party and protest: rio’s carnival was black as fuck

março 15, 2019

Usually, when Rio de Janeiro’s carnival parade rolls around every year, Western media only transmits images of semi-nude, bikini-clad white women. But this year was different. People across the world saw images of Candomblé Orishas, Black “baiana” women, and Brazilians protesting the murder of a Black councilwoman.

Yes, this year’s carnival parades were Black as fuck and relentless in their criticism of Brazilian society. But this isn’t unusual. This just means that some Samba Schools are returning to their roots. It is also simply a reflection of these Brazilian times in which Blackness is being celebrated.

Here’s the short history of Rio de Janeiro’s samba school parade that Western (white) media fails to acknowledge: It was started in the 1920s by Black folks who were likely grandchildren of enslaved Blacks. While white Brazilians were sequestering themselves in fancy balls and playing dirty games in the street during carnival, Black Brazilians began to organize themselves in dedication to the music they had recently created: Samba. Blacks in the favelas created community carnival groups, called them samba schools and even dedicated them to certain Orishas. Each school adopted its own colors. Mangueira chose green and pink. Portela chose blue and white. Salgueiro chose white and red. By the 1940s their parade was the must-see parade during carnival.

When white Brazilians understood the social influence of the samba schools, they began to exert monetary influence over the schools. Today whites almost always hold the most powerful leadership positions in samba schools. But that story is for another day.

Despite their white leadership, samba schools have always embraced Black themes. For decades, carnival was the only way that Afro-Brazilians learned about their own history — Black history wasn’t taught in schools. Carnival was an extension of Black oral history tradition. So when Salguiero paid homage to Zumbi das Palmares (leader of Brazil’s first maroon society) in 1960, Zumbi became a name known to everyone.

Given that the carnival parade is the most watched event on Brazilian TV, the parade is an opportunity for schools to make strategic cultural and political criticisms. This year, samba schools of all levels featured “Blackness” in their parades. Some chose to build their parades around living Black legends like actor Antonio Pitanga, actress Ruth Souza or writer Conceição Evaristo. Others chose to retell history. The winning school, Mangueira created a carnival parade that told the history of Brazil through its oppressed — Blacks, indigenous and poor — and paid homage slain councilwoman Marielle Franco.

Check out some powerful photos from the carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro.


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