The Scholar Who Rewrote Black Brazilian History

The radical thought, activism, and aesthetics of Beatriz Nascimento provided the historical basis for Black Brazilian movements throughout the 1970s and ’80s under the country’s military dictatorship. Now, The Dialectic Is in the Sea makes her groundbreaking public scholarship available in English for the first time. 

Five chapters, including an interview with Nascimento herself, frame her as a pioneering scholar of Black Brazilian and transatlantic histories, working across the fields of diasporic anthropology, history, ethnography, and sociology — fields that, until her time, were dominated by White scholars. The introduction by her daughter, Brazilian dancer Bethânia N. F. Gomes, enriches the text with a sense of her mother’s personal and spiritual life.

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Nascimento’s chief contribution to the social theories of her era, as evidenced in the essays by anthropologist Alex Ratts and by translator Christen A. Smith, was her categorical dismantling of the idea of racial democracy, a theory forged in the 1930s by White Brazilian intellectuals including influential sociologist Gilberto Freyre. In his popular 1933 book The Masters and the Slaves, Freyre argued that because the Portuguese colonizers, unlike the North American ones, were more inclined to miscegenation, Brazil became a more racially inclusive and therefore less racist society. 

Nascimento knew just how far from reality Freyre’s utopian, latently racist and sexist theories were. Her essays in the chapter titled “The Black Woman” (which were written in first person unlike her other theoretical writings in the book) speak agonizingly to the everyday reality of violence and racism that she experienced growing up in Rio de Janeiro. Her beautiful autobiographical essays “Toward Racial Consciousness” and “Maria Beatriz Nascimento: Researcher” poignantly tell the story of her very young classmate, Jurema. Nascimento recalls Jurema’s interrupted studies and early pregnancies, comparing them with her own experiences, while reflecting on the daily cruelties they both endured at the hands of White teachers and the profound isolation felt by Black students in predominantly White schools.

Beatriz Nascimento (left) with African-Brazilian scholars Abdias do Nascimento (center) and Léila Gonzalez (right)

Nascimento first turned to activism while studying history at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. She then formed a working group for Black Brazilians at the Federal University Fluminense, where she took graduate courses and later enrolled in a Master’s program while engaging with the Movimento Negro Unificado (Unified Black Movement) and other anti-racist organizations. Meanwhile, she published articles in Brazilian magazines including Istoé and undertook an ambitious project to outline a holistic history of Black Brazilians, first by collecting research in the quilombo (backlands settlement of Black Brazilians) in Carmo da Mata, and then in Angola. In her findings, Nascimento stressed continuity between the 17th-century Afro-Brazilian quilombos and poverty in Black urban communities on one hand, and Angolan and Brazilian colonial histories on the other. 

Nascimento’s study of quilombos was particularly influential. In her two-part essay, “Alternative Social Systems Organized by Black People: From Quilombos to Favelas,” she challenged the dominant scholarly view that settlements were improvised, framing them historically as communities of self-emancipated formerly enslaved people. Nascimento saw them as autonomous political systems founded to address the military needs of wartime — of Black Brazilians organizing to defend themselves against colonizers — yet continually growing between insurrections as hubs for trade and agriculture. Her reinterpretation of quilombos was part of her challenge to White historians, who presented Black Brazilians as passive receivers of freedom handed down to them by the Portuguese Crown in 1888. Along with other Black Brazilian intellectuals including Lélia Gonzalez, she saw such theories as fodder for racist stereotypes of Black Brazilians as docile or primitive. Nascimento attacked both the simplistic and the overly heroic or mythical visions of quilombos, emphasizing instead their political agency.

Nascimento (left) at a book signing

Nascimento’s scholarship paved the way for the passage of Article 68 of the Brazilian Constitution of 1988, which legally recognized quilombo communities. It also paved the way for the establishment of National Black Consciousness Day annually held on November 20 — the anniversary of the execution of Zumbi, the last leader of the quilombo nation of Palmares. As Smith writes, Nascimento understood that “land rights, cultural and historical acknowledgment, and the viability of a legal path to reparations” were at stake. These stakes continue to echo through the recent murders of Black activists such as Marielle Franco, killed in 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, and calls by Black Brazilians for reparations for slavery that have yet to be seriously acknowledged. (Nascimento herself was killed in an altercation in 1995 after being shot by a partner of a female friend whom she was defending.) Decades after she penned them, the depth and urgency of her writings provide an invaluable blueprint for raising Brazil’s political consciousness.

The Dialectic Is in the Sea: The Black Radical Thought of Beatriz Nascimento (2023), edited and translated by Christen A. Smith, Bethânia N. F. Gomes, and Archie Davies, is published by Princeton University Press and available online and at independent bookstores.


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