In historical understandings of racial violence against African Americans in the United States, lynching typically summons imagery of white crime mobs mobilizing to murder and watch lifeless Black bodies strung up to trees in the Jim Crow South. As a form of extrajudicial public execution, lynching was used by whites to enforce racial violence, fear, and terror on freed slaves during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “more than 4,000 African Americans [were] lynched across twenty states between 1877 and 1950.” A report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) noted that while the majority of lynchings occurred in the South, there were still countless victims of lynching around the country who were unaccounted for. The brutal act had an impact on the geographic, socio-political, and economic state of African Americans in the South, with thousands migrating to escape violence. Many commentators have likened the spectacle of lynching to the pervasiveness of police violence against Blacks in the United States today.
However, lynching is not just a United States phenomenon. In Brazil, people of African descent faced similar experiences historically and now endure similar realities today. While lichamentos (lynchings) are not deemed by the state crimes, they are most certainly racialized and even gendered actions connected to the ideals of vigilante violence or popular justice. Most victims are accused of petty crimes and beaten or killed for offenses they may or may not have committed.
In January 2010, for example, an Afro-Brazilian man was severely beaten by bikers and firefighters who later tied him to a pole in the blistering hot sun for forty minutes in the Botafago neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. The bikers accused the man of attempting to steal a motorcycle and took matters into their own hands to punish him. After the police came to assess the situation, they left the victim in the custody of the bikers and even slapped him in the face without thoroughly investigating the incident. In April 2014, a seventeen-year-old man was tied up to a pole with tape and power electric cords after being accused of stealing copper wire from a local store in Jardim Canadá, a community in Minas Gerais.
A similar incident occurred in Morro do Sossego in Rio de Janiero, when an eighteen-year-old man was stripped to his underwear, tied to a pole, beaten, and whipped with an extension cord after members of the community claimed he was shoplifting. Similarly, in São Paulo, Fabiane Maria de Jesus was lynched after she was falsely accused for using Black magic to kidnap children. In 2017, an angry mob of 500 people accosted a woman and threw her into a fire in Novo Aripuanã, after she was suspected of killing a two-year-old boy.
While there is now more coverage on lynching in Brazil, it is not a new occurrence, especially for Afro-Brazilians. According to the blog Black Women of Brazil, 714 people were victims of lynching–312 of which were fatal–between the years 1990 and 2000. The majority of these victims were young Black men. According to sociologist José de Souza Martins, Brazil holds the title of having the most lynchings in the world. Data from his research reveals that at least one person is lynched in Brazil on a daily basis.
These current instances of lynching conjure up historical manifestations of violence against enslaved Africans during the Portuguese slaveocracy. In the city of Salvador, the historic center of Pelourinho–which literally translates to whipping post–was a major site where enslaved Africans were tied to wooden-like structures and flogged by Portuguese slave masters. According to anthropologist Christen A. Smith highlights in her book, Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil, the extent of violence and flogging against enslaved Africans was so profound in Salvador that “few tourists even know that the cobblestones that line the streets of the neighborhood are known locally as “negro heads.”
In Shadows of the Slave Past: Memory, Heritage, and Slavery, historian Ana Lucia Araujo notes that the pelourinho was used in other cities such as Porto Alegre, the capital city of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, by the Portuguese to whip and humiliate slaves. Arajuo discusses how enslavers utilized lynching and whipping as tools of racialized-gendered dominance and submission. She examines the painting Punitions publiques sur la Place Ste Anne (Public Punishments), which depicts an enslaved male whipping another enslaved male at the pelorurinho.1
Another painting, Execução da punição de açoitamento (Execution of the flogging punishment) also showcases a Black male slave flogging a fellow slave. These paintings are telling of how Portuguese slavers would pit slaves against one another whether it be for power, food, or simply control.2
This earlier history underscores how lynching in Brazil is strongly connected to the legacy of slavery. While many Brazilians are resorting to lynching and popular justice in response to rising socio-economic and political inequities, it is critical to understand that the majority of the victims of lynching are people of African descent. Since the nation’s founding, Black Brazilians have been castigated to the periphery by the state and still occupy subaltern socio-economic positions in all sectors of Brazilian society. The mechanisms of white supremacy in Brazil continue to manifest in how lynching is used as a tool to punish Afro-Brazilians, the majority of whom are socially disenfranchised. These realities underscore the transnational history of lynching and the enduring legacies of slavery in the African Diaspora.
- The artist of Punitions publiques sur la Place Ste Anne (Public Punishments) was Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858). The painting was created between 1800-1889. ↩
- The artist of Execução da punição de açoitamento (Execution of the flogging punishment) was Jean- Baptiste Debret (1768-1868). The painting was created before 1830. ↩