Skip to content
Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg August 23, 2018

Public History in Movement – Present Pasts: the Memory of Slavery in Brazil

  • Juniele Rabêlo de Almeida EMAIL logo and Larissa Moreira Viana


Present Pasts: The Memory of Slavery in Brazil is a sound testament to the Brazilian public history movemen.This problematization of the “present pasts of slavery” finds fertile ground in Brazilian public history because of the urgent need to record and analyze representations of this traumatic past, going beyond professional and academic contexts to the public sphere. Public history offers reinvigorating possibilities for mediation between, and intervention in, the past and its publics.The Present Pasts Research Network provides a thought-provoking example of public history’s ability to be sensitive to broad public debate and how the needs, interests, and representations of communities can be addressed through historical representation, interpretation, and active history-making.

Present Pasts: The Memory of Slavery in Brazil, a major project coordinated from 2014 onwards by historians Hebe Mattos, Martha Abreu, and Keila Grinberg[1] in collaboration with dozens of students and researchers, is a sound testament to the Brazilian public history movement.[2] Problematizing the notion of “present pasts,” the project encourages dialogue between the communities involved in the project and researchers who are committed to practices which go beyond publicizing and providing general access to academic historical projects to embracing collaborative strategies of historical knowledge production in response to the needs of contemporary society. The statement by Black geographer and intellectual Milton Santos, “Slavery marked the territory, marked the spirits, and still marks the social relations of this country today,”[3] conveys very well the meaning and the relevance of such a project in light of Brazil’s historical and contemporary reality.

By offering a platform about the memory of slavery that conveys observations and representations as well as opportunities for action, the project stimulates reflection and engagement. It operates, then, at the interface between public history and education with innovative proposals which mobilize historiographical texts and sources of memory, both oral and visual. This includes proposals and materials for the construction of a public history of slavery and freedom; an inventory of “sites of memory” of the Atlantic slave trade and the history of Africans enslaved in Brazil (including a tour, an internet site, and a mobile phone application); and a collection of films entitled “Present Pasts” which assembles historiographical video-documentaries that intersect research, teaching, and the historical consciousness. The multiple reverberations of the project are evident in the collaborative proposals for reparation policies which benefit remnant quilombola [residents of Black settlements known as quilombo] and jongo [a dance and music genre practiced and preserved by Black communities, mostly in the Brazilian southeast] communities, as well as educational activities which strengthen the teaching of history on these subjects.

As in all post-slavery societies in the Americas, the memory of slavery is currently a sensitive issue in Brazil, and it leads us to confront the history of violence and traumas that surrounds us. The expansion of citizenship, allowed by the 1988 Constitution, was, as Hebe Mattos puts it, the genesis of new forms of interrogating a past which, for various reasons, was until then thought preferably forgotten.[4] Since then we have witnessed the rise of quilombola and indigenous social movements, of public policies for the recognition of intangible heritage, of the inclusion of such themes in school history curricula and the setting up of new agendas for specialized historical research about slavery and slave emancipation in Brazil. The impact of these changes on memory policies and their role in encouraging actions aimed at constructing a public history of slavery are even more recent. Present Pasts: The Memory of Slavery in Brazil is most certainly a ground-breaking example of the new forms of writing and narrating both for broader audiences and together with them, on the history and the memory of slavery and racism in the country.

The project began as an initiative conducted by the Present Pasts Research Network, led by the Laboratory of Oral History and Image at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (LABHOI/UFF), and by the Memory and Documentation Group from Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (NUMEM/UNIRIO). Created in 1982, LABHOI is, in Brazil, an important point of reference for research and documentation focused on oral history and visual studies. The Laboratory is organized around three thematical areas: Memory, Africa, Slavery; Memory, Arts, Media; Memory, City, Communities. Its foundation draws on trans-disciplinary perspectives which intersect research, teaching, and further education.

The project highlighted in this review essay is included in the first thematical area, in the sense that it proposes broad dialogue and reflection on the history of slavery from the perspective of the African diaspora in Brazil, with a strong emphasis on the relationships between memory, slavery, and different forms of belonging and citizenship. All projects developed under the auspices of LABHOI aim to share the results of the work with the communities involved in the research. In addition, LABHOI was instrumental to the creation of the Brazilian Public History Network in 2012, hosting its second international conference. In its turn, NUMEM was founded in 2000, accompanying the creation of the undergraduate history program in UNIRIO. The program consolidated around the axis of history, memory, and documentation, and it focuses on the following lines of research: the History and Memory of Slavery; the History and Memory of Republican Experiences; and Heritage, History Teaching, and Historiography.

The starting point for Present Pasts was the preparation of the Inventário dos Lugares de Memória do Tráfico Atlântico de Escravos e da História dos Africanos Escravizados no Brasil [Inventory of sites of memory of the Atlantic slave trade and the history of enslaved Africans in Brazil].[5] Its origins lay with a concern to construct public memories and make publics aware of and sensitive to the tragedy of the slave trade and slavery. It also was concerned with celebrating the cultural legacies resulting from the resistance of slaves and creating mechanisms to give greater visibility and recognition to them. This has been crucial for the identification and definition of reparation rights and for the mobilization of numerous black communities at the present time. The strategy of creating guided tours leading to sites of memory of slavery and liberty in the Southeast of Brazil was added and benefited from a dialogue with other similar international initiatives[6]

The main products of the research are the bilingual website Passados Presentes; a mobile phone app aimed at promoting a “memory tourism” and enhancing historical understanding; and, from 2005 on, the collection of Present Pasts videos, a series of research-based films about the trajectory, memory, and cultural heritage of the descendants of the last slaves in the old province of Rio de Janeiro.

The inventory of sites of memory of the Atlantic Slave Trade was the basis for the preparation of the website’s detailed database. It contains information about sites of memory of slavery in Brazil, together with entries about the intangible heritage of the state of Rio de Janeiro, such as the capoeira [a game combining music, dance, and body movements similar to martial arts] practices, the jongo groups, and the quilombos, spaces of resistance for Black culture. Visitors to the website are able to conduct searches navigating through highlighted themes: capoeira, contestation, folk parties, institutions, jongo, quilombos, work, and slave trade. These themes can be explored through searches by cities and regions. This infrastructure allows access to a rich database of images, historical descriptions, and bibliographical references about sites of memory, with approximately two-hundred entries. The ongoing project intends to continually incorporate new entries in this unique collection of data and images for the public history of slavery.

The smartphone app[7] offers four guided tours to different regions of Rio de Janeiro state, leading to emblematic sites related to the slave trade, the history of slavery and post-abolition in Brazil: the old “Little Africa,” in the port region of the city of Rio de Janeiro, around Cais do Valongo, the principal black slave port in the Americas that became a UNESCO Site of Heritage of Humanity in 2017; the Ruins of São José do Pinheiro Park in Pinheiral; the São José quilombo in Valença; and Bracuí quilombo in Angra dos Reis. Each tour includes a map of the region to be followed, a brief history of each location, and directions and instructions for visiting them. A particularly significant detail is that most guided tours offer perspectives on memories and histories of each location told by people who lived there.

Each of the tours offers visitors at least six sites. The ‘Little Africa’ tour, for instance, gathers nineteen landmarks, and in three of them – the Rio Art Museum, the “Quilombo da Pedra do Sal,” and the Pretos Novos Institute – QR codes allows the user to listen to the voices of community leaders and scholars discussing the historical significance of the region. The tour comprises forty-two other landmarks, which can be accessed through the function “What’s Around Me?” The app also suggests other landmarks throughout the country which are connected to the history of slavery in the country. In the town of Pinheiral, next to the ruins of a farmhouse, the user is guided to the old railway line and to the remnants of the coffee farm work spaces (a drying yard and a cluster of slave quarters, now rebuilt).

 Screenshots of the app ‘Passados presentes’.

Screenshots of the app ‘Passados presentes’.

All tour scripts were developed in partnership with the quilombola and jongo communities. In this sense, the project demonstrates how the practice of sharing authority can generate relevant contributions within the public history work through dialogue and exchange, as proposed by Michael Frisch.[8] At the intersection between different types of knowledge, the shared production and diffusion of historical knowledge is made possible. Passados Presentes, then, evidences a clear concern with the social implications of collaborative history-making.[9] Drawing on their own political narratives which reference experiences, demands for reparation, and public debates, the communities approached are able to formulate their own re-signification of their past. The process involves a clear co-production of historical knowledge through the collaborative exercise of shared authorship “through these important meetings which the scenario of public history can support and stimulate.”[10]

The website also presents a twenty-minute video on the making of the project, entitled Creating Present Pasts: The Memory of Slavery in Brazil.[11] The emerging memory of the illegal trafficking of slaves to the southeast of Brazil in the nineteenth century is shown in a compelling way. The video exposes the process in creating the routes for the app tours to the São José and Bracuí communities and in the town of Pinheiral. There is an issue concerning the relationship of the mobile memory tours to the official tourism circuit of their regions. Widely known by the communities who they refer to, as well as in the universities, more needs to be done to bring them to the attention of schools and other publics. Establishing partnerships with cities and schools would also help in setting up and preserving a more effective signage associated with the landmarks.

Intending to “honor the victims of the tragedy of enslavement and celebrate black cultural heritage,”[12] the Present Pasts project shows the commitment and involvement of communities in mapping of the memory sites in each region. The collective design of the tours, the complex and dialogical processes of negotiating, and the sharing of authorship emerge clearly in the rich narratives of quilombola leaders. Their confrontation with racism and the challenges of talking about difficult pasts, especially for the first generation of slave descendants, encourages proposals for, and understanding of, new forms of remembrance. Central to this process, was the ability of communities to choose the ways in which they wanted to tell their stories. By seeking to constitute a public history of slavery and liberty, the project was attentive to how we acquire our understandings about such difficult pasts, and, as a consequence, also to how such “present past” is publicly presented.

The challenge of shared authority is observable from the reports of project members in public debates that take place at universities. Some limits are highlighted when addressing the tensions in processes used to define community leaders, for example, images that would be used in open air exhibitions: What to do, where to do it and how to do it. The idea of negotiation, with respectful concessions by both sides (academic and community), indicated the tendency to open dialogue that permeated the collective construction of the inventory for tours, site visits and mobile apps. At first some communities refused to participate in interviews for the first film associated with the project because they believed, from their political positions, that the academic researchers were not “authorized interlocutors.” Gradually, the research team built close ties with the communities that currently integrated the tour circuits, in particular Bracuí, São José da Serra and Pinheiral. But even with the establishment of the partnership, some images and interviews were not authorized by members of the community, leading to the suppression of material considered by them to be inappropriate for the project.

There are a few other important public history projects of slavery in Brazil, namely the “Santa Afro Catarina: Heritage Education on the Presence of Africans and Afro-descendants in Santa Catarina”, coordinated by Beatriz Mamigonian at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, which derived into a website collecting maps and a digital documents collection. In that case, the African presence is approached through historical tours that incorporate memories and histories that were silenced in the construction of the local hegemonic identity, connected to its more recent past of European migrations. The already mentioned LABHOI – in partnership with the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Project “The Slave Route: Resistance, Heritage, and Freedom” – carried out the Inventory of Memory Sites for the Atlantic Slave Trade and the History of Slave Africans in Brazil, which is available on the website of the Secretariat for Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality. The work brings together 100 sites of memory and was constructed based on the nomination and contribution of several historians, anthropologists, and geographers.

As emphasized by Luiz Felipe de Alencastro,

no American country has practiced slavery on as wide as scale as Brazil. Out of a sum of around 11 million Africans deported and arriving alive in the Americas, 44 % (close to five million) came to the Brazilian territory in a period covering three centuries (1550–1856).

Despite what was stipulated in the 1818 and 1826 international treaties, and in the Brazilian law of 7 November 1831, which prohibited the Atlantic African slave trade in the national territory, the country remained active in the black slave trade until the middle of the nineteenth century. It is estimated that 50,000 Africans from north of the equator were illegally brought to Brazil between 1818 and 1831, and 710,000 individuals, coming from all parts of Africa, were brought between 1831 and 1856 through a clandestine slave trafficking circuit.[13]

The communities that were part of Present Pasts: The Memory of Slavery in Brazil are also involved in a movement campaigning for the recognition of the rights to their lands based on Article 68 of the Act of Transitory Constitutional Provisions of the 1988 Brazilian constitution. In Article 68, the Brazilian state recognized the territorial rights of the “remnants of quilombo communities,” assuring them definitive title to their lands. As stated by Hebe Mattos and Martha Abreu,[14] this was the context in which the contemporary quilombola social and political movement began, as a product of the strengthening of black movements in the country during the 1980s and revisions to public memory of slavery and abolition. The Decree 4.887 was passed in 2003 to regulate Article 68. It has deepened understanding of the need for reparation in light of the historic debt in relation to slavery, a topic much debated through social activism, academic work, and public policy-making in Brazil. As a result of all these mobilizations, in 2014 more than 1500 communities were certified as being remnants of quilombos.[15]

From 2000 onwards, and as part of this process, new public policies began to regulate the recognition and the preservation of intangible heritage in Brazil. This allowed the recognition and the valuation of a series of cultural products of Afro-descendent origins such as the music genres Carioca samba, and samba de roda from the Recôncavo Baiano and the trade of Baianas do Acarajé food delicacies. This opened a pathway for quilombola communities involved in territorial disputes and conflicts to demand that the heritage value of their cultural manifestations be recognized. Jongo, alongside the oral traditions, festivities, and performances of communities studied in Present Pasts: The Memory of Slavery in Brazil, have strengthened these groups and signaled a “new pride for the past, based on the new demands for rights and reparations.”[16] This collaborative history, delineated by social activism from the present, has catalyzed memory politics. The active subjects of this history-making process, both academics and non-academics working in collaboration, has promoted reflection and actions which bring together university spaces, schools, and communities.

Significant changes in the educational policies regarding the teaching of Afro-Brazilian History and Culture in schools and other public educational spaces also allowed the project to be situated in a broader framework of efforts towards a public history of slavery and freedom in Brazil. Law 10.639, promulgated in 9 January 2003, made the teaching of Africa’s history and Afro-Brazilian Culture mandatory during the entire elementary education system.[17] The intensity of discussions on the subject in schools, universities, and through numerous public history initiatives, evidences the clear connection between the law’s approval and the renewal of educational practices and ideas. History classes, whether they took place inside schools or outdoors at relevant sites as proposed by Present Pasts, were essential to the difficult process of facing up to the memory of the slave trade, slavery and lives spent in captivity, and the experience of racism. Approaching sensitive themes makes history teaching relevant to the present, especially when it is accompanied by a judicious selection of materials and the development of didactic tools which help publics engage with traumatic events in the past, as well as in the relationship with the present and the future.[18]

The development of teaching materials and the possibility of narrating and listening to stories of slavery and liberty in partnership with black communities are crucial steps taken, then, in Present Pasts. It can be said that the enterprise builds on research, teaching, and activities in a variety of educational spaces and situations through innovative actions which include the construction of collections of oral and visual sources, the diffusion of knowledge through film and digital platforms, educational technology and public policy development. All these initiatives are carried out using a trans-disciplinary perspective and utilizing approaches associated with the “history of memory,” and they have had a major impact on the historiography of Brazilian slavery.

Especially significant is the construction of an extensive oral history collection. This involves an inspiring experimental space: the archive is always in motion, integrating communities (and their social demands), undergraduate and graduate students, university professors, and a network of public school teachers. It accepts the challenge of public history by drawing together history and memory, the uses of the past in the present, public narratives, and processes of identify formation.

The project also involves the production of historiographic films, which have generated much intellectual debate at both a theoretical and methodological level. Thematically, it embraces a broad field of investigations about a myriad of sub-themes such as peasantry, family, culture, and black music in the post-abolition period.[19] These films are widely available to the public through the LABHOI site, as part of the Present Pasts projects (LABHOI-UFF), with subtitles in Portuguese and English[20]

 Scene of the movie Passados Presentes: memória negra no sul fluminense

Scene of the movie Passados Presentes: memória negra no sul fluminense

The video collection consists of four productions: Passados Presentes: memória negra no sul fluminense [Present Pasts: Black Memory in Southern Rio] (dir. Hebe Mattos & Martha Abreu, 2011; Versos e Cacetes: O jogo do pau na cultura afro-fluminense [Verses and Cacetes: The ‘Stick Game’ on the afro/Rio culture] (dir. Matthias Röhrig Assunção & Hebe Mattos, 2009; Jongos, Calangos e Folias: música negra, memória e poesia [Jongos, Calangos, and Folias: Black Music, Memory, and Poetry] (dir. Hebe Mattos & Martha Abreu, 2007), Memórias do Cativeiro [Memories of Captivity] (dir. Hebe Mattos & Martha Abreu, 2005). Since the films constitute an important public history collection in audiovisual form, it is worth making a few comments about each of them, indicating their themes and commenting on how they mobilize research sources for the construction of “historiographic documentaries.”

The film Passados Presentes: memória negra no sul fluminense (2011), which has a clear didactic purpose, pays attention to the strong oral tradition of slaves’ descendants in the former dominions of the Souza Breves family, located in the southern region of Rio de Janeiro state, the quilombos of Bracuí and Pinheiral. Through fragments of memory, the film reveals aspects of the illegal traffic of Africans and the lineage trajectories of both slave and free ancestors. Featuring the cultural manifestation known as jongo, the film shows how memories circulating as oral traditions constitute an important intangible heritage, one which has been informing political struggles against racism and advocating the right to collective lands. The film Versos e Cacetes: O jogo do pau na cultura afro-fluminense (2009) presents the ‘jogo do pau’ (a type of self-defense art which uses a stick, the pau) and its arrival in some rural areas of the state of Rio de Janeiro. It deals with memories of slave descendants who worked in coffee plantations during the nineteenth century. The film recreates the atmosphere of the calango festivities, in which two or more singers challenge each other to improvise verses over the sounds of accordion, drums, and tambourines. The tradition of this fighting game, based on the memory of the jogo do pau, has offered new clues for exploring the history of the world-famous art of capoeira.

The film Jongos, Calangos e Folias: música negra, memória e poesia (2007) examines the role of black poetry within the three cultural manifestations which gives the film its title. It also shows how these cultural forms serve to give political legitimation to communities that are remnants of quilombos in Rio de Janeiro, acting as a sort of family heritage that also assumes a cultural heritage.

Memórias do Cativeiro (2005), directed by Guilherme Fernandez and Isabel Castro, is the first film directed by academics Hebe Mattos and Martha Abreu; the script is based on the book “Memórias do Cativeiro: família, trabalho e cidadania no pós-abolição” [Memories of Captivity: Family, Work, and Citizenship in Post-Abolition] by Ana Lugão Rios and Hebe Mattos. It is based on audio interviews conducted in the 1990s and preserved in LABHOI’s oral history collection. The narrators are descendants of slaves in Rio de Janeiro state, and their voices are complemented by impressive iconographic research and by images of another film made in the community of São José da Serra in 2005.

Taken together, the four films in the Present Pasts collection show a vigorous investment in the creation of public oral history collections on black communities in the Southeast of Brazil. Their inspiration is a welcome combination of the principles of academic research and the development of materials aimed at the teaching of history to broader publics, as well as promoting the partnership between professional/academic historians and local communities in the search for new ways of dealing with the legacies of slavery in Brazil. According to the team members, the biggest challenges in the creation of the films were related to how different participants conceived their roles in a collective work which brought everyone to work together to conduct interviews, film, and do research. In this process, understandings and disagreements happened in equal measure because the project’s coordinators, historians, filmmakers, videographers, writers, editors, and community members had different concerns, priorities, and interests, which made conflict all too common.

Likewise, the urge to share authority presents a number of challenges and identified limitations. Both sectors of the Project – scholars and community – had to negotiate through a process involving many retreats, but always keeping an open dialogue which informed and shaped the collaborative construction of exhibitions, the website, and the mobile apps. From the outset there were a number of communities that refused to participate in the first film because they did not consider the scholarly researchers to be “legitimate interlocutors.” It took a long time for ties to be built and even then, following the formation of a solid partnership, communities insisted on strong control over the footage shot and the interviews recorded, which determined what could or could not be used in the end.

Many of the discussions generated by the Present Pasts project, alongside other actions against racism, contributed to the United Nations proposal to establish the International Decade of Afro-Descendants from 2015 onwards, a significant reference point for anti-discrimination policies and for discussions about what Paul Ricoeur calls devoir de mémoire or “duty of memory”,[21] as well as reparatory justice and affirmative action on an international scale. Brazilian researchers have increasingly asked questions about the public impact of an entire generation of works on the social history of slavery. Out of this concern emerges a central question related to the history of the memory of enslaved Africans in Brazil and their descendants: How can we confront a past full of trauma and violence, and its legacy in the present?[22]

This problematization of the “present pasts of slavery” finds fertile ground in Brazilian public history because of the urgent need to record and analyze representations of this traumatic past, going beyond professional and academic contexts to the public sphere. Public history offers reinvigorating possibilities for mediation between, and intervention in, the past and its publics. Opening up dialogues about the multiple meanings of public history, the project acknowledges that the issue is a never-ending one, that there are both historically divergent conceptions and complex narratives. After all, “dealing with controversies, polemical manifestation, and related projects should be an important part of all education programs in Public History”[23] The Present Pasts Research Network provides a thought-provoking example of public history’s ability to be sensitive to broad public debate and how the needs, interests, and representations of communities can be addressed through historical representation, interpretation, and active history-making.

Present Pasts’ public faces – the website, the mobile app, the films, the guided tours – emerge not from a formal process of experimentation, but from the commitment to explore the memories of slavery and liberty in Brazil through shared research practices, and by reconstructing experiences in a bold and collaborative way. This impressive project offers a myriad of paths to approach and discuss its central and emotionally charged issue. In doing so, it invites reflection on how the construction of a public history of enslaved Africans in Brazil can inspire other interpretations of the past, made with and for the public.

Published Online: 2018-08-23

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 24.2.2024 from
Scroll to top button