principle of the negotiated arrangement within a particular firm taking precedence over the legislated protection, the Public Ministry of Labor prosecutor Maurício Ferreira Brito, who heads the National Coordinating Body for the Eradication of Slave Labor, warned of the danger of a kind of voluntary slavery. “Depending on what is negotiated,” he stressed, “you can legalize practices of slave labor.” . . . We must also mention that capital now has dispensation to employ pregnant women in unhealthy work environments. If this is not degrading labor, what is?

. . . I cannot resist comparing the “intermittent labor” contemplated in the labor “reforms” with the urban systems of “earning slaves” (escravos de ganho) and “rented slaves.” In the first case, the master would send the slave out into the street to sell his or her own labor; in the second, the master would choose the renter. Earning slaves and rented slaves would circulate among one, two, or even more employers, as the intermittent worker will be able to do in the new Brazil. A professor or teacher, for example, will be able, as an autonomous intermittent worker, to labor in various educational establishments, one day in one, the next day in another, thereafter still another. And thus will be born the professor (or teacher) for hire.

Add to that the recent Outsourcing Law and we can nearly complete a picture of the radical precarization of labor. Outsourcing is now legal for every occupation.3 Even in the educational sector, companies that were previously limited to providing employees for security or custodial work may now offer teachers and professors to schools, colleges, and universities, and circulate them in accordance with market demand.And thus will be born the rental-professor and the rental-teacher.

Fortunately for me, my time for being an earner-or rental-professor has already passed. Full-time and exclusive employment at the Federal University of Bahia gave me the opportunity to be a research professor. To my university and to the entities that fund research, especially the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, I express my gratitude for giving me the chance to write the historiographic work now being recognized with this prize. . . .

I just want to add that my books, articles, chapters in anthologies, and so forth were and continue to be written with passion for the themes they address, without the stamped and sealed guarantee of perfect objectivity demanded by the positivist. I sought, rather, a Weberian understanding. Still, I do not permit my ideological inclinations and my utopian visions to dominate my interpretations of the processes, events, and individuals about whom I write. Propagandistic history is not for me! I bow to the evidence that springs from the archives, and the latter do not cease to amaze me as a window on a universe much more complex than a simple, perhaps Manichean analysis would permit[.]

My books are populated by slaves who flee from one place to another, create quilombos [maroon communities] on the peripheries of the city of Bahia [Salvador] or in the mangrove swamps of Barra do Rio de Contas,4 rise up in the name of Allah and Ogun. But in these writings one also finds slaves who negotiate with their masters for a less oppressive captivity—slaves who want, and masters who allow, the accumulation of wealth and the purchase of freedom. The majority of my characters have names and subjectivity; they are not passive, anonymous cogs in the machinery of slavery. Bilal Licutan, Luiz Sanin, Manoel Calafate, João Malomi, Francisco and Francisca Cidade, Zeferina—men and women who led the Bahian slave revolts. The religious leader Rufino José Maria, a freed Muslim who became a slave ship’s cook and small-time transatlantic trafficker of human beings. Domingos Sodré, a Nagô/Yoruba diviner and healer who furnished medicinal herbs to slaves to pacify their masters, while being a slave master himself. Manoel Joaquim Ricardo, owner of dozens of slaves, a freed Hausa who prospered to the point of being counted among the wealthiest 10 percent of people in Salvador da Bahia. And a few more beyond that . . .

However, I close with a warning to navigators: upward social mobility was the fate of very few of the slaves who disembarked or were born in Brazil. The majority died in captivity. In the final analysis, I agree with abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco, who wrote: “It does not matter that so many of [slavery’s] illegitimate children have imposed on their siblings the same yoke, and have associated themselves as accomplices to the fortunes of this homicidal institution; slavery in America is always the crime of the white race, the predominant element of national civilization . . .”

João José Reis is professor of history at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil, and author of several books, most recently Divining Slavery and Freedom: The Story of Domingos Sodré, an African Priest in Nineteenth-Century Brazil (2015). Jack A. Draper III is associate professor of Portuguese at the University of Missouri and the author of Saudade in Brazilian Cinema: The History of an Emotion on Film (2017).


1. As a result of the labor code issued in the early 1940s, Brazil has a separate labor court network that addresses violations of workers’ rights.

2. The controversial Labor Reform Law, signed into law by President Michel Temer on July 13, 2017, rolls back a long list of labor rights and allows “negotiated” agreements between workers and employers in a particular firm (with regard to hours, wages, vacations, etc.) to override accords reached by the union representing the occupational category as a whole. It has been denounced by labor unions, labor attorneys, and prosecutors as leading toward a radical precarization of work.

3. Signed into law by President Temer on March 31, 2017. Previously, in a work setting such as a school, functions judged as secondary to the entity’s operations (say, janitorial services) could be outsourced. Now primary functions (such as those performed by the teaching staff) can be outsourced as well.

4. Present-day city of Itacaré in southeastern Bahia.

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