Hope in Brazil is reborn from the ashes of Carnival

Samba music historically embraced the celebration of black culture, telling stories of struggles, religiosity, tradition, and strength of black people

The tension between life and death opens space for imagination. The unique awareness among humans that we are going to die is an original problem from which virtually all ways of apprehending the world are born. We are desperate for meaning, a glimpse of permanence, legacy, and ancestry that would remain before and after our brief passage through life.

Perhaps, for this reason, the observation of the experience of death in the modern world is equivalent to the contemplation of human misery. The many ways to die are atrocious and selective. For most people, this is when we find ourselves most devoid of will, almost always taken by surprise, perplexity, and uncertainty. 

The way we deal with the feelings and passions surrounding the experience of death says a lot about how we recognize our belonging to common humanity. Globalized capitalism arose from the genocide of indigenous peoples, human trafficking, and the enslaving of millions of people kidnapped from Africa between the 15th and 19th centuries.

It was no different in Brazil, the destination of almost half of about 12 million enslaved people brought from the African continent to the Americas. The advance and continuation of violence – particularly against indigenous peoples, young black people in the favelas and peripheries, and women – is a devastating portrait of our collective indifference to lives marked by the structural racism that orders social and economic relations in Brazil. When news of children executed by gunmen under the bed, indigenous adolescents raped and killed; and practically daily executions of young black people in the favelas and periphery are not able to take our sleep, nor shake our state of resigned prostration, the alarm of risk that we are definitively losing our humanity should be ringing through all channels.

Amid so much bad news, the off-season Carnival of 2022 rescued our civic pride and gave us a lot of much-needed joy. Samba music historically embraced the celebration of black culture, telling stories of struggles, religiosity, tradition, and strength of black people. This year’s carnival was no different. Out of 12 leading “escolas de samba” (samba associations that organize the main carnival parade deeply rooted in popular communities), no less than nine build their show based on black thematics.

The undisputed champion, “Acadêmicos do Grande Rio,” brought a powerful plot about Exu, central orixá in African cosmologies and of enormous importance in Afro-Brazilian religious traditions, particularly in Candomblé and Umbanda. By presenting a narrative celebrating the creativity and vital potency of Exu – constantly demonized by Christian religious fundamentalism – Grande Rio provided a historic, innovative, and profoundly moving spectacle. A few times in the history of the Carnival, the title of champion was recognized so unanimously and overwhelmingly.

“Beija-Flor de Nilópolis” won second place by placing the tradition of Black thought at the center of its narrative, in all its diversity:  intellectual, artistic, and philosophical manifestations. In the best tradition of African griots, the Beija-Flor parade presented the history and essential contributions of the knowledge and experiences of black peoples to humanity. A record that has been the victim of constant erasure by the colonial tradition found its strongest manifesto in the biggest festival of samba in the world. It was breathtaking to see thousands of people singing samba music that celebrates the re-existence of black culture and the creative force of its thinkers in all areas of knowledge. Not by chance, one of the show’s main highlights was the presence of the most extraordinary lady of black writing in Brazil, Conceição Evaristo. A literature icon, she is the author of the phrase that perhaps is the synthesis of the historical moment experienced by black people: “they agreed to kill us, we agreed not to die.” 

The Carnival of 2022 was a dazzling display of the power and richness of black culture in Brazil. The symbolism of Exu on the avenue, paving the way for justice, beauty, and democracy, swallowing those who kill and poison us, gave us an impulse of hope and plenty of materials for dreaming. Those who saw it will never forget. There’s no turning back; get out of the way because we will pass.

* An expanded version of this article was published in the Nexo Journal on May 3rd, 2022.

Autor: Atila Roque

Historiador e Cientista Político

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