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Abdias do Nascimento: 1914-2011

Abdias do Nascimento: 1914-2011


Abdias do Nascimento, a Brazilian writer, painter, politician and scholar who was an outspoken civil rights leader on behalf of black Brazilians, has died in Rio de Janeiro. He was 97.

Sources differ on the date of death, saying it was either May 23 or 24. The cause was complications of diabetes, said Anani Dzidzienyo, a friend who as a professor of Brazilian studies at Brown University has written about Mr. Nascimento.

For decades Mr. Nascimento was a dissident voice in a Brazilian society that for most of the 20th century was identified by its government and perceived by much of its population as a racial democracy. Mr. Nascimento maintained, in both his art and his political rhetoric, that Brazil remained, in fact, a racist society.

Significantly more black Africans were sent to Brazil than to the United States in the slave trade, and Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888. Only in the last decade, as affirmative action programs have taken root at many Brazilian universities and in some government agencies, has racism been publicly acknowledged as a problem in Brazil.

“He was a legend,” Edward E. Telles, a professor of sociology at Princeton and the author of “Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil,” said of Mr. Nascimento in a telephone interview. “From the 1930s through the 1990s, Brazil was considered a racial democracy, but nobody talked about race, and there was a clear racial hierarchy. Poor people were predominantly black, and the elites were almost all white. He wasn’t afraid to tell people that racial democracy was a myth. And he said it for 60 years.”

In 1944 Mr. Nascimento founded the Black Experimental Theater in Rio de Janeiro, a troupe that celebrated Brazil’s African-influenced culture. It trained black citizens as actors in defiance of the custom of casting white actors in blackface.

As an actor, he performed in “Orfeu da Conceição,” the play by Vinicius de Moraes that became the basis of the 1959 film “Black Orpheus,” directed by Marcel Camus. The troupe also sponsored civil rights events, including the first Congress of Brazilian Blacks, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1950.

In 1945, Mr. Nascimento helped found the Afro-Brazilian Democratic Committee to fight for the release of political prisoners. After a military coup d’état in 1964, he lived in self-imposed exile in the United States and Nigeria until the early 1980s. While in exile he began painting strikingly colorful works featuring human and natural images in juxtaposition with geometric shapes, suggestive of Afro-Brazilian cultural and religious themes. His work has been exhibited in the United States, Brazil and elsewhere.

In the late 1970s, as the military continued to hold power (and would until 1985), Mr. Nascimento, still in exile, helped found the Democratic Labor Party of Brazil, seeing to it that the issue of racial discrimination was a part of its platform. He served in the Brazilian Legislature as a congressman and senator. He also helped found the Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute, known as Ipeafro, in Rio de Janeiro.

“There was no more important Brazilian than Nascimento since the abolition of slavery in 1888,” said Ollie A. Johnson, a professor of Africana Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit and the author of “Brazilian Party Politics and the Coup of 1964.” “No other Brazilian fought harder and longer against white supremacy and racism in Brazil in the post-slavery era. For Americans to understand him and his contribution, you’d have to say he was a little bit of Marcus Garvey, a little of W. E. B. DuBois, a little bit of Langston Hughes and a little bit of Adam Clayton Powell.”

Mr. Nascimento was born in March 1914 in Franca, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo. His father was a cobbler; his mother made candies and sold them on the street. His grandparents had been slaves.

“He grew up around people who experienced the last days of slavery,” Mr. Dzidzienyo said, adding that keeping that experience alive through the 20th century “was one of his most important contributions.”

Mr. Nascimento studied accounting and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Rio de Janeiro. He joined the Brazilian civil rights movement, known as the Brazilian Black Front, as a teenager.

During his exile, he taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he founded the chair of African cultures in the university’s Puerto Rican studies program. He also lectured at Yale and Wesleyan.

His survivors include his third wife, Elisa Larkin Nascimento, who is the current director of Ipeafro; three sons, Henrique Christophe, Bida and Osiris; and a daughter, Yemanja.

An activist until virtually the end of his days, Mr. Nascimento gave his final interview to the American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. for a PBS series, “Black in Latin America,” which was broadcast this spring.

“Has Brazil ever truly had a racial democracy?” Mr. Gates asked.

“The black people feel in their flesh the lie which is racial democracy in this country,” Mr. Nascimento said. “You just have to look at a black family. Where do they live? The black children, how are they educated? You’ll see that it’s all a lie. You must understand that I’m saying this with profound hatred, profound bitterness at the way black people are treated in Brazil.”

Mr. Gates asked if, nonetheless, there was reason for optimism.

“If I weren’t an optimist I would have hanged myself,” Mr. Nascimento said.

A version of this article appeared in print on May 31, 2011, on page B15 of the New York edition with the headline: Abdias do Nascimento, 97, Rights Voice.


Biography from

Abdias do Nascimento, famous Brazilian writer, scholar, and politician, was born on March 14, 1914, in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. From a humble family, his mother, Josina, was a candy maker and his father, Bem-Bem, was a musician and shoemaker, Abdias do Nascimento joined the Brazilian Army at age 15, moving to the state capital, SãoPaulo, where he became politically active. In Rio de Janeiro, he founded, in 1944, the Teatro Nacional do Negro (Black National Theater). A member of Brazil’s Congress from 1983 to 1987 and a Senator in 1991, 1996-1999, Abdias do Nascimento dedicated his life to fighting racial prejudice.

In the 1930s, rising nationalism, gradual industrialization, and urbanization led to political transformations in Brazil, including the formation of a black press and the first Afro-Brazilian organized political movement, Frente Negra Brasileira. After participating in the latter, Abdias found in 1944 Teatro Nacional do Negro, focusing on black identity and heritage in Brazil, using art to promote education (through literacy classes) and to fight for social justice. The Teatro also staged poetry readings, including Langston Hughes’s Always the Same, revealing Abdias do Nascimento’s cosmopolitanism. Despite many problems, including internal divisions, lack of funds and support in general, the Teatro survived until 1968, when increased censorship after the 1964 military coup made it impossible to operate and Abdias do Nascimento went into self exile in the United States and Europe.

In 1970, Abdias do Nascimento became a full Professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo, founding the Chair on African Cultures in the New World at the Center for Puerto-Rican studies. He also taught in Nigeria, at the University of Ife, in 1976. Returning to Brazil, in the 1980s, he participated in the formation of the political party Partido Democrata Trabalhista (Democratic Labor Party) and was elected to Congress in 1983 on a platform of promoting Afro-Brazilian rights. As a senator (1991, 1996-1999), he continued this work and, in 1999, he was the first to head the recently established Rio de Janeiro Department for Citizenship and Human Rights. He received, in 2004, the Presidential recognition as “the greatest Brazilian political figure in the fight for black rights and against racism, prejudice and discrimination.” Abdias do Nascimento saw and shaped the emergence of the modern black movement in Brazil and his life was wholly dedicated to racial struggle in the country.

Kimberly Jones-de-Oliveira, “The Politics of Culture or the Culture of Politics: Afro-Brazilian Mobilization, 1920-1968,” Journal of Third World Studies, v. 20, part I (2003), pp. 103-120; Elizabeth Marchant and Fernando Conceição, “An Interview with Fernando Conceição,” Callaloo, v.25, n.2 (Spring 2002), pp. 613-619; Abdias do Nascimento biografia, available at; Itaú Cultural, Enciclopédia Itaú Cultural available at

Martins, Ana Nina
Independent Historian

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