Abdias do Nascimento, Rights Voice, Dies at 97
Publicado em Jun 01, 2011 03:33 PM
Report from New York Times
Abdias do Nascimento, an artist and academic, in 2005.
Sources differ on the date of death, saying it was either May 23 or 24. The cause was complications of diabetes, said Anani Dzidzienyo, a friend who as a professor of Brazilian studies at Brown University has written about Mr. Nascimento.
For decades Mr. Nascimento was a dissident voice in a Brazilian society that for most of the 20th century was identified by its government and perceived by much of its population as a racial democracy. Mr. Nascimento maintained, in both his art and his political rhetoric, that Brazil remained, in fact, a racist society.
Significantly more black Africans were sent to Brazil than to the United States in the slave trade, and Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888. Only in the last decade, as affirmative action programs have taken root at many Brazilian universities and in some government agencies, has racism been publicly acknowledged as a problem in Brazil.
“He was a legend,” Edward E. Telles, a professor of sociology at Princeton and the author of “Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil,” said of Mr. Nascimento in a telephone interview. “From the 1930s through the 1990s, Brazil was considered a racial democracy, but nobody talked about race, and there was a clear racial hierarchy. Poor people were predominantly black, and the elites were almost all white. He wasn’t afraid to tell people that racial democracy was a myth. And he said it for 60 years.”
In 1944 Mr. Nascimento founded the Black Experimental Theater in Rio de Janeiro, a troupe that celebrated Brazil’s African-influenced culture. It trained black citizens as actors in defiance of the custom of casting white actors in blackface.
As an actor, he performed in “Orfeu da Conceição,” the play by Vinicius de Moraes that became the basis of the 1959 film “Black Orpheus,” directed by Marcel Camus. The troupe also sponsored civil rights events, including the first Congress of Brazilian Blacks, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1950.
In 1945, Mr. Nascimento helped found the Afro-Brazilian Democratic Committee to fight for the release of political prisoners. After a military coup d’état in 1964, he lived in self-imposed exile in the United States and Nigeria until the early 1980s. While in exile he began painting strikingly colorful works featuring human and natural images in juxtaposition with geometric shapes, suggestive of Afro-Brazilian cultural and religious themes. His work has been exhibited in the United States, Brazil and elsewhere.
In the late 1970s, as the military continued to hold power (and would until 1985), Mr. Nascimento, still in exile, helped found the Democratic Labor Party of Brazil, seeing to it that the issue of racial discrimination was a part of its platform. He served in the Brazilian Legislature as a congressman and senator. He also helped found the Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute, known as Ipeafro, in Rio de Janeiro.
“There was no more important Brazilian than Nascimento since the abolition of slavery in 1888,” said Ollie A. Johnson, a professor of Africana Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit and the author of “Brazilian Party Politics and the Coup of 1964.” “No other Brazilian fought harder and longer against white supremacy and racism in Brazil in the post-slavery era. For Americans to understand him and his contribution, you’d have to say he was a little bit of Marcus Garvey, a little of W. E. B. DuBois, a little bit of Langston Hughes and a little bit of Adam Clayton Powell.”
Mr. Nascimento was born in March 1914 in Franca, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo. His father was a cobbler; his mother made candies and sold them on the street. His grandparents had been slaves.
“He grew up around people who experienced the last days of slavery,” Mr. Dzidzienyo said, adding that keeping that experience alive through the 20th century “was one of his most important contributions.”
Mr. Nascimento studied accounting and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Rio de Janeiro. He joined the Brazilian civil rights movement, known as the Brazilian Black Front, as a teenager.
During his exile, he taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he founded the chair of African cultures in the university’s Puerto Rican studies program. He also lectured at Yale and Wesleyan.
His survivors include his third wife, Elisa Larkin Nascimento, who is the current director of Ipeafro; three sons, Henrique Christophe, Bida and Osiris; and a daughter, Yemanja.
An activist until virtually the end of his days, Mr. Nascimento gave his final interview to the American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. for a PBS series, “Black in Latin America,” which was broadcast this spring.
“Has Brazil ever truly had a racial democracy?” Mr. Gates asked.
“The black people feel in their flesh the lie which is racial democracy in this country,” Mr. Nascimento said. “You just have to look at a black family. Where do they live? The black children, how are they educated? You’ll see that it’s all a lie. You must understand that I’m saying this with profound hatred, profound bitterness at the way black people are treated in Brazil.”
Mr. Gates asked if, nonetheless, there was reason for optimism.
“If I weren’t an optimist I would have hanged myself,” Mr. Nascimento said.