Revisiting Palmares: Maroon Communities in Brazil (Celeste Henery)

Celeste Henery
Celeste Henery

This is a guest post by Celeste Henery, a Research Associate at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies. She completed a PhD in Anthropology at UT in 2010. Her research and writing focuses on issues of gendered blackness, mental wellness, and diaspora. She has conducted anthropological research in Brazil and in the United States. In addition to working on her book manuscript, she is applying her anthropological and race scholarship as a social historian for post-conviction habeas corpus proceedings. Dr. Henery is currently continuing her research on gender and race with a geographic focus on Texas and the U.S. South.

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AAIHS Blogger Greg Childs’ recent post, “Visible Fugitives,” initiates a welcomed conversation about black geographies. As Childs suggests, quilombos, or maroon communities in Brazil, have played integral roles in the social constructions of such notions as the urban and rural, as well as conceptions of black subjectivity and resistance in Brazil.1 In the years following the fall of Palmares, quilombos persisted. In 1988, when Brazil’s current Constitution was drafted, quilombos attained state recognition and guarantees to their land. The 1988 Constitution and subsequent legislation created a bureaucratic process for quilombos to acquire land titles. According to statistics from the Fundação Cultural Palmares and the INCRA (the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform),the two state agencies responsible for the recognition and land titling of quilombos, there are over 2,500 recognized communities-1,528 in the titling process and 196 possess titles.

However, much like their ancestors, many quilombolas, or quilombo descendants continue to struggle to stay connected to their lands and sustain themselves in spite of titles. Issues of geography and land are intricately woven into their livelihood and they raise pertinent questions about quilombos and the interplay of black geography and black racial politics in Brazil.2 For those interested in diaspora, quilombos also provide another critical subject of discussion about the familiar notions of home, dispersal, and sustainability–all factors that are pertinent to disparate black realities.

This post draws on my fieldwork in several quilombola communities in the state of Goiás, Brazil. These communities had registered, if not already had received their title by the time I began conducting research in 2005. These were all rural communities. One was more remote than the others–at a distance from infrastructure such as stores, hospitals, and social services. As a result, their geography presented distinct and ongoing challenges.

Parque Memorial Quilombo dos Palmares
Parque Memorial Quilombo dos Palmares

I first traveled to Palmares in 2001. While visiting Maceió, Alagoas (the home state of Palmares) I asked Brazilian friends living in the capital to take me to the Serra da Barriga National Park where the expansive polity once stood.3 I wanted to visit Palmares for its spatial and energetic significance for black political formations and black sovereignty and I also wanted to experience the region’s Atlantic forest. We traveled away from the capital through cane fields and lush woodlands before driving up a winding road that ended in a clearing. There was little to “see” in this space beyond a small shack that housed a watchman and a memorial plaque commemorating the location as a world heritage site, which had been dedicated in 1986. It’s worth noting that in 2007 a national memorial was established at the site including a re-creation of the 17th century quilombo.

Our passage to the site as tourists—in daylight and driving in a car— looked nothing like the arrival of runaways. One had to envision the space as a once thriving society formed under the most unimaginable circumstances. Standing at the edge of the clearing, looking out into miles of foliage, it was obvious how the land acted as a fortress. The lone watchman explained that the one time-residents of Palmares chose this spot precisely because they could keep watch for invasions and try to avoid capture. He explained how residents moved about in the area by creating inconspicuous stone pathways amidst the flora to hide their tracks from detection. With these fragments of lore in mind and with the distant horizon in sight, I reflected on the power of Palmares as a metaphor of black vision as well as its influence on the ways contemporary quilombos often are viewed.

My understanding of the contemporary challenges of maroon communities in Brazil expanded as I stood on the soils of several quilombos in Goiás. Land remains these communities’ lineage, their keepsake, and often their survival. Their ancestors chose their lands as refuges–purposefully shielded and difficult to access. In most cases, they were established in locations where residents could sustain themselves both materially and spiritually. Quilombolas, particularly older ones, are experts in the flora and fauna of their region and possess medicinal, nutritional and ecological site-specific knowledge. Their long-term relationships with these spaces enables their memories and current thinking to act as interpretive tools for understanding their place of residence as a (home)land, a resource, an ecosystem and a living community.

Ironically, these once strategically hidden societies now labor to maintain their economic, social and cultural visibility and viability. Like many black communities in the country, they are constrained by intersecting forms of racial, patriarchal, and economic oppression that delimit their access to resources. Today, the threats of the capitães do mato, or slave catchers, reincarnate in the forms of cash economies, labor exploitation, and bureaucratic impediments to necessary resources and services, as well as race and class biases, often compounded by their location. During one visit, I spoke with a quilombola who was organizing to keep their traditional plant-based medicine alive and use their ancestral inheritance to sustain their families. Another quilombo’s land converged with scenic destinations for the state’s growing eco-tourism industry. This once remote community has had to adapt to cash economies. They also were dealing with outsiders perpetrating sexual violence against quilombola girls and women, and health concerns like the spread of HIV/AIDS into the community. All three quilombos endure ongoing racial marginalization, constructed as both curiosities from the past as well as “backwards” and peripheral members of the broader society. No longer seeking secrecy, these communities want legitimate means to survive and face complicated choices to sell their land and bodies for profit, poor wages, and trade-offs that do not support their legacy.

Communities also contend with internal dilemmas connected to their land and geography. Elders across groups expressed concern for how to keep younger folks interested and invested in traditional ways of life. For the elders in the quilombo with plant-based medicinal knowledge, for example, they encountered disinterest from the youth in learning about plants–their inherited knowledge. Community members, particularly the most remote ones, also expressed worry of losing youth to distant employment opportunities and/or city life.

Brazilian Quilombolas during a meeting in the capital of Brazil, Brasília.
Brazilian Quilombolas during a meeting in the capital of Brazil, Brasília.

Tensions around race and economics also divide community members. Reflecting the broader racial politics of the country, there were colorisms and rifts between those with lighter and/or indigenous features and those phenotypically considered black and therefore more African. These racial cleavages possess the contradictions of Brazil’s founding racial narratives around indigenous and black people and illustrate how quilombos—often historically formed as mixed communities—now socially and politically navigate contemporary devised definitions.4 These racial tensions, which have significant implications for the legacy of quilombos, are obscured by popular conceptions of such maroon communities as homogenous (and harmonious) cultural, racial groups—the very discourse necessary for state recognition.

Contemporary definitions of quilombos, the assertion of quilombola rights, and the broader field of racial politics in Brazil bring these communities into conversations that are both old and new.5 Elders in one of the communities I visited suggested that they had longstanding connections and familiarity with other quilombos, sometimes at quite a physical distance. I also witnessed networks being created by quilombola women to lobby for greater inclusion, access to government resources, and representation at the state and national levels. These activists strategized and organized with other black women focused on anti-racist and sexist politics often concentrated in cities. In Goiás, for example, dedicated labor and commitment through collaborations forged between black activists in quilombo and non-quilombo communities give voice to the economic, health and social challenges confronted by black populations across Brazil. Past and present variances in the lived realities of black populations across landscapes in Brazil invite deeper inquiry into geo-political divides in black struggles and representation.

Drawing on these observations, I join Greg Childs in his call for more scholarship that considers how place continues to factor into the identities and sustainability of quilombos and black subjectivities in Brazil and other parts of the African Diaspora. The experiences of seeing and engaging with quilombos enhances our understanding of black populations differently positioned on the map. These dynamics invite more expansive conversations about the histories and contemporary narratives we, as scholars, produce about black life across space and time.

  1. Quilombos are descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves who escaped from slave plantations that existed in Brazil until abolition in 1888.
  2. For a study on the material and philosophical significance of Palmares and quilombos for Brazil and the African diaspora, see Carneiro, Edison. 2010. O Quilombo dos Palmares. São Paulo, Brasil: WMF Martins Fontes; Anthropologists Richard and Sally Price’s work on the Saramaka in Suriname provide rich ethnographic and historical accounts of maroon communities beyond Brazil and represent some of the earliest anthropology on maroons, including work by Melville and Frances Herskovits published in the 1930s.
  3. For information on the history of the site from an archaeological vantage see Funari, Pedro Paulo A. 2003. “Conflict and the Interpretation of Palmares, a Brazilian Runaway Polity.” Historical Archaeology 37(3): 81–92.
  4. Much has been written on Brazilian race relations and the history of racial democracy. For an intellectual history see Skidmore, Thomas. 1992. Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. Durham: Duke University Press Books.
  5. See Gaspar’s (2009) article for some of the key events since 1988 that have led to the overlapping and distinct social, racial, and political position of quilombos in Brazil. Gaspar, Lúcia. 2009. Quilombolas. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar_en/

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