In May 1888 the Brazilian parliament passed, and Princess Isabel (acting for her father, Emperor Pedro II) signed, the lei aurea, or Golden Law, providing for the total abolition of slavery. Brazil thereby became the last “civilized nation” to part with slavery as a legal institution. The freeing of slaves in Brazil, as in other countries, may not have fulfilled all the hopes for improvement it engendered, but the final act of abolition is certainly one of the defining landmarks of Brazilian history. The articles presented here represent a broad scope of scholarly inquiry that covers developments across a wide canvas of Brazilian history and accentuates the importance of formal abolition as a watershed in that nation’s development.
Of the almost 11 million Africans who came to the Americas between 1500 and 1870, two-thirds came to Spanish America and Brazil. Over four centuries, Africans and their descendants—both free and enslaved—participated in the political, social, and cultural movements that indelibly shaped their countries’ colonial and post-independence pasts. Yet until very recently Afro-Latin Americans were conspicuously excluded from narratives of their hemisphere’s history.
George Reid Andrews seeks to redress this damaging omission by making visible the past and present lives and labors of black Latin Americans in their New World home. He cogently reconstructs the Afro-Latin heritage from the paper trail of slavery and freedom, from the testimonies of individual black men and women, from the writings of visiting African-Americans, and from the efforts of activists and scholars of the twentieth century to bring the Afro-Latin heritage fully into public view.
While most Latin American countries have acknowledged the legacy of slavery, the story still told throughout the region is one of “racial democracy”—the supposedly successful integration and acceptance of African descendants into society. From the 1970s to today, black civil rights movements have challenged that narrative and demanded that its promises of racial equality be made real. They have also called for fuller acknowledgment of Afro-Latin Americans’ centrality in their countries’ national histories. Afro-Latin America brings that story up to the present, examining debates currently taking place throughout the region on how best to achieve genuine racial equality.
For much of the twentieth century Brazil enjoyed an international reputation as a “racial democracy,” but that image has been largely undermined in recent decades by research suggesting the existence of widespread racial inequality. George Reid Andrews provides the first thoroughly documented history of Brazilian racial inequality from the abolition of slavery in 1888 up to the late 1980s, showing how economic, social, and political changes in Brazil during the last one hundred years have shaped race relations.
No laws of segregation or apartheid exist in Brazil, but by looking carefully at government policies, data on employment, mainstream and Afro-Brazilian newspapers, and a variety of other sources, Andrews traces pervasive discrimination against Afro-Brazilians over time. He draws his evidence from the country’s largest and most economically important state, São Paulo, showing how race relations were affected by its transformation from a plantation-based economy to South America’s most urban, industrialized society.
The book focuses first on Afro-Brazilians' entry into the agricultural and urban working class after the abolition of slavery. This transition, Andrews argues, was seriously hampered by state policies giving the many European immigrants of the period preference over black workers. As immigration declined and these policies were overturned in the late 1920s, black laborers began to be employed in agriculture and industry on nearly equal terms with whites. Andrews then surveys efforts of blacks to move into the middle class during the 1900s. He finds that informal racial solidarity among middle-class whites has tended to exclude Afro-Brazilians from the professions and other white-collar jobs.
Andrews traces how discrimination throughout the century led Afro-Brazilians to mobilize, first through the antislavery movement of the 1880s, then through such social and political organizations of the 1920s and 1930s as the Brazilian Black Front, and finally through the anti-racism movements of the 1970s and 1980s. These recent movements have provoked much debate among Brazilians over their national image as a racial democracy. It remains to be seen, Andrews concludes, whether that debate will result in increased opportunities for black Brazilians.