Sankofa

In the African tradition, there is a concept that captures the essence of Abdias’ practice: sankofa, part of a set of idiograms called adinkra, represented by a bird that turns its head towards its tail. The symbol is translated as: “returning to the past to re-signify the present and build the future.”

This matter of ethics is apparent in the efforts made by the black people to revive their ancestry and to show the sequels of the diaspora, the dispersion of blacks around the world. At every political or artistic action, Abdias moved one step more in that direction.

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Who was Abdias?

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Timeline – latest achievements in life

© Chester Higgins/chesterhiggins.com

1991 – Brizola takes over as governor of Rio de Janeiro state and Darcy Ribeiro steps into the Senate. On April 10, at the invitation of governor Leonel Brizola, Abdias Nascimento takes over the Secretaria Extraordinária de Defesa e Promoção das Populações Negras [Special Office for Defense and Promotion of Afro-Brazilian Populations] (Sedepron). In August of the same year, invited by Brizola, Darcy Ribeiro takes over the Secretaria de Projetos Especiais [Office of Special Projects] of the Rio de Janeiro state and Abdias takes his seat in the Senate, where he served for six months as Senator.

1992 – Sedepron, once again under Abdias’s management, is now called Secretaria de Defesa e Promoção das Populações Afro-Brasileiras [Office of Defense and Promotion of the Afro-Brazilian Populations] (Seafro).

1995 – Abdias receives the 300 Years Zumbi Medal.

1997 – After the death of Darcy Ribeiro, Abdias definitively assumes the role of Senator and remains in this position up to the end of his tenure in 1999. Abdias submits the PLS No. 75/1997, which deals with the crime of racism. Passed at the Senate, the bill was referred to the Lower House and passed after a favorable opinion of rapporteurs Alceu Collares (PDT-RS) and Fernando Gabeira (PV-RJ). After this formality, the document was forwarded to the Senate only in 2009. Passed at the CCJ with a favorable opinion of Senator Paulo Paim (PT-RS), the bill was included in the agenda to be voted in 2013 only.

1999-2000 – Abdias takes over the Secretaria Estadual de Cidadania e Direitos Humanos do Estado do Rio de Janeiro [State Department of Citizenship and Human Rights of the State of Rio de Janeiro] during the Anthony Garotinho administration while also being charged with publishing Quilombo Magazine.

2000 – Distinguished with the doctor honoris causa degree awarded by the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA).

2001 – Receives the UNESCO Prize for Human Rights and Culture of Peace.

2004 – To celebrate ten years of the end of apartheid, Abdias receives a prize granted by the Government of the Republic of South Africa (Orilaxé Prize) in recognition of his engagement in the international campaign in favor of the country democratization. Abdias’s works are exhibited at Casa da Moeda [Mint] in Rio de Janeiro in an exhibition organized by Ipeafro with the support of Petrobras, the Secretaria de Políticas de Promoção da Igualdade Racial [Department of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality] (Seppir), and Fundação Palmares [Palmares Foundation].

2006 – Abdias is honored with the doctor honoris causa degree awarded by the Universidade de Brasília (UnB). A show with Abdias’s works takes place at Galeria Athos Bulcão, in Brasilia. In July, Abdias Nascimento participates in the 2nd Conference of Intellectuals from Africa and the Diaspora (II Ciad), in Salvador. On the occasion, President Lula confers upon him the Ordem de Rio Branco [Order of Rio Branco], Commander rank.

2007 – Honored with the doctor honoris causa degree by the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, the title of Citizen of Salvador, and the Zumbi dos Palmares Medal, these two last ones bestowed by the City Council of Salvador.

2008 – Abdias is honored with the doctor honoris causa degree awarded by the Universidade do Estado da Bahia (Uneb).

2009 – Abdias is officially nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The PLS No. 75/1997 submitted during the period in which Abdias served as Senator is passed by the Comissão de Constituição de Justiça do Senado [Senate’s Commission on Constitutional Justice].

2011 – Abdias celebrates his 97th birthday at Unidos da Villa Rica samba school. On May 24, Abdias dies at the Hospital dos Servidores do Estado, in Rio de Janeiro.

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1938: Abdias at his commencement in Economics at Universidade do Rio de Janeiro | Ipeafro's Collection

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The legacy of Abdias

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Abdias gives his ex-wife, Léa Garcia, a hug | Ipeafro's Collection

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Adinkra

Adinkra is the name of a set of ideogrammatic symbols of the Akan peoples, a linguistic group from Western Africa residing in the region that today covers part of Ghana and Ivory Coast. The symbols are printed on fabric, carved on iron pieces used to weigh gold, whittle real benches and wooden pieces that advertise the sovereignty of the kingdoms.

Adinkra means “farewell to the soul,” and people use the fabric with these prints in funerals and festivals to honor important people. There are more than 90 symbols, whose meaning is conveyed in the names and their respective proverbs.

The ideograms are based on figures of animals, plants, heavenly bodies, the human body, objects made by the human beings or abstract shapes. The same principle can be spelled in various ways, by the representation of the being or object and the graphic styling of this image. Sankofa, one of the best known adinkra, means the wisdom to learn from the past to build the present and the future. Its symbol is the bird that looks backwards. This representation is graphically styled in the form of two symbols that convey the idea expressed in the proverb “it is never too late to go back and get what was left behind.”

It is, in short, an ancient African writing system. The importance of this fact is immeasurable because the European ethnocentric science has denied Africa its history by claiming that its peoples had not created writing systems. Until today the idea of an Africa with an exclusively oral tradition prevails, as if it did not have any written tradition whatsoever. Nevertheless, writing appears in Africa with the predecessors of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and there are numerous African writings before and after the creation of the Arabic script.

The adinkra symbols incorporate, preserve, and transmit aspects of history, philosophy, values, and social and cultural norms of the Akan peoples, and have been adopted in the diaspora as part of the mission to restore and value these ancient traditions that make up the African ancestors’ legacy.

The meanings of the adinkra shown in this gallery were taken from the book Adinkra: Sabedoria em Símbolos Africanos [Adinkra: Wisdom in African Symbols], organized by Elisa Larkin Nascimento and Luiz Carlos Gá.

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Now, today has the floor

Ipeafro's Collection

The legacy of Abdias Nascimento is strong and echoes. To many, he is regarded as the embodiment of the anti-racist struggle in the 20th century in Brazil. What follows is for you to understand how groups who think racial issues today reverberate Abdias’s main ideas of this ongoing struggle.

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Manifesto Crespo

How do you see the current fight against racism and the affirmation of the black identity. What has changed, what needs to change?

The fight is continuous and cyclical. All the time we face the difficult task to resist, know, and fight. Our ancestors did as much as possible so that our generation could have access to knowledge to be able to make headway and have more dignity and strength to assume the policies to combat racism and [fight for] the affirmation of the black identity. Somehow, we have managed to organize and reinvent ourselves strategically speaking to communicate and contend for spaces that are still the privilege of a community that has always had opportunities, either because of their skin color or their social class. We have made headway with regard to the organization of black women to fight against sexism and racism through networks that discuss specific topics, such as militant motherhood and access to entrepreneurship, and so forth. And, in this agenda, the fight against lesbophobia and transphobia has been more prevalent, because there is an effort to unify the struggle of black women while respecting their diversity.

How do the Manifesto Crespo actions fit in this fight? What have you managed to transform with your work?

The Manifesto Crespo is one of these strategies of struggle for identity, for the right to the body with its characteristics and its history. It is a delicate work and at the same time impressive, because we use the braids, the turbans and, currently, the adinkra to re-bind the body-identity understanding by questioning what kinds of violence roam the black body, specially that of the black women, when we refer to hair. Each round of conversation or training with young people, children, and educators is a catharsis. Memories of the hair care, stories of racism situations at school and home bring out a painful reality of segregation and exclusion. From these collective experiences, in which we use multiple artistic and instructional strategies, we could move on to the political discussion of each one’s role in combating racism, and all that has to do with the body and what you communicate through it. The braid, for the Manifesto Crespo, goes through the concrete field and then becomes symbolic, because it is the act of mixing, weaving, building bonds. In this sense, we have held meetings to exchange [experiences] with original communities, such as the guaranis mbyas, the African and Latin immigrants, quilombola communities, with the purpose of putting up the stories of resistance and our artistic practices.

How can we fight against racism, be it either in culture, in politics, or in everyday life? What can each of us do?

The fight against racism begins with the deconstruction of the hegemonic notion of “whiteness” and all this overwhelming Eurocentric narrative that we are taught in schools, in which we do not see ourselves as subjects of history. The original peoples, called Indians by the Europeans, and we, descendants of enslaved Africans called blacks, face the challenge of rebuilding the Brazilian identity that wants to be European in its manners and customs. Values such as ancestry help us move forward with firmer footsteps and showing respect to those who came before us and those who will come next. At the same time, we have to prize our everyday life, which is full of nice actions and initiatives of many collectives, evening parties, and spaces for exchange that break the space of fear and curfews. In literature, theater and cinema, we are increasingly taking the lead in the productions and this has to grow to reach more people for them to think how our access to things is still hard and that this has nothing to do with lack of knowledge or inability. The struggle goes on by knowing that the sense of responsibility to ensure more dignity and the right to life is what will lead us to a less-genocidal Brazilian society.

How do you see the legacy of Abdias Nascimento? Do you know his work? Did he influence you in any way? Does he have anything that you care about?

Abdias Nascimento left us a legacy that we can translate as “pathways.” There are so many initiatives that he introduced to the Afro-Brazilian community, both in the field of the arts and in the field of politics. This shows that we do have to contend for all the spaces of power and voice. Abdias was a trailblazer and generously left us many possibilities to move on, just like Lélia Gonzalez did when she pioneered the realization of the gender facet in the black movement and the leading role played by the black women in the fight both in the private and public lives. As black women, we still have to fulfill this threefold role by serving the white patriarchal structures in wage labor, in the private domain (taking care of the family) and the political domain (with the voice of struggle against sexism and violence against women). In light of this, with the inputs from Lélia Gonzalez, Beatriz do Nascimento, and Carolina Maria de Jesus among other memorable warriors, the collectives and the black-women movement have raised their heads and made headway in politics and other realms. We are bringing our beautiful, black, and canny faces out to the sunlight, but without forgetting those who bequeathed us the fight against racism and sexism.

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"Silence will never protect us. Then, speaking up, denouncing, shouting, singing is all we have left."

Blogueiras Negras [Black Women Bloggers]

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Blogueiras Negras speak about Abdias

Abdias was one of the greatest defenders of our culture. Undoubtedly, he left us an extensive history of fight. However, we are more influenced by Maria de Lurdes Vale Nascimento, activist, social worker, journalist, professor. A central figure among intellectuals who conceived the Black Experimental Theater movement, her presence is still silenced for having been Abdias Nascimento’s partner. We are so inspired by this woman that our fight is to prevent women like her or any other one from being erased from history or become icons or an example of minor importance.

Maria de Lurdes Vale Nascimento stated: “If we, black women in Brazil, are really prepared to enjoy the benefits of civilization and culture, if we effectively want to achieve a standard of living compatible with the dignity of our status as human beings, we need – with no more delay – to engage in politics.” This is the kind of source that nurture the Blogueiras Negras [Black Women Bloggers] so that they can move on. She is one of the black women that inspires us.

Little by little, we are raising the visibility of the importance of the fight against racism. We have had some specific achievements in this regard, like the quotas in the public service and universities, and the teaching of African and Afro-Brazilian culture and history in schools. These measures have not been fully implemented as yet, but at least they fuel the debate about their need. We are many people involved in the content and media production, we have been able to foster more dialog each day seeking change and equality.

But still, we are the ones who die more, those who are more exposed to domestic violence, the highest rate of youth murdered, we have a lot to go.

Lélia Gonzalez told us that we need a name and a family name, otherwise racism will give us the name of its choice. And it calls us “lesser,” “mulattas,” something that we do not accept anymore. We have a prized black aesthetic and culture. This is the time to offer a new perspective of who we are and produce new stories about us. Real stories.

The Blogueiras Negras [Black Women Bloggers], aiming at making sure that the black women’s voice is heard, proposes that we stop being regarded as objects of study and start taking the lead in writing our own stories. It is more than a website: it is also an active community with more than 1,200 women debating issues that are dear to them and obviously, owing to the oppression and violence they have also undergone, transform them into a written article, a video, accusations. The Blogueiras Negras is a space of struggle and strengthening. Together, we can discuss and go after anything that will change our lives, keep ourselves and our families alive.

To fight against racism…

The fight against racism happens everyday and in various ways.

Through music, literature, in the daily chores or the school. Each one, on her own way and with the tools he/she has, fights against the oppression, denounces, and makes the other people re-think themselves.

We learned with Audre Lorde that silence will never protect us. Then, speaking up, denouncing, shouting, singing, and breaking the far-off silence are all we have left.” Never shut up again when faced with anything that hurts us, that demotivates us, that which devalues us or undermines our self-esteem. And breaking the silence can materialize through a mild or incisive gesture, full of love or anger, because anger is also a powerful tool that can be transformative.

We wish everyone, black or not: that you never be quiet in the face of racism. That is the lesson of the black women, that is the lesson we learned with black feminism.

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Guerreiro Ramos, Abdias Nascimento, and João Conceição in a picture of the early 50s | Ipeafro's Collection

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"Saying that racism in Brazil is concealed is absurd. It is very bluntly shown. It is there before your very eyes."

Afreaka

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Sao Paulo (SP), 1954: gathering of black intellectuals. José Correia Leite, two unidentified women, Abdias Nascimento, Sebastião Rodrigues Alves, Fernando Góes, and José Pellegrini | Ipeafro's Collection

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Seed

“One of my father’s sisters did resemble Abdias, with a strong gaze full of tenderness; light, beautiful face; and kind, like poetry roaming around gently.

My aunt used to work as a cook. Her pay was very low and she would spend almost all of her income buying birds in cages that were sold in the street market in town.

She would carry the cages into the woods near her house and there, with great joy, she would release all the birds and watch them fly away.

One day my aunt Maria got sick. My mother said that she had no health treatment because she was spending all her money with the birds. My mother said that she was going to die in a hospital as an indigent. My father would say:

– This thing of death has nothing to do with Maria.

My mother, annoyed, would reply:

– You mean that your sister is going to become a seed?

And my father would reply proudly:

– She is already a Seed. Seed Maria.

Abdias is a Seed. He planted many trees in a number of places around the planet. In his strong eyes, there was great tenderness. On his light face, there was the poetry of all poets. This thing of death has never had anything to do with Abdias. Seed Abdias.

 

 

(Article written by Iara Rosa, writer and fine artist)