It’s no surprise that, even though chattel slavery was formally abolished throughout the Americas over 100 years ago, enslaver culture is still very much alive.
From Mirna Wabi-Sabi
There are about 30 million pets abandoned in the streets of Brazil. Cats in particular are treated as a plague, killed and tortured indiscriminately.
Helping take care of street cats has been my way of dealing with the occasional helplessness many of us activists feel. I can’t always stop an armed policeman from telling a Candomblé worshiper dressed in white to lay on the floor with hands on the head for no reason. I can’t always stop a pack of drunk men desperate to prove their masculinity to each other from violating a trans woman on the street. But one thing I can do is clean the eyes of motherless kitties so they can see for the first time.
This coping mechanism recently lost its effectiveness when the dynamic at the cat shelter revealed a serious political issue: Enslaver culture.
It’s no surprise, even though chattel slavery was formally abolished throughout the Americas over 100 years ago, that enslaver culture is still very much alive. One example of this is the donor/volunteer relationship.
When I go to the shelter, once a week, I clean, feed and give medicine to cats. I’m a light skinned Latina, with a job and a house, so I’m considered a volunteer. People with means in the group donate a little money to buy whatever is needed, and there is also lunch for whoever is working.
For years, one young homeless black man goes there everyday, twice a day, to clean, feed, medicate, and build little houses for the cats. He even monitors who is coming to abandon and who is coming to adopt. In my eyes, he is the boss of the operation. To the donors, however, he’s a lazy employee.
When I receive lunch, it’s a donation. When he receives lunch, it’s a salary.
One of the donors had an abandoned house, and decided to allow the homeless young man to stay there. This gesture turns out not to be as generous as it sounds. He has the responsibility to renovate and maintain the home (which is in poor condition), and he takes dozens of the most vulnerable cats home with him to care for overnight. Now that donors offer him food and shelter, they feel even more entitled to demand more labor, and the laborer is dependent while earning no wages.
It’s hard not to see the connection between this situation and our colonial history. Salvador, as the world’s capital of the African diaspora, is the land on which to witness, not the demise but, the development of colonialism and its deeply rooted white supremacy. Here, much of what is now urban residence used to be Quilombos.
Quilombos were communities formed by enslaved Africans who ran away. They were highly organized, militant, autonomous, and posed great threat to the Portuguese and Dutch authorities of the time. Today, there are much more than a million Quilombolas still fighting for their right to territory throughout the country.
Records show that there were compliant enslaved people who had stable relationships with their owners and did not want to join Quilombos. Some claim that abolishing slavery left the “freed” in worse conditions: “jobless”, homeless, and helpless (as some may say about my friend at the cat shelter). How reliable are these accounts? Not very, since those who kept records were the ones interested in using them for their advantage.
“Arguments on the subject in literature in general have little empirical basis and tend to focus on the interplay of interests that would be associated with the diffusion of that interpretation. Several authors have considered the thesis of benignity a mere expression of the ideology of the ruling classes in the nineteenth century; its dissemination, especially abroad, would be part of the imperial government’s efforts to disseminate an amicable image of slavery and thereby oppose the abolitionist movement.”
– Flávio Rabelo Versiani (Economist, Brasilia) comparing enslavement in the U.S. and in Brazil.
On the other hand, in economic terms, not using “coercive force” (meaning, here we didn’t have as many lynchings) was a matter of efficiency, as was eventually abolishing slavery altogether. So, using words like “amicable” and “benign” to describe displacement, dehumanization, forced labor, murder and torture of black people is only considered empirical when described in economic terms. This, to me, is one good example of the rotten core of Academia.
Today, some academics use this shaky empiricism to argue that the resistance against slavery was hypocritical. José de Souza Martins, one of Brazil’s most famous sociologists, claims there was slavery in the Quilombos. Dissociating the term “slavery” from “race” became his professional mission; white supremacy wasn’t the problem, according to him, rigidly stratified societies were.
His broad use of the term “slavery” can be compared to the broad use of the term “Nazi” when describing a feminist. José Martins says that because of the spread of “Islamism” in Africa, Africans enslaved themselves at a much higher rate than the Slave trade to the Americas, and that Islamic polygamy is also a form of slavery. The fact that he uses the term “Islamist” as synonymous with “Islamic” speaks volumes to the racial insensitivity of his rhetoric. But his use of biased (white) “empirical” evidence to delegitimize an organized resistance movement of the African Diaspora speaks even louder.
There is little denying that hierarchy existed in Quilombos, and that they used violence against enslaved people who chose to stay with their white masters. We have to understand that they were at war, and the decision to be compliant turned them into an enemy. So much so, that those compliant Africans were sent to the Quilombos as an army to defeat Quilombists. This practice hasn’t stopped, and is perpetuated by the military police force to this day.
Zumbi‘s opposition to Ganga Zumba, and the consequent shift of leadership at Quilombo dos Palmares, is symbolic of all anti-colonial resistance because it was a refusal to submit to Colonial authorities, and a declaration that no enslaved African would be free until all would be free. This fight is not over yet. There is still enslavement, displacement, incarceration, genocide, and struggle for land demarcation. We must acknowledge that, because not picking a side, being compliant, is in fact siding with white supremacist forces.
is co-editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.